Sixty years ago J. B. IJury, the eminentnEnglish historian of classical antiquity,nwrote The Idea of Progress.nBury’s book surveyed the history of thatnenergizing idea in the West and, at thensame time, marked the end of the idea’snreign, for the Great Depression of then1930’s, the Holocaust, the SecondnWorld War, the Gulag and the specternof nuclear annihilation dealt harshlynwith the concept to which Bury hadnsung his hymn of praise. Surely, as thenWest approaches the end of one of thenmost disastrous centuries in its history,nno one of sound mind can still celebratenbelief in progress. Yet Robert Nisbetndoes, and he contends that the idea “hasndone more good over a twenty-five-hundred-yearnperiod, led to more creative-nidentification as a sociologist and hisnwillingness to tackle the whole expansenof Western history (an approach thatnhas fallen into disfavor in a professionnincreasingly given to celebrating the virtuesnof the mole) may produce onlynraised eyebrows and disdainful sniffsnwithin the historical fraternity. Butnamong those engaged in the heated debatenover the future of the Americannrepublic, the History of the Idea ofnProgress will provoke much discussion,nfor Nisbet has written a tract for ourntimes. Quite simply, Robert Nisbetnflings his words at those environmentalists,nno-growth socialists and cheerleadersnof imminent Western decline whonblame the idea of progress for producingnenvironmental disaster, feverish greedn:i .”H-issors iiiul pusrc joli. uiul ;i liiill oiii-. nn llif historv ot :i mciir idea . .n— W/c York KiT/i-ir of Itaokinness in more spheres, and given morenstrength to human hope and to individualndesire for improvement than anynother single idea in Western history.”nThe idea of progress has spurred thenWest to ever-greater achievement, Nisbetnargues; to forsake it would be to tollnthe bells of Western civilization’s doom.nNisbet’s book invites historians tonchoose sides between him and Bury andnto engage in a bit of that internecinenwarfare that at times convinces one thatnsomething other than stagnation andntime-serving reigns in the academy.nThese scholars will have a topic of substancento fight over, for if Bury and Nisbetnagree that the idea of progressnemerged in full panoply between 1750nand 1900, they differ sharply over whennit first began to grasp the fancy ofnWestern man. Bury opts for the 17thncentury, while Nisbet, in direct refutationnof Bury, believes the concept ofnlinear progress thrived among thenGreeks and Romans of classical antiquitynand, more surprisingly, that itnhummed steadily along throughout thensupposedly “otherworldly” Middle Ages.nNisbet’s book may not stir the ranksnof historians after all, though, for hisn10nChronicles of Cultttrcnand overweening arrogance toward thenrest of mankind. Nisbet, by contrast,nargues that the idea of progress hasnstimulated Western man to attain annunparalleled level of economic securitynand has encouraged him to believe thatnfreedom, equality and democracy aren”not merely desirable but historicallynnecessary, inevitable of achievement.”nWhat is at stake in this debate? Suchnfanatics as Tom Hayden and RalphnNader—unversed as they may be in thengrand traditions of the West—havenmounted a bitter attack upon one of thenmain premises of Western civilization.nIn assailing the idea of progress theynwish to substitute their own vision ofnthe Good Society. They would evisceratenthe economic might of America,nreduce the United States to a third-ratenpower, banish any suggestion of the culturalnsuperiority of the West, and rootnout the last vestiges of that exuberantnoptimism that has driven Western mannto improve his lot in life. Nisbet correctlynsees that such a vision would spellnthe death of the historic Western commitmentnto the idea of progress. By tracingnthe history of this idea Nisbet placesnnnthe present debate over America’s futurenin its broadest context.nI stand with Nisbet against the Haydensnand Naders, but I am uneasy withnhis enthusiasm for the idea of progress.nHistorically, the supporters of this ideanhave been the progressivists, the innovators,nthe advocates of change, thosenrestless and energetic men who havensought to break barriers, to push intonnew realms and to get on with thenfuture. In the 20th century, writes Nisbet,n”there is no stronger affirmationnof mankind’s progress … than that containednin the books, articles, manifestos,nand speeches of the socialists and communists.”nRousseau, Condorcet, Comtenand Marx parade through Nisbet’snpages, but where are the conservatives?nGranted, Nisbet lauds the contributionsnof Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer,nthose twin beacons of contemporarynlibertarianism and free-market theory,nbut he pays scant attention to thosentraditionalist conservatives descendednfrom Edmund Burke. And for good reason:nthey either supported the idea ofnprogress in a highly qualified fashion,nor they adamantly opposed it. Wherendoes this leave the traditionalists ofntoday? Must they commit themselvesnto the idea of progress in order to stavenoff the destruction of the West?nNisbet’s praise of the millennial strainnin Christianity raises another thorny issue.nChristian millennialists have certainlynfueled the West’s lust for a betternfuture, but at what price? Eric Voegelin,npossibly the most brilliant politicalntheorist and philosopher of history innthe 20th century, has spied in suchnChristians the urge to “immanentizenthe eschaton,” to bring heaven downnto earth and to seek temporal perfectionnand salvation. As with the Protestantnsectarians of the 16th century and thenEnglish Puritans one hundred yearsnlater, these people have frequentlynshown a willingness to usher in the rnillenniumnwith the sword. If the thousand-yearnreign draws nigh, then whynnot hasten it in with the cleansing firesnof destruction? Who better exemplifiesn