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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 speculation.

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 fields.

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 Progress.

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 childhood.


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 views.

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 3).]

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 posterity?

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 themselves.

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 Authority.

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 Society.]

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 constant).

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 taste.

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 returned.

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 posterity.

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 veneer.

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 metaphysics.

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 methods.


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 Phalaris.

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, writes:

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 man.


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 humanity.

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