Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury

Part 3 out of 6

Adobe PDF icon
Download The Idea of Progress pdf
File size: 0.7 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

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

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

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

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

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


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 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

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

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

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

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

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

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.




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

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

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit Twitter Pinterest