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This study examines the idea of historical progress of the eighteenth-century English theologian and revolutionary thinker Richard Price. Although Price has received only passing notice in the standard histories of the belief in progress, the popular English philosopher made a significant (and in some respects unique) contribution to the history of the eighteenth-century idea.

Price was one of the most illustrious members of a small circle of English progressives--all Christian thinkers-- which also included the Anglicans David Hartley and William Paley and the Unitarian Joseph Priestley. These writers gave the idea of progress a strongly spiritual (Christian) imprint missing in the standard secular French formulations of the belief. Of these English theorists, none has suffered more from the neglect of past histories than the Unitarian Price. Except for an occasional reference in a scholarly article, no full-scale study has been attempted on Price or the other members of his circle. This study analyzes Price's idea of progress, emphasizing in what respects he held ideas in common with the predominant French school from Fontenelle to Comte, and in what ways his conception made significant departures from that interpretation.

While Price's earlier writings provided the intellectual foundation for his idea of progress, the most comprehensive statement of his belief was contained in an essay, The Evidence for a Future Period of Improvement in the State of Mankind (1787). While the standard works appear not to have known of the existence of this essay, Price's contemporaries--most notably the Marquis de Condorcet--knew of and admired the work. It was probably from a reading of the Evidence, that Condorcet affirmed that Price was one of the most illustrious apostles of the eighteenth-century belief in progress. What emerges from a reading of this essay is a distinctively Christian interpretation that breaks with the standard French idea of progress.

From whatever vantage point Price's idea is examined, the essential Christian features are apparent. In his view past history was little more than the record of a grand progress controlled and directed by divine Providence, which for the Unitarian minister would culminate in what Christians understood as the Millennium. The strong spiritual dimension of Price's belief broke with the narrow eudaemonist theories of the French, anticipating the spiritual progressivism of the German school from Lessing to Hegel.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

William B. Dabney

Second Committee Member

Karl Seitz

Third Committee Member

Charles Steen



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