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The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury

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Dedicated to the memories of Charles Francois Castel de Saint-
Pierre, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat de Condorcet, Auguste
Comte, Herbert Spencer, and other optimists mentioned in this

Tantane uos generis tenuit fiducia uestri?


We may believe in the doctrine of Progress or we may not, but in
either case it is a matter of interest to examine the origins and
trace the history of what is now, even should it ultimately prove to
be no more than an idolum saeculi, the animating and controlling
idea of western civilisation. For the earthly Progress of humanity
is the general test to which social aims and theories are submitted
as a matter of course. The phrase CIVILISATION AND PROGRESS has
become stereotyped, and illustrates how we have come to judge a
civilisation good or bad according as it is or is not progressive.
The ideals of liberty and democracy, which have their own ancient
and independent justifications, have sought a new strength by
attaching themselves to Progress. The conjunctions of "liberty and
progress," "democracy and progress," meet us at every turn.
Socialism, at an early stage of its modern development, sought the
same aid. The friends of Mars, who cannot bear the prospect of
perpetual peace, maintain that war is an indispensable instrument of
Progress. It is in the name of Progress that the doctrinaires who
established the present reign of terror in Russia profess to act.
All this shows the prevalent feeling that a social or political
theory or programme is hardly tenable if it cannot claim that it
harmonises with this controlling idea.

In the Middle Ages Europeans followed a different guiding star. The
idea of a life beyond the grave was in control, and the great things
of this life were conducted with reference to the next. When men's
deepest feelings reacted more steadily and powerfully to the idea of
saving their souls than to any other, harmony with this idea was the
test by which the opportuneness of social theories and institutions
was judged. Monasticism, for instance, throve under its aegis, while
liberty of conscience had no chance. With a new idea in control,
this has been reversed. Religious freedom has thriven under the
aegis of Progress; monasticism can make no appeal to it.

For the hope of an ultimate happy state on this planet to be enjoyed
by future generations--or of some state, at least, that may
relatively be considered happy--has replaced, as a social power, the
hope of felicity in another world. Belief in personal immortality is
still very widely entertained, but may we not fairly say that it has
ceased to be a central and guiding idea of collective life, a
criterion by which social values are measured? Many people do not
believe in it; many more regard it as so uncertain that they could
not reasonably permit it to affect their lives or opinions. Those
who believe in it are doubtless the majority, but belief has many
degrees; and one can hardly be wrong in saying that, as a general
rule, this belief does not possess the imaginations of those who
hold it, that their emotions react to it feebly, that it is felt to
be remote and unreal, and has comparatively seldom a more direct
influence on conduct than the abstract arguments to be found in
treatises on morals.

Under the control of the idea of Progress the ethical code
recognised in the Western world has been reformed in modern times by
a new principle of far-reaching importance which has emanated from
that idea. When Isocrates formulated the rule of life, "Do unto
others," he probably did not mean to include among "others" slaves
or savages. The Stoics and the Christians extended its application
to the whole of living humanity. But in late years the rule has
received a vastly greater extension by the inclusion of the unborn
generations of the future. This principle of duty to posterity is a
direct corollary of the idea of Progress. In the recent war that
idea, involving the moral obligation of making sacrifices for the
sake of future ages, was constantly appealed to; just as in the
Crusades, the most characteristic wars of our medieval ancestors,
the idea of human destinies then in the ascendant lured thousands to
hardship and death.

The present attempt to trace the genesis and growth of the idea in
broad outline is a purely historical inquiry, and any discussion of
the great issue which is involved lies outside its modest scope.
Occasional criticisms on particular forms which the creed of
Progress assumed, or on arguments which were used to support it, are
not intended as a judgment on its general validity. I may, however,
make two observations here. The doubts which Mr. Balfour expressed
nearly thirty years ago, in an Address delivered at Glasgow, have
not, so far as I know, been answered. And it is probable that many
people, to whom six years ago the notion of a sudden decline or
break-up of our western civilisation, as a result not of cosmic
forces but of its own development, would have appeared almost
fantastic, will feel much less confident to-day, notwithstanding the
fact that the leading nations of the world have instituted a league
of peoples for the prevention of war, the measure to which so many
high priests of Progress have looked forward as meaning a long
stride forward on the road to Utopia.

The preponderance of France's part in developing the idea is an
outstanding feature of its history. France, who, like ancient
Greece, has always been a nursing-mother of ideas, bears the
principal responsibility for its growth; and if it is French thought
that will persistently claim our attention, this is not due to an
arbitrary preference on my part or to neglect of speculation in
other countries.

J. B. BURY. January, 1920.























[Proofreaders note: these notes have been
interspersed in the main text as Footnotes]


When we say that ideas rule the world, or exercise a decisive power
in history, we are generally thinking of those ideas which express
human aims and depend for their realisation on the human will, such
as liberty, toleration, equality of opportunity, socialism. Some of
these have been partly realised, and there is no reason why any of
them should not be fully realised, in a society or in the world, if
it were the united purpose of a society or of the world to realise
it. They are approved or condemned because they are held to be good
or bad, not because they are true or false. But there is another
order of ideas that play a great part in determining and directing
the course of man's conduct but do not depend on his will--ideas
which bear upon the mystery of life, such as Fate, Providence, or
personal immortality. Such ideas may operate in important ways on
the forms of social action, but they involve a question of fact and
they are accepted or rejected not because they are believed to be
useful or injurious, but because they are believed to be true or

The idea of the progress of humanity is an idea of this kind, and it
is important to be quite clear on the point. We now take it so much
for granted, we are so conscious of constantly progressing in
knowledge, arts, organising capacity, utilities of all sorts, that
it is easy to look upon Progress as an aim, like liberty or a world-
federation, which it only depends on our own efforts and good-will
to achieve. But though all increases of power and knowledge depend
on human effort, the idea of the Progress of humanity, from which
all these particular progresses derive their value, raises a
definite question of fact, which man's wishes or labours cannot
affect any more than his wishes or labours can prolong life beyond
the grave.

This idea means that civilisation has moved, is moving, and will
move in a desirable direction. But in order to judge that we are
moving in a desirable direction we should have to know precisely
what the destination is. To the minds of most people the desirable
outcome of human development would be a condition of society in
which all the inhabitants of the planet would enjoy a perfectly
happy existence. But it is impossible to be sure that civilisation
is moving in the right direction to realise this aim. Certain
features of our "progress" may be urged as presumptions in its
favour, but there are always offsets, and it has always been easy to
make out a case that, from the point of view of increasing
happiness, the tendencies of our progressive civilisation are far
from desirable. In short, it cannot be proved that the unknown
destination towards which man is advancing is desirable. The
movement may be Progress, or it may be in an undesirable direction
and therefore not Progress. This is a question of fact, and one
which is at present as insoluble as the question of personal
immortality. It is a problem which bears on the mystery of life.

Moreover, even if it is admitted to be probable that the course of
civilisation has so far been in a desirable direction, and such as
would lead to general felicity if the direction were followed far
enough, it cannot be proved that ultimate attainment depends
entirely on the human will. For the advance might at some point be
arrested by an insuperable wall. Take the particular case of
knowledge, as to which it is generally taken for granted that the
continuity of progress in the future depends altogether on the
continuity of human effort (assuming that human brains do not
degenerate). This assumption is based on a strictly limited
experience. Science has been advancing without interruption during
the last three or four hundred years; every new discovery has led to
new problems and new methods of solution, and opened up new fields
for exploration. Hitherto men of science have not been compelled to
halt, they have always found means to advance further. But what
assurance have we that they will not one day come up against
impassable barriers? The experience of four hundred years, in which
the surface of nature has been successfully tapped, can hardly be
said to warrant conclusions as to the prospect of operations
extending over four hundred or four thousand centuries. Take biology
or astronomy. How can we be sure that some day progress may not come
to a dead pause, not because knowledge is exhausted, but because our
resources for investigation are exhausted--because, for instance,
scientific instruments have reached the limit of perfection beyond
which it is demonstrably impossible to improve them, or because (in
the case of astronomy) we come into the presence of forces of which,
unlike gravitation, we have no terrestrial experience? It is an
assumption, which cannot be verified, that we shall not soon reach a
point in our knowledge of nature beyond which the human intellect is
unqualified to pass.

But it is just this assumption which is the light and inspiration of
man's scientific research. For if the assumption is not true, it
means that he can never come within sight of the goal which is, in
the case of physical science, if not a complete knowledge of the
cosmos and the processes of nature, at least an immeasurably larger
and deeper knowledge than we at present possess.

Thus continuous progress in man's knowledge of his environment,
which is one of the chief conditions of general Progress, is a
hypothesis which may or may not be true. And if it is true, there
remains the further hypothesis of man's moral and social
"perfectibility," which rests on much less impressive evidence.
There is nothing to show that he may not reach, in his psychical and
social development, a stage at which the conditions of his life will
be still far from satisfactory, and beyond which he will find it
impossible to progress. This is a question of fact which no willing
on man's part can alter. It is a question bearing on the mystery of

Enough has been said to show that the Progress of humanity belongs
to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality. It
is true or it is false, and like them it cannot be proved either
true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.

The idea of human Progress then is a theory which involves a
synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future. It is based on
an interpretation of history which regards men as slowly advancing--
pedetemtim progredientes--in a definite and desirable direction, and
infers that this progress will continue indefinitely. And it implies
that, as

The issue of the earth's great business,

a condition of general happiness will ultimately be enjoyed, which
will justify the whole process of civilisation; for otherwise the
direction would not be desirable. There is also a further
implication. The process must be the necessary outcome of the
psychical and social nature of man; it must not be at the mercy of
any external will; otherwise there would be no guarantee of its
continuance and its issue, and the idea of Progress would lapse into
the idea of Providence.

As time is the very condition of the possibility of Progress, it is
obvious that the idea would be valueless if there were any cogent
reasons for supposing that the time at the disposal of humanity is
likely to reach a limit in the near future. If there were good cause
for believing that the earth would be uninhabitable in A.D. 2000 or
2100 the doctrine of Progress would lose its meaning and would
automatically disappear. It would be a delicate question to decide
what is the minimum period of time which must be assured to man for
his future development, in order that Progress should possess value
and appeal to the emotions. The recorded history of civilisation
covers 6000 years or so, and if we take this as a measure of our
conceptions of time-distances, we might assume that if we were sure
of a period ten times as long ahead of us the idea of Progress would
not lose its power of appeal. Sixty thousand years of HISTORICAL
time, when we survey the changes which have come to pass in six
thousand, opens to the imagination a range vast enough to seem
almost endless.

This psychological question, however, need not be decided. For
science assures us that the stability of the present conditions of
the solar system is certified for many myriads of years to come.
Whatever gradual modifications of climate there may be, the planet
will not cease to support life for a period which transcends and
flouts all efforts of imagination. In short, the POSSIBILITY of
Progress is guaranteed by the high probability, based on astro-
physical science, of an immense time to progress in.

It may surprise many to be told that the notion of Progress, which
now seems so easy to apprehend, is of comparatively recent origin.
It has indeed been claimed that various thinkers, both ancient (for
instance, Seneca) and medieval (for instance, Friar Bacon), had long
ago conceived it. But sporadic observations--such as man's gradual
rise from primitive and savage conditions to a certain level of
civilisation by a series of inventions, or the possibility of some
future additions to his knowledge of nature--which were inevitable
at a certain stage of human reflection, do not amount to an
anticipation of the idea. The value of such observations was
determined, and must be estimated, by the whole context of ideas in
which they occurred. It is from its bearings on the future that
Progress derives its value, its interest, and its power. You may
conceive civilisation as having gradually advanced in the past, but
you have not got the idea of Progress until you go on to conceive
that it is destined to advance indefinitely in the future. Ideas
have their intellectual climates, and I propose to show briefly in
this Introduction that the intellectual climates of classical
antiquity and the ensuing ages were not propitious to the birth of
the doctrine of Progress. It is not till the sixteenth century that
the obstacles to its appearance definitely begin to be transcended
and a favourable atmosphere to be gradually prepared.

[Footnote: The history of the idea of Progress has been treated
briefly and partially by various French writers; e.g. Comte, Cours
de philosophie positive, vi. 321 sqq.; Buchez, Introduction a la
science de l'histoire, i. 99 sqq. (ed. 2, 1842); Javary, De l'idee
de progres (1850); Rigault, Histoire de la querelle des Anciens et
des Modernes (1856); Bouillier, Histoire de la philosophie
cartesienne (1854); Caro, Problemes de la morale sociale (1876);
Brunetiere, La Formation de l'idee de progres, in Etudes critiques,
5e serie. More recently M. Jules Delvaille has attempted to trace
its history fully, down to the end of the eighteenth century. His
Histoire de l'idee de progres (1910) is planned on a large scale; he
is erudite and has read extensively. But his treatment is lacking in
the power of discrimination. He strikes one as anxious to bring
within his net, as theoriciens du progres, as many distinguished
thinkers as possible; and so, along with a great deal that is useful
and relevant, we also find in his book much that is irrelevant. He
has not clearly seen that the distinctive idea of Progress was not
conceived in antiquity or in the Middle Ages, or even in the
Renaissance period; and when he comes to modern times he fails to
bring out clearly the decisive steps of its growth. And he does not
seem to realise that a man might be "progressive" without believing
in, or even thinking about, the doctrine of Progress. Leonardo da
Vinci and Berkeley are examples. In my Ancient Greek Historians
(1909) I dwelt on the modern origin of the idea (p. 253 sqq.).
Recently Mr. R. H. Murray, in a learned appendix to his Erasmus and
Luther, has developed the thesis that Progress was not grasped in
antiquity (though he makes an exception of Seneca),--a welcome


It may, in particular, seem surprising that the Greeks, who were so
fertile in their speculations on human life, did not hit upon an
idea which seems so simple and obvious to us as the idea of
Progress. But if we try to realise their experience and the general
character of their thought we shall cease to wonder. Their recorded
history did not go back far, and so far as it did go there had been
no impressive series of new discoveries suggesting either an
indefinite increase of knowledge or a growing mastery of the forces
of nature. In the period in which their most brilliant minds were
busied with the problems of the universe men might improve the
building of ships, or invent new geometrical demonstrations, but
their science did little or nothing to transform the conditions of
life or to open any vista into the future. They were in the presence
of no facts strong enough to counteract that profound veneration of
antiquity which seems natural to mankind, and the Athenians of the
age of Pericles or of Plato, though they were thoroughly, obviously
"modern" compared with the Homeric Greeks, were never self-
consciously "modern" as we are.


The indications that human civilisation was a gradual growth, and
that man had painfully worked his way forward from a low and savage
state, could not, indeed, escape the sharp vision of the Greeks. For
instance, Aeschylus represents men as originally living at hazard in
sunless caves, and raised from that condition by Prometheus, who
taught them the arts of life. In Euripides we find a similar
recognition of the ascent of mankind to a civilised state, from
primitive barbarism, some god or other playing the part of
Prometheus. In such passages as these we have, it may be said, the
idea that man has progressed; and it may fairly be suggested that
belief in a natural progress lay, for Aeschylus as well as for
Euripides, behind the poetical fiction of supernatural intervention.
But these recognitions of a progress were not incompatible with the
widely-spread belief in an initial degeneration of the human race;
nor did it usually appear as a rival doctrine. The old legend of a
"golden age" of simplicity, from which man had fallen away, was
generally accepted as truth; and leading thinkers combined it with
the doctrine of a gradual sequence of social and material
improvements [Footnote: In the masterly survey of early Greek
history which Thucydides prefixed to his work, he traces the social
progress of the Greeks in historical times, and finds the key to it
in the increase of wealth.] during the subsequent period of decline.
We find the two views thus combined, for instance, in Plato's Laws,
and in the earliest reasoned history of civilisation written by
Dicaearchus, a pupil of Aristotle. [Footnote: Aristotle's own view
is not very clear. He thinks that all arts, sciences, and
institutions have been repeatedly, or rather an infinite number of
times (word in Greek) discovered in the past and again lost.
Metaphysics, xi. 8 ad fin.; Politics, iv. 10, cp. ii. 2. An infinite
number of times seems to imply the doctrine of cycles.] But the
simple life of the first age, in which men were not worn with toil,
and war and disease were unknown, was regarded as the ideal State to
which man would lie only too fortunate if he could return. He had
indeed at a remote time ill the past succeeded in ameliorating some
of the conditions of his lot, but such ancient discoveries as fire
or ploughing or navigation or law-giving did not suggest the guess
that new inventions might lead ultimately to conditions in which
life would be more complex but as happy as the simple life of the
primitive world.

But, if some relative progress might be admitted, the general view
of Greek philosophers was that they were living in a period of
inevitable degeneration and decay--inevitable because it was
prescribed by the nature of the universe. We have only an imperfect
knowledge of the influential speculations of Heraclitus, Pythagoras,
and Empedocles, but we may take Plato's tentative philosophy of
history to illustrate the trend and the prejudices of Greek thought
on this subject. The world was created and set going by the Deity,
and, as his work, it was perfect; but it was not immortal and had in
it the seeds of decay. The period of its duration is 72,000 solar
years. During the first half of this period the original uniformity
and order, which were impressed upon it by the Creator, are
maintained under his guidance; but then it reaches a point from
which it begins, as it were, to roll back; the Deity has loosened
his grip of the machine, the order is disturbed, and the second
36,000 years are a period of gradual decay and degeneration. At the
end of this time, the world left to itself would dissolve into
chaos, but the Deity again seizes the helm and restores the original
conditions, and the whole process begins anew. The first half of
such a world-cycle corresponds to the Golden Age of legend in which
men lived happily and simply; we have now unfortunately reached some
point in the period of decadence.

Plato applies the theory of degradation in his study of political
communities. [Footnote: Plato's philosophy of history. In the myth
of the Statesman and the last Books of the Republic. The best
elucidation of these difficult passages will be found in the notes
and appendix to Book viii. in J. Adam's edition of the Republic
(1902).] He conceives his own Utopian aristocracy as having existed
somewhere towards the beginning of the period of the world's
relapse, when things were not so bad, [Footnote: Similarly he places
the ideal society which he describes in the Critias 9000 years
before Solon. The state which he plans in the Laws is indeed
imagined as a practicable project in his own day, but then it is
only a second-best. The ideal state of which Aristotle sketched an
outline (Politics, iv. v.) is not set either in time or in place.]
and exhibits its gradual deterioration, through the successive
stages of timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and despotism. He
explains this deterioration as primarily caused by a degeneration of
the race, due to laxity and errors in the State regulation of
marriages, and the consequent birth of biologically inferior

The theories of Plato are only the most illustrious example of the
tendency characteristic of Greek philosophical thinkers to idealise
the immutable as possessing a higher value than that which varies.
This affected all their social speculations. They believed in the
ideal of an absolute order in society, from which, when it is once
established, any deviation must be for the worse. Aristotle,
considering the subject from a practical point of view, laid down
that changes in an established social order are undesirable, and
should be as few and slight as possible. [Footnote: Politics, ii.
5.] This prejudice against change excluded the apprehension of
civilisation as a progressive movement. It did not occur to Plato or
any one else that a perfect order might be attainable by a long
series of changes and adaptations. Such an order, being an
embodiment of reason, could be created only by a deliberate and
immediate act of a planning mind. It might be devised by the wisdom
of a philosopher or revealed by the Deity. Hence the salvation of a
community must lie in preserving intact, so far as possible, the
institutions imposed by the enlightened lawgiver, since change meant
corruption and disaster. These a priori principles account for the
admiration of the Spartan state entertained by many Greek
philosophers, because it was supposed to have preserved unchanged
for an unusually long period a system established by an inspired


Thus time was regarded as the enemy of humanity. Horace's verse,

Damnosa quid non imminuit dies?

"time depreciates the value of the world," expresses the pessimistic
axiom accepted in most systems of ancient thought.

The theory of world-cycles was so widely current that it may almost
be described as the orthodox theory of cosmic time among the Greeks,
and it passed from them to the Romans.

[Footnote: Plato's world-cycle. I have omitted details not
essential; e.g. that in the first period men were born from the
earth and only in the second propagated themselves. The period of
36,000 years, known as the Great Platonic Year, was probably a
Babylonian astronomical period, and was in any case based on the
Babylonian sexagesimal system and connected with the solar year
conceived as consisting of 360 days. Heraclitus seems to have
accepted it as the duration of the world between his periodic
universal conflagrations. Plato derived the number from
predecessors, but based it on operations with the numbers 3, 4, 5,
the length of the sides of the Pythagorean right-angled triangle.
The Great Year of the Pythagorean Philolaus seems to have been
different, and that of the Stoics was much longer (6,570,000 years).

I may refer here to Tacitus, Dialogus c. 16, as an appreciation of
historical perspective unusual in ancient writers: "The four hundred
years which separate us from the ancients are almost a vanishing
quantity if you compare them with the duration of the ages." See the
whole passage, where the Magnus Annus of 12,954 years is referred

According to some of the Pythagoreans [Footnote: See Simplicius,
Phys. 732, 26.] each cycle repeated to the minutest particular the
course and events of the preceding. If the universe dissolves into
the original chaos, there appeared to them to be no reason why the
second chaos should produce a world differing in the least respect
from its predecessor. The nth cycle would be indeed numerically
distinct from the first, but otherwise would be identical with it,
and no man could possibly discover the number of the cycle in which
he was living. As no end seems to have been assigned to the whole
process, the course of the world's history would contain an endless
number of Trojan Wars, for instance; an endless number of Platos
would write an endless number of Republics. Virgil uses this idea in
his Fourth Eclogue, where he meditates a return of the Golden Age:

Alter erit tum Tiphys, et altera quae uehat Argo
Delectos heroas; erunt etiam altera bella,
Atque iterum ad Troiam magnus mittetur Achilles.

The periodic theory might be held in forms in which this uncanny
doctrine of absolute identity was avoided; but at the best it meant
an endless monotonous iteration, which was singularly unlikely to
stimulate speculative interest in the future. It must be remembered
that no thinker had any means of knowing how near to the end of his
cycle the present hour might be. The most influential school of the
later Greek age, the Stoics, adopted the theory of cycles, and the
natural psychological effect of the theory is vividly reflected in
Marcus Aurelius, who frequently dwells on it in his Meditations.
"The rational soul," he says, "wanders round the whole world and
through the encompassing void, and gazes into infinite time, and
considers the periodic destructions and rebirths of the universe,
and reflects that our posterity will see nothing new, and that our
ancestors saw nothing greater than we have seen. A man of forty
years, possessing the most moderate intelligence, may be said to
have seen all that is past and all that is to come; so uniform is
the world." [Footnote: xi. I. The cyclical theory was curiously
revived in the nineteenth; century by Nietzsche, and it is
interesting to note his avowal that it took him a long time to
overcome the feeling of pessimism which the doctrine inspired.]


And yet one Stoic philosopher saw clearly, and declared
emphatically, that increases in knowledge must be expected in the

"There are many peoples to-day," Seneca wrote, "who are ignorant of
the cause of eclipses of the moon, and it has only recently been
demonstrated among ourselves. The day will come when time and human
diligence will clear up problems which are now obscure. We divide
the few years of our lives unequally between study and vice, and it
will therefore be the work of many generations to explain such
phenomena as comets. One day our posterity will marvel at our
ignorance of causes so clear to them.

"How many new animals have we first come to know in the present age?
In time to come men will know much that is unknown to us. Many
discoveries are reserved for future ages, when our memory will have
faded from men's minds. We imagine ourselves initiated in the
secrets of nature; we are standing on the threshold of her temple."

[Footnote: The quotations from Seneca will be found in Naturales
Quaestiones, vii. 25 and 31. See also Epist. 64. Seneca implies
continuity in scientific research. Aristotle had stated this
expressly, pointing out that we are indebted not only to the author
of the philosophical theory which we accept as true, but also to the
predecessors whose views it has superseded (Metaphysics, i. ii.
chap. 1). But he seems to consider his own system as final.]

But these predictions are far from showing that Seneca had the least
inkling of a doctrine of the Progress of humanity. Such a doctrine
is sharply excluded by the principles of his philosophy and his
profoundly pessimistic view of human affairs. Immediately after the
passage which I have quoted he goes on to enlarge on the progress of
vice. "Are you surprised to be told that human knowledge has not yet
completed its whole task? Why, human wickedness has not yet fully

Yet, at least, it may be said, Seneca believed in a progress of
knowledge and recognised its value. Yes, but the value which he
attributed to it did not lie in any advantages which it would bring
to the general community of mankind. He did not expect from it any
improvement of the world. The value of natural science, from his
point of view, was this, that it opened to the philosopher a divine
region, in which, "wandering among the stars," he could laugh at the
earth and all its riches, and his mind "delivered as it were from
prison could return to its original home." In other words, its value
lay not in its results, but simply in the intellectual activity; and
therefore it concerned not mankind at large but a few chosen
individuals who, doomed to live in a miserable world, could thus
deliver their souls from slavery.

For Seneca's belief in the theory of degeneration and the hopeless
corruption of the race is uncompromising. Human life on the earth is
periodically destroyed, alternately by fire and flood; and each
period begins with a golden age in which men live in rude
simplicity, innocent because they are ignorant not because they are
wise. When they degenerate from this state, arts and inventions
promote deterioration by ministering to luxury and vice.

Interesting, then, as Seneca's observations on the prospect of some
future scientific discoveries are, and they are unique in ancient
literature, [Footnote: They are general and definite. This
distinguishes them, for instance, from Plato's incidental hint in
the Republic as to the prospect of the future development of solid
geometry.] they were far from adumbrating a doctrine of the Progress
of man. For him, as for Plato and the older philosophers, time is
the enemy of man. [Footnote: The quotations and the references here
will be found in Nat. Quaest. i. Praef.; Epist. 104, Sec. 16 (cp.
110, Sec. 8; 117, Sec. 20, and the fine passage in 65, Sec. 16-21);
Nat. Quaest. iii. 28-30; and finally Epist. 90, Sec. 45, cp. Sec.
17. This last letter is a criticism on Posidonius, who asserted that
the arts invented in primitive times were due to philosophers.
Seneca repudiates this view: omnia enim ista sagacitas hominum, non
sapientia inuenit.

Seneca touches on the possibility of the discovery of new lands
beyond the ocean in a passage in his Medea (374 sqq.) which has been
often quoted:

uenient annis
secula seris, quibus oceanus
uincula rerum laxet et ingens
pateat tellus Tiphysque novos
detegat orbes, ...
nec sit terris ultima Thule.]


There was however a school of philosophical speculation, which might
have led to the foundation of a theory of Progress, if the
historical outlook of the Greeks had been larger and if their temper
had been different. The Atomic theory of Democritus seems to us now,
in many ways, the most wonderful achievement of Greek thought, but
it had a small range of influence in Greece, and would have had less
if it had not convinced the brilliant mind of Epicurus. The
Epicureans developed it, and it may be that the views which they put
forward as to the history of the human race are mainly their own
superstructure. These philosophers rejected entirely the doctrine of
a Golden Age and a subsequent degeneration, which was manifestly
incompatible with their theory that the world was mechanically
formed from atoms without the intervention of a Deity. For them, the
earliest condition of men resembled that of the beasts, and from
this primitive and miserable condition they laboriously reached the
existing state of civilisation, not by external guidance or as a
consequence of some initial design, but simply by the exercise of
human intelligence throughout a long period. [Footnote: Lucretius v.
1448 sqq. (where the word PROGRESS is pronounced):

Usus et impigrae simul experientia mentis
Paulatim docuit pedetemtim progredientis.
Sic unum quicquid paulatim protrahit aetas
In medium ratioque in luminis erigit oras.
Namque alid ex alio clarescere et ordine debet
Artibus, ad summum donee uenere cacumen.]

The gradual amelioration of their existence was marked by the
discovery of fire and the use of metals, the invention of language,
the invention of weaving, the growth of arts and industries,
navigation, the development of family life, the establishment of
social order by means of kings, magistrates, laws, the foundation of
cities. The last great step in the amelioration of life, according
to Lucretius, was the illuminating philosophy of Epicurus, who
dispelled the fear of invisible powers and guided man from
intellectual darkness to light.

But Lucretius and the school to which he belonged did not look
forward to a steady and continuous process of further amelioration
in the future. They believed that a time would come when the
universe would fall into ruins, [Footnote: Ib. 95.] but the
intervening period did not interest them. Like many other
philosophers, they thought that their own philosophy was the final
word on the universe, and they did not contemplate the possibility
that important advances in knowledge might be achieved by subsequent
generations. And, in any case, their scope was entirely
individualistic; all their speculations were subsidiary to the aim
of rendering the life of the individual as tolerable as possible
here and now. Their philosophy, like Stoicism, was a philosophy of
resignation; it was thoroughly pessimistic and therefore
incompatible with the idea of Progress. Lucretius himself allows an
underlying feeling of scepticism as to the value of civilisation
occasionally to escape. [Footnote: His eadem sunt omnia semper (iii.
945) is the constant refrain of Marcus Aurelius.]

Indeed, it might be said that in the mentality of the ancient Greeks
there was a strain which would have rendered them indisposed to take
such an idea seriously, if it had been propounded. No period of
their history could be described as an age of optimism. They were
never, by their achievements in art or literature, in mathematics or
philosophy, exalted into self-complacency or lured into setting high
hopes on human capacity. Man has resourcefulness to meet everything-
-[words in Greek],--they did not go further than that.

This instinctive pessimism of the Greeks had a religious tinge which
perhaps even the Epicureans found it hard entirely to expunge. They
always felt that they were in the presence of unknown incalculable
powers, and that subtle dangers lurked in human achievements and
gains. Horace has taken this feeling as the motif of a criticism on
man's inventive powers. A voyage of Virgil suggests the reflection
that his friend's life would not be exposed to hazards on the high
seas if the art of navigation had never been discovered--if man had
submissively respected the limits imposed by nature. But man is

Nequiquam deus abscidit
Prudens oceano dissociabili Terras.

In vain a wise god sever'd lands
By the dissociating sea.

Daedalus violated the air, as Hercules invaded hell. The discovery
of fire put us in possession of a forbidden secret. Is this
unnatural conquest of nature safe or wise? Nil mortalibus ardui est:

Man finds no feat too hard or high;
Heaven is not safe from man's desire.
Our rash designs move Jove to ire,
He dares not lay his thunder by.

The thought of this ode [Footnote: i. 3.] roughly expresses what
would have been the instinctive sense of thoughtful Greeks if the
idea of Progress had been presented to them. It would have struck
them as audacious, the theory of men unduly elated and perilously at
ease in the presence of unknown incalculable powers.

This feeling or attitude was connected with the idea of Moira. If we
were to name any single idea as generally controlling or pervading
Greek thought from Homer to the Stoics, [Footnote: The Stoics
identified Moira with Pronoia, in accordance with their theory that
the universe is permeated by thought.] it would perhaps be Moira,
for which we have no equivalent. The common rendering "fate" is
misleading. Moira meant a fixed order in the universe; but as a fact
to which men must bow, it had enough in common with fatality to
demand a philosophy of resignation and to hinder the creation of an
optimistic atmosphere of hope. It was this order which kept things
in their places, assigned to each its proper sphere and function,
and drew a definite line, for instance, between men and gods. Human
progress towards perfection--towards an ideal of omniscience, or an
ideal of happiness, would have been a breaking down of the bars
which divide the human from the divine. Human nature does not alter;
it is fixed by Moira.


We can see now how it was that speculative Greek minds never hit on
the idea of Progress. In the first place, their limited historical
experience did not easily suggest such a synthesis; and in the
second place, the axioms of their thought, their suspiciousness of
change, their theories of Moira, of degeneration and cycles,
suggested a view of the world which was the very antithesis of
progressive development. Epicurean, philosophers made indeed what
might have been an important step in the direction of the doctrine
of Progress, by discarding the theory of degeneration, and
recognising that civilisation had been created by a series of
successive improvements achieved by the effort of man alone. But
here they stopped short. For they had their eyes fixed on the lot of
the individual here and now, and their study of the history of
humanity was strictly subordinate to this personal interest. The
value of their recognition of human progress in the past is
conditioned by the general tenor and purpose of their theory of
life. It was simply one item in their demonstration that man owed
nothing to supernatural intervention and had nothing to fear from
supernatural powers. It is however no accident that the school of
thought which struck on a path that might have led to the idea of
Progress was the most uncompromising enemy of superstition that
Greece produced.

It might be thought that the establishment of Roman rule and order
in a large part of the known world, and the civilising of barbarian
peoples, could not fail to have opened to the imagination of some of
those who reflected on it in the days of Virgil or of Seneca, a
vista into the future. But there was no change in the conditions of
life likely to suggest a brighter view of human existence. With the
loss of freedom pessimism increased, and the Greek philosophies of
resignation were needed more than ever. Those whom they could not
satisfy turned their thoughts to new mystical philosophies and
religions, which were little interested in the earthly destinies of
human society.



The idea of the universe which prevailed throughout the Middle Ages,
and the general orientation of men's thoughts were incompatible with
some of the fundamental assumptions which are required by the idea
of Progress. According to the Christian theory which was worked out
by the Fathers, and especially by St. Augustine, the whole movement
of history has the purpose of securing the happiness of a small
portion of the human race in another world; it does not postulate a
further development of human history on earth. For Augustine, as for
any medieval believer, the course of history would be satisfactorily
complete if the world came to an end in his own lifetime. He was not
interested in the question whether any gradual amelioration of
society or increase of knowledge would mark the period of time which
might still remain to run before the day of Judgment. In Augustine's
system the Christian era introduced the last period of history, the
old age of humanity, which would endure only so long as to enable
the Deity to gather in the predestined number of saved people. This
theory might be combined with the widely-spread belief in a
millennium on earth, but the conception of such a dispensation does
not render it a theory of Progress.

Again, the medieval doctrine apprehends history not as a natural
development but as a series of events ordered by divine intervention
and revelations. If humanity had been left to go its own way it
would have drifted to a highly undesirable port, and all men would
have incurred the fate of everlasting misery from which supernatural
interference rescued the minority. A belief in Providence might
indeed, and in a future age would, be held along with a belief in
Progress, in the same mind; but the fundamental assumptions were
incongruous, and so long as the doctrine of Providence was
undisputedly in the ascendant, a doctrine of Progress could not
arise. And the doctrine of Providence, as it was developed in
Augustine's "City of God," controlled the thought of the Middle

There was, moreover, the doctrine of original sin, an insuperable
obstacle to the moral amelioration of the race by any gradual
process of development. For since, so long as the human species
endures on earth, every child will be born naturally evil and worthy
of punishment, a moral advance of humanity to perfection is plainly
impossible. [Footnote: It may be added that, as G. Monod observed,
"les hommes du moyen age n'avaient pas conscience des modifications
successives que le temps apporte avec lui dans les choses humaines"
(Revue Historique, i. p. 8).]


But there are certain features in the medieval theory of which we
must not ignore the significance. In the first place, while it
maintained the belief in degeneration, endorsed by Hebrew mythology,
it definitely abandoned the Greek theory of cycles. The history of
the earth was recognised as a unique phenomenon in time; it would
never occur again or anything resembling it. More important than all
is the fact that Christian theology constructed a synthesis which
for the first time attempted to give a definite meaning to the whole
course of human events, a synthesis which represents the past as
leading up to a definite and desirable goal in the future. Once this
belief had been generally adopted and prevailed for centuries men
might discard it along with the doctrine of Providence on which it
rested, but they could not be content to return again to such views
as satisfied the ancients, for whom human history, apprehended as a
whole, was a tale of little meaning. [Footnote: It may be observed
that Augustine (De Civ. Dei, x. 14) compares the teaching (recta
eruditio) of the people of God, in the gradual process of history,
to the education of an individual. Prudentius has a similar
comparison for a different purpose (c. Symmachum, ii. 315 sqq.):

Tardis semper processibus aucta Crescit vita hominis et longo
proficit usu. Sic aevi mortalis habet se mobilis ordo, Sic variat
natura vices, infantia repit, etc.

Floras (Epitome, ad init.) had already divided Roman history into
four periods corresponding to infancy, adolescence, manhood, and old

They must seek for some new synthesis to replace it.

Another feature of the medieval theory, pertinent to our inquiry,
was an idea which Christianity took over from Greek and Roman
thinkers. In the later period of Greek history, which began with the
conquests of Alexander the Great, there had emerged the conception
of the whole inhabited world as a unity and totality, the idea of
the whole human race as one. We may conveniently call it the
ecumenical idea--the principle of the ecumene or inhabited world, as
opposed to the principle of the polis or city. Promoted by the vast
extension of the geographical limits of the Greek world resulting
from Alexander's conquests, and by his policy of breaking down the
barriers between Greek and barbarian, the idea was reflected in the
Stoic doctrine that all men are brothers, and that a man's true
country is not his own particular city, but the ecumene. [Footnote:
Plutarch long ago saw the connection between the policy of Alexander
and the cosmopolitan teaching of Zeno. De Alexandri Magni virtute,
i. Sec. 6.] It soon became familiar, popularised by the most popular
of the later philosophies of Greece; and just as it had been implied
in the imperial aspiration and polity of Alexander, so it was
implied, still more clearly, in the imperial theory of Rome. The
idea of the Roman Empire, its theoretical justification, might be
described as the realisation of the unity of the world by the
establishment of a common order, the unification of mankind in a
single world-embracing political organism. The term "world," orbis
(terrarum), which imperial poets use freely in speaking of the
Empire, is more than a mere poetical or patriotic exaggeration; it
expresses the idea, the unrealised ideal of the Empire. There is a
stone from Halicarnassus in the British Museum, on which the idea is
formally expressed from another point of view. The inscription is of
the time of Augustus, and the Emperor is designated as "saviour of
the community of mankind." There we have the notion of the human
race apprehended as a whole, the ecumenical idea, imposing upon Rome
the task described by Virgil as regere imperio populos, and more
humanely by Pliny as the creation of a single fatherland for all the
peoples of the world. [Footnote: Pliny, Nat. Hist. iii. 6. 39.]

This idea, which in the Roman Empire and in the Middle Ages took the
form of a universal State and a universal Church, passed afterwards
into the conception of the intercohesion of peoples as contributors
to a common pool of civilisation--a principle which, when the idea
of Progress at last made its appearance in the world, was to be one
of the elements in its growth.


One remarkable man, the Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, [Footnote: c.
A.D. 1210-92. Of Bacon's Opus Majus the best and only complete
edition is that of J. H. Bridges, 2 vols. 1897 (with an excellent
Introduction). The associated works, Opus Minus and Opus Tertium,
have been edited by Brewer, Fr. Rogeri Bacon Opera Inedita,
1859.]who stands on an isolated pinnacle of his own in the Middle
Ages, deserves particular consideration. It has been claimed for him
that he announced the idea of Progress; he has even been compared to
Condorcet or Comte. Such claims are based on passages taken out of
their context and indulgently interpreted in the light of later
theories. They are not borne out by an examination of his general
conception of the universe and the aim of his writings.

His aim was to reform higher education and introduce into the
universities a wide, liberal, and scientific programme of secular
studies. His chief work, the "Opus Majus," was written for this
purpose, to which his exposition of his own discoveries was
subordinate. It was addressed and sent to Pope Clement IV., who had
asked Bacon to give him an account of his researches, and was
designed to persuade the Pontiff of the utility of science from an
ecclesiastical point of view, and to induce him to sanction an
intellectual reform, which without the approbation of the Church
would at that time have been impossible. With great ingenuity and
resourcefulness he sought to show that the studies to which he was
devoted--mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry--were
indispensable to an intelligent study of theology and Scripture.
Though some of his arguments may have been urged simply to capture
the Pope's good-will, there can be no question that Bacon was
absolutely sincere in his view that theology was the mistress
(dominatrix) of the sciences and that their supreme value lay in
being necessary to it.

It was, indeed, on this principle of the close interconnection of
all branches of knowledge that Bacon based his plea and his scheme
of reform. And the idea of the "solidarity" of the sciences, in
which he anticipated a later age, is one of his two chief claims to
be remembered. [Footnote: Cp. Opus Tertium, c. iv. p. 18, omnes
scientiae sunt connexae et mutuis se fovent auxiliis sicut partes
ejusdem totius, quarum quaelibet opus suum peragit non solum propter
se sed pro aliis.] It is the motif of the Opus Majus, and it would
have been more fully elaborated if he had lived to complete the
encyclopaedic work, Scriptum Principale, which he had only begun
before his death. His other title to fame is well-known. He
realised, as no man had done before him, the importance of the
experimental method in investigating the secrets of nature, and was
an almost solitary pioneer in the paths to which his greater
namesake, more than three hundred years later, was to invite the
attention of the world.

But, although Roger Bacon was inspired by these enlightened ideas,
although he cast off many of the prejudices of his time and boldly
revolted against the tyranny of the prevailing scholastic
philosophy, he was nevertheless in other respects a child of his age
and could not disencumber himself of the current medieval conception
of the universe. His general view of the course of human history was
not materially different from that of St. Augustine. When he says
that the practical object of all knowledge is to assure the safety
of the human race, he explains this to mean "things which lead to
felicity in the next life." [Footnote: Opus Majus, vii. p. 366.]

It is pertinent to observe that he not only shared in the belief in
astrology, which was then universal, but considered it one of the
most important parts of "mathematics." It was looked upon with
disfavour by the Church as a dangerous study; Bacon defended its use
in the interests of the Church itself. He maintained, like Thomas
Aquinas, the physiological influence of the celestial bodies, and
regarded the planets as signs telling us what God has decreed from
eternity to come to pass either by natural processes or by acts of
human will or directly at his own good pleasure. Deluges, plagues,
and earthquakes were capable of being predicted; political and
religious revolutions were set in the starry rubric. The existence
of six principal religions was determined by the combinations of
Jupiter with the other six planets. Bacon seriously expected the
extinction of the Mohammedan religion before the end of the
thirteenth century, on the ground of a prediction by an Arab
astrologer. [Footnote: Ib. iv. p. 266; vii. p. 389.]

One of the greatest advantages that the study of astrological lore
will bring to humanity is that by its means the date of the coming
of Anti-Christ may be fixed with certainty, and the Church may be
prepared to face the perils and trials of that terrible time. Now
the arrival of Anti-Christ meant the end of the world, and Bacon
accepted the view, which he says was held by all wise men, that "we
are not far from the times of Anti-Christ." Thus the intellectual
reforms which he urged would have the effect, and no more, of
preparing Christendom to resist more successfully the corruption in
which the rule of Anti-Christ would involve the world. "Truth will
prevail," by which he meant science will make advances, "though with
difficulty, until Anti-Christ and his forerunners appear;" and on
his own showing the interval would probably be short.

The frequency with which Bacon recurs to this subject, and the
emphasis he lays on it, show that the appearance of Anti-Christ was
a fixed point in his mental horizon. When he looked forward into the
future, the vision which confronted him was a scene of corruption,
tyranny, and struggle under the reign of a barbarous enemy of
Christendom; and after that, the end of the world. [Footnote: (1)
His coming may be fixed by astrology: Opus Majus, iv. p. 269
(inveniretur sufficiens suspicio vel magis certitudo de tempore
Antichristi; cp. p. 402). (2) His coming means the end of the world:
ib. p. 262. (3) We are not far from it: ib. p. 402. One of the
reasons which seem to have made this view probable to Bacon was the
irruption of the Mongols into Europe during his lifetime; cp. p. 268
and vii. p. 234. Another was the prevalent corruption, especially of
the clergy, which impressed him deeply; see Compendium studii
philosophiae, ed. Brewer, p. 402. (4) "Truth will prevail," etc.:
Opus Majus, i. pp. 19, 20. He claimed for experimental science that
it would produce inventions which could be usefully employed against
Antichrist: ib. vii. p. 221.] It is from this point of view that we
must appreciate the observations which he made on the advancement of
knowledge. "It is our duty," he says, "to supply what the ancients
have left incomplete, because we have entered into their labours,
which, unless we are asses, can stimulate us to achieve better
results"; Aristotle corrected the errors of earlier thinkers;
Avicenna and Averroes have corrected Aristotle in some matters and
have added much that is new; and so it will go on till the end of
the world. And Bacon quotes passages from Seneca's "Physical
Inquiries" to show that the acquisition of knowledge is gradual.
Attention has been already called to those passages, and it was
shown how perverse it is, on the strength of such remarks, to claim
Seneca as a teacher of the doctrine of Progress. The same claim has
been made for Bacon with greater confidence, and it is no less
perverse. The idea of Progress is glaringly incongruous with his
vision of the world. If his programme of revolutionising secular
learning had been accepted--it fell completely dead, and his work
was forgotten for many ages,--he would have been the author of a
progressive reform; but how many reformers have there been before
and after Bacon on whose minds the idea of Progress never dawned?

[Footnote: Bacon quotes Seneca: See Opus Majus, i. pp. 37, 55, 14.

Much has been made out of a well-known passage in his short Epistle
de secretis operibus artis et naturae et de militate magiae, c. iv.
(ed. Brewer, p. 533), in which he is said to PREDICT inventions
which have been realised in the locomotives, steam navigation, and
aeroplanes of modern times. But Bacon predicts nothing. He is
showing that science can invent curious and, to the vulgar,
incredible things without the aid of magic. All the inventions which
he enumerates have, he declares, been actually made in ancient
times, with the exception of a flying-machine (instrumentum volandi
quod non vidi nec hominem qui vidisset cognovi, sed sapientem qui
hoc artificium excogitavit explere cognosco).

Compare the remarks of S. Vogl, Die Physik Roger Bacos (1906), 98


Thus Friar Bacon's theories of scientific reform, so far from
amounting to an anticipation of the idea of Progress, illustrate how
impossible it was that this idea could appear in the Middle Ages.
The whole spirit of medieval Christianity excluded it. The
conceptions which were entertained of the working of divine
Providence, the belief that the world, surprised like a sleeping
household by a thief in the night, might at any moment come to a
sudden end, had the same effect as the Greek theories of the nature
of change and of recurring cycles of the world. Or rather, they had
a more powerful effect, because they were not reasoned conclusions,
but dogmas guaranteed by divine authority. And medieval pessimism as
to man's mundane condition was darker and sterner than the pessimism
of the Greeks. There was the prospect of happiness in another sphere
to compensate, but this, engrossing the imagination, only rendered
it less likely that any one should think of speculating about man's
destinies on earth.



The civilised countries of Europe spent about three hundred years in
passing from the mental atmosphere of the Middle Ages into the
mental atmosphere of the modern world. These centuries were one of
the conspicuously progressive periods in history, but the conditions
were not favourable to the appearance of an idea of Progress, though
the intellectual milieu was being prepared in which that idea could
be born. This progressive period, which is conveniently called the
Renaissance, lasted from the fourteenth into the seventeenth
century. The great results, significant for our present purpose,
which the human mind achieved at this stage of its development were
two. Self-confidence was restored to human reason, and life on this
planet was recognised as possessing a value independent of any hopes
or fears connected with a life beyond the grave.

But in discarding medieval naivete and superstition, in assuming a
freer attitude towards theological authority, and in developing a
new conception of the value of individual personality, men looked to
the guidance of Greek and Roman thinkers, and called up the spirit
of the ancient world to exorcise the ghosts of the dark ages. Their
minds were thus directed backwards to a past civilisation which, in
the ardour of new discovery, and in the reaction against
medievalism, they enthroned as ideal; and a new authority was set
up, the authority of ancient writers. In general speculation the men
of the Renaissance followed the tendencies and adopted many of the
prejudices of Greek philosophy. Although some great discoveries,
with far-reaching, revolutionary consequences, were made in this
period, most active minds were engaged in rediscovering,
elaborating, criticising, and imitating what was old. It was not
till the closing years of the Renaissance that speculation began to
seek and feel its way towards new points of departure. It was not
till then that a serious reaction set in against the deeper
influences of medieval thought.


To illustrate the limitations of this period let us take
Machiavelli, one of the most original thinkers that Italy ever

There are certain fundamental principles underlying Machiavelli's
science of politics, which he has indicated incidentally in his
unsystematic way, but which are essential to the comprehension of
his doctrines. The first is that at all times the world of human
beings has been the same, varying indeed from land to land, but
always presenting the same aspect of some societies advancing
towards prosperity, and others declining. Those which are on the
upward grade will always reach a point beyond which they cannot rise
further, but they will not remain permanently on this level, they
will begin to decline; for human things are always in motion and
therefore must go up or down. Similarly, declining states will
ultimately touch bottom and then begin to ascend. Thus a good
constitution or social organisation can last only for a short time.
[Footnote: Machiavelli's principle of advance and decline: Discorsi,
ii. Introduction; Istorie fiorentine, v. ad init. For the cycle of
constitutions through which all states tend to move see Discorsi,
ii. 2 (here we see the influence of Polybius).]

It is obvious that in this view of history Machiavelli was inspired
and instructed by the ancients. And it followed from his premisses
that the study of the past is of the highest value because it
enables men to see what is to come; since to all social events at
any period there are correspondences in ancient times. "For these
events are due to men, who have and always had the same passions,
and therefore of necessity the effects must be the same." [Footnote:
Discorsi, iii. 43.]

Again, Machiavelli follows his ancient masters in assuming as
evident that a good organisation of society can be effected only by
the deliberate design of a wise legislator. [Footnote: Ib. iii. 1.
The lawgiver must assume for his purposes that all men are bad: ib.
i. 3. Villari has useful remarks on these principles in his
Machiavelli, Book ii. cap. iii.] Forms of government and religions
are the personal creations of a single brain; and the only chance
for a satisfactory constitution or for a religion to maintain itself
for any length of time is constantly to repress any tendencies to
depart from the original conceptions of its creator.

It is evident that these two assumptions are logically connected.
The lawgiver builds on the immutability of human nature; what is
good for one generation must be good for another. For Machiavelli,
as for Plato, change meant corruption. Thus his fundamental theory
excluded any conception of a satisfactory social order gradually
emerging by the impersonal work of successive generations, adapting
their institutions to their own changing needs and aspirations. It
is characteristic, and another point of resemblance with ancient
thinkers that he sought the ideal state in the past--republican

These doctrines, the sameness of human nature and the omnipotent
lawgiver, left no room for anything resembling a theory of Progress.
If not held afterwards in the uncompromising form in which
Machiavelli presented them, yet it has well been pointed out that
they lay at the root of some of the most famous speculations of the
eighteenth century. [Footnote: Villari, loc. cit.]

Machiavelli's sameness of human nature meant that man would always
have the same passions and desires, weaknesses and vices. This
assumption was compatible with the widely prevailing view that man
had degenerated in the course of the last fifteen hundred years.
From the exaltation of Greek and Roman antiquity to a position of
unattainable superiority, especially in the field of knowledge, the
degeneration of humanity was an easy and natural inference. If the
Greeks in philosophy and science were authoritative guides, if in
art and literature they were unapproachable, if the Roman republic,
as Machiavelli thought, was an ideal state, it would seem that the
powers of Nature had declined, and she could no longer produce the
same quality of brain. So long as this paralysing theory prevailed,
it is manifest that the idea of Progress could not appear.

But in the course of the sixteenth century men began here and there,
somewhat timidly and tentatively, to rebel against the tyranny of
antiquity, or rather to prepare the way for the open rebellion which
was to break out in the seventeenth. Breaches were made in the proud
citadel of ancient learning. Copernicus undermined the authority of
Ptolemy and his predecessors; the anatomical researches of Vesalius
injured the prestige of Galen; and Aristotle was attacked on many
sides by men like Telesio, Cardan, Ramus, and Bruno. [Footnote: It
has been observed that the thinkers who were rebelling against the
authority of Aristotle--the most dangerous of the ancient
philosophers, because he was so closely associated with theological
scholasticism and was supported by the Church--frequently attacked
under the standard of some other ancient master; e.g. Telesio
resorted to Parmenides, Justus Lipsius to the Stoics, and Bruno is
under the influence of Plotinus and Plato (Bouillier, La Philosophie
cartesienne, vol. i. p. 5). The idea of "development" in Bruno has
been studied by Mariupolsky (Zur Geschichte des Entwicklungsbegriffs
in Berner Studien, Bd. vi. 1897), who pointed out the influence of
Stoicism on his thought.] In particular branches of science an
innovation was beginning which heralded a radical revolution in the
study of natural phenomena, though the general significance of the
prospect which these researches opened was but vaguely understood at
the time. The thinkers and men of science were living in an
intellectual twilight. It was the twilight of dawn. At one extremity
we have mysticism which culminated in the speculations of Bruno and
Campanella; at the other we have the scepticism of Montaigne,
Charron, and Sanchez. The bewildered condition of knowledge is
indicated by the fact that while Bruno and Campanella accepted the
Copernican astronomy, it was rejected by one who in many other
respects may claim to be reckoned as a modern--I mean Francis Bacon.

But the growing tendency to challenge the authority of the ancients
does not sever this period from the spirit which informed the
Renaissance. For it is subordinate or incidental to a more general
and important interest. To rehabilitate the natural man, to claim
that he should be the pilot of his own course, to assert his freedom
in the fields of art and literature had been the work of the early
Renaissance. It was the problem of the later Renaissance to complete
this emancipation in the sphere of philosophical thought. The bold
metaphysics of Bruno, for which he atoned by a fiery death, offered
the solution which was most unorthodox and complete. His deification
of nature and of man as part of nature involved the liberation of
humanity from external authority. But other speculative minds of the
age, though less audacious, were equally inspired by the idea of
freely interrogating nature, and were all engaged in accomplishing
the programme of the Renaissance--the vindication of this world as
possessing a value for man independent of its relations to any
supermundane sphere. The raptures of Giordano Bruno and the
sobrieties of Francis Bacon are here on common ground. The whole
movement was a necessary prelude to a new age of which science was
to be the mistress.

It is to be noted that there was a general feeling of complacency as
to the condition of learning and intellectual pursuits. This
optimism is expressed by Rabelais. Gargantua, in a letter to
Pantagruel, studying at Paris, enlarges to his son on the vast
improvements in learning and education which had recently, he says,
been brought about. "All the world is full of savants, learned
teachers, large libraries; and I am of opinion that neither in the
time of Plato nor of Cicero nor of Papinian were there such
facilities for study as one sees now." It is indeed the study of the
ancient languages and literatures that Gargantua considers in a
liberal education, but the satisfaction at the present diffusion of
learning, with the suggestion that here at least contemporaries have
an advantage over the ancients, is the significant point. [Footnote:
Rabelais, Book ii. chap. 8.] This satisfaction shines through the
observation of Ramus that "in one century we have seen a greater
progress in men and works of learning than our ancestors had seen in
the whole course of the previous fourteen centuries." [Footnote:
Praefat. Scholarum Mathematicarum, maiorem doctorum hominum et
operum proventum seculo uno vidimus quam totis antea 14 seculis
maiores nostri viderent. (Ed. Basel, 1569.)] [Footnote 1. Guillaume
Postel observed in his De magistratibus Atheniensium liber (1541)
that the ages are always progressing (secula semper proficere), and
every day additions are made to human knowledge, and that this
process would only cease if Providence by war, or plague, or some
catastrophe were to destroy all the accumulated stores of knowledge
which have been transmitted from antiquity in books (Praef., B
verso). What is known of the life of this almost forgotten scholar
has been collected by G. Weill (De Gulielmi Postelli vita et indole,
1892). He visited the East, brought back oriental MSS., and was more
than once imprisoned on charges of heresy. He dreamed of converting
the Mohammedans, and of uniting the whole world under the empire of

In this last stage of the Renaissance, which includes the first
quarter of the seventeenth century, soil was being prepared in which
the idea of Progress could germinate, and our history of it origin
definitely begins with the work of two men who belong to this age,
Bodin, who is hardly known except to special students of political
science, and Bacon, who is known to all the world. Both had a more
general grasp of the significance of their own time than any of
their contemporaries, and though neither of them discovered a theory
of Progress, they both made contributions to thought which directly
contributed to its subsequent appearance.




It is a long descent from the genius of Machiavelli to the French
historian, Jean Bodin, who published his introduction to historical
studies [Footnote: Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem,
1566.] about forty years after Machiavelli's death. His views and
his method differ widely from those of that great pioneer, whom he
attacks. His readers were not arrested by startling novelties or
immoral doctrine; he is safe, and dull.

But Bodin had a much wider range of thought than Machiavelli, whose
mind was entirely concentrated on the theory of politics; and his
importance for us lies not in the political speculations by which he
sought to prove that monarchy is the best form of government
[Footnote: Les six livres de la Republique, 1576.], but in his
attempt to substitute a new theory of universal history for that
which prevailed in the Middle Ages. He rejected the popular
conception of a golden age and a subsequent degeneration of mankind;
and he refuted the view, generally current among medieval
theologians, and based on the prophecies of Daniel, which divided
the course of history into four periods corresponding to the
Babylonian Persian, Macedonian, and Roman monarchies, the last of
which was to endure till the day of Judgement. Bodin suggests a
division into three great periods: the first, of about two thousand
years, in which the South-Eastern peoples were predominant; the
second, of the same duration, in which those whom he calls the
Middle (Mediterranean) peoples came to the front; the third, in
which the Northern nations who overthrew Rome became the leaders in
civilisation. Each period is stamped by the psychological character
of the three racial groups. The note of the first is religion, of
the second practical sagacity, of the third warfare and inventive
skill. This division actually anticipates the synthesis of Hegel.
[Footnote: Hegel's division is (1) the Oriental, (2) a, the Greek,
b, the Roman, and (3) the Germanic worlds.] But the interesting
point is that it is based on anthropological considerations, in
which climate and geography are taken into account; and,
notwithstanding the crudeness of the whole exposition and the
intrusion of astrological arguments, it is a new step in the study
of universal history. [Footnote: Climates and geography. The fullest
discussion will be found in the Republique, Book v. cap. i. Here
Bodin anticipated Montesquieu. There was indeed nothing new in the
principle; it had been recognised by Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle,
Polybius, and other Greeks, and in a later age by Roger Bacon.

But Bodin first developed and applied it methodically. This part of
his work was ignored, and in the eighteenth century Montesquieu's
speculations on the physical factors in history were applauded as a
new discovery.]

I have said that Bodin rejected the theory of the degeneration of
man, along with the tradition of a previous age of virtue and
felicity. [Footnote: See especially Methodus, cap. v. pp. 124, 130,
136.] The reason which he alleged against it is important. The
powers of nature have always been uniform. It is illegitimate to
suppose that she could at one time produce the men and conditions
postulated by the theory of the golden age, and not produce them at
another. In other words, Bodin asserts the principle of the
permanent and undiminishing capacities of nature, and, as we shall
see in the sequel, this principle was significant. It is not to be
confounded with the doctrine of the immutability of human things
assumed by Machiavelli. The human scene has vastly changed since the
primitive age of man; "if that so-called golden age could be revoked
and compared with our own, we should consider it iron." [Footnote:
Methodus, cap. VII. p. 353.] For history largely depends on the will
of men, which is always changing; every day new laws, new customs,
new institutions, both secular and religious, come into being, and
new errors. [Footnote: Ib. cap. I. p. 12.]

But in this changing scene we can observe a certain regularity, a
law of oscillation. Rise is followed by fall, and fall by rise; it
is a mistake to think that the human race is always deteriorating.
[Footnote: Ib. cap. VII. p. 361: "cum aeterna quadam lege naturae
conversio rerum omnium velut in orbem redire videatur, ut aeque
vitia virtutibus, ignoratio scientiae, turpe honesto consequens sit,
atque tenebrae luci, fallunt qui genus hominum semper deterius
seipso evadere putant."] If that were so, we should long ago have
reached the lowest stage of vice and iniquity. On the contrary,
there has been, through the series of oscillations, a gradual
ascent. In the ages which have been foolishly designated as gold and
silver men lived like the wild beasts; and from that state they have
slowly reached the humanity of manners and the social order which
prevail to-day. [Footnote: Ib. p. 356.]

Thus Bodin recognises a general progress in the past. That is
nothing new; it was the view, for instance, of the Epicureans. But
much had passed in the world since the philosophy of Epicurus was
alive, and Bodin had to consider twelve hundred years of new
vicissitudes. Could the Epicurean theory be brought up to date?


Bodin deals with the question almost entirely in respect to human
knowledge. In definitely denying the degeneration of man, Bodin was
only expressing what many thinkers of the sixteenth century had been
coming to feel, though timidly and obscurely. The philosophers and
men of science, who criticised the ancients in special departments,
did not formulate any general view on the privileged position of
antiquity. Bodin was the first to do so.

Knowledge, letters, and arts have their vicissitudes, he says; they
rise, increase, and nourish, and then languish and die. After the
decay of Rome there was a long fallow period; but this was followed
by a splendid revival of knowledge and an intellectual productivity
which no other age has exceeded. The scientific discoveries of the
ancients deserve high praise; but the moderns have not only thrown
new light on phenomena which they had incompletely explained, they
have made new discoveries of equal or indeed greater importance.
Take, for instance, the mariner's compass which has made possible
the circumnavigation of the earth and a universal commerce, whereby
the world has been changed, as it were, into a single state.
[Footnote: Cardan had already signalised the compass, printing, and
gunpowder as three modern inventions, to which "the whole of
antiquity has nothing equal to show." He adds, "I pass over the
other inventions of this age which, though wonderful, form rather a
development of ancient arts than surpass the intellects of our
ancestors." De subtilitate, lib. 3 ad init. (Opera, iii. p. 609).]
Take the advances we have made in geography and astronomy; the
invention of gunpowder; the development of the woollen and other
industries. The invention of printing alone can be set against
anything that the ancients achieved. [Footnote: Methodus, cap. VII.,
pp. 359-61. Bodin also points out that there was an improvement, in
some respects, in manners and morals since the early Roman Empire;
for instance, in the abolition of gladiatorial spectacles (p. 359).]

An inference from all this, obvious to a modern reader, would be
that in the future there will be similar oscillations, and new
inventions and discoveries as remarkable as any that have been made
in the past. But Bodin does not draw this inference. He confines
himself to the past and present, and has no word to say about the
vicissitudes of the future. But he is not haunted by any vision of
the end of the world, or the coming of Antichrist; three centuries
of humanism lay between him and Roger Bacon.


And yet the influence of medievalism, which it had been the work of
those three centuries to overcome, was still pervasively there.
Still more the authority of the Greeks and Romans, which had been
set up by the revival of learning, was, without their realising it,
heavy even upon thinkers like Bodin, who did not scruple freely to
criticise ancient authors. And so, in his thoughtful attempt to find
a clew to universal history, he was hampered by theological and
cosmic theories, the legacy of the past. It is significant of the
trend of his mind that when he is discussing the periodic decline of
science and letters, he suggests that it may be due to the direct
action of God, punishing those who misapplied useful sciences to the
destruction of men.

But his speculations were particularly compromised by his belief in
astrology, which, notwithstanding the efforts of humanists like
Petrarch, Aeneas Sylvius, and Pico to discredit it, retained its
hold over the minds of many eminent, otherwise emancipated, thinkers
throughout the period of the Renaissance. [Footnote: Bodin was also
a firm believer in sorcery. His La Demonomanie (1578) is a monument
of superstition.] Here Bodin is in the company of Machiavelli and
Lord Bacon. But not content with the doctrine of astral influence on
human events, he sought another key to historical changes in the
influence of numbers, reviving the ideas of Pythagoras and Plato,
but working them out in a way of his own. He enumerates the
durations of the lives of many famous men, to show that they can be
expressed by powers of 7 and 9, or the product of these numbers.
Other numbers which have special virtues are the powers of 12, the
perfect number [Footnote: I.e. a number equal to the sum of all its
factors.] 496, and various others. He gives many examples to prove
that these mystic numbers determine the durations of empires and
underlie historical chronology. For instance, the duration of the
oriental monarchies from Ninus to the Conquest of Persia by
Alexander the Great was 1728 (= 12 cubed) years. He gives the Roman
republic from the foundation of Rome to the battle of Actium 729 (=9
cubed) years. [Footnote: Methodus, cap. v. pp. 265 sqq.]


From a believer in such a theory, which illustrates the limitations
of men's outlook on the world in the Renaissance period, we could
perhaps hardly expect a vision of Progress. The best that can be
said for it is that, both here and in his astrological creed, Bodin
is crudely attempting to bring human history into close connection
with the rest of the universe, and to establish the view that the
whole world is built on a divine plan by which all the parts are
intimately interrelated. [Footnote: Cp. Baudrillart, J. Bodin et son
temps, p. 148 (1853). This monograph is chiefly devoted to a full
analysis of La Republique.] He is careful, however, to avoid
fatalism. He asserts, as we have seen, that history depends largely
on the will of men. And he comes nearer to the idea of Progress than
any one before him; he is on the threshold.

For if we eliminate his astrological and Pythagorean speculations,
and various theological parentheses which do not disturb his
argument, his work announces a new view of history which is
optimistic regarding man's career on earth, without any reference to
his destinies in a future life. And in this optimistic view there
are three particular points to note, which were essential to the
subsequent growth of the idea of Progress. In the first place, the
decisive rejection of the theory of degeneration, which had been a
perpetual obstacle to the apprehension of that idea. Secondly, the
unreserved claim that his own age was fully equal, and in some
respects superior, to the age of classical antiquity, in respect of
science and the arts. He leaves the ancients reverently on their
pedestal, but he erects another pedestal for the moderns, and it is
rather higher. We shall see the import of this when we come to
consider the intellectual movement in which the idea of Progress was
afterwards to emerge. In the third place, he had a conception of the
common interest of all the peoples of the earth, a conception which
corresponded to the old ecumenical idea of the Greeks and Romans,
[Footnote: See above, p. 23.] but had now a new significance through
the discoveries of modern navigators. He speaks repeatedly of the
world as a universal state, and suggests that the various races, by
their peculiar aptitudes and qualities, contribute to the common
good of the whole. This idea of the "solidarity" of peoples was to
be an important element in the growth of the doctrine of Progress.
[Footnote: Republique, Book v. cap. 1 (p. 690; ed. 1593); Methodus,
cap. vi. p. 194; cap. vii. p. 360.]

These ideas were in the air. Another Frenchman, the classical
scholar, Louis Le Roy, translator of Plato and Aristotle, put
forward similar views in a work of less celebrity, On the
Vicissitude or Variety of the Things in the Universe. [Footnote: De
la vicissitude ou variete des choses en l'univers, 1577, 2nd ed.
(which I have used), 1584.] It contains a survey of great periods in
which particular peoples attained an exceptional state of dominion
and prosperity, and it anticipates later histories of civilisation
by dwelling but slightly on political events and bringing into
prominence human achievements in science, philosophy, and the arts.
Beginning with the advance of man from primitive rudeness to ordered
society--a sketch based on the conjectures of Plato in the
Protagoras--Le Roy reviews the history, and estimates the merits, of
the Egyptians, Assyrians and Persians, the Greeks, Romans and
Saracens, and finally of the modern age. The facts, he thinks,
establish the proposition that the art of warfare, eloquence,
philosophy, mathematics, and the fine arts, generally flourish and
decline together.

But they do decline. Human things are not perpetual; all pass
through the same cycle--beginning, progress, perfection, corruption,
end. This, however, does not explain the succession of empires in
the world, the changes of the scene of prosperity from one people or
set of peoples to another. Le Roy finds the cause in providential
design. God, he believes, cares for all parts of the universe and
has distributed excellence in arms and letters now to Asia, now to
Europe, again to Africa, letting virtue and vice, knowledge and
ignorance travel from country to country, that all in their turn may
share in good and bad fortune, and none become too proud through
prolonged prosperity.

But what of the modern age in Western Europe? It is fully the equal,
he assevers, of the most illustrious ages of the past, and in some
respects it is superior. Almost all the liberal and mechanical arts
of antiquity, which had been lost for about 1200 years, have been
restored, and there have been new inventions, especially printing,
and the mariner's compass, and "I would give the third place to
gunnery but that it seems invented rather for the ruin than for the
utility of the human race." In our knowledge of astronomy and
cosmography we surpass the ancients." We can affirm that the whole
world is now known, and all the races of men; they can interchange
all their commodities and mutually supply their needs, as
inhabitants of the same city or world-state." And hence there has
been a notable increase of wealth.

Vice and suffering, indeed, are as grave as ever, and we are
afflicted by the trouble of heresies; but this does not prove a
general deterioration of morals. If that inveterate complaint, the
refrain chanted by old men in every age, were true, the world would
already have reached the extreme limit of wickedness, and integrity
would have disappeared utterly. Seneca long ago made the right
criticism. Hoc maiores nostri questi sunt, hoc nos querimur, hoc
posteri nostri querentur, eversos esse mores .... At ista stant loco
eodem. Perhaps Le Roy was thinking particularly of that curious book
the Apology for Herodotus, in which the eminent Greek scholar, Henri
Estienne, exposed with Calvinistic prejudice the iniquities of
modern times and the corruption of the Roman Church. [Footnote:
L'Introduction au traite de la conformite des merveilles anciennes
avec les modernes, ou traite preparatif a l'Apologie pour Herodote,
ed. Ristelhuber, 2 vols., 1879. The book was published in 1566.]

But if we are to judge by past experience, does it not follow that
this modern age must go the same way as the great ages of the past
which it rivals or even surpasses? Our civilisation, too, having
reached perfection, will inevitably decline and pass away: is not
this the clear lesson of history? Le Roy does not shirk the issue;
it is the point to which his whole exposition has led and he puts it

"If the memory of the past is the instruction of the present and the
premonition of the future, it is to be feared that having reached so
great excellence, power, wisdom, studies, books, industries will
decline, as has happened in the past, and disappear--confusion
succeeding to the order and perfection of to-day, rudeness to
civilisation, ignorance to knowledge. I already foresee in
imagination nations, strange in form, complexion, and costume,
overwhelming Europe--like the Goths, Huns, Vandals, Lombards,
Saracens of old--destroying our cities and palaces, burning our
libraries, devastating all that is beautiful. I foresee in all
countries wars, domestic and foreign, factions and heresies which
will profane all things human and divine; famines, plagues, and
floods; the universe approaching an end, world-wide confusion, and
the return of things to their original chaos." [Footnote: It is
characteristic of the age that in the last sentence the author goes
beyond the issue and contemplates the possibility which still
haunted men's minds that the end of the world might not be far off.]

But having conducted us to this pessimistic conclusion Le Roy finds
it repugnant, and is unwilling to acquiesce in it. Like an
embarrassed dramatist he escapes from the knot which he has tied by
introducing the deus ex machina.

"However much these things proceed according to the fatal law of the
world, and have their natural causes, yet events depend principally
on Divine Providence which is superior to nature and alone knows the
predetermined times of events." That is to say, it depends, after
all, on Providence whether the argument from past experience is
valid. Who knows whether the modern age may not prove the exception
to the law which has hitherto prevailed? Let us act as if it would.

This is the practical moral that Le Roy enforces in the last book of
his dissertation. We must not allow ourselves to be paralysed or
dismayed by the destinies of past civilisations, but must work hard
to transmit to posterity all that has been achieved, and augment the
discoveries of the past by new researches. For knowledge is
inexhaustible. "Let us not be so simple as to believe that the
ancients have known and said everything and left nothing to their
successors. Or that nature gave them all her favours in order to
remain sterile ever after." Here Le Roy lays down Bodin's principle
which was to be asserted more urgently in the following century--the
permanence of natural forces. Nature is the same now as always, and
can produce as great intellects as ever. The elements have the same
power, the constellations keep their old order, men are made of the
same material. There is nothing to hinder the birth in this age of
men equal in brains to Plato, Aristotle, or Hippocrates.

Philosophically, Le Roy's conclusion is lame enough. We are asked to
set aside the data of experience and act on an off-chance. But the
determination of the optimist to escape from the logic of his own
argument is significant. He has no conception of an increasing
purpose or underlying unity in the history of man, but he thinks
that Providence--the old Providence of St. Augustine, who arranged
the events of Roman history with a view to the coming of Christ--
may, for some unknown reason, prolong indefinitely the modern age.
He is obeying the instinct of optimism and confidence which was
already beginning to create the appropriate atmosphere for the
intellectual revolution of the coming century.

His book was translated into English, but neither in France nor in
England had it the same influence as the speculations of Bodin. But
it insinuated, as the reader will have observed, the same three
views which Bodin taught, and must have helped to propagate them:
that the world has not degenerated; that the modern age is not
inferior to classical antiquity; and that the races of the earth
form now a sort of "mundane republic."




Among the great precursors of a new order of thought Francis Bacon
occupies a unique position. He drew up a definite programme for a
"great Renovation " of knowledge; he is more clearly conscious than
his contemporaries of the necessity of breaking with the past and
making a completely new start; and his whole method of thought seems
intellectually nearer to us than the speculations of a Bruno or a
Campanella. Hence it is easy to understand that he is often
regarded, especially in his own country, as more than a precursor,
as the first philosopher, of the modern age, definitely within its
precincts. [Footnote: German critics have been generally severe on
Bacon as deficient in the scientific spirit. Kuno Fischer, Baco van
Verulam (1856). Liebig, Ueber Francis Bacon van Verulam und die
Methode der Naturforschung (1863). Lange (Geschichte des
Materialismus, i. 195) speaks of "die aberglaubische und eitle
Unwissenschaftlichkeit Bacos."]

It is not indeed a matter of fundamental importance how we classify
these men who stood on the border of two worlds, but it must be
recognised that if in many respects Bacon is in advance of
contemporaries who cannot be dissociated from the Renaissance, in
other respects, such as belief in astrology and dreams, he stands on
the same ground, and in one essential point--which might almost be
taken as the test of mental progress at this period--Bruno and
Campanella have outstripped him. For him Copernicus, Kepler, and
Galileo worked in vain; he obstinately adhered to the old geocentric

It must also be remembered that the principle which he laid down in
his ambitious programme for the reform of science--that experiment
is the key for discovering the secrets of nature--was not a new
revelation. We need not dwell on the fact that he had been
anticipated by Roger Bacon; for the ideas of that wonderful thinker
had fallen dead in an age which was not ripe for them. But the
direct interrogation of nature was already recognised both in
practice and in theory in the sixteenth century. What Bacon did was
to insist upon the principle more strongly and explicitly, and to
formulate it more precisely. He clarified and explained the
progressive ideas which inspired the scientific thought of the last
period of the European Renaissance, from which he cannot, I think,
be dissociated.

But in clearing up and defining these progressive ideas, he made a
contribution to the development of human thought which had far-
reaching importance and has a special significance for our present
subject. In the hopes of a steady increase of knowledge, based on
the application of new methods, he had been anticipated by Roger
Bacon, and further back by Seneca. But with Francis Bacon this idea
of the augmentation of knowledge has an entirely new value. For
Seneca the exploration of nature was a means of escaping from the
sordid miseries of life. For the friar of Oxford the principal use
of increasing knowledge was to prepare for the coming of Antichrist.
Francis Bacon sounded the modern note; for him the end of knowledge
is utility. [Footnote; The passages specially referred to are: De
Aug. Sc. vii. i; Nov. Org. i. 81 and 3.]


The principle that the proper aim of knowledge is the amelioration
of human life, to increase men's happiness and mitigate their
sufferings--commodis humanis inservire--was the guiding star of
Bacon in all his intellectual labour. He declared the advancement of
"the happiness of mankind" to be the direct purpose of the works he
had written or designed. He considered that all his predecessors had
gone wrong because they did not apprehend that the finis scientarum,
the real and legitimate goal of the sciences, is "the endowment of
human life with new inventions and riches"; and he made this the
test for defining the comparative values of the various branches of

The true object, therefore, of the investigation of nature is not,
as the Greek philosophers held, speculative satisfaction, but to
establish the reign of man over nature; and this Bacon judged to be
attainable, provided new methods of attacking the problems were
introduced. Whatever may be thought of his daring act in bringing
natural science down from the clouds and assigning to her the
function of ministering to the material convenience and comfort of
man, we may criticise Bacon for his doctrine that every branch of
science should be pursued with a single eye towards practical use.
Mathematics, he thought, should conduct herself as a humble, if
necessary, handmaid, without any aspirations of her own. But it is
not thus that the great progress in man's command over nature since
Bacon's age has been effected. Many of the most valuable and
surprising things which science has succeeded in doing for
civilisation would never have been performed if each branch of
knowledge were not guided by its own independent ideal of
speculative completeness. [Footnote: This was to be well explained
by Fontenelle, Preface sur l'utilite des mathematiques, in Oeuvres
(ed. 1729), iii, I sqq.] But this does not invalidate Bacon's
pragmatic principle, or diminish the importance of the fact that in
laying down the utilitarian view of knowledge he contributed to the
creation of a new mental atmosphere in which the theory of Progress
was afterwards to develop.


Bacon's respect for the ancients and his familiarity with their
writings are apparent on almost every page he wrote. Yet it was one
of his principal endeavours to shake off the yoke of their
authority, which he recognised to be a fatal obstacle to the
advancement of science. "Truth is not to be sought in the good
fortune of any particular conjuncture of time"; its attainment
depends on experience, and how limited was theirs. In their age "the
knowledge both of time and of the world was confined and meagre;
they had not a thousand years of history worthy of that name, but
mere fables and ancient traditions; they were not acquainted with
but a small portion of the regions and countries of the world."
[Footnote: Nov. Org. i. 84; 56, 72, 73, 74.] In all their systems
and scientific speculation "there is hardly one single experiment
that has a tendency to assist mankind." Their theories were founded
on opinion, and therefore science has remained stationary for the
last two thousand years; whereas mechanical arts, which are founded
on nature and experience, grow and increase.

In this connection, Bacon points out that the word "antiquity" is
misleading, and makes a remark which will frequently recur in
writers of the following generations. Antiquitas seculi iuventus
mundi; what we call antiquity and are accustomed to revere as such
was the youth of the world. But it is the old age and increasing
years of the world--the time in which we are now living--that
deserves in truth to be called antiquity. We are really the
ancients, the Greeks and Romans were younger than we, in respect to
the age of the world. And as we look to an old man for greater
knowledge of the world than from a young man, so we have good reason
to expect far greater things from our own age than from antiquity,
because in the meantime the stock of knowledge has been increased by
an endless number of observations and experiments. Time is the great
discoverer, and truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.

Take the three inventions which were unknown to the ancients-
printing, gunpowder, and the compass. These "have changed the
appearance and state of the whole world; first in literature, then
in warfare, and lastly in navigation; and innumerable changes have
been thence derived, so that no empire, sect, or star appears to
have exercised a greater power or influence on human affairs than
these mechanical discoveries." [Footnote: Nov. Org. 129. We have
seen that these three inventions had already been classed together
as outstanding by Cardan and Le Roy. They also appear in Campanella.
Bodin, as we saw, included them in a longer list.] It was perhaps
the results of navigation and the exploration of unknown lands that
impressed Bacon more than all, as they had impressed Bodin. Let me
quote one passage.

"It may truly be affirmed to the honour of these times, and in a
virtuous emulation with antiquity, that this great building of the
world had never through-lights made in it till the age of us and our
fathers. For although they [the ancients] had knowledge of the
antipodes ... yet that mought be by demonstration, and not in fact;
and if by travel, it requireth the voyage but of half the earth. But
to circle the earth, as the heavenly bodies do, was not done nor
enterprised till these later times: and therefore these times may
justly bear in their word ... plus ultra in precedence of the
ancient non ultra. ... And this proficience in navigation and
discoveries may plant also an expectation of the further proficience
and augmentation of all sciences, because it may seem that they are
ordained by God to be coevals, that is, to meet in one age. For so
the prophet Daniel, speaking of the latter times foretelleth,
Plurimi pertransibunt, et multiplex erit scientia: as if the
openness and through-passage of the world and the increase of
knowledge were appointed to be in the same ages; as we see it is
already performed in great part: the learning of these later times
not much giving place to the former two periods or returns of
learning, the one of the Grecians, the other of the Romans."
[Footnote: Advancement of Learning, ii. 13, 14.]

In all this we have a definite recognition of the fact that
knowledge progresses. Bacon did not come into close quarters with
the history of civilisation, but he has thrown out some observations
which amount to a rough synthesis. [Footnote: Advancement, ii. 1, 6;
Nov. Org. i. 78, 79, 85.] Like Bodin, he divided, history into three
periods--(1) the antiquities of the world; (2) the middle part of
time which comprised two sections, the Greek and the Roman; (3)
"modern history," which included what we now call the Middle Ages.
In this sequence three particular epochs stand out as fertile in
science and favourable to progress--the Greek, the Roman, and our
own--"and scarcely two centuries can with justice be assigned to
each." The other periods of time are deserts, so far as philosophy
and science are concerned. Rome and Greece are "two exemplar States
of the world for arms, learning, moral virtue, policy, and laws."
But even in those two great epochs little progress was made in
natural philosophy. For in Greece moral and political speculation
absorbed men's minds; in Rome, meditation and labour were wasted on
moral philosophy, and the greatest intellects were devoted to civil
affairs. Afterwards, in the third period, the study of theology was
the chief occupation of the Western European nations. It was
actually in the earliest period that the most useful discoveries for
the comfort of human life were made, "so that, to say the truth,
when contemplation and doctrinal science began, the discovery of
useful works ceased."

So much for the past history of mankind, during which many things
conspired to make progress in the subjugation of nature slow,
fitful, and fortuitous. What of the future? Bacon's answer is: if
the errors of the past are understood and avoided there is every
hope of steady progress in the modern age.

But it might be asked. Is there not something in the constitution of
things which determines epochs of stagnation and vigour, some force
against which man's understanding and will are impotent? Is it not
true that in the revolutions of ages there are floods and ebbs of
the sciences, which flourish now and then decline, and that when
they have reached a certain point they can proceed no further? This
doctrine of Returns or ricorsi [Footnote: Bodin's conversiones.] is
denounced by Bacon as the greatest obstacle to the advancement of
knowledge, creating, as it does, diffidence or despair. He does not
formally refute it, but he marshals the reasons for an optimistic
view, and these reasons supply the disproof The facts on which the
fatalistic doctrine of Returns is based can be explained without
resorting to any mysterious law. [Footnote: Nov. Org. i. 92 sqq.]
Progress has not been steady or continuous on account of the
prejudices and errors which hindered men from setting to work in the
right way. The difficulties in advancing did not arise from things
which are not in our power; they were due to the human
understanding, which wasted time and labour on improper objects. "In
proportion as the errors which have been committed impeded the past,
so do they afford reason to hope for the future."


But will the new period of advance, which Bacon expected and strove
to secure, be of indefinite duration? He does not consider the
question. His view that he lived in the old age of the world implies
that he did not anticipate a vast tract of time before the end of
mankind's career on earth. And an orthodox Christian of that time
could hardly be expected to predict. The impression we get is that,
in his sanguine enthusiasm, he imagined that a "prudent
interrogation" of nature could extort all her secrets in a few
generations. As a reformer he was so engaged in the immediate
prospect of results that his imagination did not turn to the
possibilities of a remoter future, though these would logically
follow from his recognition of "the inseparable propriety of time
which is ever more and more to disclose truth." He hopes everything
from his own age in which learning has made her third visitation to
the world, a period which he is persuaded will far surpass that of
Grecian and Roman learning. [Footnote: Advancement, ii. 24.] If he
could have revisited England in 1700 and surveyed what science had
performed since his death his hopes might have been more than

But, animated though he was with the progressive spirit, as Leonardo
da Vinci had been before him, all that he says of the prospects of
an increase of knowledge fails to amount to the theory of Progress.
He prepares the way, he leads up to it; but his conception of his
own time as the old age of humanity excludes the conception of an
indefinite advance in the future, which is essential if the theory
is to have significance and value. And in regard to progress in the
past, though he is clearer and more emphatic than Bodin, he hardly
adds anything to what Bodin had observed. The novelty of his view
lies not in his recognition of the advance of knowledge and its
power to advance still further, but in the purpose which he assigned
to it. [Footnote: Campanella held its purpose to be the
contemplation of the wisdom of God; cp., for instance, De sensu
rerum, Bk. iv. epilogus, where the world is described as statua Dei
altissimi (p. 370; ed. 1620).] The end of the sciences is their
usefulness to the human race. To increase knowledge is to extend the
dominion of man over nature, and so to increase his comfort and
happiness, so far as these depend on external circumstances. To
Plato or Seneca, or to a Christian dreaming of the City of God, this
doctrine would seem material and trivial; and its announcement was
revolutionary: for it implied that happiness on earth was an end to
be pursued for its own sake, and to be secured by co-operation for
mankind at large. This idea is an axiom which any general doctrine
of Progress must presuppose; and it forms Bacon's great contribution
to the group of ideas which rendered possible the subsequent rise of
that doctrine.

Finally, we must remember that by Bacon, as by most of his
Elizabethan contemporaries, the doctrine of an active intervening
Providence, the Providence of Augustine, was taken as a matter of
course, and governed more or less their conceptions of the history
of civilisation. But, I think, we may say that Bacon, while he
formally acknowledged it, did not press it or emphasise it.
[Footnote: See Advancement, iii. II. On the influence of the
doctrine on historical writing in England at the beginning of the
seventeenth century see Firth, Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the
World (Proc. of British Academy, vol. viii., 1919), p. 8.]


Bacon illustrated his view of the social importance of science in
his sketch of an ideal state, the New Atlantis. He completed only a
part of the work, and the fragment was published after his death.
[Footnote: In 1627. It was composed about 1623. It seems almost
certain that he was acquainted with the Christianopolis of Johann
Valentin Andreae (1586-1654), which had appeared in Latin in 1614,
and contained a plan for a scientific college to reform the
civilised world. Andreae, who was acquainted both with More and with
Campanella, placed his ideal society in an island which he called
Caphar Salama (the name of a village in Palestine). Andreae's work
had also a direct influence on the Nova Solyma of Samuel Gott
(1648). See the Introduction of F. E. Held to his edition of
Christianopolis (1916). In Macaria, another imaginary state of the
seventeenth century (A description of the famous Kingdoms of
Macaria, 1641, by Hartlib), the pursuit of science is not a
feature.] It is evident that the predominating interest that moved
his imagination was different from that which guided Plato. While
Plato aimed at securing a permanent solid order founded on immutable
principles, the design of Bacon was to enable his imaginary
community to achieve dominion over nature by progressive
discoveries. The heads of Plato's city are metaphysicians, who

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