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  • 1920
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Dame, possessed little value in his eyes compared with a road, a bridge, or a canal.

Like most of his distinguished contemporaries he was a Deist. On his deathbed he received the usual rites of the Church in the presence of his household, and then told the priest that he did not believe a word of all that. His real views are transparent in some of his works through the conventional disguises in which prudent writers of the time were wont to wrap their assaults on orthodoxy. To attack Mohammedanism by arguments which are equally applicable to Christianity was a device for propagating rationalism in days when it was dangerous to propagate it openly. This is what the Abbe did in his Discourse against Mohammedanism. Again, in his Physical Explanation of an Apparition he remarks: “To diminish our fanatical proclivities, it would be useful if the Government were to establish an annual prize, to be awarded by the Academy of Sciences, for the best explanation, by natural laws, of the extraordinary effects of imagination, of the prodigies related in Greek and Latin literature, and of the pretended miracles told by Protestants, Schismatics, and Mohammedans.” The author carefully keeps on the right side of the fence. No Catholic authorities could take exception to this. But no intelligent reader could fail to see that all miracles were attacked. The miracles accepted by the Protestants were also believed in by the Catholics.

He was one of the remarkable figures of his age. We might almost say that he was a new type–a nineteenth century humanitarian and pacifist in an eighteenth century environment. He was a born reformer, and he devoted his life to the construction of schemes for increasing human happiness. He introduced the word bienfaisance into the currency of the French language, and beneficence was in his eyes the sovran virtue. There were few departments of public affairs in which he did not point out the deficiencies and devise ingenious plans for improvement. Most of his numerous writings are projets– schemes of reform in government, economics, finance, education, all worked out in detail, and all aiming at the increase of pleasure and the diminution of pain. The Abbe’s nimble intelligence had a weak side, which must have somewhat compromised his influence. He was so confident in the reasonableness of his projects that he always believed that if they were fairly considered the ruling powers could not fail to adopt them in their own interests. It is the nature of a reformer to be sanguine, but the optimism of Saint-Pierre touched naivete. Thousands might have agreed with his view that the celibacy of the Catholic clergy was an unwholesome institution, but when he drew up a proposal for its abolition and imagined that the Pope, unable to resist his arguments, would immediately adopt it, they might be excused for putting him down as a crank who could hardly be taken seriously. The form in which he put forward his memorable scheme for the abolition of war exhibits the same sanguine simplicity. All his plans, Rousseau observed, showed a clear vision of what their effects would be, “but he judged like a child of means to bring them about.” But his abilities were great, and his actual influence was considerable. It would have been greater if he had possessed the gift of style.


He was not the first to plan a definite scheme for establishing a perpetual peace. Long ago Emeric Cruce had given to the world a proposal for a universal league, including not only the Christian nations of Europe, but the Turks, Persians, and Tartars, which by means of a court of arbitration sitting at Venice should ensure the settlement of all disputes by peaceful means. [Footnote: Le Nouveau Cynee (Paris, 1623). It has recently been reprinted with an English translation by T. W. Balch, Philadelphia (1909).] The consequence of universal peace, he said, will be the arrival of “that beautiful century which the ancient theologians promise after there have rolled by six thousand years. For they say that then the world will live happily and in repose. Now it happens that that time has nearly expired, and even if it is not, it depends only on the Princes to give beforehand this happiness to their peoples.” Later in the century, others had ventilated similar projects in obscure publications, but the Abbe does not refer to any of his predecessors.

He was not blinded by the superficial brilliancy of the reign of Louis XIV. to the general misery which the ambitious war-policy of that sovran brought both upon France and upon her enemies. His Annales politiques are a useful correction to the Siecle de Louis Quatorze. It was in the course of the great struggle of the Spanish Succession that he turned his attention to war and came to the conclusion that it is an unnecessary evil and even an absurdity. In 1712 he attended the congress at Utrecht in the capacity of secretary to Cardinal de Polignac, one of the French delegates. His experiences there confirmed his optimistic mind in the persuasion that perpetual peace was an aim which might readily be realised; and in the following year he published the memoir which he had been preparing, in two volumes, to which he added a third four years later.

Though he appears not to have known the work of Cruce he did not claim originality. He sheltered his proposal under an august name, entitling it Project of Henry the Great to render Peace Perpetual, explained by the Abbe de Saint-Pierre. The reference is to the “great design” ascribed to Henry IV. by Sully, and aimed at the abasement of the power of Austria: a federation of the Christian States of Europe arranged in groups and under a sovran Diet, which would regulate international affairs and arbitrate in all quarrels. [Footnote: It is described in Sully’s Memoires, Book XXX.] Saint- Pierre, ignoring the fact that Sully’s object was to eliminate a rival power, made it the text for his own scheme of a perpetual alliance of all the sovrans of Europe to guarantee to one another the preservation of their states and to renounce war as a means of settling their differences. He drew up the terms of such an alliance, and taking the European powers one by one demonstrated that it was the plain interest of each to sign the articles. Once the articles were signed the golden age would begin. [Footnote: For Sully’s grand Design compare the interesting article of Sir Geoffrey Butler in the Edinburgh Review, October 1919.]

It is not to our present purpose to comment on this plan which the author with his characteristic simplicity seriously pressed upon the attention of statesmen. It is easy to criticise it in the light of subsequent history, and to see that, if the impossible had happened and the experiment had been tried and succeeded, it might have caused more suffering than all the wars from that day to this. For it was based on a perpetuation of the political status quo in Europe. It assumed that the existing political distribution of power was perfectly satisfactory and conformable to the best interests of all the peoples concerned. It would have hindered the Partition of Poland, but it would have maintained the Austrian oppression of Italians. The project also secured to the sovrans the heritage of their authority and guarded against civil wars. This assumed that the various existing constitutions were fundamentally just. The realisation of the scheme would have perpetuated all the evils of autocratic governments. Its author did not perceive that the radical evil in France was irresponsible power. It needed the reign of Louis XV. and the failure of attempts at reform under his successor to bring this home. The Abbe even thought that an increase of the despotic authority of the government was desirable, provided this were accompanied by an increase in the enlightenment and virtue of its ministers.

In 1729 he published an abridgment of his scheme, and here he looks beyond its immediate results to its value for distant posterity. No one, he says, can imagine or foresee the advantages which such an alliance of European states will yield to Europe five hundred years after its establishment. Now we can see the first beginnings, but it is beyond the powers of the human mind to discern its infinite effects in the future. It may produce results more precious than anything hitherto experienced by man. He supports his argument by observing that our primitive ancestors could not foresee the improvements which the course of ages would bring in their rudimentary arrangements for securing social order.


It is characteristic that the Abbe de Saint-Pierre’s ideas about Progress were a by-product of his particular schemes. In 1773 he published a Project to Perfect the Government of States, and here he sketched his view of the progressive course of civilisation. The old legend of the golden age, when men were perfectly happy, succeeded by the ages of silver, bronze, and iron, exactly reverses the truth of history. The age of iron came first, the infancy of society, when men were poor and ignorant of the arts; it is the present condition of the savages of Africa and America. The age of bronze ensued, in which there was more security, better laws, and the invention of the most necessary arts began. There followed the age of silver, and Europe has not yet emerged from it. Our reason has indeed reached the point of considering how war may be abolished, and is thus approaching the golden age of the future; but the art of government and the general regulation of society, notwithstanding all the improvements of the past, is still in its infancy. Yet all that is needed is a short series of wise reigns in our European states to reach the age of gold or, in other words, a paradise on earth.

A few wise reigns. The Abbe shared the illusion of many that government is omnipotent and can bestow happiness on men. The imperfections of governments were, he was convinced, chiefly due to the fact that hitherto the ablest intellects had not been dedicated to the study of the science of governing. The most essential part of his project was the formation of a Political Academy which should do for politics what the Academy of Sciences did for the study of nature, and should act as an advisory body to ministers of state on all questions of the public welfare. If this proposal and some others were adopted, he believed that the golden age would not long be delayed. These observations–hardly more than obiter dicta–show that Saint-Pierre’s general view of the world was moulded by a conception of civilisation progressing towards a goal of human happiness. In 1737 he published a special work to explain this conception: the Observations on the Continuous Progress of Universal Reason.

He recurs to the comparison of the life of collective humanity to that of an individual, and, like Fontenelle and Terrasson, accentuates the point where the analogy fails. We may regard our race as composed of all the nations that have been and will be–and assign to it different ages. For instance, when the race is ten thousand years old a century will be what a single year is in the life of a centenarian. But there is this prodigious difference. The mortal man grows old and loses his reason and happiness through the enfeeblement of his bodily machine; whereas the human race, by the perpetual and infinite succession of generations, will find itself at the end of ten thousand years more capable of growing in wisdom and happiness than it was at the end of four thousand.

At present the race is apparently not more than seven or eight thousand years old, and is only “in the infancy of human reason,” compared with what it will be five or six thousand years hence. And when that stage is reached, it will only have entered on what we may call its first youth, when we consider what it will be when it is a hundred thousand years older still, continually growing in reason and wisdom.

Here we have for the first time, expressed in definite terms, the vista of an immensely long progressive life in front of humanity. Civilisation is only in its infancy. Bacon, like Pascal, had conceived it to be in its old age. Fontenelle and Perrault seem to have regarded it as in its virility; they set no term to its duration, but they did not dwell on future prospects. The Abbe was the first to fix his eye on the remote destinies of the race and name immense periods of time. It did not occur to him to consider that our destinies are bound up with those of the solar system, and that it is useless to operate with millennial periods of progress unless you are assured of a corresponding stability in the cosmic environment.

As a test of the progress which reason has already made, Saint- Pierre asserts that a comparison of the best English and French works on morals and politics with the best works of Plato and Aristotle proves that the human race has made a sensible advance. But that advance would have been infinitely greater were it not that three general obstacles retarded it and even, at some times and in some countries, caused a retrogression. These obstacles were wars, superstition, and the Jealousy of rulers who feared that progress in the science of politics would be dangerous to themselves. In consequence of these impediments it was only in the time of Bodin and Bacon that the human race began to start anew from the point which it had reached in the days of Plato and Aristotle.

Since then the rate of progress has been accelerated, and this has been due to several causes. The expansion of sea commerce has produced more wealth, and wealth means greater leisure, and more writers and readers. In the second place, mathematics and physics are more studied in colleges, and their tendency is to liberate us from subjection to the authority of the ancients. Again, the foundation of scientific Academies has given facilities both for communicating and for correcting new discoveries; the art of printing provides a means for diffusing them; and, finally, the habit of writing in the vulgar tongue makes them accessible. The author might also have referred to the modern efforts to popularise science, in which his friend Fontenelle had been one of the leaders.

He proceeds, in this connection, to lay down a rather doubtful principle, that in any two countries the difference in enlightenment between the lowest classes will correspond to the difference between the most highly educated classes. At present, he says, Paris and London are the places where human wisdom has reached the most advanced stage. It is certain that the ten best men of the highest class at Ispahan or Constantinople will be inferior in their knowledge of politics and ethics to the ten most distinguished sages of Paris or London. And this will be true in all classes. The thirty most intelligent children of the age of fourteen at Paris will be more enlightened than the thirty most intelligent children of the same age at Constantinople, and the same proportional difference will be true of the lowest classes of the two cities.

But while the progress of speculative reason has been rapid, practical reason–the distinction is the Abbe’s–has made little advance. In point of morals and general happiness the world is apparently much the same as ever. Our mediocre savants know twenty times as much as Socrates and Confucius, but our most virtuous men are not more virtuous than they. The growth of science has added much to the arts and conveniences of life, and to the sum of pleasures, and will add more. The progress in physical science is part of the progress of the “universal human reason,” whose aim is the augmentation of our happiness. But there are two other sciences which are much more important for the promotion of happiness–Ethics and Politics–and these, neglected by men of genius, have made little way in the course of two thousand years. It is a grave misfortune that Descartes and Newton did not devote themselves to perfecting these sciences, so incomparably more useful for mankind than those in which they made their great discoveries. They fell into a prevailing error as to the comparative values of the various domains of knowledge, an error to which we must also ascribe the fact that while Academies of Sciences and Belles-Lettres exist there are no such institutions for Politics or Ethics.

By these arguments he establishes to his own satisfaction that there are no irremovable obstacles to the Progress of the human race towards happiness, no hindrances that could not be overcome if governments only saw eye to eye with the Abbe de Saint-Pierre. Superstition is already on the decline; there would be no more wars if his simple scheme for permanent peace were adopted. Let the State immediately found Political and Ethical Academies; let the ablest men consecrate their talents to the science of government; and in a hundred years we shall make more progress than we should make in two thousand at the rate we are moving. If these things are done, human reason will have advanced so far in two or three millenniums that the wisest men of that age will be as far superior to the wisest of to-day as these are to the wisest African savages. This “perpetual and unlimited augmentation of reason” will one day produce an increase in human happiness which would astonish us more than our own civilisation would astonish the Kaffirs.


The Abbe de Saint-Pierre was indeed terribly at ease in confronting the deepest and most complex problems which challenge the intellect of man. He had no notion of their depth and complexity, and he lightly essayed them, treating human nature, as if it were an abstraction, by a method which he would doubtless have described as Cartesian. He was simply operating with the ideas which were all round him in a society saturated with Cartesianism,–supremacy of human reason, progressive enlightenment, the value of this life for its own sake, and the standard of utility. Given these ideas and the particular bias of his own mind, it required no great ingenuity to advance from the thought of the progress of science to the thought of progress in man’s moral nature and his social conditions. The omnipotence of governments to mould the destinies of peoples, the possibility of the creation of enlightened governments, and the indefinite progress of enlightenment–all articles of his belief– were the terms of an argument of the sorites form, which it was a simple matter to develop in his brief treatise.

But we must not do him injustice. He was a much more considerable thinker than posterity for a long time was willing to believe. It is easy to ridicule some of his projets, and dismiss him as a crank who was also somewhat of a bore. The truth, however, is that many of his schemes were sound and valuable. His economic ideas, which he thought out for himself, were in advance of his time, and he has even been described by a recent writer as “un contemporain egare au xviii siecle.” Some of his financial proposals were put into practice by Turgot. But his significance in the development of the revolutionary ideas which were to gain control in the second half of the eighteenth century has hardly been appreciated yet, and it was imperfectly appreciated by his contemporaries.

It is easy to see why. His theories are buried in his multitudinous projets. If, instead of working out the details of endless particular reforms, he had built up general theories of government and society, economics and education, they might have had no more intrinsic value, but he would have been recognised as the precursor of the Encyclopaedists.

For his principles are theirs. The omnipotence of government and laws to mould the morals of peoples; the subordination of all knowledge to the goddess of utility; the deification of human reason; and the doctrine of Progress. His crude utilitarianism led him to depreciate the study of mathematical and physical sciences– notwithstanding his veneration for Descartes–as comparatively useless, and he despised the fine arts as waste of time and toil which might be better spent. He had no knowledge of natural science and he had no artistic susceptibility. The philosophers of the Encyclopaedia did not go so far, but they tended in this direction. They were cold and indifferent towards speculative science, and they were inclined to set higher value on artisans than on artists.

In his religious ideas the Abbe differed from Voltaire and the later social philosophers in one important respect, but this very difference was a consequence of his utilitarianism. Like them he was a Deist, as we saw; he had imbibed the spirit of Bayle and the doctrine of the English rationalists, which were penetrating French society during the later part of his life. His God, however, was more than the creator and organiser of the Encyclopaedists, he was also the “Dieu vengeur et remunerateur” in whom Voltaire believed. But here his faith was larger than Voltaire’s. For while Voltaire referred the punishments and rewards to this life, the Abbe believed in the immortality of the soul, in heaven and hell. He acknowledged that immortality could not be demonstrated, that it was only probable, but he clung to it firmly and even intolerantly. It is clear from his writings that his affection for this doctrine was due to its utility, as an auxiliary to the magistrate and the tutor, and also to the consideration that Paradise would add to the total of human happiness.

But though his religion had more articles, he was as determined a foe of “superstition” as Voltaire, Diderot, and the rest. He did not go so far as they in aggressive rationalism–he belonged to an older generation–but his principles were the same.

The Abbe de Saint-Pierre thus represents the transition from the earlier Cartesianism, which was occupied with purely intellectual problems, to the later thought of the eighteenth century, which concentrated itself on social problems. He anticipated the “humanistic” spirit of the Encyclopaedists, who were to make man, in a new sense, the centre of the world. He originated, or at least was the first to proclaim, the new creed of man’s destinies, indefinite social progress.



The theory of human Progress could not be durably established by abstract arguments, or on the slender foundations laid by the Abbe de Saint-Pierre. It must ultimately be judged by the evidence afforded by history, and it is not accidental that, contemporaneously with the advent of this idea, the study of history underwent a revolution. If Progress was to be more than the sanguine dream of an optimist it must be shown that man’s career on earth had not been a chapter of accidents which might lead anywhere or nowhere, but is subject to discoverable laws which have determined its general route, and will secure his arrival at the desirable place. Hitherto a certain order and unity had been found in history by the Christian theory of providential design and final causes. New principles of order and unity were needed to replace the principles which rationalism had discredited. Just as the advance of science depended on the postulate that physical phenomena are subject to invariable laws, so if any conclusions were to be drawn from history some similar postulate as to social phenomena was required.

It was thus in harmony with the general movement of thought that about the middle of the eighteenth century new lines of investigation were opened leading to sociology, the history of civilisation, and the philosophy of history. Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois, which may claim to be the parent work of modern social science, Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs, and Turgot’s plan of a Histoire universelle begin a new era in man’s vision of the past.


Montesquieu was not among the apostles of the idea of Progress. It never secured any hold upon his mind. But he had grown up in the same intellectual climate in which that idea was produced; he had been nurtured both on the dissolving, dialectic of Bayle, and on the Cartesian enunciation of natural law. And his work contributed to the service, not of the doctrine of the past, but of the doctrine of the future.

For he attempted to extend the Cartesian theory to social facts. He laid down that political, like physical, phenomena are subject to general laws. He had already conceived this, his most striking and important idea, when he wrote the Considerations on the Greatness and Decadence of the Romans (1734), in which he attempted to apply it:

It is not Fortune who governs the world, as we see from the history of the Romans. There are general causes, moral or physical, which operate in every monarchy, raise it, maintain it, or overthrow it; all that occurs is subject to these causes; and if a particular cause, like the accidental result of a battle, has ruined a state, there was a general cause which made the downfall of this state ensue from a single battle. In a word, the principal movement (l’allure principale) draws with it all the particular occurrences.

But if this excludes Fortune it also dispenses with Providence, design, and final causes; and one of the effects of the Considerations which Montesquieu cannot have overlooked was to discredit Bossuet’s treatment of history.

The Esprit des lois appeared fourteen years later. Among books which have exercised a considerable influence on thought few are more disappointing to a modern reader. The author had not the gift of what might be called logical architecture, and his work produces the effect of a collection of ideas which he was unable to co-ordinate in the clarity of a system. A new principle, the operation of general causes, is enthroned; but, beyond the obvious distinction of physical and moral, they are not classified. We have no guarantee that the moral causes are fully enumerated, and those which are original are not distinguished from those which are derived. The general cause which Montesquieu impresses most clearly on the reader’s mind is that of physical environment–geography and climate.

The influence of climate on civilisation was not a new idea. In modern times, as we have seen, it was noticed by Bodin and recognised by Fontenelle. The Abbe de Saint-Pierre applied it to explain the origin of the Mohammedan religion, and the Abbe Du Bos in his Reflexions on Poetry and Painting maintained that climate helps to determine the epochs of art and science. Chardin in his Travels, a book which Montesquieu studied, had also appreciated its importance. But Montesquieu drew general attention to it, and since he wrote, geographical conditions have been recognised by all inquirers as an influential factor in the development of human societies. His own discussion of the question did not result in any useful conclusions. He did not determine the limits of the action of physical conditions, and a reader hardly knows whether to regard them as fundamental or accessory, as determining the course of civilisation or only perturbing it. “Several things govern men,” he says, “climate, religion, laws, precepts of government, historical examples, morals, and manners, whence is formed as their result a general mind (esprit general).” This co-ordination of climate with products of social life is characteristic of his unsystematic thought. But the remark which the author went on to make, that there is always a correlation between the laws of a people and its esprit general, was important. It pointed to the theory that all the products of social life are closely interrelated.

In Montesquieu’s time people were under the illusion that legislation has an almost unlimited power to modify social conditions. We have seen this in the case of Saint-Pierre. Montesquieu’s conception of general laws should have been an antidote to this belief. It had however less effect on his contemporaries than we might have expected, and they found more to their purpose in what he said of the influence of laws on manners. There may be something in Comte’s suggestion that he could not give his conception any real consistency or vigour, just because he was himself unconsciously under the influence of excessive faith in the effects of legislative action.

A fundamental defect in Montesquieu’s treatment of social phenomena is that he abstracted them from their relations in time. It was his merit to attempt to explain the correlation of laws and institutions with historical circumstances, but he did not distinguish or connect stages of civilisation. He was inclined to confound, as Sorel has observed, all periods and constitutions. Whatever be the value of the idea of Progress, we may agree with Comte that, if Montesquieu had grasped it, he would have produced a more striking work. His book announces a revolution in the study of political science, but in many ways belongs itself to the pre-Montesquieu era.


In the same years in which Montesquieu was busy on the composition of the Esprit des lois, Voltaire was writing his Age of Louis XIV. and his Essay on the Manners and Mind of Nations, and on the Principal Facts of History from Charlemagne to the Death of Louis XIII. The former work, which everybody reads still, appeared in 1751. Parts of the Essay, which has long since fallen into neglect, were published in the Mercure de France between 1745 and 1751; it was issued complete in 1756, along with the Age of Louis XIV., which was its continuation. If we add the Precis of the Reign of Louis XV. (1769), and observe that the Introduction and first fourteen chapters of the Essay sketch the history of the world before Charlemagne, and that China, India, and America are included in the survey, Voltaire’s work amounts to a complete survey of the civilisation of the world from the earliest times to his own. If Montesquieu founded social science, Voltaire created the history of civilisation, and the Essay, for all its limitations, stands out as one of the considerable books of the century.

In his Age of Louis XIV. he announced that his object was “to paint not the actions of a single man, but the mind of men (l’esprit des hommes) in the most enlightened age that had ever been,” and that “the progress of the arts and sciences” was an essential part of his subject. In the same way he proposed in the Essay to trace “l’histoire de l’esprit humain,” not the details of facts, and to show by what steps man advanced “from the barbarous rusticity” of the times of Charlemagne and his successors “to the politeness of our own.” To do this, he said, was really to write the history of opinion, for all the great successive social and political changes which have transformed the world were due to changes of opinion. Prejudice succeeded prejudice, error followed error; “at last, with time men came to correct their ideas and learn to think.”

The motif of the book is, briefly, that wars and religions have been the great obstacles to the progress of humanity, and that if they were abolished, with the prejudices which engender them, the world would rapidly improve.

“We may believe,” he says, “that reason and industry will always progress more and more; that the useful arts will be improved; that of the evils which have afflicted men, prejudices, which are not their least scourge, will gradually disappear among all those who govern nations, and that philosophy, universally diffused, will give some consolation to human nature for the calamities which it will experience in all ages.”

This indeed is not the tone of the Abbe de Saint-Pierre. Voltaire’s optimism was always tempered with cynicism. But the idea of Progress is there, though moderately conceived. And it is based on the same principle–universal reason implanted in man, which “subsists in spite of all the passions which make war on it, in spite of all the tyrants who would drown it in blood, in spite of the imposters who would annihilate it by superstition.” And this was certainly his considered view. His common sense prevented him from indulging in Utopian speculations about the future; and his cynicism constantly led him to use the language of a pessimist. But at an early stage of his career he had taken up arms for human nature against that “sublime misanthrope” Pascal, who “writes against human nature almost as he wrote against the Jesuits”; and he returned to the attack at the end of his life. Now Pascal’s Pensees enshrined a theory of life–the doctrine of original sin, the idea that the object of life is to prepare for death–which was sternly opposed to the spirit of Progress. Voltaire instinctively felt that this was an enemy that had to be dealt with. In a lighter vein he had maintained in a well-known poem, Le Mondain, [Footnote: 1756.] the value of civilisation and all its effects, including luxury, against those who regretted the simplicity of ancient times, the golden age of Saturn.

O le bon temps que ce siecle de fer!

Life in Paris, London, or Rome to-day is infinitely preferable to life in the garden of Eden.

D’un bon vin frais ou la mousse ou la seve Ne gratta point le triste gosier d’Eve. La soie et l’or ne brillaient point chez eux. Admirez-vous pour cela nos aieux?
Il leur manquait l’industrie et l’aisance: Est-ce vertu? c’etait pure ignorance.

To return to the Essay, it flung down the gage of battle to that conception of the history of the world which had been brilliantly represented by Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle. This work was constantly in Voltaire’s mind. He pointed out that it had no claim to be universal; it related only to four or five peoples, and especially the little Jewish nation which “was unknown to the rest of the world or justly despised,” but which Bossuet made the centre of interest, as if the final cause of all the great empires of antiquity lay in their relations to the Jews. He had Bossuet in mind when he said “we will speak of the Jews as we would speak of Scythians or Greeks, weighing probabilities and discussing facts.” In his new perspective the significance of Hebrew history is for the first time reduced to moderate limits.

But it was not only in this particular, though central, point that Voltaire challenged Bossuet’s view. He eliminated final causes altogether, and Providence plays no part on his historical stage. Here his work reinforced the teaching of Montesquieu. Otherwise Montesquieu and Voltaire entirely differed in their methods. Voltaire concerned himself only with the causal enchainment of events and the immediate motives of men. His interpretation of history was confined to the discovery of particular causes; he did not consider the operation of those larger general causes which Montesquieu investigated. Montesquieu sought to show that the vicissitudes of societies were subject to law; Voltaire believed that events were determined by chance where they were not consciously guided by human reason. The element of chance is conspicuous even in legislation: “almost all laws have been instituted to meet passing needs, like remedies applied fortuitously, which have cured one patient and kill others.”

On Voltaire’s theory, the development of humanity might at any moment have been diverted into a different course; but whatever course it took the nature of human reason would have ensured a progress in civilisation. Yet the reader of the Essay and Louis XIV. might well have come away with a feeling that the security of Progress is frail and precarious. If fortune has governed events, if the rise and fall of empires, the succession of religions, the revolutions of states, and most of the great crises of history were decided by accidents, is there any cogent ground for believing that human reason, the principle to which Voltaire attributes the advance of civilisation, will prevail in the long run? Civilisation has been organised here and there, now and then, up to a certain point; there have been eras of rapid progress, but how can we be sure that these are not episodes, themselves also fortuitous? For growth has been followed by decay, progress by regress; can it be said that history, authorises the conclusion that reason will ever gain such an ascendancy that the play of chance will no longer be able to thwart her will? Is such a conclusion more than a hope, unsanctioned by the data of past experience, merely one of the characteristics of the age of illumination?

Voltaire and Montesquieu thus raised fundamental questions of great moment for the doctrine of Progress, questions which belong to what was soon to be known as the Philosophy of History, a name invented by Voltaire, though hardly meant by him in the sense which it afterwards assumed.


Six years before Voltaire’s Essay was published in its complete form a young man was planning a work on the same subject. Turgot is honourably remembered as an economist and administrator, but if he had ever written the Discourses on Universal History which he designed at the age of twenty-three his position in historical literature might have overshadowed his other claims to be remembered. We possess a partial sketch of its plan, which is supplemented by two lectures he delivered at the Sorbonne in 1750; so that we know his general conceptions.

He had assimilated the ideas of the Esprit des lois, and it is probable that he had read the parts of Voltaire’s work which had appeared in a periodical. His work, like Voltaire’s, was to be a challenge to Bossuet’s view of history; his purpose was to trace the fortunes of the race in the light of the idea of Progress. He occasionally refers to Providence but this is no more than a prudent lip-service. Providence has no functions in his scheme. The part which it played in Bossuet is usurped by those general causes which he had learned from Montesquieu. But his systematic mind would have organised and classified the ideas which Montesquieu left somewhat confused. He criticised the inductions drawn in the Esprit des lois concerning the influence of climate as hasty and exaggerated; and he pointed out that the physical causes can only produce their effects by acting on “the hidden principles which contribute to form our mind and character.” It follows that the psychical or moral causes are the first element to consider, and it is a fault of method to try to evaluate physical causes till we have exhausted the moral, and are certain that the phenomena cannot be explained by these alone. In other words, the study of the development of societies must be based on psychology; and for Turgot, as for all his progressive contemporaries, psychology meant the philosophy of Locke.

General necessary causes, therefore, which we should rather call conditions, have determined the course of history–the nature of man, his passions, and his reason, in the first place; and in the second, his environment,–geography and climate. But its course is a strict sequence of particular causes and effects, “which bind the state of the world (at a given moment) to all those which have preceded it.” Turgot does not discuss the question of free-will, but his causal continuity does not exclude “the free action of great men.” He conceives universal history as the progress of the human race advancing as an immense whole steadily, though slowly, through alternating periods of calm and disturbance towards greater perfection. The various units of the entire mass do not move with equal steps, because nature is not impartial with her gifts. Some men have talents denied to others, and the gifts of nature are sometimes developed by circumstances, sometimes left buried in obscurity. The inequalities in the march of nations are due to the infinite variety of circumstances; and these inequalities may be taken to prove that the world had a beginning, for in an eternal duration they would have disappeared.

But the development of human societies has not been guided by human reason. Men have not consciously made general happiness the end of their actions. They have been conducted by passion and ambition and have never known to what goal they were moving. For if reason had presided, progress would soon have been arrested. To avoid war peoples would have remained in isolation, and the race would have lived divided for ever into a multitude of isolated groups, speaking different tongues. All these groups would have been limited in the range of their ideas, stationary in science, art, and government, and would never have risen above mediocrity. The history of China is an example of the results of restricted intercourse among peoples. Thus the unexpected conclusion emerges, that without unreason and injustice there would have been no progress.

It is hardly necessary to observe that this argument is untenable. The hypothesis assumes that reason is in control among the primitive peoples, and at the same time supposes that its power would completely disappear if they attempted to engage in peaceful intercourse. But though Turgot has put his point in an unconvincing form, his purpose was to show that as a matter of fact “the tumultuous and dangerous passions” have been driving-forces which have moved the world in a desirable direction till the time should come for reason to take the helm.

Thus, while Turgot might have subscribed to Voltaire’s assertion that history is largely “un ramas de crimes, de folies, et de malheurs,” his view of the significance of man’s sufferings is different and almost approaches the facile optimism of Pope– “whatever is, is right.” He regards all the race’s actual experiences as the indispensable mechanism of Progress, and does not regret its mistakes and calamities. Many changes and revolutions, he observes, may seem to have had most mischievous effects; yet every change has brought some advantage, for it has been a new experience and therefore has been instructive. Man advances by committing errors. The history of science shows (as Fontenelle had pointed out) that truth is reached over the ruins of false hypotheses.

The difficulty presented by periods of decadence and barbarism succeeding epochs of enlightenment is met by the assertion that in such dark times the world has not stood still; there has really been a progression which, though relatively inconspicuous, is not unimportant. In the Middle Ages, which are the prominent case, there were improvements in mechanical arts, in commerce, in some of the habits of civil life, all of which helped to prepare the way for happier times. Here Turgot’s view of history is sharply opposed to Voltaire’s. He considers Christianity to have been a powerful agent of civilisation, not a hinderer or an enemy. Had he executed his design, his work might well have furnished a notable makeweight to the view held by Voltaire, and afterwards more judicially developed by Gibbon, that “the triumph of barbarism and religion” was a calamity for the world.

Turgot also propounded two laws of development. He observed that when a people is progressing, every step it takes causes an acceleration in the rate of progress. And he anticipated Comte’s famous “law” of the three stages of intellectual evolution, though without giving it the extensive and fundamental significance which Comte claimed for it. “Before man understood the causal connection of physical phenomena, nothing was so natural as to suppose they were produced by intelligent beings, invisible and resembling ourselves; for what else would they have resembled?” That is Comte’s theological stage. “When philosophers recognised the absurdity of the fables about the gods, but had not yet gained an insight into natural history, they thought to explain the causes of phenomena by abstract expressions such as essences and faculties.” That is the metaphysical stage. “It was only at a later period, that by observing the reciprocal mechanical action of bodies hypotheses were formed which could be developed by mathematics and verified by experience.” There is the positive stage. The observation assuredly does not possess the far-reaching importance which Comte attached to it; but whatever value it has, Turgot deserves the credit of having been the first to state it.

The notes which Turgot made for his plan permit us to conjecture that his Universal History would have been a greater and more profound work than the Essay of Voltaire. It would have embodied in a digested form the ideas of Montesquieu to which Voltaire paid little attention, and the author would have elaborated the intimate connection and mutual interaction among all social phenomena– government and morals, religion, science, and arts. While his general thesis coincided with that of Voltaire–the gradual advance of humanity towards a state of enlightenment and reasonableness,–he made the idea of Progress more vital; for him it was an organising conception, just as the idea of Providence was for St. Augustine and Bossuet an organising conception, which gave history its unity and meaning. The view that man has throughout been blindly moving in the right direction is the counterpart of what Bossuet represented as a divine plan wrought out by the actions of men who are ignorant of it, and is sharply opposed to the views, of Voltaire and the other philosophers of the day who ascribed Progress exclusively to human reason consciously striving against ignorance and passion.




The intellectual movement which prepared French opinion for the Revolution and supplied the principles for reconstituting society may be described as humanistic in the sense that man was the centre of speculative interest.

“One consideration especially that we ought never to lose from sight,” says Diderot, “is that, if we ever banish a man, or the thinking and contemplative being, from above the surface of the earth, this pathetic and sublime spectacle of nature becomes no more than a scene of melancholy and silence … It is the presence of man that gives its interest to the existence of other beings … Why should we not make him a common centre? … Man is the single term from which we ought to set out.” [Footnote: The passage from Diderot’s article Encyclopedie is given as translated by Morley, Diderot, i, 145.] Hence psychology, morals, the structure of society, were the subjects which riveted attention instead of the larger supra-human problems which had occupied Descartes, Malebranche, and Leibnitz. It mattered little whether the universe was the best that could be constructed; what mattered was the relation of man’s own little world to his will and capacities.

Physical science was important only in so far as it could help social science and minister to the needs of man. The closest analogy to this development of thought is not offered by the Renaissance, to which the description HUMANISTIC has been conventionally appropriated, but rather by the age of illumination in Greece in the latter half of the fifth century B.C., represented by Protagoras, Socrates, and others who turned from the ultimate problems of the cosmos, hitherto the main study of philosophers, to man, his nature and his works.

In this revised form of “anthropo-centrism” we see how the general movement of thought has instinctively adapted itself to the astronomical revolution. On the Ptolemaic system it was not incongruous or absurd that man, lord of the central domain in the universe, should regard himself as the most important cosmic creature. This is the view, implicit in the Christian scheme, which had been constructed on the old erroneous cosmology. When the true place of the earth was shown and man found himself in a tiny planet attached to one of innumerable solar worlds, his cosmic importance could no longer be maintained. He was reduced to the condition of an insect creeping on a “tas de boue,” which Voltaire so vividly illustrated in Micromegas. But man is resourceful; [words in Greek]. Displaced, along with his home, from the centre of things, he discovers a new means of restoring his self-importance; he interprets his humiliation as a deliverance. Finding himself in an insignificant island floating in the immensity of space, he decides that he is at last master of his own destinies; he can fling away the old equipment of final causes, original sin, and the rest; he can construct his own chart and, bound by no cosmic scheme, he need take the universe into account only in so far as he judges it to be to his own profit. Or, if he is a philosopher, he may say that, after all, the universe for him is built out of his own sensations, and that by virtue of this relativity “anthropo-centrism” is restored in a new and more effective form.

Built out of his own sensations: for the philosophy of Locke was now triumphant in France. I have used the term Cartesianism to designate, not the metaphysical doctrines of Descartes (innate ideas, two substances, and the rest), but the great principles which survived the passing of his metaphysical system–the supremacy of reason, and the immutability of natural laws, not subject to providential interventions. These principles still controlled thought, but the particular views of Descartes on mental phenomena were superseded in France by the psychology of Locke, whose influence was established by Voltaire and Condillac. The doctrine that all our ideas are derived from the senses lay at the root of the whole theory of man and society, in the light of which the revolutionary thinkers, Diderot, Helvetius, and their fellows, criticised the existing order and exposed the reigning prejudices. This sensationalism (which went beyond what Locke himself had really meant) involved the strict relativity of knowledge and led at once to the old pragmatic doctrine of Protagoras, that man is the measure of all things. And the spirit of the French philosophers of the eighteenth century was distinctly pragmatic. The advantage of man was their principle, and the value of speculation was judged by its definite service to humanity. “The value and rights of truth are founded on its utility,” which is “the unique measure of man’s judgements,” one thinker asserts; another declares that “the useful circumscribes everything,” l’utile circonscrit tout; another lays down that “to be virtuous is to be useful; to be vicious is to be useless or harmful; that is the sum of morality.” Helvetius, anticipating Bentham, works out the theory that utility is the only possible basis of ethics. Bacon, the utilitarian, was extolled like Locke. [Footnote: The passages quoted on utility are from d’Holbach, Systems de la nature, i. c. 12, p. 224; c. 15, p. 312; Diderot, De I’interpretation de la nature in OEuvres, ii. p. 13; Raynal, Histoire des deux Indes, vii. p. 416. The effectiveness of the teaching may be illustrated from the Essay on Man, by Antoine Rivarol, whom Burke called the Tacitus of the Revolution. “The virtues are only virtues because they are useful to the human race.” OEuvres choisis (ed. de Lescure), i. p. 211.] As, a hundred years before, his influence had inspired the foundation of the Royal Society, so now his name was invoked by the founders of the Encyclopaedia. [Footnote: See d’Alembert’s tribute to him in the Discours preliminaire.]

Beneath all philosophical speculation there is an undercurrent of emotion, and in the French philosophers of the eighteenth century this emotional force was strong and even violent. They aimed at practical results. Their work was a calculated campaign to transform the principles and the spirit of governments and to destroy sacerdotalism. The problem for the human race being to reach a state of felicity by its own powers, these thinkers believed that it was soluble by the gradual triumph of reason over prejudice and knowledge over ignorance. Violent revolution was far from their thoughts; by the diffusion of knowledge they hoped to create a public opinion which would compel governments to change the tenor of their laws and administration and make the happiness of the people their guiding principle. The optimistic confidence that man is perfectible, which means capable of indefinite improvement, inspired the movement as a whole, however greatly particular thinkers might differ in their views.

Belief in Progress was their sustaining faith, although, occupied by the immediate problems of amelioration, they left it rather vague and ill-defined. The word itself is seldom pronounced in their writings. The idea is treated as subordinate to the other ideas in the midst of which it had grown up: Reason, Nature, Humanity, Illumination (lumieres). It has not yet entered upon an independent life of its own and received a distinct label, though it is already a vital force.

In reviewing the influences which were forming a new public opinion during the forty years before the Revolution, it is convenient for the present purpose to group together the thinkers (including Voltaire) associated with the Encyclopaedia, who represented a critical and consciously aggressive force against traditional theories and existing institutions. The constructive thinker Rousseau was not less aggressive, but he stands apart and opposed, by his hostility to modern civilisation. Thirdly, we must distinguish the school of Economists, also reformers and optimists, but of more conservative temper than the typical Encyclopaedists.


The Encyclopaedia (1751-1765) has rightly been pronounced the central work of the rationalistic movement which made the France of 1789 so different from the France of 1715. [Footnote: The general views which governed the work may be gathered from d’Alembert’s introductory discourse and from Diderot’s article Encyclopedie. An interesting sketch of the principal contributors will be found in Morley’s Diderot, i. chap. v. Another modern study of the Encyclopaedic movement is the monograph of L. Ducros, Les Encyclopidistes (1900). Helvetius has recently been the subject of a study by Albert Keim (Helvetius, sa vie et son oeuvre, 1907). Among other works which help the study of the speculations of this age from various points of view may be mentioned: Marius Roustan, Les Philosophes et la societe francaise au xviii siecle(1906); Espinas, La Philosophie sociale du xviii siecle et la Revolution (1898); Lichtenberger, Le Socialisme au xviii siecle(1895). I have not mentioned in the text Boullanger (1722-1758), who contributed to the Encyclopaedia the article on Political Economy (which has nothing to do with economics but treats of ancient theocracies); the emphasis laid on his views on progress by Buchez (op. cit. i. III sqq.) is quite excessive.] It was the organised section of a vast propaganda, speculative and practical, carried on by men of the most various views, most of whom were associated directly with it. As has well been observed, it did for the rationalism of the eighteenth century in France much what the Fortnightly Review, under the editorship of Mr. Morley (from 1868 to 1882) did for that of the nineteenth in England, as an organ for the penetrating criticism of traditional beliefs. If Diderot, who directed the Encyclopaedia with the assistance of d’Alembert the mathematician, had lived a hundred years later he would probably have edited a journal.

We saw that the “solidarity” of the sciences was one of the conceptions associated with the theory of intellectual progress, and that the popularisation of knowledge was another. Both these conceptions inspired the Encyclopaedia, which was to gather up and concentrate the illumination of the modern age. It was to establish the lines of communication among all departments, “to enclose in the unity of a system the infinitely various branches of knowledge.” And it was to be a library of popular instruction. But it was also intended to be an organ of propaganda. In the history of the intellectual revolution it is in some ways the successor of the Dictionary of Bayle, which, two generations before, collected the material of war to demolish traditional doctrines. The Encyclopaedia carried on the campaign against authority and superstition by indirect methods, but it was the work of men who were not sceptics like Bayle, but had ideals, positive purposes, and social hopes. They were not only confident in reason and in science, but most of them had also a more or less definite belief in the possibility of an advance of humanity towards perfection.

As one of their own band afterwards remarked, they were less occupied in enlarging the bounds of knowledge than in spreading the light and making war on prejudice. [Footnote: Condorcet, Esquisse, p. 206 (ed. 1822).] The views of the individual contributors differed greatly, and they cannot be called a school, but they agreed so far in common tendencies that they were able to form a co- operative alliance.

The propaganda of which the Encyclopaedia was the centre was reinforced by the independent publications of some of the leading men who collaborated or were closely connected with their circle, notably those of Diderot himself, Baron d’Holbach, and Helvetius.


The optimism of the Encyclopaedists was really based on an intense consciousness of the enlightenment of their own age. The progressiveness of knowledge was taken as axiomatic, but was there any guarantee that the light, now confined to small circles, could ever enlighten the world and regenerate mankind? They found the guarantee they required, not in an induction from the past experience of the race, but in an a priori theory: the indefinite malleability of human nature by education and institutions. This had been, as we saw, assumed by the Abbe de Saint-Pierre. It pervaded the speculation of the age, and was formally deduced from the sensational psychology of Locke and Condillac. It was developed, in an extreme form, in the work of Helvetius, De l’esprit (1758).

In this book, which was to exert a large influence in England, Helvetius sought, among other things, to show that the science of morals is equivalent to the science of legislation, and that in a well-organised society all men are capable of rising to the highest point of mental development. Intellectual and moral inequalities between man and man arise entirely from differences in education and social circumstances. Genius itself is not a gift of nature; the man of genius is a product of circumstances–social, not physical, for Helvetius rejects the influence of climate. It follows that if you change education and social institutions you can change the character of men.

The error of Helvetius in ignoring the irremovable physical differences between individuals, the varieties of cerebral organisation, was at once pointed out by Diderot. This error, however, was not essential to the general theory of the immeasurable power of social institutions over human character, and other thinkers did not fall into it. All alike, indeed, were blind to the factor of heredity. But the theory in its collective application contains a truth which nineteenth century critics, biassed by their studies in heredity, have been prone to overlook. The social inheritance of ideas and emotions to which the individual is submitted from infancy is more important than the tendencies physically transmitted from parent to child. The power of education and government in moulding the members of a society has recently been illustrated on a large scale in the psychological transformation of the German people in the life of a generation.

It followed from the theory expounded by Helvetius that there is no impassable barrier between the advanced and the stationary or retrograde races of the earth. [Footnote: The most informing discussion of the relations between the Advanced and Backward races is Bryce’s Romanes Lecture (1902).] “True morality,” Baron d’Holbach wrote, “should be the same for all the inhabitants of the globe. The savage man and the civilised; the white man, the red man, the black man; Indian and European, Chinaman and Frenchman, Negro and Lapp have the same nature. The differences between them are only modifications of the common nature produced by climate, government, education, opinions, and the various causes which operate on them. Men differ only in the ideas they form of happiness and the means which they have imagined to obtain it.” Here again the eighteenth century theorists held a view which can no longer be dismissed as absurd. Some are coming round to the opinion that enormous differences in capacity which seem fundamental are a result of the differences in social inheritance, and that these again are due to a long sequence of historical circumstances; and consequently that there is no people in the world doomed by nature to perpetual inferiority or irrevocably disqualified by race from playing a useful part in the future of civilisation.


This doctrine of the possibility of indefinitely moulding the characters of men by laws and institutions–whether combined or not with a belief in the natural equality of men’s faculties–laid a foundation on which the theory of the perfectibility of humanity could be raised. It marked, therefore, an important stage in the development of the doctrine of Progress.

It gave, moreover, a new and larger content to that doctrine by its applicability, not only to the peoples which are at present in the van of civilisation, but also to those which have lagged far behind and may appear irreclaimably barbarous–thus potentially including all humanity in the prospect of the future. Turgot had already conceived “the total mass of the human race moving always slowly forward”; he had declared that the human mind everywhere contains the germs of progress and that the inequality of peoples is due to the infinite variety of their circumstances. This enlarging conception was calculated to add strength to the idea of Progress, by raising it to a synthesis comprehending not merely the western civilised nations but the whole human world.

Interest in the remote peoples of the earth, in the unfamiliar civilisations of the East, in the untutored races of America and Africa, was vivid in France in the eighteenth century. Everyone knows how Voltaire and Montesquieu used Hurons or Persians to hold up the glass to Western manners and morals, as Tacitus used the Germans to criticise the society of Rome. But very few ever look into the seven volumes of the Abbe Raynal’s History of the Two Indies which appeared in 1772. It is however, one of the remarkable books of the century. Its immediate practical importance lay in the array of facts which it furnished to the friends of humanity in the movement against negro slavery. But it was also an effective attack on the Church and the sacerdotal system. The author’s method was the same which his greater contemporary Gibbon employed on a larger scale. A history of facts was a more formidable indictment than any declamatory attack.

Raynal brought home to the conscience of Europeans the miseries which had befallen the natives of the New World through the Christian conquerors and their priests. He was not indeed an enthusiastic preacher of Progress. He is unable to decide between the comparative advantages of the savage state of nature and the most highly cultivated society. But he observes that “the human race is what we wish to make it,” that the felicity of man depends entirely on the improvement of legislation; and in the survey of the history of Europe to which the last Book of his work is devoted, his view is generally optimistic. [Footnote: cp. Raynal, Histoire, vii. 214, 256. This book was first published anonymously; the author’s name appeared in the edition of 1780.]

Baron d’Holbach had a more powerful brain than Helvetius, but his writings had probably less influence, though he was the spiritual father of two prominent Revolutionaries, Hebert and Chaumette. His System of Nature (1770) develops a purely naturalistic theory of the universe, in which the prevalent Deism is rejected: there is no God; material Nature stands out alone, self-sufficing, dominis privata superbis. The book suggests how the Lucretian theory of development might have led to the idea of Progress. But it sent a chilly shock to the hearts of many and probably convinced few. The effective part was the outspoken and passionate indictment of governments and religions as causes of most of the miseries of mankind.

It is in other works, especially in his Social System, that his views of Progress are to be sought. Man is simply a part of nature; he has no privileged position, and he is born neither good nor bad. Erras, as Seneca said, si existumas vitia nobiscum esse: supervenerunt, ingesta sunt. [Footnote: Seneca, Ep. 124.] We are made good or bad by education, public opinion, laws, government; and here the author points to the significance of the instinct of imitation as a social force, which a modern writer, M. Tarde, has worked into a system.

The evils, which are due to the errors of tyranny and superstition, the force of truth will gradually diminish if it cannot completely banish them; for our governments and laws may be perfected by the progress of useful knowledge. But the process will be a long one: centuries of continuous mental effort in unravelling the causes of social ill-being and repeated experiments to determine the remedies (des experiences reiterees de la societe). In any case we cannot look forward to the attainment of an unchangeable or unqualified felicity. That is a mere chimera “incompatible with the nature of a being whose feeble machine is subject to derangement and whose ardent imagination will not always submit to the guidance of reason. Sometimes to enjoy, sometimes to suffer, is the lot of man; to enjoy more often than to suffer is what constitutes well-being.”

D’Holbach was a strict determinist; he left no room for freewill in the rigorous succession of cause and effect, and the pages in which he drives home the theory of causal necessity are still worth reading. From his naturalistic principles he inferred that the distinction between nature and art is not fundamental; civilisation is as rational as the savage state. Here he was at one with Aristotle.

All the successive inventions of the human mind to change or perfect man’s mode of existence and render it happier were only the necessary consequence of his essence and that of the existences which act upon him. All we do or think, all we are or shall be, is only an effect of what universal nature has made us. Art is only nature acting by the aid of the instruments which she has fashioned. [Footnote: The passages of d’Holbach specially referred to are: Systeme social, i. 1, p. 13; Syst. de la nature, i. 6, p. 88; Syst. soc. i. 15, p. 271; Syst. de la n. i. 1, p. 3.]

Progress, therefore, is natural and necessary, and to criticise or condemn it by appealing to nature is only to divide the house of nature against itself.

If d’Holbach had pressed his logic further, he would have taken a more indulgent and calmer view of the past history of mankind. He would have acknowledged that institutions and opinions to which modern reason may give short shrift were natural and useful in their day, and would have recognised that at any stage of history the heritage of the past is no less necessary to progress than the solvent power of new ideas. Most thinkers of his time were inclined to judge the past career of humanity anachronistically. All the things that had been done or thought which could not be justified in the new age of enlightenment, were regarded as gratuitous and inexcusable errors. The traditions, superstitions, and customs, the whole “code of fraud and woe” transmitted from the past, weighed then too heavily in France to allow the school of reform to do impartial justice to their origins. They felt a sort of resentment against history. D’Alembert said that it would be well if history could be destroyed; and the general tendency was to ignore the social memory and the common heritage of past experiences which mould a human society and make it something very different from a mere collection of individuals.

Belief in Progress, however, took no extravagant form. It did not beguile d’Holbach or any other of the leading thinkers of the Encyclopaedia epoch into optimistic dreams of the future which might await mankind. They had a much clearer conception of obstacles than the good Abbe de Saint-Pierre. Helvetius agrees with d’Holbach that progress will be slow, and Diderot is wavering and sceptical of the question of indefinite social improvement. [Footnote: De l’esprit, Disc. ii. cc. 24, 25.]


The reformers of the Encyclopaedia group were not alone in disseminating the idea of Progress. Another group of thinkers, who widely differed in their principles, though some of them had contributed articles to the Encyclopaedia, [Footnote: Quesnay and Turgot, who, though not professedly a Physiocrat, held the same views as the sect.] also did much to make it a power. The rise of the special study of Economics was one of the most significant facts in the general trend of thought towards the analysis of civilisation. Economical students found that in seeking to discover a true theory of the production, distribution, and employment of wealth, they could not avoid the consideration of the constitution and purpose of society. The problems of production and distribution could not be divorced from political theory: production raises the question of the functions of government and the limits of its intervention in trade and industry; distribution involve questions of property, justice, and equality. The employment of riches leads into the domain of morals.

The French Economists or “Physiocrats,” as they were afterwards called, who formed a definite school before 1760–Quesnay the master, Mirabeau, Mercier de la Riviere, and the rest–envisaged their special subject from a wide philosophical point of view; their general economic theory was equivalent to a theory of human society. They laid down the doctrine of a Natural Order in political communities, and from it they deduced their economic teaching.

They assumed, like the Encyclopaedists, that the end of society is the attainment of terrestrial happiness by its members, and that this is the sole purpose of government. The object of a treatise by Mercier de la Riviere [Footnote: L’ordre naturel et essentiel des societes politiqes, 1767.] (a convenient exposition of the views of the sect) is, in his own words, to discover the natural order for the government of men living in organised communities, which will assure to them temporal felicity: an order in which everything is well, necessarily well, and in which the interests of all are so perfectly and intimately consolidated that all are happy, from the ruler to the least of his subjects.

But in what does this happiness consist? His answer is that “humanly speaking, the greatest happiness possible for us consists in the greatest possible abundance of objects suitable to our enjoyment and in the greatest liberty to profit by them.” And liberty is necessary not only to enjoy them but also to produce them in the greatest abundance, since liberty stimulates human efforts. Another condition of abundance is the multiplication of the race; in fact, the happiness of men and their numbers are closely bound up together in the system of nature. From these axioms may be deduced the Natural Order of a human society, the reciprocal duties and rights whose enforcement is required for the greatest possible multiplication of products, in order to procure to the race the greatest sum of happiness with the maximum population.

Now, individual property is the indispensable condition for full enjoyment of the products of human labour; “property is the measure of liberty, and liberty is the measure of property.” Hence, to realise general happiness it is only necessary to maintain property and consequently liberty in all their natural extent. The fatal error which has made history what it is has been the failure to recognise this simple fact; for aggression and conquest, the causes of human miseries, violate the law of property which is the foundation of happiness.

The practical inference was that the chief function of government was to protect property and that complete freedom should be left to private enterprise to exploit the resources of the earth. All would be well if trade and industry were allowed to follow their natural tendencies. This is what was meant by Physiocracy, the supremacy of the Natural Order. If rulers observed the limits of their true functions, Mercier thought that the moral effect would be immense. “The public system of government is the true education of moral man. Regis ad exemplum totus componitur orbis.” [Footnote: The particulars of the Physiocratic doctrine as to the relative values of agriculture and commerce which Adam Smith was soon to criticise do not concern us; nor is it necessary to repeat the obvious criticisms on a theory which virtually reduced the science of society to a science of production and distribution.]

While they advocated a thorough reform of the principles which ruled the fiscal policy of governments, the Economists were not idealists, like the Encyclopaedic philosophers; they sowed no seeds of revolution. Their starting-point was that which is, not that which ought to be. And, apart from their narrower point of view, they differed from the philosophers in two very important points. They did not believe that society was of human institution, and therefore they did not believe that there could be any deductive science of society based simply on man’s nature. Moreover, they held that inequality of condition was one of its immutable features, immutable because it is a consequence of the inequality of physical powers.

But they believed in the future progress of society towards a state of happiness through the increase of opulence which would itself depend on the growth of justice and “liberty”; and they insisted on the importance of the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Their influence in promoting a belief in Progress is vouched for by Condorcet, the friend and biographer of Turgot. As Turgot stands apart from the Physiocrats (with whom indeed he did not identify himself) by his wider views on civilisation, it might be suspected that it is of him that Condorcet was chiefly thinking. Yet we need not limit the scope of his statement when we remember that as a sect the Economists assumed as their first principle the eudaemonic value of civilisation, declared that temporal happiness is attainable, and threw all their weight into the scales against the doctrine of Regress which had found a powerful advocate in Rousseau.


By liberty the Economists meant economic liberty. Neither they nor the philosophers nor Rousseau, the father of modern democracy, had any just conception of what political liberty means. They contributed much to its realisation, but their own ideas of it were narrow and imperfect. They never challenged the principle of a despotic government, they only contended that the despotism must be enlightened. The paternal rule of a Joseph or a Catherine, acting under the advice of philosophers, seemed to them the ideal solution of the problem of government; and when the progressive and disinterested Turgot, whom they might regard as one of themselves, was appointed financial minister on the accession of Louis XVI., it seemed that their ideal was about to be realised. His speedy fall dispelled their hopes, but did not teach them the secret of liberty. They had no quarrel with the principle of the censorship, though they writhed under its tyranny; they did not want to abolish it. They only complained that it was used against reason and light, that is against their own writings; and, if the Conseil d’Etat or the Parlement had suppressed the works of their obscurantist opponents, they would have congratulated themselves that the world was marching quickly towards perfection. [Footnote: The principle that intolerance on the part of the wise and strong towards the ignorant and weak is a good thing is not alien to the spirit of the French philosophers, though I do not think any of them expressly asserted it. In the following century it was formulated by Colins, a Belgian (author of two works on social science, 1857-60), who believed that an autocratic government suppressing liberty of conscience is the most effective instrument of Progress. It is possible that democracy may yet try the experiment.]




The optimistic theory of civilisation was not unchallenged by rationalists. In the same year (1750) in which Turgot traced an outline of historical Progress at the Sorbonne, Rousseau laid before the Academy of Dijon a theory of historical Regress. This Academy had offered a prize for the best essay on the question whether the revival of sciences and arts had contributed to the improvement of morals. The prize was awarded to Rousseau. Five years later the same learned body proposed another subject for investigation, the origin of Inequality among men. Rousseau again competed but failed to win the prize, though this second essay was a far more remarkable performance.

The view common to these two discourses, that social development has been a gigantic mistake, that the farther man has travelled from a primitive simple state the more unhappy has his lot become, that civilisation is radically vicious, was not original. Essentially the same issue had been raised in England, though in a different form, by Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, the scandalous book which aimed at proving that it is not the virtues and amiable qualities of man that are the cement of civilised society, but the vices of its members which are the support of all trades and employments. [Footnote: The expanded edition was published in 1723.] In these vices, he said, “we must look for the true origin of all arts and sciences”; “the moment evil ceases the society must be spoiled, if not totally dissolved.”

The significance of Mandeville’s book lay in the challenge it flung to the optimistic doctrines of Lord Shaftesbury, that human nature is good and all is for the best in this harmonious world. “The ideas he had formed,” wrote Mandeville, “of the goodness and excellency of our nature were as romantic and chimerical as they are beautiful and amiable; he laboured hard to unite two contraries that can never be reconciled together, innocence of manners and worldly greatness.”

Of these two views Rousseau accepted one and rejected the other. He agreed with Shaftesbury as to the natural goodness of man; he agreed with Mandeville that innocence of manners is incompatible with the conditions of a civilised society. He was an optimist in regard to human nature, a pessimist in regard to civilisation.

In his first Discourse he begins by appreciating the specious splendour of modern enlightenment, the voyages of man’s intellect among the stars, and then goes on to assever that in the first place men have lost, through their civilisation, the original liberty for which they were born, and that arts and science, flinging garlands of flowers on the iron chains which bind them, make them love their slavery; and secondly that there is a real depravity beneath the fair semblance and “our souls are corrupted as our sciences and arts advance to perfection.” Nor is this only a modern phenomenon; “the evils due to our vain curiosity are as old as the world.” For it is a law of history that morals fall and rise in correspondence with the progress and decline of the arts and sciences as regularly as the tides answer to the phases of the moon. This “law” is exemplified by the fortunes of Greece, Rome, and China, to whose civilisations the author opposes the comparative happiness of the ignorant Persians, Scythians, and ancient Germans. “Luxury, dissoluteness, and slavery have been always the chastisement of the ambitious efforts we have made to emerge from the happy ignorance in which the Eternal Wisdom had placed us.” There is the theological doctrine of the tree of Eden in a new shape.

Rousseau’s attempt to show that the cultivation of science produces specific moral evils is feeble, and has little ingenuity; it is a declamation rather than an argument; and in the end he makes concessions which undo the effect of his impeachment. The essay did not establish even a plausible case, but it was paradoxical and suggestive, and attracted more attention than Turgot’s thoughtful discourse in the Sorbonne. D’Alembert deemed it worthy of a courteous expression of dissent; [Footnote: In the Disc. Prel. to the Encyclopaedia.] and Voltaire satirised it in his Timon.


In the Discourse on Inequality Rousseau dealt more directly with the effect of civilisation on happiness. He proposed to explain how it came about that right overcame the primitive reign of might, that the strong were induced to serve the weak, and the people to purchase a fancied tranquillity at the price of a real felicity. So he stated his problem; and to solve it he had to consider the “state of nature” which Hobbes had conceived as a state of war and Locke as a state of peace. Rousseau imagines our first savage ancestors living in isolation, wandering in the forests, occasionally co- operating, and differing from the animals only by the possession of a faculty for improving themselves (la faculte de se perfectionner). After a stage in which families lived alone in a more or less settled condition, came the formation of groups of families, living together in a definite territory, united by a common mode of life and sustenance, and by the common influence of climate, but without laws or government or any social organisation.

It is this state, which was reached only after a long period, not the original state of nature, that Rousseau considers to have been the happiest period of the human race.

This period of the development of human faculties, holding a just mean between the indolence of the primitive state and the petulant activity of our self-love, must be the happiest and most durable epoch. The more we reflect on it, the more we find that this state was the least exposed to revolutions and the best for man; and that he can have left it only through some fatal chance which, for the common advantage, should never have occurred. The example of the savages who have almost all been found in this state seems to bear out the conclusion that humanity was made to remain in it for ever, that it was the true youth of the world, and that all further progresses have been so many steps, apparently towards the perfection of the individual, and really towards the decrepitude of the species.

He ascribes to metallurgy and agriculture the fatal resolution which brought this Arcadian existence to an end. Agriculture entailed the origin of property in land. Moral and social inequality were introduced by the man who first enclosed a piece of land and said, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him. He was the founder of civil society.

The general argument amounts to this: Man’s faculty of improving himself is the source of his other faculties, including his sociability, and has been fatal to his happiness. The circumstances of his primeval life favoured the growth of this faculty, and in making man sociable they made him wicked; they developed the reason of the individual and thereby caused the species to deteriorate. If the process had stopped at a certain point, all would have been well; but man’s capacities, stimulated by fortuitous circumstances, urged him onward, and leaving behind him the peaceful Arcadia where he should have remained safe and content, he set out on the fatal road which led to the calamities of civilisation. We need not follow Rousseau in his description of those calamities which he attributes to wealth and the artificial conditions of society. His indictment was too general and rhetorical to make much impression. In truth, a more powerful and comprehensive case against civilised society was drawn up about the same time, though with a very different motive, by one whose thought represented all that was opposed to Rousseau’s teaching. Burke’s early work, A Vindication of Natural Society, [Footnote: A.D. 1756.] was written to show that all the objections which Deists like Bolingbroke urged against artificial religion could be brought with greater force against artificial society, and he worked out in detail a historical picture of the evils of civilisation which is far more telling than Rousseau’s generalities. [Footnote: In his admirable edition of The Political Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1915), p. 89, Vaughan suggests that in Rousseau’s later works we may possibly detect “the first faint beginnings” of a belief in Progress, and attributes this to the influence of Montesquieu.]


If civilisation has been the curse of man, it might seem that the logical course for Rousseau to recommend was its destruction. This was the inference which Voltaire drew in Timon, to laugh the whole theory out of court. But Rousseau did not suggest a movement to destroy all the libraries and all the works of art in the world, to put to death or silence all the savants, to pull down the cities, and burn the ships. He was not a mere dreamer, and his Arcadia was no more than a Utopian ideal, by the light of which he conceived that the society of his own day might be corrected and transformed. He attached his hopes to equality, democracy, and a radical change in education.

Equality: this revolutionary idea was of course quite compatible with the theory of Progress, and was soon to be closely associated with it. But it is easy to understand that the two ideas should first have appeared in antagonism to each other. The advance of knowledge and the increase of man’s power over nature had virtually profited only a minority. When Fontenelle or Voltaire vaunted the illumination of their age and glorified the modern revolution in scientific thought, they took account only of a small class of privileged people. Higher education, Voltaire observed, is not for cobblers or kitchenmaids; “on n’a jamais pretendu eclairer les cordonniers et les servantes.” The theory of Progress had so far left the masses out of account. Rousseau contrasted the splendour of the French court, the luxury of the opulent, the enlightenment of those who had the opportunity of education, with the hard lot of the ignorant mass of peasants, whose toil paid for the luxury of many of the idle enlightened people who amused themselves at Paris. The horror of this contrast, which left Voltaire cold, was the poignant motive which inspired Rousseau, a man of the people, in constructing his new doctrine. The existing inequality seemed an injustice which rendered the self-complacency of the age revolting. If this is the result of progressive civilisation, what is progress worth? The next step is to declare that civilisation is the causa malorum and that what is named progress is really regress. But Rousseau found a way of circumventing pessimism. He asked himself, cannot equality be realised in an organised state, founded on natural right? The Social Contract was his answer, and there we can see the living idea of equality detaching itself from the dead theory of degradation. [Footnote: The consistency of the Social Contract with the Discourse on Inequality has been much debated. They deal with two distinct problems, and the Social Contract does not mark any change in the author’s views. Though it was not published till 1762 he had been working at it since 1753.]

Arcadianism, which was thus only a side-issue for Rousseau, was the extreme expression of tendencies which appear in the speculations of other thinkers of the day. Morelly and Mably argued in favour of a reversion to simpler forms of life. They contemplated the foundation of socialistic communities by reviving institutions and practices which belonged to a past period of social evolution. Mably, inspired by Plato, thought it possible by legislation to construct a state of antique pattern. [Footnote: For Mably’s political doctrines see Guerrier’s monograph, L’Abbe de Mably (1886), where it is shown that among “the theories which determined in advance the course of the events of 1789” the Abbe’s played a role which has not been duly recognised.] They ascribed evils of civilisation to inequality arising from the existence of private property, but Morelly rejected the view of the “bold sophist” Rousseau that science and art were to blame. He thought that aided by science and learning man might reach a state based on communism, resembling the state of nature but more perfect, and he planned an ideal constitution in his romance of the Floating Islands. [Footnote: Naufrage des isles flottantes ou Basiliade du celebre Pilpai (1753). It begins: “je chante le regne aimable de la Verite et de la Nature.” Morelly’s other work, Code de la Nature, appeared in 1755.] Different as these views were, they represent the idea of regress; they imply a condemnation of the tendencies of actual social development and recommend a return to simpler and more primitive conditions.

Even Diderot, though he had little sympathy with Utopian speculations, was attracted by the idea of the simplification of society, and met Rousseau so far as to declare that the happiest state was a mean between savage and civilised life.

“I am convinced,” he wrote, “that the industry of man has gone too far and that if it had stopped long ago and if it were possible to simplify the results, we should not be the worse. I believe there is a limit in civilisation, a limit more conformable to the felicity of man in general and far less distant from the savage state than is imagined; but how to return to it, having left it, or how to remain in it, if we were there? I know not.” [Footnote: Refutation de l’ouvrage d’Helvetius in OEuvres ii. p. 431. Elsewhere (p. 287) he argues that in a community without arts and industries there are fewer crimes than in a civilised state, but men are not so happy.]

His picture of the savages of Tahiti in the Supplement au voyage de Bougainville was not seriously meant, but it illustrates the fact that in certain moods he felt the fascination of Rousseau’s Arcadia.

D’Holbach met all these theories by pointing out that human development, from the “state of nature” to social life and the ideas and commodities of civilisation, is itself natural, given the innate tendency of man to improve his lot. To return to the simpler life of the forests–or to any bygone stage–would be denaturer l’homme, it would be contrary to nature; and if he could do so, it would only be to recommence the career begun by his ancestors and pass again through the same successive phases of history. [Footnote: Syst. soc. i. 16, p. 190.]

There was, indeed, one question which caused some embarrassment to believers in Progress. The increase of wealth and luxury was evidently a salient feature in modern progressive states; and it was clear that there was an intimate connection between the growth of knowledge and the growth of commerce and industrial arts, and that the natural progress of these meant an ever-increasing accumulation of riches and the practice of more refined luxury. The question, therefore, whether luxury is injurious to the general happiness occupied the attention of the philosophers. [Footnote: D’Holbach, ib. iii. 7; Diderot, art. Luxe in the Encylopaedia; Helvetius, De l’esprit, i. 3.] If it is injurious, does it not follow that the forces on which admittedly Progress depends are leading in an undesirable direction? Should they be obstructed, or is it wiser to let things follow their natural tendency (laisser aller les choses suivant leur pente naturelle)? Voltaire accepted wealth with all its consequences. D’Holbach proved to his satisfaction that luxury always led to the ruin of nations. Diderot and Helvetius arrayed the arguments which could be urged on both sides. Perhaps the most reasonable contribution to the subject was an essay of Hume.


It is obvious that Rousseau and all other theorists of Regress would be definitely refuted if it could be proved by an historical investigation that in no period in the past had man’s lot been happier than in the present. Such an inquiry was undertaken by the Chevalier de Chastellux. His book On Public Felicity, or Considerations on the lot of Men in the various Epochs of History, appeared in 1772 and had a wide circulation. [Footnote: There was a new edition in 1776 with an important additional chapter.] It is a survey of the history of the western world and aims at proving the certainty of future Progress. It betrays the influence both of the Encyclopaedists and of the Economists. Chastellux is convinced that human nature can be indefinitely moulded by institutions; that enlightenment is a necessary condition of general happiness; that war and superstition, for which governments and priests are responsible, are the principal obstacles.

But he attempted to do what none of his masters had done, to test the question methodically from the data of history. Turgot, and Voltaire in his way, had traced the growth of civilisation; the originality of Chastellux lay in concentrating attention on the eudaemonic issue, in examining each historical period for the purpose of discovering whether people on the whole were happy and enviable. Has there ever been a time, he inquired, in which public felicity was greater than in our own, in which it would have been desirable to remain for ever, and to which it would now be desirable to return?

He begins by brushing away the hypothesis of an Arcadia. We know really nothing about primitive man, there is not sufficient evidence to authorise conjectures. We know man only as he has existed in organised societies, and if we are to condemn modern civilisation and its prospects, we must find our term of comparison not in an imaginary golden age but in a known historical epoch. And we must be careful not to fall into the mistakes of confusing public prosperity with general happiness, and of considering only the duration or aggrandisement of empires and ignoring the lot of the common people.

His survey of history is summary and superficial enough. He gives reasons for believing that no peoples from the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians to the Europeans of the Renaissance can be judged happy. Yet what about the Greeks? Theirs was an age of enlightenment. In a few pages he examines their laws and history, and concludes, “We are compelled to acknowledge that what is called the bel age of Greece was a time of pain and torture for humanity.” And in ancient history, generally, “slavery alone sufficed to make man’s condition a hundred times worse than it is at present.” The miseries of life in the Roman period are even more apparent than in the Greek. What Englishman or Frenchman would tolerate life as lived in ancient Rome? It is interesting to remember that four years later an Englishman who had an incomparably wider and deeper knowledge of history declared it to be probable that in the age of the Antonines civilised Europe enjoyed greater happiness than at any other period.

Rome declined and Christianity came. Its purpose was not to render men happy on earth, and we do not find that it made rulers less avaricious or less sanguinary, peoples more patient or quiet, crimes rarer, punishments less cruel, treaties more faithfully observed, or wars waged more humanely. The conclusion is that it is only those who are profoundly ignorant of the past who can regret “the good old times.”

Throughout this survey Chastellux does not, like Turgot, make any attempt to show that the race was progressing, however slowly. On the contrary, he sets the beginning of continuous Progress in the Renaissance–here agreeing with d’Alembert and Voltaire. The intellectual movement, which originated then and resulted in the enlightenment of his own day, was a condition of social progress. But alone it would not have been enough, as is proved by the fact that the intellectual brilliancy of the great age of Greece exerted no beneficent effects on the well-being of the people. Nor indeed was there any perceptible improvement in the prospect of happiness for the people at large during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notwithstanding the progress of science and the arts. But the terrible wars of this period exhausted Europe, and this financial exhaustion has supplied the requisite conditions for attaining a measure of felicity never realised in the past.

Peace is an advantageous condition for the progress of reason, but especially when it is the result of the exhaustion of peoples and their satiety of fighting. Frivolous ideas disappear; political bodies, like organisms, have the care of self-preservation impressed upon them by pain; the human mind, hitherto exercised on agreeable objects, falls back with more energy on useful objects; a more successful appeal can be made to the rights of humanity; and princes, who have become creditors and debtors of their subjects, permit them to be happy in order that they may be more solvent or more patient.

This is not very lucid or convincing; but the main point is that intellectual enlightenment would be ineffective without the co- operation of political events, and no political events would permanently help humanity without the progress of knowledge.

Public felicity consists–Chastellux follows the Economists–in external and domestic peace, abundance and liberty, the liberty of tranquil enjoyment of one’s own; and ordinary signs of it are flourishing agriculture, large populations, and the growth of trade and industry. He is at pains to show the superiority of modern to ancient agriculture, and he avails himself of the researches of Hume to prove the comparatively greater populousness of modern European countries. As for the prospect of peace, he takes a curiously optimistic view. A system of alliances has made Europe a sort of confederated republic, and the balance of power has rendered the design of a universal monarchy, such as that which Louis XIV. essayed, a chimera. [Footnote: So Rivarol, writing in 1783 (OEuvres, i. pp. 4 and 52): “Never did the world offer such a spectacle. Europe has reached such a high degree of power that history has nothing to compare with it. It is virtually a federative republic, composed of empires and kingdoms, and the most powerful that has ever existed.”] All the powerful nations are burdened with debt. War, too, is a much more difficult enterprise than it used to be; every campaign of the king of Prussia has been more arduous than all the conquests of Attila. It looks as if the Peace of 1762-3 possessed elements of finality. The chief danger he discerns in the overseas policy of the English–auri sacra fames. Divination of this kind has never been happy; a greater thinker, Auguste Comte, was to venture on more dogmatic predictions of the cessation of wars, which the event was no less utterly to belie. As for equality among men, Chastellux admits its desirability, but observes that there is pretty much the same amount of happiness (le bonheur se compense assez) in the different classes of society. “Courtiers and ministers are not happier than husbandmen and artisans.” Inequalities and disportions in the lots of individuals are not incompatible with a positive measure of felicity. They are inconveniences incident to the perfectibility of the species, and they will be eliminated only when Progress reaches its final term. The best that can be done to remedy them is to accelerate the Progress of the race which will conduct it one day to the greatest possible happiness; not to restore a state of ignorance and simplicity, from which it would again escape.

The general argument of the book may be resumed briefly. Felicity has never been realised in any period of the past. No government, however esteemed, set before itself to achieve what ought to be the sole object of government, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of individuals.” Now, for the first time in human history, intellectual enlightenment, other circumstances fortunately concurring, has brought about a condition of things, in which this object can no longer be ignored, and there is a prospect that it will gradually gain the ascendant. In the meantime, things have improved; the diffusion of knowledge is daily ameliorating men’s lot, and far from envying any age in the past we ought to consider ourselves much happier than the ancients.

We may wonder at this writer’s easy confidence in applying the criterion of happiness to different societies. Yet the difficulty of such comparisons was, I believe, first pointed out by Comte. [Footnote: Cours de philosophie positive, iv. 379.] It is impossible, he says, to compare two states of society and determine that in one more happiness was enjoyed than in the other. The happiness of an individual requires a certain degree of harmony between his faculties and his environment. But there is always a natural tendency towards the establishment of such an equilibrium, and there is no means of discovering by argument or by direct experience the situation of a society in this respect. Therefore, he concludes, the question of happiness must be eliminated from any scientific treatment of civilisation.

Chastellux won a remarkable success. His work was highly praised by Voltaire, and was translated into English, Italian, and German. It condensed, on a single issue, the optimistic doctrines of the philosophers, and appeared to give them a more solid historical foundation than Voltaire’s Essay on Manners had supplied. It provided the optimists with new arguments against Rousseau, and must have done much to spread and confirm faith in perfectibility. [Footnote: Soon after the publication of the book of Chastellux– though I do not suggest any direct connection–a society of Illuminati, who also called themselves the Perfectibilists, was founded at Ingoldstadt, who proposed to effect a pacific transformation of humanity. See Javary, De l’idee de progres, p. 73.]




The leaders of thought in France did not look far forward into the future or attempt to trace the definite lines on which the human race might be expected to develop. They contented themselves with principles and vague generalities, and they had no illusions as to the slowness of the process of social amelioration; a rational morality, the condition of improvement, was only in its infancy. A passage in a work of the Abbe Morellet probably reflects faithfully enough the comfortable though not extravagant optimism which was current. [Footnote: Reflexions sur les avantages d’ecrire et d’imprimer sur les matieres de l’administration (1764); in Melanges, vol. iii. p. 55. Morellet held, like d’Holbach, that society is only the development and improvement of nature itself (ib. p. 6).]

Let us hope for the amelioration of man’s lot as a consequence of the progress of the enlightenment (des lumieres) and labours of the educated (des gens instruits); let us trust that the errors and even the injustices of our age may not rob us of this consoling hope. The history of society presents a continuous alternation of light and darkness, reason and extravagance, humanity and barbarism; but in the succession of ages we can observe good gradually increasing in ever greater proportion. What educated man, if he is not a misanthrope or misled by vain declamations, would really wish he had lived in the barbarous and poetical time which Homer paints in such fair and terrifying colours? Who regrets that he was not born at Sparta among those pretended heroes who made it a virtue to insult nature, practised theft, and gloried in the murder of a Helot; or at Carthage, the scene of human sacrifices, or at Rome amid the proscriptions or under the rule of a Nero or a Caligula? Let as agree that man advances, though slowly, towards light and happiness.

But though the most influential writers were sober in speculating about the future, it is significant of their effectiveness in diffusing the idea of Progress that now for the first time a prophetic Utopia was constructed. Hitherto, as I have before observed, ideal states were either projected into the remote past or set in some distant, vaguely-known region, where fancy could build freely. To project them into the future was a new thing, and when in 1770 Sebastien Mercier described what human civilisation would be in A.D. 2440, it was a telling sign of the power which the idea of Progress was beginning to exercise.


Mercier has been remembered, or rather forgotten, as an inferior dramatist. He was a good deal more, and the researches of M. Beclard into his life and works enable us to appreciate him. If it is an overstatement to say that his soul reflected in miniature the very soul of his age, [Footnote: L. Beclard, Sebastien Mercier, sa vie, son oeuvre, son temps (1903), p. vii.] he was assuredly one of its characteristic products. He reminds us in some ways of the Abbe de Saint-Pierre, who was one of his heroes. All his activities were urged by the dream of a humanity regenerated by reason, all his energy devoted to bringing about its accomplishment. Saint-Pierre’s idea of perpetual peace inspired an early essay on the scourge of war.

The theories of Rousseau exercised at first an irresistible attraction, but modern civilisation had too strong a hold on him; he was too Parisian in temper to acquiesce for long in the doctrine of Arcadianism. He composed a book on The Savage to illustrate the text that the true standard of morality is the heart of primitive man, and to prove that the best thing we could do is to return to the forest; but in the process of writing it he seems to have come to the conclusion that the whole doctrine was fallacious. [Footnote: Mercier’s early essay: Des malheurs de la guerre et des avantages de la paix (1766). On the savage: L’homme sauvage (1767). For the opposite thesis see the Songes philosophiques (1768). He describes a state of perfect happiness in a planet where beings live in perpetual contemplation of the infinite. He appreciates the work of philosophers from Socrates to Leibnitz, and describes Rousseau as standing before the swelling stream, but cursing it. It may be suspected that the writings of Leibnitz had much to do with Mercier’s conversion.] The transformation of his opinions was the work of a few months. He then came forward with the opposite thesis that all events have been ordered for man’s felicity, and he began to work on an imaginary picture of the state to which man might find his way within seven hundred years.

L’an 2440 was published anonymously at Amsterdam in 1770. [Footnote: The author’s name first appeared in the 3rd ed., 1799. A German translation, by C. F. Weisse, was published in London in 1772. The English version, by Dr. Hooper, appeared in the same year, and a new edition in 1802; the translator changed the title to Memoirs of the year Two thousand five hundred.] Its circulation in France was rigorously forbidden, because it implied a merciless criticism of the administration. It was reprinted in London and Neuchatel, and translated into English and German.


As the motto of his prophetic vision Mercier takes the saying of Leibnitz that “the present is pregnant of the future.” Thus the phase of civilisation which he imagines is proposed as the outcome of the natural and inevitable march of history. The world of A.D. 2440 in which a man born in the eighteenth century who has slept an enchanted sleep awakes to find himself, is composed of nations who live in a family concord rarely interrupted by war. But of the world at large we hear little; the imagination of Mercier is concentrated on France, and particularly Paris. He is satisfied with knowing that slavery has been abolished; that the rivalry of France and England has been replaced by an indestructible alliance; that the Pope, whose authority is still august, has renounced his errors and returned to the customs of the primitive Church; that French plays are performed in China. The changes in Paris are a sufficient index of the general transformation.

The constitution of France is still monarchical. Its population has increased by one half; that of the capital remains about the same. Paris has been rebuilt on a scientific plan; its sanitary arrangements have been brought to perfection; it is well lit; and every provision has been made for the public safety. Private hospitality is so large that inns have disappeared, but luxury at table is considered a revolting crime. Tea, coffee, and tobacco are no longer imported. [Footnote: In the first edition of the book commerce was abolished.] There is no system of credit; everything is paid for in ready money, and this practice has led to a remarkable simplicity in dress. Marriages are contracted only through mutual inclination; dowries have been abolished. Education is governed by the ideas of Rousseau, and is directed, in a narrow spirit, to the promotion of morality. Italian, German, English, and Spanish are taught in schools, but the study of the classical languages has disappeared; Latin does not help a man to virtue. History too is neglected and discouraged, for it is “the disgrace of humanity, every page being crowded with crimes and follies.” Theatres are government institutions, and have become the public schools of civic duties and morality. [Footnote: In 1769 Mercier began to carry out his programme of composing and adapting plays for instruction and edification. His theory of the true functions of the theatre he explained in a special treatise, Du theatre ou Nouvel Essai sur l’art dramatique (1773).]

The literary records of the past had been almost all deliberately destroyed by fire. It was found expedient to do away with useless and pernicious books which only obscured truth or contained perpetual repetitions of the same thing. A small closet in the public library sufficed to hold the ancient books which were permitted to escape the conflagration, and the majority of these were English. The writings of the Abbe de Saint-Pierre were placed next those of Fenelon. “His pen was weak, but his heart was sublime. Seven ages have given to his great and beautiful ideas a just maturity. His contemporaries regarded him as a visionary; his dreams, however, have become realities.”

The importance of men of letters as a social force was a favourite theme of Mercier, and in A.D. 2440 this will be duly recognised. But the State control which weighed upon them so heavily in 1770 is not to be entirely abolished. There is no preventive censorship to hinder publication, but there are censors. There are no fines or imprisonment, but there are admonitions. And if any one publishes a book defending principles which are considered dangerous, he is obliged to go about in a black mask.

There is a state religion, Deism. There is probably no one who does not believe in God. But if any atheist were discovered, he would be put through a course of experimental physics. If he remained obdurate in his rejection of a “palpable and salutary truth,” the nation would go into mourning and banish him from its borders.

Every one has to work, but labour no longer resembles slavery. As there are no monks, nor numerous domestics, nor useless valets, nor work-men employed on the production of childish luxuries, a few daily hours of labour are sufficient for the public wants. Censors inquire into men’s capacities, assign tasks to the unemployed, and if man be found fit for nothing but the consumption of food he is banished from the city.

These are some of the leading features of the ideal future to which Mercier’s imagination reached. He did not put it forward as a final term. Later ages, he said, will go further, for “where can the perfectibility of man stop, armed with geometry and the mechanical arts and chemistry?” But in his scanty prophecies of what science might effect he showed curiously little resource. The truth is that this had not much interest for him, and he did not see that scientific discoveries might transmute social conditions. The world of 2440, its intolerably docile and virtuous society, reflects two capital weaknesses in the speculation of the Encyclopaedist period: a failure to allow for the strength of human passions and interests, and a deficient appreciation of the meaning of liberty. Much as the reformers acclaimed and fought for toleration, they did not generally comprehend the value of the principle. They did not see that in a society organised and governed by Reason and Justice themselves, the unreserved toleration of false opinions would be the only palladium of progress; or that a doctrinaire State, composed of perfectly virtuous and deferential people, would arrest development and stifle origiality, by its ungenial if mild tyranny. Mercier’s is no exception to the rule that ideal societies are always repellent; and there are probably few who would not rather be set down in Athens in the days of the “vile” Aristophanes, whose works Mercier condemned to the flames, than in his Paris of 2440.


That Bohemian man of letters, Restif de la Bretonne, whose unedifying novels the Parisians of 2440 would assuredly have rejected from their libraries, published in 1790 a heroic comedy representing how marriages would be arranged in “the year 2000,” by which epoch he conceived that all social equalities would have disappeared in a fraternal society and twenty nations be allied to France under the wise supremacy of “our well-beloved monarch Louis Francois XXII.” It was the Revolution that converted Restif to the conception of Progress, for hitherto his master had been Rousseau; but it can hardly be doubted that the motif and title of his play were suggested by the romance of Mercier. L’an 2440 and L’an 2000 are the first examples of the prophetic fiction which Mr. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward was to popularise a hundred years later.

The Count de Volney’s Ruins was another popular presentation of the hopes which the theory of Progress had awakened in France. Although the work was not published till after the outbreak of the Revolution, [Footnote: Les Ruines des empires, 1789. An English