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The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury

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regulate the welfare of the people by abstract doctrines established
once for all; while the most important feature in the New Atlantis
is the college of scientific investigators, who are always
discovering new truths which may alter the conditions of life. Here,
though only in a restricted field, an idea of progressive
improvement, which is the note of the modern age, comes in to modify
the idea of a fixed order which exclusively prevailed in ancient

On the other hand, we must not ignore the fact that Bacon's ideal
society is established by the same kind of agency as the ideal
societies of Plato and Aristotle. It has not developed; it was
framed by the wisdom of an original legislator Solamona. In this it
resembles the other imaginary commonwealths of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries. The organisation of More's Utopia is fixed
initially once for all by the lawgiver Utopus. The origin of
Campanella's Civitas Solis is not expressly stated, but there can be
no doubt that he conceived its institutions as created by the fiat
of a single lawgiver. Harrington, in his Oceana, argues with
Machiavelli that a commonwealth, to be well turned, must be the work
of one man, like a book or a building. [Footnote: Harrington,
Oceana, pp. 77-8, 3rd ed. (1747).]

What measure of liberty Bacon would have granted to the people of
his perfect state we cannot say; his work breaks off before he comes
to describe their condition. But we receive the impression that the
government he conceived was strictly paternal, though perhaps less
rigorous than the theocratic despotism which Campanella, under
Plato's influence, set up in the City of the Sun. But even
Campanella has this in common with More--and we may be sure that
Bacon's conception would have agreed here--that there are no hard-
and-fast lines between the classes, and the welfare and happiness of
all the inhabitants is impartially considered, in contrast with
Plato's scheme in the Laws, where the artisans and manual labourers
were an inferior caste existing less for their own sake than for the
sake of the community as a whole. [Footnote: This however does not
apply to the Republic, as is so commonly asserted. See the just
criticisms of A. A. Trever, A History of Greek Economic Thought
(Chicago, 1916), 49 sqq.]

It may finally be pointed out that these three imaginary
commonwealths stand together as a group, marked by a humaner temper
than the ancient, and also by another common characteristic which
distinguishes them, on one hand, from the ideal states of Plato and,
on the other, from modern sketches of desirable societies. Plato and
Aristotle conceived their constructions within the geographical
limits of Hellas, either in the past or in the present. More, Bacon,
and Campanella placed theirs in distant seas, and this remoteness in
space helped to create a certain illusion, of reality. [Footnote:
Civitas Solis, p. 461 (ed. 1620). Expectancy of end of world: Ib. p.
455.] The modern plan is to project the perfect society into a
period of future time. The device of More and his successors was
suggested by the maritime explorations of the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries; the later method was a result of the rise of
the idea of Progress. [Footnote: Similarly the ideal communistic
states imagined by Euemerus and Iambulus in the southern seas owed
their geographical positions to the popular interest in seafaring in
the Indian Ocean in the age after Alexander. One wonders whether
Campanella knew the account of the fictitious journey of Iambulus to
the Islands of the Sun, in Diodorus Siculus, ii. 55-60.]


A word or two more may be said about the City of the Sun. Campanella
was as earnest a believer in the interrogation of nature as Bacon,
and the place which science and learning hold in his state (although
research is not so prominent as in the New Atlantis), and the
scientific training of all the citizens, are a capital feature. The
progress in inventions, to which science may look forward, is
suggested. The men of the City of the Sun "have already discovered
the one art which the world seemed to lack--the art of flying; and
they expect soon to invent ocular instruments which will enable them
to see the invisible stars and auricular instruments for hearing the
harmony of the spheres." Campanella's view of the present conditions
and prospects of knowledge is hardly less sanguine than that of
Bacon, and characteristically he confirms his optimism by
astrological data. "If you only knew what their astrologers say
about the coming age. Our times, they assert, have more history in a
hundred years than the whole world in four thousand. More books have
been published in this century than in five thousand years before.
They dwell on the wonderful inventions of printing, of artillery,
and of the use of the magnet,--clear signs of the times--and also
instruments for the assembling of the inhabitants of the world into
one fold," and show that these discoveries were conditioned by
stellar influences.

But Campanella is not very sure or clear about the future. Astrology
and theology cause him to hesitate. Like Bacon, he dreams of a great
Renovation and sees that the conditions are propitious, but his
faith is not secure. The astronomers of his imaginary state
scrutinise the stars to discover whether the world will perish or
not, and they believe in the oracular saying of Jesus that the end
will come like a thief in the night. Therefore they expect a new
age, and perhaps also the end of the world.

The new age of knowledge was about to begin. Campanella, Bruno, and
Bacon stand, as it were, on the brink of the dividing stream,
tenduntque manus ripae ulterioris amore.



If we are to draw any useful lines of demarcation in the continuous
flux of history we must neglect anticipations and announcements, and
we need not scruple to say that, in the realm of knowledge and
thought, modern history begins in the seventeenth century.
Ubiquitous rebellion against tradition, a new standard of clear and
precise thought which affects even literary expression, a flow of
mathematical and physical discoveries so rapid that ten years added
more to the sum of knowledge than all that had been added since the
days of Archimedes, the introduction of organised co-operation to
increase knowledge by the institution of the Royal Society at
London, the Academy of Sciences at Paris, Observatories--realising
Bacon's Atlantic dream--characterise the opening of a new era.

For the ideas with which we are concerned, the seventeenth century
centres round Descartes, whom an English admirer described as "the
grand secretary of Nature." [Footnote: Joseph Glanvill, Vanity of
Dogmatising, p. 211, 64] Though his brilliant mathematical
discoveries were the sole permanent contribution he made to
knowledge, though his metaphysical and physical systems are only of
historical interest, his genius exercised a more extensive and
transforming influence on the future development of thought than any
other man of his century.

Cartesianism affirmed the two positive axioms of the supremacy of
reason, and the invariability of the laws of nature; and its
instrument was a new rigorous analytical method, which was
applicable to history as well as to physical knowledge. The axioms
had destructive corollaries. The immutability of the processes of
nature collided with the theory of an active Providence. The
supremacy of reason shook the thrones from which authority and
tradition had tyrannised over the brains of men. Cartesianism was
equivalent to a declaration of the Independence of Man.

It was in the atmosphere of the Cartesian spirit that a theory of
Progress was to take shape.


Let us look back. We saw that all the remarks of philosophers prior
to the seventeenth century, which have been claimed as enunciations
of the idea of Progress, amount merely to recognitions of the
obvious fact that in the course of the past history of men there
have been advances and improvements in knowledge and arts, or that
we may look for some improvements in the future. There is not one of
them that adumbrates a theory that can be called a theory of
Progress. We have seen several reasons why the idea could not emerge
in the ancient or in the Middle Ages. Nor could it have easily
appeared in the period of the Renaissance. Certain preliminary
conditions were required, and these were not fulfilled till the
seventeenth century. So long as men believed that the Greeks and
Romans had attained, in the best days of their civilisation, to an
intellectual plane which posterity could never hope to reach, so
long as the authority of their thinkers was set up as unimpeachable,
a theory of degeneration held the field, which excluded a theory of
Progress. It was the work of Bacon and Descartes to liberate science
and philosophy from the yoke of that authority; and at the same
time, as we shall see, the rebellion began to spread to other

Another condition for the organisation of a theory of Progress was a
frank recognition of the value of mundane life and the subservience
of knowledge to human needs. The secular spirit of the Renaissance
prepared the world for this new valuation, which was formulated by
Bacon, and has developed into modern utilitarianism.

There was yet a third preliminary condition. There can be no
certainty that knowledge will continually progress until science has
been placed on sure foundations. And science does not rest for us on
sure foundations unless the invariability of the laws of nature is
admitted. If we do not accept this hypothesis, if we consider it
possible that the uniformities of the natural world may be changed
from time to time, we have no guarantee that science can progress
indefinitely. The philosophy of Descartes established this
principle, which is the palladium of science; and thus the third
preliminary condition was fulfilled.


During the Renaissance period the authority of the Greeks and Romans
had been supreme in the realm of thought, and in the interest of
further free development it was necessary that this authority should
be weakened. Bacon and others had begun the movement to break down
this tyranny, but the influence of Descartes was weightier and more
decisive, and his attitude was more uncompromising. He had none of
Bacon's reverence for classical literature; he was proud of having
forgotten the Greek which he had learned as a boy. The inspiration
of his work was the idea of breaking sharply and completely with the
past, and constructing a system which borrows nothing from the dead.
He looked forward to an advancement of knowledge in the future, on
the basis of his own method and his own discoveries, [Footnote: Cf.
for instance his remarks on medicine, at the end of the Discours de
la methode.] and he conceived that this intellectual advance would
have far-reaching effects on the condition of mankind. The first
title he had proposed to give to his Discourse on Method was "The
Project of a Universal Science which can elevate our Nature to its
highest degree of Perfection." He regarded moral and material
improvement as depending on philosophy and science.

The justification of an independent attitude towards antiquity, on
the ground that the world is now older and more mature, was becoming
a current view. [Footnote: Descartes wrote: Non est quod antiquis
multum tribuamus propter antiquitatem, sed nos potius iis seniores
dicendi. Jam enim senior est mundus quam tune majoremque habemus
rerum experientiam. (A fragment quoted by Baillet, Vie de Descartes,
viii. 10.) Passages to the same effect occur in Malebranche,
Arnauld, and Nicole. (See Bouillier, Histoire de la philosophie
cartesienne, i. 482-3.)

A passage in La Mothe Le Vayer's essay Sur l'opiniatrete in Orasius
Tubero (ii. 218) is in point, if, as seems probable, the date of
that work is 1632-33. "Some defer to the ancients and allow
themselves to be led by them like children; others hold that the
ancients lived in the youth of the world, and it is those who live
to-day who are really the ancients, and consequently ought to carry
most weight." See Rigault, Histoire de la querelle des Anciens et
des Modernes, p. 52.

The passage of Pascal occurs in the Fragment d'un traite du vide,
not published till 1779 (now included in the Pensees, Premiere
Partie, Art. I), and therefore without influence on the origination
of the theory of progress. It has been pointed out that Guillaume
Colletet had in 1636 expressed a similar view (Brunetiere, Etudes
critiques, v. 185-6).]

Descartes expressed it like Bacon, and it was taken up and repeated
by many whom Descartes influenced. Pascal, who till 1654 was a man
of science and a convert to Cartesian ideas, put it in a striking
way. The whole sequence of men (he says) during so many centuries
should be considered as a single man, continually existing and
continually learning. At each stage of his life this universal man
profited by the knowledge he had acquired in the preceding stages,
and he is now in his old age. This is a fuller, and probably an
independent, development of the comparison of the race to an
individual which we found in Bacon. It occurs in a fragment which
remained unpublished for more than a hundred years, and is often
quoted as a recognition, not of a general progress of man, but of a
progress in human knowledge.

To those who reproached Descartes with disrespect towards ancient
thinkers he might have replied that, in repudiating their authority,
he was really paying them the compliment of imitation and acting far
more in their own spirit than those who slavishly followed them.
Pascal saw this point. "What can be more unjust," he wrote, "than to
treat our ancients with greater consideration than they showed
towards their own predecessors, and to have for them this incredible
respect which they deserve from us only because they entertained no
such regard for those who had the same advantage (of antiquity) over
them?" [Footnote: Pensees, ib.]

At the same time Pascal recognised that we are indebted to the
ancients for our very superiority to them in the extent of our
knowledge. "They reached a certain point, and the slightest effort
enables us to mount higher; so that we find ourselves on a loftier
plane with less trouble and less glory." The attitude of Descartes
was very different. Aspiring to begin ab integro and reform the
foundations of knowledge, he ignored or made little of what had been
achieved in the past. He attempted to cut the threads of continuity
as with the shears of Atropos. This illusion [Footnote: He may be
reproached himself with scholasticism in his metaphysical
reasoning.] hindered him from stating a doctrine of the progress of
knowledge as otherwise he might have done. For any such doctrine
must take account of the past as well as of the future.

But a theory of progress was to grow out of his philosophy, though
he did not construct it. It was to be developed by men who were
imbued with the Cartesian spirit.


The theological world in France was at first divided on the question
whether the system of Descartes could be reconciled with orthodoxy
or not. The Jesuits said no, the Fathers of the Oratory said yes.
The Jansenists of Port Royal were enthusiastic Cartesians. Yet it
was probably the influence of the great spiritual force of Jansenism
that did most to check the immediate spread of Cartesian ideas. It
was preponderant in France for fifty years. The date of the
Discourse of Method is 1637. The Augustinus of Jansenius was
published in 1640, and in 1643 Arnauld's Frequent Communion made
Jansenism a popular power. The Jansenist movement was in France in
some measure what the Puritan movement was in England, and it caught
hold of serious minds in much the same way. The Jesuits had
undertaken the task of making Christianity easy, of finding a
compromise between worldliness and religion, and they flooded the
world with a casuistic literature designed for this purpose. Ex
opinionum varietate jugum Christi suavius deportatur. The doctrine
of Jansenius was directed against this corruption of faith and
morals. He maintained that there can be no compromise with the
world; that casuistry is incompatible with morality; that man is
naturally corrupt; and that in his most virtuous acts some
corruption is present.

Now the significance of these two forces--the stern ideal of the
Jansenists and the casuistry of the Jesuit teachers--is that they
both attempted to meet, by opposed methods, the wave of libertine
thought and conduct which is a noticeable feature in the history of
French society from the reign of Henry IV. to that of Louis XV.
[Footnote: For the prevalence of "libertine" thought in France at
the beginning of the seventeenth century see the work of the Pere
Garasse, La Doctrine curieuse des beaux esprits de ce temps ou
pretendus tels, etc. (1623). Cp. also Brunetiere's illuminating
study, "Jansenistes et Cartesiens" in Etudes critiques, 4me serie.]
This libertinism had its philosophy, a sort of philosophy of nature,
of which the most brilliant exponents were Rabelais and Moliere. The
maxim, "Be true to nature," was evidently opposed sharply to the
principles of the Christian religion, and it was associated with
sceptical views which prevailed widely in France from the early
years of the seventeenth century. The Jesuits sought to make terms
by saying virtually: "Our religious principles and your philosophy
of nature are not after all so incompatible in practice. When it
comes to the application of principles, opinions differ. Theology is
as elastic as you like. Do not abandon your religion on the ground
that her yoke is hard." Jansenius and his followers, on the other
hand, fought uncompromisingly with the licentious spirit of the
time, maintaining the austerest dogmas and denouncing any compromise
or condescension. And their doctrine had a wonderful success, and
penetrated everywhere. Few of the great literary men of the reign of
Louis XIV. escaped it. Its influence can be traced in the Maximes of
La Rochefoucauld and the Caracteres of La Bruyere. It was through
its influence that Moliere found it difficult to get some of his
plays staged. It explains the fact that the court of Louis XIV.,
however corrupt, was decorous compared with the courts of Henry IV.
and Louis XV.; a severe standard was set up, if it was not observed.

The genius of Pascal made the fortunes of Jansenism. He outlived his
Cartesianism and became its most influential spokesman. His
Provinciales (1656) rendered abstruse questions of theology more or
less intelligible, and invited the general public to pronounce an
opinion on them. His lucid exposition interested every one in the
abstruse problem, Is man's freedom such as not to render grace
superfluous? But Pascal perceived that casuistry was not the only
enemy that menaced the true spirit of religion for which Jansenism
stood. He came to realise that Cartesianism, to which he was at
first drawn, was profoundly opposed to the fundamental views of
Christianity. His Pensees are the fragments of a work which he
designed in defence of religion, and it is easy to see that this
defence was to be specially directed against the ideas of Descartes.

Pascal was perfectly right about the Cartesian conception of the
Universe, though Descartes might pretend to mitigate its tendencies,
and his fervent disciple, Malebranche, might attempt to prove that
it was more or less reconcilable with orthodox doctrine. We need not
trouble about the special metaphysical tenets of Descartes. The two
axioms which he launched upon the world--the supremacy of reason,
and the invariability of natural laws--struck directly at the
foundations of orthodoxy. Pascal was attacking Cartesianism when he
made his memorable attempt to discredit the authority of reason, by
showing that it is feeble and deceptive. It was a natural
consequence of his changed attitude that he should speak (in the
Pensees) in a much less confident tone about the march of science
than he had spoken in the passage which I quoted above. And it was
natural that he should be pessimistic about social improvement, and
that, keeping his eyes fixed on his central fact that Christianity
is the goal of history, he should take only a slight and subsidiary
interest in amelioration.

The preponderant influence of Jansenism only began to wane during
the last twenty years of the seventeenth century, and till then it
seems to have been successful in counteracting the diffusion of the
Cartesian ideas. Cartesianism begins to become active and powerful
when Jansenism is beginning to decline. And it is just then that the
idea of Progress begins definitely to emerge. The atmosphere in
France was favourable for its reception.


The Cartesian mechanical theory of the world and the doctrine of
invariable law, carried to a logical conclusion, excluded the
doctrine of Providence. This doctrine was already in serious danger.
Perhaps no article of faith was more insistently attacked by
sceptics in the seventeenth century, and none was more vital. The
undermining of the theory of Providence is very intimately connected
with our subject; for it was just the theory of an active Providence
that the theory of Progress was to replace; and it was not till men
felt independent of Providence that they could organise a theory of

Bossuet was convinced that the question of Providence was the most
serious and pressing among all the questions of the day that were at
issue between orthodox and heretical thinkers. Brunetiere, his
fervent admirer, has named him the theologian of Providence, and has
shown that in all his writings this doctrine is a leading note. It
is sounded in his early sermons in the fifties, and it is the theme
of his most ambitious work, the Discourse on Universal History,
which appeared in 1681. [Footnote; It has been shown that on one
hand he controverts Spinoza's Tractatus theologico-politicus, and on
the other the dangerous methods of Richard Simon, one of the
precursors of modern biblical criticism. Brunetiere, op. cit. 74-
85.] This book, which has received high praise from those who most
heartily dissent from its conclusions, is in its main issue a
restatement of the view of history which Augustine had worked out in
his memorable book. The whole course of human experience has been
guided by Providence for the sake of the Church; that is, for the
sake of the Church to which Bossuet belonged. Regarded as a
philosophy of history the Discourse may seem little more than the
theory of the De Civitate Dei brought up to date; but this is its
least important aspect. We shall fail to understand it unless we
recognise that it was a pragmatical, opportune work, designed for
the needs of the time, and with express references to current
tendencies of thought.

One main motive of Bossuet in his lifelong concern for Providence
was his conviction that the doctrine was the most powerful check on
immorality, and that to deny it was to remove the strongest
restraint on the evil side of human nature. There is no doubt that
the free-living people of the time welcomed the arguments which
called Providence in question, and Bossuet believed that to champion
Providence was the most efficient means of opposing the libertine
tendencies of his day. "Nothing," he declared in one of his sermons
(1662), "has appeared more insufferable to the arrogance of
libertines than to see themselves continually under the observation
of this ever-watchful eye of Providence. They have felt it as an
importunate compulsion to recognise that there is in Heaven a
superior force which governs all our movements and chastises our
loose actions with a severe authority. They have wished to shake off
the yoke of this Providence, in order to maintain, in independence,
an unteachable liberty which moves them to live at their own fancy,
without fear, discipline, or restraint." [Passage from Bossuet,
quoted by Brunetiere, op. cit. 58.] Bossuet was thus working in the
same cause as the Jansenists.

He had himself come under the influence of Descartes, whose work he
always regarded with the deepest respect. The cautiousness of the
master had done much to disguise the insidious dangers of his
thought, and it was in the hands of those disciples who developed
his system and sought to reconcile it at all points with orthodoxy
that his ideas displayed their true nature. Malebranche's philosophy
revealed the incompatibility of Providence--in the ordinary
acceptation--with immutable natural laws. If the Deity acts upon the
world, as Malebranche maintained, only by means of general laws, His
freedom is abolished, His omnipotence is endangered, He is subject
to a sort of fatality. What will become of the Christian belief in
the value of prayers, if God cannot adapt or modify, on any given
occasion, the general order of nature to the needs of human beings?
These are some of the arguments which we find in a treatise composed
by Fenelon, with the assistance of Bossuet, to demonstrate that the
doctrine of Malebranche is inconsistent with piety and orthodox
religion. They were right. Cartesianism was too strong a wine to be
decanted into old bottles. [Footnote: Fenelon's Refutation of
Malebranche's Traite de la nature et de la grace was not published
till 1820. This work of Malebranche also provoked a controversy with
Arnauld, who urged similar arguments.]

Malebranche's doctrine of what he calls divine Providence was
closely connected with his philosophical optimism. It enabled him to
maintain the perfection of the universe. Admitting the obvious truth
that the world exhibits many imperfections, and allowing that the
Creator could have produced a better result if he had employed other
means, Malebranche argued that, in judging the world, we must take
into account not only the result but the methods by which it has
been produced. It is the best world, he asserts, that could be
framed by general and simple methods; and general and simple methods
are the most perfect, and alone worthy of the Creator. Therefore, if
we take the methods and the result together, a more perfect world is
impossible. The argument was ingenious, though full of assumptions,
but it was one which could only satisfy a philosopher. It is little
consolation to creatures suffering from the actual imperfections of
the system into which they are born to be told that the world might
have been free from those defects, only in that case they would not
have the satisfaction of knowing that it was created and conducted
on theoretically superior principles.

Though Malebranche's conception was only a metaphysical theory,
metaphysical theories have usually their pragmatic aspects; and the
theory that the universe is as perfect as it could be marks a stage
in the growth of intellectual optimism which we can trace from the
sixteenth century. It was a view which could appeal to the educated
public in France, for it harmonised with the general spirit of self-
complacency and hopefulness which prevailed among the higher classes
of society in the reign of Louis XIV. For them the conditions of
life under the new despotism had become far more agreeable than in
previous ages, and it was in a spirit of optimism that they devoted
themselves to the enjoyment of luxury and elegance. The experience
of what the royal authority could achieve encouraged men to imagine
that one enlightened will, with a centralised administration at its
command, might accomplish endless improvements in civilisation.
There was no age had ever been more glorious, no age more agreeable
to live in.

The world had begun to abandon the theory of corruption,
degeneration, and decay.

Some years later the optimistic theory of the perfection of the
universe found an abler exponent in Leibnitz, whom Diderot calls the
father of optimism. [Footnote: See particularly Monadologie, ad fin.
published posthumously in German 1720, in Latin 1728; Theodicee,
Section 341 (1710); and the paper, De rerum originatione radicali,
written in 1697, but not published till 1840 (Opera philosophica,
ed. Erdmann, p. 147 sqq).] The Creator, before He acted, had
considered all possible worlds, and had chosen the best. He might
have chosen one in which humanity would have been better and
happier, but that would not have been the best possible, for He had
to consider the interests of the whole universe, of which the earth
with humanity is only an insignificant part. The evils and
imperfections of our small world are negligible in comparison with
the happiness and perfection of the whole cosmos. Leibnitz, whose
theory is deduced from the abstract proposition that the Creator is
perfect, does not say that now or at any given moment the universe
is as perfect as it could be; its merit lies in its potentialities;
it will develop towards perfection throughout infinite time.

The optimism of Leibnitz therefore concerns the universe as a whole,
not the earth, and would obviously be quite consistent with a
pessimistic view of the destinies of humanity. He does indeed
believe that it would be impossible to improve the universal order,
"not only for the whole, but for ourselves in particular," and
incidentally he notes the possibility that "in the course of time
the human race may reach a greater perfection than we can imagine at
present." But the significance of his speculation and that of
Malebranche lies in the fact that the old theories of degeneration
are definitely abandoned.




Outside the circle of systematic thinkers the prevalent theory of
degeneration was being challenged early in the seventeenth century.
The challenge led to a literary war, which was waged for about a
hundred years in France and England; over the comparative merits of
the ancients and the moderns. It was in the matter of literature,
and especially poetry, that the quarrel was most acrimonious, and
that the interest of the public was most keenly aroused, but the
ablest disputants extended the debate to the general field of
knowledge. The quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns used commonly to
be dismissed as a curious and rather ridiculous episode in the
history of literature. [Footnote: The best and fullest work on the
subject is Rigault's "Histoire de la querelle des Anciens et des
Modernes" (1856).] Auguste Comte was, I think, one of the first to
call attention to some of its wider bearings.

The quarrel, indeed, has considerable significance in the history of
ideas. It was part of the rebellion against the intellectual yoke of
the Renaissance; the cause of the Moderns, who were the aggressors,
represented the liberation of criticism from the authority of the
dead; and, notwithstanding the perversities of taste of which they
were guilty, their polemic, even on the purely literary side, was
distinctly important, as M. Brunetiere has convincingly shown,
[Footnote: See his "L'evolution des genres dans l'histoire de la
litterature."] in the development of French criticism. But the form
in which the critical questions were raised forced the debate to
touch upon a problem of greater moment. The question, Can the men of
to-day contend on equal terms with the illustrious ancients, or are
they intellectually inferior? implied the larger issue, Has nature
exhausted her powers; is she no longer capable of producing men
equal in brains and vigour to those whom she once produced; is
humanity played out, or are her forces permanent and inexhaustible?

The assertion of the permanence of the powers of nature by the
champions of the Moderns was the direct contradiction of the theory
of degeneration, and they undoubtedly contributed much towards
bringing that theory into discredit. When we grasp this it will not
be surprising to find that the first clear assertions of a doctrine
of progress in knowledge were provoked by the controversy about the
Ancients and Moderns.

Although the great scene of the controversy was France, the question
had been expressly raised by an Italian, no less a person than
Alessandro Tassoni, the accomplished author of that famous ironical
poem, "La Secchia rapita," which caricatured the epic poets of his
day. He was bent on exposing the prejudices of his time and uttering
new doctrine, and he created great scandal in Italy by his attacks
on Petrarch, as well as on Homer and Aristotle. The earliest
comparison of the merits of the ancients and the moderns will be
found in a volume of Miscellaneous Thoughts which he published in
1620. [Footnote: Dieci libri di pensieri diversi (Carpi, 1620). The
first nine books had appeared in 1612. The tenth contains the
comparison. Rigault was the first to connect this work with the
history of the controversy.] He speaks of the question as a matter
of current dispute, [Footnote: It was incidental to the controversy
which arose over the merits of Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered. That the
subject had been discussed long before may be inferred from a remark
of Estienne in his Apology for Herodotus, that while some of his
contemporaries carry their admiration of antiquity to the point of
superstition, others depreciate and trample it underfoot.] on which
he proposes to give an impartial decision by instituting a
comprehensive comparison in all fields, theoretical, imaginative,
and practical.

He begins by criticising the a priori argument that, as arts are
brought to perfection by experience and long labour, the modern age
must necessarily have the advantage. This reasoning, he says, is
unsound, because the same arts and studies are not always
uninterruptedly pursued by the most powerful intellects, but pass
into inferior hands, and so decline or are even extinguished, as was
the case in Italy in the decrepitude of the Roman Empire, when for
many centuries the arts fell below mediocrity. Or, to phrase it
otherwise, the argument would be admissible only if there were no
breaches of continuity. [Footnote: Tassoni argues that a decline in
all pursuits is inevitable when a certain point of excellence has
been reached, quoting Velleius Paterculus (i. 17): difficilisque in
perfecto mora est naturaliterque quod procedere non potest recedit.]

In drawing his comparison Tassoni seeks to make good his claim that
he is not an advocate. But while he awards superiority here and
there to the ancients, the moderns on the whole have much the best
of it. He takes a wide enough survey, including the material side of
civilisation, even costume, in contrast with some of the later
controversialists, who narrowed the field of debate to literature
and art.

Tassoni's Thoughts were translated into French, and the book was
probably known to Boisrobert, a dramatist who is chiefly remembered
for the part he took in founding the Academie francaise. He
delivered a discourse before that body immediately after its
institution (February 26, 1635), in which he made a violent and
apparently scurrilous attack on Homer. This discourse kindled the
controversy in France, and even struck a characteristic note. Homer-
-already severely handled by Tassoni--was to be the special target
for the arrows of the Moderns, who felt that, if they could succeed
in discrediting him, their cause would be won.

Thus the gauntlet was flung--and it is important to note this--
before the appearance of the Discourse of Method (1637); but the
influence of Descartes made itself felt throughout the controversy,
and the most prominent moderns were men who had assimilated
Cartesian ideas. This seems to be true even of Desmarets de Saint
Sorlin, who, a good many years after the discourse of Boisrobert,
opened the campaign. Saint Sorlin had become a fanatical Christian;
that was one reason for hating the ancients. [Footnote: For the
views of Saint Sorlin see the Preface to his Clovis and his Traite
pour juger des poefes grecs, latins, et francais, chap. iv. (1670).
Cp. Rigault, Hist. de la querelle, p. 106. The polemic of Saint
Sorlin extended over about five years (1669-73).] He was also, like
Boisrobert, a bad poet; that was another. His thesis was that the
history of Christianity offered subjects far more inspiring to a
poet than those which had been treated by Homer and Sophocles, and
that Christian poetry must bear off the palm from pagan. His own
Clovis and Mary Magdalene or the Triumph of Grace were the
demonstration of Homer's defeat. Few have ever heard of these
productions; how many have read them? Curiously, about the same time
an epic was being composed in England which might have given to the
foolish contentions of Saint Sorlin some illusory plausibility.

But the literary dispute does not concern us here. What does concern
us is that Saint Sorlin was aware of the wider aspects of the
question, though he was not seriously interested in them. Antiquity,
he says, was not so happy or so learned or so rich or so stately as
the modern age, which is really the mature old age, and as it were
the autumn of the world, possessing the fruits and the spoils of all
the past centuries, with the power to judge of the inventions,
experiences, and errors of predecessors, and to profit by all that.
The ancient world was a spring which had only a few flowers. Nature
indeed, in all ages, produces perfect works but it is not so with
the creations of man, which require correction; and the men who live
latest must excel in happiness and knowledge. Here we have both the
assertion of the permanence of the forces of nature and the idea,
already expressed by Bacon and others, that the modern age has
advantages over antiquity comparable to those of old age over


How seriously the question between the Moderns and the Ancients--on
whose behalf Boileau had come forward and crossed swords with Saint
Sorlin--was taken is shown by the fact that Saint Sorlin, before his
death, solemnly bequeathed the championship of the Moderns to a
younger man, Charles Perrault. We shall see how he fulfilled the
trust. It is illustrated too by a book which appeared in the
seventies, Les Entretiens d'Ariste et Eugene, by Bouhours, a mundane
and popular Jesuit Father. In one of these dialogues the question is
raised, but with a curious caution and evasiveness, which suggests
that the author was afraid to commit himself; he did not wish to
make enemies. [Footnote: Rigault notes that he makes one
contribution to the subject, the idea that the torch of civilisation
has passed from country to country, in different ages, e.g. from
Greece to Rome, and recently from Italy to France. In the last
century the Italians were first in doctrine and politesse. The
present century is for France what the last was for Italy: "We have
all the esprit and all the science, all other countries are
barbarous in comparison" (p. 239, ed. 1782, Amsterdam). But, as we
shall see, he had been anticipated by Hakewill, whose work was
unknown to Rigault.]

The general atmosphere in France, in the reign of Louis XIV., was
propitious to the cause of the Moderns. Men felt that it was a great
age, comparable to the age of Augustus, and few would have preferred
to have lived at any other time. Their literary artists, Corneille,
and then Racine and Moliere, appealed so strongly to their taste
that they could not assign to them any rank but the first. They were
impatient of the claims to unattainable excellence advanced for the
Greeks and Romans. "The ancients," said Moliere, "are the ancients,
we are the people of to-day." This might be the motto of Descartes,
and it probably expressed a very general feeling.

It was in 1687 that Charles Perrault--who is better remembered for
his collection of fairy-tales than for the leading role which he
played in this controversy--published his poem on "The Age of Louis
the Great." The enlightenment of the present age surpasses that of
antiquity,--this is the theme.

La docte Antiquite dans toute sa duree
A l'egal de nos jours ne fut point eclairee.

Perrault adopts a more polite attitude to "la belle antiquite" than
Saint Sorlin, but his criticism is more insidious. Greek and Roman
men of genius, he suggests, were all very well in their own times,
and might be considered divine by our ancestors. But nowadays Plato
is rather tiresome; and the "inimitable Homer" would have written a
much better epic if he had lived in the reign of Louis the Great.
The important passage, however, in the poem is that in which the
permanent power of nature to produce men of equal talent in every
age is affirmed.

A former les esprits comme a former les corps
La Nature en tout temps fait les mesmes efforts;
Son etre est immuable, et cette force aisee
Dont elle produit tout ne s'est point epuisee;
De cette mesme main les forces infinies
Produisent en tout temps de semblables genies.

The "Age of Louis the Great" was a brief declaration of faith.
Perrault followed it up by a comprehensive work, his Comparison of
the Ancients and the Moderns (Parallele des Anciens et des
Modernes), which appeared in four parts during the following years
(1688-1696). Art, eloquence, poetry the sciences, and their
practical applications are all discussed at length; and the
discussion is thrown into the form of conversations between an
enthusiastic champion of the modern age, who conducts the debate,
and a devotee of antiquity, who finds it difficult not to admit the
arguments of his opponent, yet obstinately persists in his own

Perrault bases his thesis on those general considerations which we
have met incidentally in earlier writers, and which were now almost
commonplaces among those who paid any attention to the matter.
Knowledge advances with time and experience; perfection is not
necessarily associated with antiquity; the latest comers have
inherited from their predecessors and added new acquisitions of
their own. But Perrault has thought out the subject methodically,
and he draws conclusions which have only to be extended to amount to
a definite theory of the progress of knowledge.

A particular difficulty had done much to hinder a general admission
of progressive improvement in the past. The proposition that the
posterior is better and the late comers have the advantage seemed to
be incompatible with an obvious historical fact. We are superior to
the men of the dark ages in knowledge and arts. Granted. But will
you say that the men of the tenth century were superior to the
Greeks and Romans? To this question--on which Tassoni had already
touched--Perrault replies: Certainly not. There are breaches of
continuity. The sciences and arts are like rivers, which flow for
part of their course underground, and then, finding an opening,
spring forth as abundant as when they plunged beneath the earth.
Long wars, for instance, may force peoples to neglect studies and
throw all their vigour into the more urgent needs of self-
preservation; a period of ignorance may ensue but with peace and
felicity knowledge and inventions will begin again and make further
advances. [Footnote: The passages in Perrault's Parallele specially
referred to in the text will be found in vol. i. pp. 35-7, 60-61,
67, 231-3.]

It is to be observed that he does not, claim any superiority in
talents or brain power for the moderns. On the contrary, he takes
his stand on the principle which he had asserted in the "Age of
Louis the Great," that nature is immutable. She still produces as
great men as ever, but she does not produce greater. The lions of
the deserts of Africa in our days do not differ in fierceness from
those the days of Alexander the Great, and the best men of all times
are equal in vigour. It is their work and productions that are
unequal, and, given equally favourable conditions, the latest must
be the best. For science and the arts depend upon the accumulation
of knowledge, and knowledge necessarily increases as time goes on.

But could this argument be applied to poetry and literary art, the
field of battle in which the belligerents, including Perrault
himself, were most deeply interested? It might prove that the modern
age was capable of producing poets and men of letter no less
excellent than the ancient masters, but did it prove that their
works must be superior? The objection did not escape Perrault, and
he answers it ingeniously. It is the function of poetry and
eloquence to please the human heart, and in order to please it we
must know it. Is it easier to penetrate the secrets of the human
heart than the secrets of nature, or will it take less time? We are
always making new discoveries about its passions and desires. To
take only the tragedies of Corneille you will find there finer and
more delicate reflections on ambition, vengeance, and jealousy than
in all the books of antiquity. At the close of his Parallel,
however, Perrault, while he declares the general superiority of the
moderns, makes a reservation in regard to poetry and eloquence "for
the sake of peace."

The discussion of Perrault falls far short of embodying a full idea
of Progress. Not only is he exclusively concerned with progress in
knowledge--though he implies, indeed, without developing, the
doctrine that happiness depends on knowledge--but he has no eyes for
the future, and no interest in it. He is so impressed with the
advance of knowledge in the recent past that he is almost incapable
of imagining further progression. "Read the journals of France and
England," he says, "and glance at the publications of the Academies
of these great kingdoms, and you will be convinced that within the
last twenty or thirty years more discoveries have been made in
natural science than throughout the period of learned antiquity. I
own that I consider myself fortunate to know the happiness we enjoy;
it is a great pleasure to survey all the past ages in which I can
see the birth and the progress of all things, but nothing which has
not received a new increase and lustre in our own times. Our age
has, in some sort, arrived at the summit of perfection. And since
for some years the rate of the progress is much slower and appears
almost insensible--as the days seem to cease lengthening when the
solstice is near--it is pleasant to think that probably there are
not many things for which we need envy future generations."

Indifference to the future, or even a certain scepticism about it,
is the note of this passage, and accords with the view that the
world has reached its old age. The idea of the progress of
knowledge, which Perrault expounds, is still incomplete.


Independently of this development in France, the doctrine of
degeneration had been attacked, and the comparison of the ancients
with the moderns incidentally raised, in England.

A divine named George Hakewill published in 1627 a folio of six
hundred pages to confute "the common error touching Nature's
perpetual and universal decay." [Footnote: An Apologie or
Declaration of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of
the World, consisting in an Examination and Censure of the common
Errour, etc. (1627, 1630, 1635).] He and his pedantic book, which
breathes the atmosphere of the sixteenth century, are completely
forgotten; and though it ran to three editions, it can hardly have
attracted the attention of many except theologians. The writer's
object is to prove that the power and providence of God in the
government of the world are not consistent with the current view
that the physical universe, the heavens and the elements, are
undergoing a process of decay, and that man is degenerating
physically, mentally, and morally. His arguments in general are
futile as well as tedious. But he has profited by reading Bodin and
Bacon, whose ideas, it would appear, were already agitating
theological minds.

A comparison between the ancients and the moderns arises in a
general refutation of the doctrine of decay, as naturally as the
question of the stability of the powers of nature arises in a
comparison between the ancients and moderns. Hakewill protests
against excessive admiration of antiquity, just because it
encourages the opinion of the world's decay. He gives his argument a
much wider scope than the French controversialists. For him the
field of debate includes not only science, arts, and literature, but
physical qualities and morals. He seeks to show that mentally and
physically there has been no decay, and that the morals of modern
Christendom are immensely superior to those of pagan times. There
has been social progress, due to Christianity; and there has been an
advance in arts and knowledge.

Multa dies uariusque labor mutabilis aeui
Rettulit in melius.

Hakewill, like Tassoni, surveys all the arts and sciences, and
concludes that the moderns are equal to the ancients in poetry, and
in almost all other things excel them. [Footnote: Among modern poets
equal to the ancients, Hakewill signalises Sir Philip Sidney,
Spenser, Marot, Ronsard, Ariosto, Tasso (Book iii. chap. 8, Section

One of the arguments which he urges against the theory of
degeneration is pragmatic--its paralysing effect on human energy.
"The opinion of the world's universal decay quails the hopes and
blunts the edge of men's endeavours." And the effort to improve the
world, he implies, is a duty we owe to posterity.

"Let not then the vain shadows of the world's fatal decay keep us
either from looking backward to the imitation of our noble
predecessors or forward in providing for posterity, but as our
predecessors worthily provided, for us, so let our posterity bless
us in providing for them, it being still as uncertain to us what
generations are still to ensue, as it was to our predecessors in
their ages."

We note the suggestion that history may be conceived as a sequence
of improvements in civilisation, but we note also that Hakewill here
is faced by the obstacle which Christian theology offered to the
logical expansion of the idea. It is uncertain what generations are
still to ensue. Roger Bacon stood before the same dead wall.
Hakewill thinks that he is living in the last age of the world; but
how long it shall last is a question which cannot be resolved, "it
being one of those secrets which the Almighty hath locked up in the
cabinet of His own counsel." Yet he consoles himself and his readers
with a consideration which suggests that the end is not yet very
near." [Footnote: See Book i. chap. 2, Section 4, p. 24.] It is
agreed upon all sides by Divines that at least two signs forerunning
the world's end remain unaccomplished-the subversion of Rome and the
conversion of the Jews. And when they shall be accomplished God only
knows, as yet in man's judgment there being little appearance of the
one or the other."

It was well to be assured that nature is not decaying or man
degenerating. But was the doctrine that the end of the world does
not "depend upon the law of nature," and that the growth of human
civilisation may be cut off at any moment by a fiat of the Deity,
less calculated to "quail the hopes and blunt the edge of men's
endeavours?" Hakewill asserted with confidence that the universe
will be suddenly wrecked by fire. Una dies dabit exitio. Was the
prospect of an arrest which might come the day after to-morrow
likely to induce men to exert themselves to make provision for

The significance of Hakewill lies in the fact that he made the
current theory of degeneration, which stood in the way of all
possible theories of progress, the object of a special inquiry. And
his book illustrates the close connection between that theory and
the dispute over the Ancients and Moderns. It cannot be said that he
has added anything valuable to what may be found in Bodin and Bacon
on the development of civilisation. The general synthesis of history
which he attempts is equivalent to theirs. He describes the history
of knowledge and arts, and all things besides, as exhibiting "a kind
of circular progress," by which he means that they have a birth,
growth, nourishing, failing and fading, and then within a while
after a resurrection and reflourishing. [Footnote: Book iii. chap.
6, Section i, p. 259.] In this method of progress the lamp of
learning passed from one people to another. It passed from the
Orientals (Chaldeans and Egyptians) to the Greeks; when it was
nearly extinguished in Greece it began to shine afresh among the
Romans; and having been put out by the barbarians for the space of a
thousand years it was relit by Petrarch and his contemporaries. In
stating this view of "circular progress," Hakewill comes perilously
near to the doctrine of Ricorsi or Returns which had been severely
denounced by Bacon.

In one point indeed Hakewill goes far beyond Bodin. It was
suggested, as we saw, by the French thinker that in some respects
the modern age is superior in conduct and morals to antiquity, but
he said little on the matter. Hakewill develops the suggestion at
great length into a severe and partial impeachment of ancient
manners and morals. Unjust and unconvincing though his arguments
are, and inspired by theological motives, his thesis nevertheless
deserves to be noted as an assertion of the progress of man in
social morality. Bacon, and the thinkers of the seventeenth century
generally, confined their views of progress in the past to the
intellectual field. Hakewill, though he overshot the mark and said
nothing actually worth remembering, nevertheless anticipated the
larger problem of social progress which was to come to the front in
the eighteenth century.


During the forty years that followed the appearance of Hakewill's
book much had happened in the world of ideas, and when we take up
Glanvill's Plus ultra, or the Progress and Advancement of Knowledge
since the days of Aristotle, [Footnote: The title is evidently
suggested by a passage in Bacon quoted above, p. 55.] we breathe a
different atmosphere. It was published in 1668, and its purpose was
to defend the recently founded Royal Society which was attacked on
the ground that it was inimical to the interests of religion and
sound learning. For the Aristotelian tradition was still strongly
entrenched in the English Church and Universities, notwithstanding
the influence of Bacon; and the Royal Society, which realised "the
romantic model" of Bacon's society of experimenters, repudiated the
scholastic principles and methods associated with Aristotle's name.

Glanvill was one of those latitudinarian clergymen, so common in the
Anglican Church in the seventeenth century, who were convinced that
religious faith must accord with reason, and were unwilling to abate
in its favour any of reason's claims. He was under the influence of
Bacon, Descartes, and the Cambridge Platonists, and no one was more
enthusiastic than he in following the new scientific discoveries of
his time. Unfortunately for his reputation he had a weak side.
Enlightened though he was, he was a firm believer in witchcraft, and
he is chiefly remembered not as an admirer of Descartes and Bacon,
and a champion of the Royal Society, but as the author of Saducismus
Triumphatus, a monument of superstition, which probably contributed
to check the gradual growth of disbelief in witches and apparitions.

His Plus ultra is a review of modern improvements of useful
knowledge. It is confined to mathematics and science, in accordance
with its purpose of justifying the Royal Society; and the
discoveries of the past sixty years enable the author to present a
far more imposing picture of modern scientific progress than was
possible for Bodin or Bacon. [Footnote: Bacon indeed could have made
out a more impressive picture of the new age if he had studied
mathematics and taken the pains to master the evidence which was
revolutionising astronomy. Glanvill had the advantage of
comprehending the importance of mathematics for the advance of
physical science.] He had absorbed Bacon's doctrine of utility. His
spirit is displayed in the remark that more gratitude is due to the
unknown inventor of the mariners' compass

"than to a thousand Alexanders and Caesars, or to ten times the
number of Aristotles. And he really did more for the increase of
knowledge and the advantage of the world by this one experiment than
the numerous subtile disputers that have lived ever since the
erection of the school of talking."

Glanvill, however, in his complacency with what has already been
accomplished, is not misled into over-estimating its importance. He
knows that it is indeed little compared with the ideal of attainable
knowledge. The human design, to which it is the function of the
Royal Society to contribute, is laid as low, he says, as the
profoundest depths of nature, and reaches as high as the uppermost
storey of the universe, extends to all the varieties of the great
world, and aims at the benefit of universal mankind. Such a work can
only proceed slowly, by insensible degrees. It is an undertaking
wherein all the generations of men are concerned, and our own age
can hope to do little more than to remove useless rubbish, lay in
materials, and put things in order for the building. "We must seek
and gather, observe and examine, and lay up in bank for the ages
that come after."

These lines on "the vastness of the work" suggest to the reader that
a vast future will be needed for its accomplishment. Glanvill does
not dwell on this, but he implies it. He is evidently unembarrassed
by the theological considerations which weighed so heavily on
Hakewill. He does not trouble himself with the question whether
Anti-Christ has still to appear. The difference in general outlook
between these two clergymen is an indication how the world had
travelled in the course of forty years.

Another point in Glanvill's little book deserves attention. He takes
into his prospect the inhabitants of the Transatlantic world; they,
too, are to share in the benefits which shall result from the
subjugation of nature.

"By the gaining that mighty continent and the numerous fruitful
isles beyond the Atlantic, we have obtained a larger field of
nature, and have thereby an advantage for more phenomena, and more
helps both for knowledge and for life, which 'tis very like that
future ages will make better use of to such purposes than those
hitherto have done; and that science also may at last travel into
those parts and enrich Peru with a more precious treasure than that
of its golden mines, is not improbable."

Sprat, the Bishop of Rochester, in his interesting History of the
Royal Society, so sensible and liberal--published shortly before
Glanvill's book,--also contemplates the extension of science over
the world. Speaking of the prospect of future discoveries, he thinks
it will partly depend on the enlargement of the field of western
civilisation "if this mechanic genius which now prevails in these
parts of Christendom shall happen to spread wide amongst ourselves
and other civil nations, or if by some good fate it shall pass
farther on to other countries that were yet never fully civilised."

This then being imagin'd, that there may some lucky tide of civility
flow into those lands which are yet salvage, then will a double
improvement thence arise both in respect of ourselves and them. For
even the present skilful parts of mankind will be thereby made more
skilful, and the other will not only increase those arts which we
shall bestow upon them, but will also venture on new searches

He expects much from the new converts, on the ground that nations
which have been taught have proved more capable than their teachers,
appealing to the case of the Greeks who outdid their eastern
masters, and to that of the peoples of modern Europe who received
their light from the Romans but have "well nigh doubled the ancient
stock of trades delivered to their keeping."


The establishment of the Royal Society in 1660 and the Academy of
Sciences in 1666 made physical science fashionable in London and
Paris. Macaulay, in his characteristic way, describes how "dreams of
perfect forms of government made way for dreams of wings with which
men were to fly from the Tower to the Abbey, and of double-keeled
ships which were never to founder in the fiercest storm. All classes
were hurried along by the prevailing sentiment. Cavalier and
Roundhead, Churchman and Puritan were for once allied. Divines,
jurists, statesmen, nobles, princes, swelled the triumph of the
Baconian philosophy." The seeds sown by Bacon had at last begun to
ripen, and full credit was given to him by those who founded and
acclaimed the Royal Society. The ode which Cowley addressed to that
institution might have been entitled an ode in honour of Bacon, or
still better--for the poet seized the essential point of Bacon's
labours--a hymn on the liberation of the human mind from the yoke of

Bacon has broke that scar-crow Deity.

Dryden himself, in the Annus Mirabilis, had turned aside from his
subject, the defeat of the Dutch and England's mastery of the seas,
to pay a compliment to the Society, and to prophesy man's mastery of
the universe.

Instructed ships shall sail to rich commerce,
By which remotest regions are allied;
Which makes one city of the universe,
Where some may gain and all may be supplied.

Then we upon our globe's last verge shall go,
And view the ocean leaning on the sky,
From thence our rolling neighbours we shall know,
And on the lunar world securely pry.

[Footnote: It may be noted that John Wilkins (Bishop of Chester)
published in 1638 a little book entitled Discovery of a New World,
arguing that the moon is inhabited. A further edition appeared in
1684. He attempted to compose a universal language (Sprat, Hist. of
Royal Society, p. 251). His Mercury or the Secret and Swift
Messenger (1641) contains proposals for a universal script (chap.
13). There is also an ingenious suggestion for the communication of
messages by sound, which might be described as an anticipation of
the Morse code. Wilkins and another divine, Seth Ward, the Bishop of
Salisbury, belonged to the group of men who founded the Royal

Men did not look far into the future; they did not dream of what the
world might be a thousand or ten thousand years hence. They seem to
have expected quick results. Even Sprat thinks that "the absolute
perfection of the true philosophy" is not far off, seeing that "this
first great and necessary preparation for its coming"--the
institution of scientific co-operation--has been accomplished.
Superficial and transient though the popular enthusiasm was, it was
a sign that an age of intellectual optimism had begun, in which the
science of nature would play a leading role.




Nine months before the first part of Perrault's work appeared a
younger and more brilliant man had formulated, in a short tract, the
essential points of the doctrine of the progress of knowledge. It
was Fontenelle.

Fontenelle was an anima naturaliter moderna. Trained in the
principles of Descartes, he was one of those who, though like
Descartes himself, too critical to swear by a master, appreciated
unreservedly the value of the Cartesian method. Sometimes, he says,
a great man gives the tone to his age; and this is true of
Descartes, who can claim the glory of having established a new art
of reasoning. He sees the effects in literature. The best books on
moral and political subjects are distinguished by an arrangement and
precision which he traces to the esprit geometrique characteristic
of Descartes. [Footnote: Sur l'utilite des mathematiques el de la
physique (Oeuvres, iii. p. 6, ed. 1729).] Fontenelle himself had
this "geometrical mind," which we see at its best in Descartes and
Hobbes and Spinoza.

He had indeed a considerable aptitude for letters. He wrote poor
verses, and could not distinguish good poetry from bad. That perhaps
was the defect of l'esprit geometrique. But he wrote lucid prose.
There was an ironical side to his temper, and he had an ingenious
paradoxical wit, which he indulged, with no little felicity, in his
early work, Dialogues of the Dead. These conversations, though they
show no dramatic power and are simply a vehicle for the author's
satirical criticisms on life, are written with a light touch, and
are full of surprises and unexpected turns. The very choice of the
interlocutors shows a curious fancy, which we do not associate with
the geometrical intellect. Descartes is confronted with the Third
False Demetrius, and we wonder what the gourmet Apicius will find to
say to Galileo.


In the Dialogues of the Dead, which appeared in 1683, the Ancient
and Modern controversy is touched on more than once, and it is the
subject of the conversation between Socrates and Montaigne. Socrates
ironically professes to expect that the age of Montaigne will show a
vast improvement on his own; that men will have profited by the
experience of many centuries; and that the old age of the world will
be wiser and better regulated than its youth. Montaigne assures him
that it is not so, and that the vigorous types of antiquity, like
Pericles, Aristides, and Socrates himself, are no longer to be
found. To this assertion Socrates opposes the doctrine of the
permanence of the forces of Nature. Nature has not degenerated in
her other works; why should she cease to produce reasonable men?

He goes on to observe that antiquity is enlarged and exalted by
distance: "In our own day we esteemed our ancestors more than they
deserved, and now our posterity esteems us more than we deserve.
There is really no difference between our ancestors, ourselves, and
our posterity. C'est toujours la meme chose." But, objects
Montaigne, I should have thought that things were always changing;
that different ages had their different characters. Are there not
ages of learning and ages of ignorance, rude ages and polite? True,
replies Socrates, but these are only externalities. The heart of man
does not change with the fashions of his life. The order of Nature
remains constant (l'ordre general de la Nature a l'air bien

This conclusion harmonises with the general spirit of the Dialogues.
The permanence of the forces of Nature is asserted, but for the
purpose of dismissing the whole controversy as rather futile.
Elsewhere modern discoveries, like the circulation of the blood and
the motions of the earth, are criticised as useless; adding nothing
to the happiness and pleasures of mankind. Men acquired, at an early
period, a certain amount of useful knowledge, to which they have
added nothing; since then they have been slowly discovering things
that are unnecessary. Nature has not been so unjust as to allow one
age to enjoy more pleasures than another. And what is the value of
civilisation? It moulds our words, and embarrasses our actions; it
does not affect our feelings. [Footnote: See the dialogues of Harvey
with Erasistratus (a Greek physician of the third century B.C.);
Galileo with Apicius; Montezuma with Fernando Cortez.]

One might hardly have expected the author of these Dialogues to come
forward a few years later as a champion of the Moderns, even though,
in the dedicatory epistle to Lucian, he compared France to Greece.
But he was seriously interested in the debated question, as an
intellectual problem, and in January 1688 he published his
Digression on the Ancients and Moderns, a short pamphlet, but
weightier and more suggestive than the large work of his friend
Perrault, which began to appear nine months later.


The question of pre-eminence between the Ancients and Moderns is
reducible to another. Were trees in ancient times greater than to-
day? If they were, then Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes cannot be
equalled in modern times; if they were not, they can.

Fontenelle states the problem in this succinct way at the beginning
of the Digression. The permanence of the forces of Nature had been
asserted by Saint Sorlin and Perrault; they had offered no proof,
and had used the principle rather incidentally and by way of
illustration. But the whole inquiry hinged on it. If it can be shown
that man has not degenerated, the cause of the Moderns is
practically won. The issue of the controversy must be decided not by
rhetoric but by physics. And Fontenelle offers what he regards as a
formal Cartesian proof of the permanence of natural forces.

If the Ancients had better intellects than ours, the brains of that
age must have been better arranged, formed of firmer or more
delicate fibres, fuller of "animal spirits." But if such a
difference existed, Nature must have been more vigorous; and in that
case the trees must have profited by that superior vigour and have
been larger and finer. The truth is that Nature has in her hands a
certain paste which is always the same, which she is ever turning
over and over again in a thousand ways, and of which she forms men,
animals, and plants. She has not formed Homer, Demosthenes, and
Plato of a finer or better kneaded clay than our poets, orators, and
philosophers. Do not object that minds are not material. They are
connected by a material bond with the brain, and it is the quality
of this material bond that determines intellectual differences.

But although natural processes do not change from age to age, they
differ in their effects in different climates. "It is certain that
as a result of the reciprocal dependence which exists between all
parts of the material world, differences of climate, which so
clearly affect the life of plants, must also produce some effect on
human brains." May it not be said then that, in consequence of
climatic conditions, ancient Greece and Rome produced men of mental
qualities different from those which could be produced in France?
Oranges grow easily in Italy; it is more difficult to cultivate them
in France. Fontenelle replies that art and cultivation exert a much
greater influence on human brains than on the soil; ideas can be
transported more easily from one country to another than plants; and
as a consequence of commerce and mutual influence, peoples do not
retain the original mental peculiarities due to climate. This may
not be true of the extreme climates in the torrid and glacial zones,
but in the temperate zone we may discount entirely climatic
influence. The climates of Greece and Italy and that of France are
too similar to cause any sensible difference between the Greeks or
Latins and the French.

Saint Sorlin and Perrault had argued directly from the permanence of
vigour in lions or trees to the permanence of vigour in man. If
trees are the same as ever, brains must also be the same. But what
about the minor premiss? Who knows that trees are precisely the
same? It is an indemonstrable assumption that oaks and beeches in
the days of Socrates and Cicero were not slightly better trees than
the oaks and beeches of to-day. Fontenelle saw the weakness of this
reasoning. He saw that it was necessary to prove that the trees, no
less than human brains, have not degenerated. But his a priori proof
is simply a statement of the Cartesian principle of the stability of
natural processes, which he put in a thoroughly unscientific form.
The stability of the laws of nature is a necessary hypothesis,
without which science would be impossible. But here it was put to an
illegitimate use. For it means that, given precisely the same
conditions, the same physical phenomena will occur. Fontenelle
therefore was bound to show that conditions had not altered in such
a way as to cause changes in the quality of nature's organic
productions. He did not do this. He did not take into consideration,
for instance, that climatic conditions may vary from age to age as
well as from country to country.


Having established the natural equality of the Ancients and Moderns,
Fontenelle inferred that whatever differences exist are due to
external conditions--(1) time; (2) political institutions and the
estate of affairs in general.

The ancients were prior in time to us, therefore they were the
authors of the first inventions. For that, they cannot be regarded
as our superiors. If we had been in their place we should have been
the inventors, like them; if they were in ours, they would add to
those inventions, like us. There is no great mystery in that. We
must impute equal merit to the early thinkers who showed the way and
to the later thinkers who pursued it. If the ancient attempts to
explain the universe have been recently replaced by the discovery of
a simple system (the Cartesian), we must consider that the truth
could only be reached by the elimination of false routes, and in
this way the numbers of the Pythagoreans, the ideas of Plato, the
qualities of Aristotle, all served indirectly to advance knowledge.
"We are under an obligation to the ancients for having exhausted
almost all the false theories that could be formed." Enlightened
both by their true views and by their errors, it is not surprising
that we should surpass them.

But all this applies only to scientific studies, like mathematics,
physics, and medicine, which depend partly on correct reasoning and
partly on experience. Methods of reasoning improve slowly, and the
most important advance which has been made in the present age is the
method inaugurated by Descartes. Before him reasoning was loose; he
introduced a more rigid and precise standard, and its influence is
not only manifest in our best works on physics and philosophy, but
is even discernible in books on ethics and religion.

We must expect posterity to excel us as we excel the Ancients,
through improvement of method, which is a science in itself--the
most difficult and least studied of all--and through increase of
experience. Evidently the process is endless (il est evident que
tout cela n'a point de fin), and the latest men of science must be
the most competent.

But this does not apply to poetry or eloquence, round which the
controversy has most violently raged. For poetry and eloquence do
not depend on correct reasoning. They depend principally on vivacity
of imagination, and "vivacity of imagination does not require a long
course of experiments, or a great multitude of rules, to attain all
the perfection of which it is capable." Such perfection might be
attained in a few centuries. If the ancients did achieve perfection
in imaginative literature, it follows that they cannot be surpassed;
but we have no right to say, as their admirers are fond of
pretending, that they cannot be equalled.


Besides the mere nature of time, we have to take into account
external circumstances in considering this question.

If the forces of nature are permanent, how are we to explain the
fact that in the barbarous centuries after the decline of Rome--the
term Middle Ages has not yet come into currency--ignorance was so
dense and deep? This breach of continuity is one of the plausible
arguments of the advocates of the Ancients. Those ages, they say,
were ignorant and barbarous because the Greek and Latin writers had
ceased to be read; as soon as the study of the classical models
revived there was a renaissance of reason and good taste. That is
true, but it proves nothing. Nature never forgot how to mould the
head of Cicero or Livy. She produces in every age men who might be
great men; but the age does not always allow them to exert their
talents. Inundations of barbarians, universal wars, governments
which discourage or do not favour science and art, prejudices which
assume all variety of shapes--like the Chinese prejudice against
dissecting corpses--may impose long periods of ignorance or bad

But observe that, though the return to the study of the ancients
revived, as at one stroke, the aesthetic ideals which they had
created and the learning which they had accumulated, yet even if
their works had not been preserved we should, though it would have
cost us many long years of labour, have discovered for ourselves
"ideas of the true and the beautiful." Where should we have found
them? Where the ancients themselves found them, after much groping.


The comparison of the life of collective humanity to the life of a
single man, which had been drawn by Bacon and Pascal, Saint Sorlin
and Perrault, contains or illustrates an important truth which bears
on the whole question. Fontenelle puts it thus. An educated mind is,
as it were, composed of all the minds of preceding ages; we might
say that a single mind was being educated throughout all history.
Thus this secular man, who has lived since the beginning of the
world, has had his infancy in which he was absorbed by the most
urgent needs of life; his youth in which he succeeded pretty well in
things of imagination like poetry and eloquence, and even began to
reason, but with more courage than solidity. He is now in the age of
manhood, is more enlightened, and reasons better; but he would have
advanced further if the passion for war had not distracted him and
given him a distaste for the sciences to which he has at last

Figures, if they are pressed, are dangerous; they suggest
unwarrantable conclusions. It may be illuminative to liken the
development of humanity to the growth of an individual; but to infer
that the human race is now in its old age, merely on the strength of
the comparison, is obviously unjustifiable. That is what Bacon and
the others had done. The fallacy was pointed out by Fontenelle.

From his point of view, an "old age" of humanity, which if it meant
anything meant decay as well as the wisdom of experience, was
contrary to the principle of the permanence of natural forces. Man,
he asserts, will have no old age. He will be always equally capable,
of achieving the successes of his youth; and he will become more and
more expert in the things which become the age of virility. Or "to
drop metaphor, men will never degenerate." In ages to come we may be
regarded--say in America--with the same excess of admiration with
which we regard the ancients. We might push the prediction further.
In still later ages the interval of time which divides us from the
Greeks and Romans will appear so relatively small to posterity that
they will classify us and the ancients as virtually contemporary;
just in the same way as we group together the Greeks and Romans,
though the Romans in their own day were moderns in relation to the
Greeks. In that remote period men will be able to judge without
prejudice the comparative merits of Sophocles and Corneille.

Unreasonable admiration for the ancients is one of the chief
obstacles to progress (le progres des choses). Philosophy not only
did not advance, but even fell into an abyss of unintelligible
ideas, because, through devotion to the authority of Aristotle, men
sought truth in his enigmatic writings instead of seeking it in
nature. If the authority of Descartes were ever to have the same
fortune, the results would be no less disastrous.


This memorable brochure exhibits, without pedantry, perspicuous
arrangement and the "geometrical" precision on which Fontenelle
remarked as one of the notes of the new epoch introduced by
Descartes. It displays too the author's open-mindedness, and his
readiness to follow where the argument leads. He is able already to
look beyond Cartesianism; he knows that it cannot be final. No man
of his time was more open-minded and free from prejudice than
Fontenelle. This quality of mind helped him to turn his eyes to the
future. Perrault and his predecessors were absorbed in the interest
of the present and the past. Descartes was too much engaged in his
own original discoveries to do more than throw a passing glance at

Now the prospect of the future was one of the two elements which
were still needed to fashion the theory of the progress of
knowledge. All the conditions for such a theory were present. Bodin
and Bacon, Descartes and the champions of the Moderns--the reaction
against the Renaissance, and the startling discoveries of science--
had prepared the way; progress was established for the past and
present. But the theory of the progress of knowledge includes and
acquires its value by including the indefinite future. This step was
taken by Fontenelle. The idea had been almost excluded by Bacon's
misleading metaphor of old age, which Fontenelle expressly rejects.
Man will have no old age; his intellect will never degenerate; and
"the sound views of intellectual men in successive generations will
continually add up."

But progress must not only be conceived as extending indefinitely
into the future; it must also be conceived as necessary and certain.
This is the second essential feature of the theory. The theory would
have little value or significance, if the prospect of progress in
the future depended on chance or the unpredictable discretion of an
external will. Fontenelle asserts implicitly the certainty of
progress when he declares that the discoveries and improvements of
the modern age would have been made by the ancients if they
exchanged places with the moderns; for this amounts to saying that
science will progress and knowledge increase independently of
particular individuals. If Descartes had not been born, some one
else would have done his work; and there could have been no
Descartes before the seventeenth century. For, as he says in a later
work, [Footnote: Preface des elemens de la geometrie de l'infini
(OEuvres, x. p. 40, ed. 1790).] "there is an order which regulates
our progress. Every science develops after a certain number of
preceding sciences have developed, and only then; it has to await
its turn to burst its shell."

Fontenelle, then, was the first to formulate the idea of the
progress, of knowledge, as a complete doctrine. At the moment the
import and far-reaching effects of the idea were not realised,
either by himself or by others, and his pamphlet, which appeared in
the company of a perverse theory of pastoral poetry, was acclaimed
merely as an able defence of the Moderns.


If the theory of the indefinite progress of knowledge is true, it is
one of those truths which were originally established by false
reasoning. It was established on a principle which excluded
degeneration, but equally excluded evolution; and the whole
conception of nature which Fontenelle had learned from Descartes is
long since dead and buried.

But it is more important to observe that this principle, which
seemed to secure the indefinite progress of knowledge, disabled
Fontenelle from suggesting a theory of the progress of society. The
invariability of nature, as he conceived it, was true of the
emotions and the will, as well as of the intellect. It implied that
man himself would be psychically always the same--unalterable,
incurable. L'ordre general de la Nature a Fair bien constant. His
opinion of the human race was expressed in the Dialogues of the
Dead, [Footnote: It may be seen too in the Plurality of Worlds.] and
it never seems to have varied. The world consists of a multitude of
fools, and a mere handful of reasonable men. Men's passions will
always be the same and will produce wars in the future as in the
past. Civilisation makes no difference; it is little more than a

Even if theory had not stood in his way, Fontenelle was the last man
who was likely to dream dreams of social improvement. He was
temperamentally an Epicurean, of the same refined stamp as Epicurus
himself, and he enjoyed throughout his long life--he lived to the
age of a hundred--the tranquillity which was the true Epicurean
ideal. He was never troubled by domestic cares, and his own modest
ambition was satisfied when, at the age of forty, he was appointed
permanent Secretary of the Academy of Sciences. He was not the man
to let his mind dwell on the woes and evils of the world; and the
follies and perversities which cause them interested him only so far
as they provided material for his wit.

It remains, however, noteworthy that the author of the theory of the
progress of knowledge, which was afterwards to expand into a general
theory of human Progress, would not have allowed that this extension
was legitimate; though it was through this extension that
Fontenelle's idea acquired human value and interest and became a
force in the world.


Fontenelle did a good deal more than formulate the idea. He
reinforced it by showing that the prospect of a steady and rapid
increase of knowledge in the future was certified.

The postulate of the immutability of the laws of nature, which has
been the indispensable basis for the advance of modern science, is
fundamental with Descartes. But Descartes did not explicitly insist
on it, and it was Fontenelle, perhaps more than any one else, who
made it current coin. That was a service performed by the disciple;
but he seems to have been original in introducing the fruitful idea
of the sciences as confederate and intimately interconnected
[Footnote: Roger Bacon, as we saw, had a glimpse of this
principle.]; not forming a number of isolated domains, as hitherto,
but constituting a system in which the advance of one will
contribute to the advance of the others. He exposed with masterly
ability the reciprocal relations of physics and mathematics. No man
of his day had a more comprehensive view of all the sciences, though
he made no original contributions to any. His curiosity was
universal, and as Secretary of the Academy he was obliged, according
to his own high standard of his duty, to keep abreast of all that
was being done in every branch of knowledge. That was possible then;
it would be impossible now.

In the famous series of obituary discourses which he delivered on
savants who were members of the Academy, Fontenelle probably thought
that he was contributing to the realisation of this ideal of
"solidarity," for they amounted to a chronicle of scientific
progress in every department. They are free from technicalities and
extraordinarily lucid, and they appealed not only to men of science,
but to those of the educated public who possessed some scientific
curiosity. This brings us to another important role of Fontenelle--
the role of interpreter of the world of science to the world
outside. It is closely related to our subject.

For the popularisation of science, which was to be one of the
features of the nineteenth century, was in fact a condition of the
success of the idea of Progress. That idea could not insinuate
itself into the public mind and become a living force in civilised
societies until the meaning and value of science had been generally
grasped, and the results of scientific discovery had been more or
less diffused. The achievements of physical science did more than
anything else to convert the imaginations of men to the general
doctrine of Progress.

Before the later part of the seventeenth century, the remarkable
physical discoveries of recent date had hardly escaped beyond
academic circles. But an interest in these subjects began to become
the fashion in the later years of Louis XIV. Science was talked in
the salons; ladies studied mechanics and anatomy. Moliere's play,
Les Femmes savantes, which appeared in 1672, is one of the first
indications. In 1686 Fontenelle published his Conversations on the
Plurality of Worlds, in which a savant explains the new astronomy to
a lady in the park of a country house. [Footnote: The Marquise of
the Plurality of Worlds is supposed to be Madame de la Mesangere,
who lived near Rouen, Fontenelle's birthplace. He was a friend and a
frequent visitor at her chateau. See Maigron, Fontenelle, p. 42. The
English translation of 1688 was by Glanvill. A new translation was
published at Dublin as late as 1761.] It is the first book--at least
the first that has any claim to be remembered--in the literature of
popular science, and it is one of the most striking. It met with the
success which it deserved. It was reprinted again and again, and it
was almost immediately translated into English.

The significance of the Plurality of Worlds is indeed much greater
than that of a pioneer work in popularisation and a model in the art
of making technical subjects interesting. We must remember that at
this time the belief that the sun revolves round the earth still
prevailed. Only the few knew better. The cosmic revolution which is
associated with the names of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo was
slow in producing its effects. It was rejected by Bacon; and the
condemnation of Galileo by the Church made Descartes, who dreaded
nothing so much as a collision with the ecclesiastical authorities
unwilling to insist on it. [Footnote: Cp. Bouillier, Histoire de la
philosophie cartesienne, i. p. 42-3.] Milton's Raphael, in the
Eighth Book of Paradise Lost (published 1667), does not venture to
affirm the Copernican system; he explains it sympathetically, but
leaves the question open. [Footnote: Masson (Milton's Poetical
Works, vol. 2) observes that Milton's life (1608-74) "coincides with
the period of the struggle between the two systems" (p. 90).
Milton's friends, the Smectymnians, in answer to Bishop Hall's
Humble Remonstrance (1641), "had cited the Copernican doctrine as an
unquestionable instance of a supreme absurdity." Masson has some
apposite remarks on the influence of the Ptolemaic system "upon the
thinkings and imaginations of mankind everywhere on all subjects
whatsoever till about two hundred years ago."] Fontenelle's book was
an event. It disclosed to the general public a new picture of the
universe, to which men would have to accustom their imaginations.

We may perhaps best conceive all that this change meant by supposing
what a difference it would make to us if it were suddenly discovered
that the old system which Copernicus upset was true after all, and
that we had to think ourselves back into a strictly limited universe
of which the earth is the centre. The loss of its privileged
position by our own planet; its degradation, from a cosmic point of
view, to insignificance; the necessity of admitting the probability
that there may be many other inhabited worlds--all this had
consequences ranging beyond the field of astronomy. It was as if a
man who dreamed that he was living in Paris or London should awake
to discover that he was really in an obscure island in the Pacific
Ocean, and that the Pacific Ocean was immeasurably vaster than he
had imagined. The Marquise, in the Plurality of Worlds, reacts to
the startling illumination: "Voila l'univers si grand que je m'y
perds, je ne sais plus ou je suis; je ne suis plus rien.--La terre
est si effroyablement petite!"

Such a revolution in cosmic values could not fail to exert a
penetrating influence on human thought. The privileged position of
the earth had been a capital feature of the whole doctrine, as to
the universe and man's destinies, which had been taught by the
Church, and it had made that doctrine more specious than it might
otherwise have seemed. Though the Churches could reform their
teaching to meet the new situation, the fact remained that the
Christian scheme sounded less plausible when the central importance
of the human race was shown to be an illusion. Would man, stripped
of his cosmic pretensions, and finding himself lost in the
immensities of space, invent a more modest theory of his destinies
confined to his own little earth--si effroyablement petite? The
eighteenth century answered this question by the theory of Progress.


Fontenelle is one of the most representative thinkers of that
period--we have no distinguishing name for it--which lies between
the characteristic thinkers of the seventeenth century and the
characteristic thinkers of the eighteenth. It is a period of over
sixty years, beginning about 1680, for though Montesquieu and
Voltaire were writing long before 1740, the great influential works
of the "age of illumination" begin with the Esprit des lois in 1748.
The intellectual task of this intervening period was to turn to
account the ideas provided by the philosophy of Descartes, and use
them as solvents of the ideas handed down from the Middle Ages. We
might almost call it the Cartesian period for, though Descartes was
dead, it was in these years that Cartesianism performed its task and
transformed human thought.

When we speak of Cartesianism we do not mean the metaphysical system
of the master, or any of his particular views such as that of innate
ideas. We mean the general principles, which were to leave an
abiding impression on the texture of thought: the supremacy of
reason over authority, the stability of the laws of Nature, rigorous
standards of proof. Fontenelle was far from accepting all the views
of Descartes, whom he does not scruple to criticise; but he was a
true Cartesian in the sense that he was deeply imbued with these
principles, which generated, to use an expression of his own, "des
especes de rebelles, qui conspiraient contre l'ignorance et les
prejuges dominants." [Footnote: Eloge de M. Lemery.] And of all
these rebels against ruling prejudices he probably did more than any
single man to exhibit the consequences of the Cartesian ideas and
drive them home.

The Plurality of Worlds was a contribution to the task of
transforming thought and abolishing ancient error; but the History
of Oracles which appeared in the following year was more
characteristic. It was a free adaptation of an unreadable Latin
treatise by a Dutchman, which in Fontenelle's skilful hands becomes
a vehicle for applying Cartesian solvents to theological authority.
The thesis is that the Greek oracles were a sacerdotal imposture,
and not, as ecclesiastical tradition said, the work of evil spirits,
who were stricken silent at the death of Jesus Christ. The effect
was to discredit the authority of the early Fathers of the Church,
though the writer has the discretion to repudiate such an intention.
For the publication was risky; and twenty years later a Jesuit
Father wrote a treatise to confute it, and exposed the secret
poison, with consequences which might have been disastrous for
Fontenelle if he had not had powerful friends among the Jesuits
themselves. Fontenelle had none of the impetuosity of Voltaire, and
after the publication of the History of Oracles he confined his
criticism of tradition to the field of science. He was convinced
that "les choses fort etablies ne peuvent etre attaquees que par
degrez." [Footnote: Eloge de M. Lemery.]

The secret poison, of which Fontenelle prepared this remarkable dose
with a touch which reminds us of Voltaire, was being administered in
the same Cartesian period, and with similar precautions, by Bayle.
Like Fontenelle, this great sceptic, "the father of modern
incredulity" as he was called by Joseph de Maistre, stood between
the two centuries and belonged to both. Like Fontenelle, he took a
gloomy view of humanity; he had no faith in that goodness of human
nature which was to be a characteristic dogma of the age of
illumination. But he was untouched by the discoveries of science; he
took no interest in Galileo or Newton; and while the most important
work of Fontenelle was the interpretation of the positive advances
of knowledge, Bayle's was entirely subversive.

The principle of unchangeable laws in nature is intimately connected
with the growth of Deism which is a note of this period. The
function of the Deity was virtually confined to originating the
machine of nature, which, once regulated, was set beyond any further
interference on His part, though His existence might be necessary
for its conservation. A view so sharply opposed to the current
belief could not have made way as it did without a penetrating
criticism of the current theology. Such criticism was performed by
Bayle. His works were a school for rationalism for about seventy
years. He supplied to the thinkers of the eighteenth century,
English as well as French, a magazine of subversive arguments, and
he helped to emancipate morality both from theology and from

This intellectual revolutionary movement, which was propagated in
salons as well as by books, shook the doctrine of Providence which
Bossuet had so eloquently expounded. It meant the enthronement of
reason--Cartesian reason--before whose severe tribunal history as
well as opinions were tried. New rules of criticism were introduced,
new standards of proof. When Fontenelle observed that the existence
of Alexander the Great could not be strictly demonstrated and was no
more than highly probable, [Footnote: Plurality des mondes, sixieme
soir.] it was an undesigned warning that tradition would receive
short shrift at the hands of men trained in analytical Cartesian


That the issue between the claims of antiquity and the modern age
should have been debated independently in England and France
indicates that the controversy was an inevitable incident in the
liberation of the human spirit from the authority of the ancients.
Towards the end of the century the debate in France aroused
attention in England and led to a literary quarrel, less important
but not less acrimonious than that which raged in France. Sir
William Temple's Essay, Wotton's Reflexions, and Swift's satire the
Battle of the Books are the three outstanding works in the episode,
which is however chiefly remembered on account of its connection
with Bentley's masterly exposure of the fabricated letters of

The literary debate in France, indeed, could not have failed to
reverberate across the Channel; for never perhaps did the literary
world in England follow with more interest, or appreciate more
keenly the productions of the great French writers of the time. In
describing Will's coffee-house, which was frequented by Dryden and
all who pretended to be interested in polite letters, Macaulay says,
"there was a faction for Perrault and the moderns, a faction for
Boileau and the ancients." In the discussions on this subject a
remarkable Frenchman who had long lived in England as an exile, M.
de Saint Evremond, must have constantly taken part. The disjointed
pieces of which Saint Evremond's writings consist are tedious and
superficial, but they reveal a mind of much cultivation and
considerable common sense. His judgement on Perrault's Parallel is
that the author "has discovered the defects of the ancients better
than he has made out the advantage of the moderns; his book is good
and capable of curing us of abundance of errors." [Footnote: In a
letter to the Duchess of Mazarin, Works, Eng. tr., iii. 418.] He was
not a partisan. But his friend, Sir William Temple, excited by the
French depreciations of antiquity, rushed into the lists with
greater courage than discretion.

Temple was ill equipped for the controversy, though his Essay on
Ancient and Modern Learning (1690) is far from deserving the disdain
of Macaulay, who describes its matter as "ludicrous and contemptible
to the last degree." [Footnote: The only point in it which need be
noted here is that the author questioned the cogency of Fontenelle's
argument, that the forces of nature being permanent human ability is
in all ages the same. "May there not," he asks, "many circumstances
concur to one production that do not to any other in one or many
ages?" Fontenelle speaks of trees. It is conceivable that various
conditions and accidents "may produce an oak, a fig, or a plane-
tree, that shall deserve to be renowned in story, and shall not
perhaps be paralleled in other countries or times. May not the same
have happened in the production, growth, and size of wit and genius
in the world, or in some parts or ages of it, and from many more
circumstances that contributed towards it than what may concur to
the stupendous growth of a tree or animal?"] And it must be
confessed that the most useful result of the Essay was the answer
which it provoked from Wotton. For Wotton had a far wider range of
knowledge, and a more judicious mind, than any of the other
controversialists, with the exception of Fontenelle; and in
knowledge of antiquity he was Fontenelle's superior. His inquiry
stands out as the most sensible and unprejudiced contribution to the
whole debate. He accepts as just the reasoning of Fontenelle "as to
the comparative force of the geniuses of men in the several ages of
the world and of the equal force of men's understandings absolutely
considered in all times since learning first began to be cultivated
amongst mankind." But this is not incompatible with the thesis that
in some branches the ancients excelled all who came after them. For
it is not necessary to explain such excellence by the hypothesis
that there was a particular force of genius evidently discernible in
former ages, but extinct long since, and that nature is now worn out
and spent. There is an alternative explanation. There may have been
special circumstances "which might suit with those ages which did
exceed ours, and with those things wherein they did exceed us, and
with no other age nor thing besides."

But we must begin our inquiry by sharply distinguishing two fields
of mental activity--the field of art, including poetry, oratory,
architecture, painting, and statuary; and the field of knowledge,
including mathematics, natural science, physiology, with all their
dependencies. In the case of the first group there is room for
variety of opinion; but the superiority of the Greeks and Romans in
poetry and literary style may be admitted without prejudice to the
mental equality of the moderns, for it may be explained partly by
the genius of their languages and partly by political circumstances-
-for example, in the case of oratory, [Footnote: This had been noted
by Fontenelle in his Digression.] by the practical necessity of
eloquence. But as regards the other group, knowledge is not a matter
of opinion or taste, and a definite judgement is possible. Wotton
then proceeds to review systematically the field of science, and
easily shows, with more completeness and precision than Perrault,
the superiority of modern methods and the enormous strides which had
been made.

As to the future, Wotton expresses himself cautiously. It is not
easy to say whether knowledge will advance in the next age
proportionally to its advance in this. He has some fears that there
may be a falling away, because ancient learning has still too great
a hold over modern books, and physical and mathematical studies tend
to be neglected. But he ends his Reflexions by the speculation that
"some future age, though perhaps not the next, and in a country now
possibly little thought of, may do that which our great men would be
glad to see done; that is to say, may raise real knowledge, upon
foundations laid in this age, to the utmost possible perfection to
which it may be brought by mortal men in this imperfect state."

The distinction, on which Wotton insisted, between the sciences
which require ages for their development and the imaginative arts
which may reach perfection in a short time had been recognised by
Fontenelle, whose argument on this point differs from that of his
friend Perrault. For Perrault contended that in literature and art,
as well as in science, later generations can, through the advantage
of time and longer experience, attain to a higher excellence than
their predecessors. Fontenelle, on the other hand, held that poetry
and eloquence have a restricted field, and that therefore there must
be a time at which they reach a point of excellence which cannot be
exceeded. It was his personal opinion that eloquence and history
actually reached the highest possible perfection in Cicero and Livy.

But neither Fontenelle nor Wotton came into close quarters with the
problem which was raised--not very clearly, it is true--by Perrault.
Is there development in the various species of literature and art?
Do they profit and enrich themselves by the general advance of
civilisation? Perrault, as we have seen, threw out the suggestion
that increased experience and psychological study enabled the
moderns to penetrate more deeply into the recesses of the human
soul, and therefore to bring to a higher perfection the treatment of
the character, motives, and passions of men. This suggestion admits
of being extended. In the Introduction to his Revolt of Islam,
Shelley, describing his own intellectual and aesthetic experiences,

The poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, and modern Italy, and our own
country, has been to me like external nature, a passion and an
enjoyment. ... I have considered poetry in its most comprehensive
sense; and have read the poets and the historians and the
metaphysicians whose writings have been accessible to me--and have
looked upon the beautiful and majestic scenery of the earth--as
common sources of those elements which it is the province of the
Poet to embody and combine. And he appends a note:

In this sense there may be such a thing as perfectibility in works
of fiction, notwithstanding the concession often made by the
advocates of human improvement, that perfectibility is a term
applicable only to science.

In other words, all the increases of human experience, from age to
age, all the speculative adventures of the intellect, provide the
artist, in each succeeding generation, with more abundant sources
for aesthetic treatment. As years go on, life in its widest sense
offers more and more materials "which it is the province of the Poet
to embody and combine." This is evidently true; and would it not
seem to follow that literature is not excluded from participating in
the common development of civilisation? One of the latest of the
champions of the Moderns, the Abbe Terrasson, maintained that "to
separate the general view of the progress of the human mind in
regard to natural science, and in regard to belles-lettres, would be
a fitting expedient to a man who had two souls, but it is useless to
him who has only one." [Footnote: Abbe Terrasson, 1670-1750. His
Philosophie applicable a tons les objets de l'esprit et de la raison
was issued posthumously in 1754. His Dissertation critique sur
l'Iliade appeared in 1715.]He put the matter in too abstract a way
to carry conviction; but the nineteenth century was to judge that he
was not entirely wrong. For the question was, as we shall see,
raised anew by Madame de Stael, and the theory was finally to emerge
that art and literature, like laws and institutions, are an
expression of society and therefore inextricably linked with the
other elements of social development--a theory, it may be observed,
which while it has discredited the habit of considering works of art
in a vacuum, dateless and detached, as they were generally
considered by critics of the seventeenth century, leaves the
aesthetic problem much where it was.

Perrault's suggestion as to the enrichment of the material of the
artist by new acquisitions would have served to bring literature and
art into the general field of human development, without
compromising the distinction on which Wotton and others insisted
between the natural sciences and the aesthetic arts. But that
distinction, emphatically endorsed by Voltaire, had the effect of
excluding literature and art from the view of those who in the
eighteenth century recognised progress in the other activities of


It is notable that in this literary controversy the Moderns, even
Fontenelle, seem curiously negligent of the import of the theory
which they were propounding of the intellectual progress of man.
They treat it almost incidentally, as part of the case for the
defence, not as an immensely important conclusion. Its bearings were
more definitely realised by the Abbe Terrasson, whom I have just
named. A geometer and a Cartesian, he took part in the controversy
in its latest stage, when La Motte and Madame Dacier were the
principal antagonists. The human mind, he said, has had its infancy
and youth; its maturity began in the age of Augustus; the barbarians
arrested its course till the Renaissance; in the seventeenth
century, through the illuminating philosophy of Descartes, it passed
beyond the stage which it had attained in the Augustan age, and the
eighteenth century should surpass the seventeenth. Cartesianism is
not final; it has its place in a development. It was made possible
by previous speculations, and it will be succeeded by other systems.
We must not pursue the analogy of humanity with an individual man
and anticipate a period of old age. For unlike the individual,
humanity "being composed of all ages," is always gaining instead of
losing. The age of maturity will last indefinitely, because it is a
progressive, not a stationary, maturity. Later generations will
always be superior to the earlier, for progress is "a natural and
necessary effect of the constitution of the human mind."



The revolutionary speculations on the social and moral condition of
man which were the outstanding feature of the eighteenth century in
France, and began about 1750, were the development of the
intellectual movement of the seventeenth, which had changed the
outlook of speculative thought. It was one continuous rationalistic
movement. In the days of Racine and Perrault men had been
complacently conscious of the enlightenment of the age in which they
were living, and as time went on, this consciousness became stronger
and acuter; it is a note of the age of Voltaire. In the last years
of Louis XIV., and in the years which followed, the contrast between
this mental enlightenment and the dark background--the social evils
and miseries of the kingdom, the gross misgovernment and oppression-
-began to insinuate itself into men's minds. What was the value of
the achievements of science, and the improvement of the arts of
life, if life itself could not be ameliorated? Was not some radical
reconstruction possible, in the social fabric, corresponding to the
radical reconstruction inaugurated by Descartes in the principles of
science and in the methods of thought? Year by year the obscurantism
of the ruling powers became more glaring, and the most gifted
thinkers, towards the middle of the century, began to concentrate
their brains on the problems of social science and to turn the light
of reason on the nature of man and the roots of society. They
wrought with unscrupulous resolution and with far-reaching effects.

With the extension of rationalism into the social domain, it came
about naturally that the idea of intellectual progress was enlarged
into the idea of the general Progress of man. The transition was
easy. If it could be proved that social evils were due neither to
innate and incorrigible disabilities of the human being nor to the
nature of things, but simply to ignorance and prejudices, then the
improvement of his state, and ultimately the attainment of felicity,
would be only a matter of illuminating ignorance and removing
errors, of increasing knowledge and diffusing light. The growth of
the "universal human reason"--a Cartesian phrase, which had figured
in the philosophy of Malebranche--must assure a happy destiny to

Between 1690 and 1740 the conception of an indefinite progress of
enlightenment had been making its way in French intellectual
circles, and must often have been a topic of discussion in the
salons, for instance, of Madame de Lambert, Madame de Tencin, and
Madame Dupin, where Fontenelle was one of the most conspicuous
guests. To the same circle belonged his friend the Abbe de Saint-
Pierre, and it is in his writings that we first find the theory
widened in its compass to embrace progress towards social
perfection. [Footnote: For his life and works the best book is J.
Drouet's monograph, L'Abbe de Saint-Pierre: l'homme et l'oeuvre
(1912), but on some points Goumy's older study (1859) is still worth
consulting. I have used the edition of his works in 12 volumes
published during his lifetime at Rotterdam, 1733-37.]


He was brought up on Cartesian principles, and he idealised
Descartes somewhat as Lucretius idealised Epicurus. But he had no
aptitude for philosophy, and he prized physical science only as far
as it directly administered to the happiness of men. He was a
natural utilitarian, and perhaps no one was ever more consistent in
making utility the criterion of all actions and theories. Applying
this standard he obliterated from the roll of great men most of
those whom common opinion places among the greatest. Alexander,
Julius Caesar, Charlemagne receive short shrift from the Abbe de
Saint-Pierre. [Footnote: Compare Voltaire, Lettres sur les Anglais,
xii., where Newton is acclaimed as the greatest man who ever lived.]
He was superficial in his knowledge both of history and of science,
and his conception of utility was narrow and a little vulgar. Great
theoretical discoverers like Newton and Leibnitz he sets in a lower
rank than ingenious persons who used their scientific skill to
fashion some small convenience of life. Monuments of art, like Notre

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