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

The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury

Part 4 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.

translation ran to a second edition (1795).] the plan had been
conceived some years before. Volney was a traveller, deeply
interested in oriental and classical antiquities, and, like Louis Le
Roy, he approached the problem of man's destinies from the point of
view of a student of the revolutions of empires.

The book opens with melancholy reflections amid the ruins of
Palmyra. "Thus perish the works of men, and thus do nations and
empires vanish away ... Who can assure us that desolation like this
will not one day be the lot of our own country?" Some traveller like
himself will sit by the banks of the Seine, the Thames, or the
Zuyder Zee, amid silent ruins, and weep for a people inurned and
their greatness changed into an empty name. Has a mysterious Deity
pronounced a secret malediction against the earth?

In this disconsolate mood he is visited by an apparition, who
unveils the causes of men's misfortunes and shows that they are due
to themselves. Man is governed by natural invariable laws, and he
has only to study them to know the springs of his destiny, the
causes of his evils and their remedies. The laws of his nature are
self-love, desire of happiness, and aversion to pain; these are the
simple and prolific principles of everything that happens in the
moral world. Man is the artificer of his own fate. He may lament his
weakness and folly; but "he has perhaps still more reason to be
confident in his energies when he recollects from what point he has
set out and to what heights he has been capable of elevating

The supernatural visitant paints a rather rosy picture of the
ancient Egyptian and Assyrian kingdoms. But it would be a mistake to
infer from their superficial splendour that the inhabitants
generally were wise or happy. The tendency of man to ascribe
perfection to past epochs is merely "the discoloration of his
chagrin." The race is not degenerating; its misfortunes are due to
ignorance and the mis-direction of self-love. Two principal
obstacles to improvement have been the difficulty of transmitting
ideas from age to age, and that of communicating them rapidly from
man to man. These have been removed by the invention of printing.
The press is "a memorable gift of celestial genius." In time all men
will come to understand the principles of individual happiness and
public felicity. Then there will be established among the peoples of
the earth an equilibrium of forces; there will be no more wars,
disputes will be decided by arbitration, and "the whole species will
become one great society, a single family governed by the same
spirit and by common laws, enjoying all the felicity of which human
nature is capable." The accomplishment of this will be a slow
process, since the same leaven will have to assimilate an enormous
mass of heterogeneous elements, but its operation will be effectual.

Here the genius interrupts his prophecy and exclaims, turning toward
the west, "The cry of liberty uttered on the farther shores of the
Atlantic has reached to the old continent." A prodigious movement is
then visible to their eyes in a country at the extremity of the
Mediterranean; tyrants are overthrown, legislators elected, a code
of laws is drafted on the principles of equality, liberty, and
justice. The liberated nation is attacked by neighbouring tyrants,
but her legislators propose to the other peoples to hold a general
assembly, representing the whole world, and weigh every religious
system in the balance. The proceedings of this congress follow, and
the book breaks off incomplete.

It is not an arresting book; to a reader of the present day it is
positively tedious; but it suited contemporary taste, and, appearing
when France was confident that her Revolution would renovate the
earth, it appealed to the hopes and sentiments of the movement. It
made no contribution to the doctrine of Progress, but it undoubtedly
helped to popularise it.




The authority which the advanced thinkers of France gained among the
middle classes during the third quarter of the eighteenth century
was promoted by the influence of fashion. The new ideas of
philosophers, rationalists, and men of science had interested the
nobles and higher classes of society for two generations, and were a
common subject of discussion in the most distinguished salons.
Voltaire's intimacy with Frederick the Great, the relations of
d'Alembert and Diderot with the Empress Catherine, conferred on
these men of letters, and on the ideas for which they stood, a
prestige which carried great weight with the bourgeoisie. Humbler
people, too, were as amenable as the great to the seduction of
theories which supplied simple keys to the universe [Footnote: Taine
said of the Contrat Social that it reduces political science to the
strict application of an elementary axiom which renders all study
unnecessary (La Revolution, vol. i. c. iv. Sec. iii.).] and assumed
that everybody was capable of judging for himself on the most
difficult problems. As well as the Encyclopaedia, the works of
nearly all the leading thinkers were written for the general public
not merely for philosophers. The policy of the Government in
suppressing these dangerous publications did not hinder their
diffusion, and gave them the attraction of forbidden fruit. In 1770
the avocat general (Seguier) acknowledged the futility of the
policy. "The philosophers," he said, "have with one hand sought to
shake the throne, with the other to upset the altars. Their purpose
was to change public opinion on civil and religious institutions,
and the revolution has, so to speak, been effected. History and
poetry, romances and even dictionaries, have been infected with the
poison of incredulity. Their writings are hardly published in the
capital before they inundate the provinces like a torrent. The
contagion has spread into workshops and cottages." [Footnote:
Rocquain, L'Esprit revolutionnaire avant la Revolution, p. 278.]

The contagion spread, but the official who wrote these words did not
see that it was successful because it was opportune, and that the
minds of men were prepared to receive the seed of revolutionary
ideas by the unspeakable corruption of the Government and the
Church. As Voltaire remarked about the same time, France was
becoming Encyclopaedist, and Europe too.


The influence of the subversive and rationalistic thinkers in
bringing about the events of 1789 has been variously estimated by
historians. The truth probably lies in the succinct statement of
Acton that "the confluence of French theory with American example
caused the Revolution to break out" when it did. The theorists aimed
at reform, not at political revolution; and it was the stimulus of
the Declaration of Rights of 1774 and the subsequent victory of the
Colonies that precipitated the convulsion, at a time when the
country had a better prospect of improvement than it ever had before
1774, when Louis XVI. came to the throne. But the theories had
prepared France for radical changes, and they guided the phases of
the Revolution. The leaders had all the optimism of the
Encyclopaedists; yet the most powerful single force was Rousseau,
who, though he denied Progress and blasphemed civilisation, had
promulgated the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, giving it
an attractive appearance of mathematical precision; and to this
doctrine the revolutionaries attached their optimistic hopes.
[Footnote: It is interesting to observe how Robespierre, to whom the
doctrines of Rousseau were oracles, could break out into admiration
of the progress of civilised man, as he did in the opening passage
of his speech of 7th May 1794. proposing the decree for the worship
of the Supreme Being (see the text in Stephen, Orators of the French
Revolution, ii. 391-92).] The theory of equality seemed no longer
merely speculative; for the American constitution was founded on
democratic equality, whereas the English constitution, which before
had seemed the nearest approximation to the ideal of freedom, was
founded on inequality. The philosophical polemic of the masters was
waged with weapons of violence by the disciples. Chaumette and
Hebert, the followers of d'Holbach, were destroyed by the disciples
of Rousseau. In the name of the creed of the Vicaire Savoyard the
Jacobin Club shattered the bust of Helvetius. Mably and Morelly had
their disciples in Babeuf and the socialists.

A naive confidence that the political upheaval meant regeneration
and inaugurated a reign of justice and happiness pervaded France in
the first period of the Revolution, and found a striking expression
in the ceremonies of the universal "Federation" in the Champ-de-Mars
on 14th July 1790. The festival was theatrical enough, decreed and
arranged by the Constituent Assembly, but the enthusiasm and
optimism of the people who gathered to swear loyalty to the new
Constitution were genuine and spontaneous. Consciously or
subconsciously they were under the influence of the doctrine of
Progress which leaders of opinion had for several decades been
insinuating into the public mind. It did not occur to them that
their oaths and fraternal embraces did not change their minds or
hearts, and that, as Taine remarked, they remained what ages of
political subjection and one age of political literature had made
them. The assumption that new social machinery could alter human
nature and create a heaven upon earth was to be swiftly and terribly

Post uarios casus et tot discrimina rerum
uenimus in Latium,

but Latium was to be the scene of sanguinary struggles.

Another allied and fundamental fallacy, into which all the
philosophers and Rousseau had more or less fallen, was reflected and
exposed by the Revolution. They had considered man in vacuo. They
had not seen that the whole development of a society is an enormous
force which cannot be talked or legislated away; they had ignored
the power of social memory and historical traditions, and misvalued
the strength of the links which bind generations together. So the
Revolutionaries imagined that they could break abruptly with the
past, and that a new method of government, constructed on
mathematical lines, a constitution (to use words of Burke) "ready
made and ready armed, mature in its birth, a perfect goddess of
wisdom and of war, hammered by our blacksmith midwives out of the
brain of Jupiter himself," would create a condition of idyllic
felicity in France, and that the arrival of the millennium depended
only on the adoption of the same principles by other nations. The
illusions created by the Declaration of the Rights of Man on the 4th
of August died slowly under the shadow of the Terror; but though the
hopes of those who believed in the speedy regeneration of the world
were belied, some of the thoughtful did not lose heart. There was
one at least who did not waver in his faith that the movement was a
giant's step on the path of man towards ultimate felicity, however
far he had still to travel. Condorcet, one of the younger
Encyclopaedists, spent the last months of his life, under the menace
of the guillotine, in projecting a history of human Progress.


Condorcet was the friend and biographer of Turgot, and it was not
unfitting that he should resume the design of a history of
civilisation, in the light of the idea of Progress, for which Turgot
had only left luminous suggestions. He did not execute the plan, but
he completed an elaborate sketch in which the controlling ideas of
the scheme are fully set forth. His principles are to be found
almost entirely in Turgot. But they have a new significance for
Condorcet. He has given them wings. He has emphasised, and made
deductions. Turgot wrote in the calm spirit of an inquirer.
Condorcet spoke with the verve of a prophet. He was prophesying
under the shadow of death. It is amazing that the optimistic Sketch
of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind should
have been composed when he was hiding from Robespierre in 1793.
[Footnote: Published in 1795.]

Condorcet was penetrated with the spirit of the Encyclopaedists, of
whom he had been one, and his attitude to Christianity was that of
Voltaire and Diderot. Turgot had treated the received religion
respectfully. He had acknowledged Providence, and, though the place
which he assigned to Providence was that of a sort of honorary
President of the development of civilisation who might disappear
without affecting the proceedings, there was a real difference
between his views and those of his friend as to the role of
Christianity and the civilisation of the Middle Ages.

A more important difference between the two thinkers is connected
with the different circumstances in which they wrote. Turgot did not
believe in the necessity of violent changes; he thought that steady
reforms under the existing regime would do wonders for France.
Before the Revolution Condorcet had agreed, but he was swept away by
its enthusiasm. The victory of liberty in America and the increasing
volume of the movement against slavery--one of the causes which most
deeply stirred his heart--had heightened his natural optimism and
confirmed his faith in the dogma of Progress. He felt the
exhilaration of the belief that he was living through "one of the
greatest revolutions of the human race," and he deliberately
designed his book to be opportune to a crisis of mankind, at which
"a picture of revolutions of the past will be the best guide."

Feeling that he is personally doomed, he consoles himself with
brooding on the time, however remote, when the sun will shine "on an
earth of none but freemen, with no master save reason; for tyrants
and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical tools, will all
have disappeared." He is not satisfied with affirming generally the
certainty of an indefinite progress in enlightenment and social
welfare. He sets himself to think out its nature, to forecast its
direction, and determine its goal, and insists, as his predecessors
had never done, on the prospects of the distant future.


His ambitious design is, in his own words, to show "the successive
changes in human society, the influence which each instant exerts on
the succeeding instant, and thus, in its successive modifications,
the advance of the human species towards truth or happiness." Taken
literally, this is an impossible design, and to put it forward as a
practical proposition is as if a man were to declare his intention
of writing a minute diary of the life of Julius Caesar from his
birth to his death. By stating his purpose in such terms, Condorcet
reveals that he had no notion of the limitations which confine our
knowledge of the past, and that even if he had conceived a more
modest and practicable programme he would have been incapable of
executing it. His formula, however, is worth remembering. For the
unattainable ideal which it expresses reminds us how many periods
and passages of human experience must always remain books with seven

Condorcet distinguished ten periods of civilisation, of which the
tenth lies in the future, but he has not justified his divisions and
his epochs are not co-ordinate in importance. Yet his arrangement of
the map of history is remarkable as an attempt to mark its sections
not by great political changes but by important steps in knowledge.
The first three periods--the formation of primitive societies,
followed by the pastoral age, and the agricultural age--conclude
with the invention of alphabetic writing in Greece. The fourth is
the history of Greek thought, to the definite division of the
sciences in the time of Aristotle. In the fifth knowledge progresses
and suffers obscuration under Roman rule, and the sixth is the dark
age which continues to the time of the Crusades. The significance of
the seventh period is to prepare the human mind for the revolution
which would be achieved by the invention of printing, with which the
eighth period opens. Some of the best pages of the book develop the
vast consequences of this invention. The scientific revolution
effected by Descartes begins a new period, which is now closed by
the creation of the French Republic.

The idea of the progress of knowledge had created the idea of social
Progress and remained its foundation. It was therefore logical and
inevitable that Condorcet should take advance in knowledge as the
clew to the march of the human race. The history of civilisation is
the history of enlightenment. Turgot had justified this axiom by
formulating the cohesion of all modes of social activity. Condorcet
insists on "the indissoluble union" between intellectual progress
and that of liberty, virtue, and the respect for natural rights, and
on the effect of science in the destruction of prejudice. All errors
in politics and ethics have sprung, he asserts, from false ideas
which are closely connected with errors in physics and ignorance of
the laws of nature. And in the new doctrine of Progress he sees an
instrument of enlightenment which is to give "the last blow to the
tottering edifice of prejudices."

It would not be useful to analyse Condorcet's sketch or dwell on his
obsolete errors and the defects of his historical knowledge. His
slight picture of the Middle Ages reflects the familiar view of all
the eighteenth century philosophers. The only contribution to social
amelioration which he can discover in a period of nearly a
millennium is the abolition of domestic slavery. And so this period
appears as an interruption of the onward march. His inability to
appreciate the historical role of the Roman Empire exhibits more
surprising ignorance and prejudice. But these particular defects are
largely due to a fundamental error which runs through his whole book
and was inherent in the social speculations of the Encyclopaedists.
Condorcet, like all his circle, ignored the preponderant part which
institutions have played in social development. So far as he
considered them at all, he saw in them obstacles to the free play of
human reason; not the spontaneous expression of a society
corresponding to its needs or embodying its ideals, but rather
machinery deliberately contrived for oppressing the masses and
keeping them in chains. He did not see that if the Progress in which
he believed is a reality, its possibility depends on the
institutions and traditions which give to societies their stability.
In the following generation, it would be pointed out that he fell
into a manifest contradiction when he praised the relative
perfection reached in some European countries in the eighteenth
century, and at the same time condemned as eminently retrograde all
the doctrines and institutions which had been previously in control.
[Footnote: Comte. Cours de philosophie positive, iv. 228.] This
error is closely connected with the other error, previously noticed,
of conceiving man abstracted from his social environment and
exercising his reason in vacuo.


The study of the history of civilisation has, in Condorcet's eyes,
two uses. It enables us to establish the fact of Progress, and it
should enable us to determine its direction in the future, and
thereby to accelerate the rate of progression.

By the facts of history and the arguments they suggest, he
undertakes to show that nature has set no term to the process of
improving human faculties, and that the advance towards perfection
is limited only by the duration of the globe. The movement may vary
in velocity, but it will never be retrograde so long as the earth
occupies its present place in the cosmic system and the general laws
of this system do not produce some catastrophe or change which would
deprive the human race of the faculties and resources which it has
hitherto possessed. There will be no relapse into barbarism. The
guarantees against this danger are the discovery of true methods in
the physical sciences, their application to the needs of men, the
lines of communication which have been established among them, the
great number of those who study them, and finally the art of
printing. And if we are sure of the continuous progress of
enlightenment, we may be sure of the continuous improvement of
social conditions.

It is possible to foresee events, if the general laws of social
phenomena are known, and these laws can be inferred from the history
of the past. By this statement Condorcet justifies his bold attempt
to sketch his tenth period of human history which lies in the
future; and announces the idea which was in the next generation to
be worked out by Comte. But he cannot be said to have deduced
himself any law of social development. His forecast of the future is
based on the ideas and tendencies of his own age. [Footnote: It is
interesting to notice that the ablest of medieval Arabic historians,
Ibn Khaldun (fourteenth century), had claimed that if history is
scientifically studied future events may be predicted.]

Apart from scientific discoveries and the general diffusion of a
knowledge of the laws of nature on which moral improvement depends,
he includes in his prophetic vision the cessation of war and the
realisation of the less familiar idea of the equality of the sexes.
If he were alive to-day, he could point with triumph to the fact
that of these far-reaching projects one is being accomplished in
some of the most progressive countries and the other is looked upon
as an attainable aim by statesmen who are not visionaries. The
equality of the sexes was only a logical inference from the general
doctrine of equality to which Condorcet's social theory is
reducible. For him the goal of political progress is equality;
equality is to be the aim of social effort--the ideal of the

For it is the multitude of men that must be considered--the mass of
workers, not the minority who live on their labours. Hitherto they
have been neglected by the historian as well as by the statesman.
The true history of humanity is not the history of some men. The
human race is formed by the mass of families who subsist almost
entirely on the fruits of their own work, and this mass is the
proper subject of history, not great men.

You may establish social equality by means of laws and institutions,
yet the equality actually enjoyed may be very incomplete. Condorcet
recognises this and attributes it to three principal causes:
inequality in wealth; inequality in position between the man whose
means of subsistence are assured and can be transmitted to his
family and the man whose means depend on his work and are limited by
the term of his own life [Footnote: He looked forward to the
mitigation of this inequality by the development of life insurance
which was then coming to the front.]; and inequality in education.
He did not propose any radical methods for dealing with these
difficulties, which he thought would diminish in time, without,
however, entirely disappearing. He was too deeply imbued with the
views of the Economists to be seduced by the theories of Rousseau,
Mably, Babeuf, and others, into advocating communism or the
abolition of private property.

Besides equality among the individuals composing a civilised
society, Condorcet contemplated equality among all the peoples of
the earth,--a uniform civilisation throughout the world, and the
obliteration of the distinction between advanced and retrograde
races. The backward peoples, he prophesied, will climb up to the
condition of France and the United States of America, for no people
is condemned never to exercise its reason. If the dogma of the
perfectibility of human nature, unguarded by any restrictions, is
granted, this is a logical inference, and we have already seen that
it was one of the ideas current among the philosophers.

Condorcet does not hesitate to add to his picture adventurous
conjectures on the improvement of man's physical organisation, and a
considerable prolongation of his life by the advance of medical
science. We need only note this. More interesting is the prediction
that, even if the compass of the human being's cerebral powers is
inalterable, the range, precision, and rapidity of his mental
operations will be augmented by the invention of new instruments and

The design of writing a history of human civilisation was premature,
and to have produced a survey of any durable value would have
required the equipment of a Gibbon. Condorcet was not even as well
equipped as Voltaire. [Footnote: But as he wrote without books the
Sketch was a marvellous tour de force.] The significance of his
Sketch lies in this, that towards the close of an intellectual
movement it concentrated attention on the most important, though
hitherto not the most prominent, idea which that movement had
disseminated, and as it were officially announced human Progress as
the leading problem that claimed the interest of mankind. With him
Progress was associated intimately with particular eighteenth
century doctrines, but these were not essential to it. It was a
living idea; it survived the compromising theories which began to
fall into discredit after the Revolution, and was explored from new
points of view. Condorcet, however, wedded though his mind was to
the untenable views of human nature current in his epoch and his
circle, did not share the tendency of leading philosophers to regard
history as an unprofitable record of folly and crime which it would
be well to obliterate or forget. He recognised the interpretation of
history as the key to human development, and this principle
controlled subsequent speculations on Progress in France.


Cabanis, the physician, was Condorcet's literary executor, and a no
less ardent believer in human perfectibility. Looking at life and
man from his own special point of view, he saw in the study of the
physical organism the key to the intellectual and moral improvement
of the race. It is by knowledge of the relations between his
physical states and moral states that man can attain happiness,
through the enlargement of his faculties and the multiplication of
enjoyments, and that he will be able to grasp, as it were, the
infinite in his brief existence by realising the certainty of
indefinite progress. His doctrine was a logical extension of the
theories of Locke and Condillac. If our knowledge is wholly derived
from sensations, our sensations depend on our sensory organs, and
mind becomes a function of the nervous system.

The events of the Revolution quenched in him as little as in
Condorcet the sanguine confidence that it was the opening of a new
era for science and art, and thereby for the general Progress of
man. "The present is one of those great periods of history to which
posterity will often look back" with gratitude. [Footnote: Picavet,
Les Ideologues, p. 203. Cabanis was born in 1757 and died in 1808.]
He took an active part in the coup d'etat of the 18th of Brumaire
(1799) which was to lead to the despotism of Napoleon. He imagined
that it would terminate oppression, and was as enthusiastic for it
as he and Condorcet had been for the Revolution ten years before.
"You philosophers," he wrote, [Footnote: Ib. p. 224.] "whose studies
are directed to the improvement and happiness of the race, you no
longer embrace vain shadows. Having watched, in alternating moods of
hope and sadness, the great spectacle of our Revolution, you now see
with joy the termination of its last act; you will see with rapture
this new era, so long promised to the French people, at last open,
in which all the benefits of nature, all the creations of genius,
all the fruits of time, labour, and experience will be utilised, an
era of glory and prosperity in which the dreams of your
philanthropic enthusiasm should end by being realised."

It was an over-sanguine and characteristic greeting of the
eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Cabanis was one of the most
important of those thinkers who, living into the new period, took
care that the ideas of their own generation should not be
overwhelmed in the rising flood of reaction.




The idea of Progress could not help crossing the Channel. France and
England had been at war in the first year of the eighteenth century,
they were at war in the last, and their conflict for supremacy was
the leading feature of the international history of the whole
century. But at no period was there more constant intellectual
intimacy or more marked reciprocal influence between the two
countries. It was a commonplace that Paris and London were the two
great foci of civilisation, and they never lost touch of each other
in the intellectual sphere. Many of the principal works of
literature that appeared in either country were promptly translated,
and some of the French books, which the censorship rendered it
dangerous to publish in Paris, were printed in London.

It was not indeed to be expected that the theory should have the
same kind of success, or exert the same kind of effect in England as
in France. England had her revolution behind her, France had hers
before her. England enjoyed what were then considered large
political liberties, the envy of other lands; France groaned under
the tyranny of worthless rulers. The English constitution satisfied
the nation, and the serious abuses which would now appear to us
intolerable were not sufficient to awaken a passionate desire for
reforms. The general tendency of British thought was to see
salvation in the stability of existing institutions, and to regard
change with suspicion. Now passionate desire for reform was the
animating force which propagated the idea of Progress in France. And
when this idea is translated from the atmosphere of combat, in which
it was developed by French men of letters, into the calm climate of
England, it appears like a cold reflection.

Again, English thinkers were generally inclined to hold, with Locke,
that the proper function of government is principally negative, to
preserve order and defend life and property, not to aim directly at
the improvement of society, but to secure the conditions in which
men may pursue their own legitimate aims. Most of the French
theorists believed in the possibility of moulding society
indefinitely by political action, and rested their hopes for the
future not only on the achievements of science, but on the
enlightened activity of governments. This difference of view tended
to give to the doctrine of Progress in France more practical
significance than in England.

But otherwise British soil was ready to receive the idea. There was
the same optimistic temper among the comfortable classes in both
countries. Shaftesbury, the Deist, had struck this note at the
beginning of the century by his sanguine theory, which was expressed
in Pope's banal phrase: "Whatever is, is right," and was worked into
a system by Hutcheson. This optimism penetrated into orthodox
circles. Progress, far from appearing as a rival of Providence, was
discussed in the interests of Christianity by the Scotch theologian,
Turnbull. [Footnote: The Principles of Modern Philosophy, 1740.]


The theory of the indefinite progress of civilisation left Hume
cold. There is little ground, he argued, to suppose that "the world"
is eternal or incorruptible. It is probably mortal, and must
therefore, with all things in it, have its infancy, youth, manhood,
and old age; and man will share in these changes of state. We must
then expect that the human species should, when the world is in the
age of manhood, possess greater bodily and mental vigour, longer
life, and a stronger inclination and power of generation. But it is
impossible to determine when this stage is reached. For the gradual
revolutions are too slow to be discernible in the short period known
to us by history and tradition. Physically and in mental powers men
have been pretty much the same in all known ages. The sciences and
arts have flourished now and have again decayed, but when they
reached the highest perfection among one people, the neighbouring
peoples were perhaps wholly unacquainted with them. We are therefore
uncertain whether at present man is advancing to his point of
perfection or declining from it. [Footnote: Essay on the
Populousness of Ancient Nations, ad init. ]

The argument is somewhat surprising in an eighteenth century thinker
like Hume, but it did not prevent him from recognising the
superiority of modern to ancient civilisation. This superiority
forms indeed the minor premiss in the general argument by which he
confuted the commonly received opinion as to the populousness of
ancient nations. He insisted on the improvements in art and
industry, on the greater liberty and security enjoyed by modern men.
"To one who considers coolly on the subject," he remarked, "it will
appear that human nature in general really enjoys more liberty at
present in the most arbitrary government of Europe than it ever did
during the most flourishing period of ancient times." [Footnote: The
justification of this statement was the abolition of slavery in

He discussed many of the problems of civilisation, especially the
conditions in which the arts and sciences flourish, [Footnote: Essay
on the Rise of Arts and Sciences.] and drew some general
conclusions, but he was too sceptical to suppose that any general
synthesis of history is possible, or that any considerable change
for the better in the manners of mankind is likely to occur.
[Footnote: Cf. Essay on the Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth, ad

The greatest work dealing with social problems, that Britain
produced in the eighteenth century, was Adam Smith's Wealth of
Nations, and his luminous exposition of the effects of the division
of labour was the most considerable contribution made by British
thinkers of the age to the study of human development. It is much
more than a treatise on economic principles; it contains a history
of the gradual economic progress of human society, and it suggests
the expectation of an indefinite augmentation of wealth and well-
being. Smith was entirely at one with the French Economists on the
value of opulence for the civilisation and happiness of mankind. But
it was indirectly perhaps that his work contributed most effectively
to the doctrine of the Progress of collective mankind. [Footnote: It
has been observed by Mr. Leslie Stephen that the doctrine of the
rights of man lies in the background of Adam Smith's speculations.]
His teaching that the free commercial intercourse of all the peoples
of the world, unfettered by government policies, was to the greatest
advantage of each, presented an ideal of the economic "solidarity"
of the race, which was one element in the ideal of Progress. And
this principle soon began to affect practice. Pitt assimilated it
when he was a young man, and it is one of the distinctions of his
statesmanship that he endeavoured to apply the doctrines of his
master so far as the prevailing prejudices would allow him.


A few writers of less weight and fame than Hume or Smith expressly
studied history in the light of Progress. It would not help us, in
following the growth of the idea, to analyse the works of Ferguson,
Dunbar, or Priestley. [Footnote: In his Essay on the History of
Civil Society Adam Ferguson treated the growth of civilisation as
due to the progressive nature of man, which insists on carrying him
forward to limits impossible to ascertain. He formulated the process
as a movement from simplicity to complexity, but contributed little
to its explanation.] But I will quote one passage from Priestley,
the most eminent of the three, and the most enthusiastic for the
Progress of man. As the division of labour--the chief principle of
organised society--is carried further he anticipates that

... nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more
at our command; men will make their situation in this world
abundantly more easy and comfortable; they will probably prolong
their existence in it and will grow daily more happy. ... Thus,
whatever was the beginning of this world, the end will be glorious
and paradisiacal beyond what our imaginations can now conceive.
Extravagant as some people may suppose these views to be, I think I
could show them to be fairly suggested by the true theory of human
nature and to arise from the natural course of human affairs.

[Footnote: This passage of Priestley occurs in his Essay on the
First Principles of Government and on the Nature of Political,
Civil, and Religious Liberty (1768, 2nd ed. 1771), pp. 2-4. His
Lectures on History and General Policy appeared in 1788.

Priestley was a strict utilitarian, who held that there is nothing
intrinsically excellent in justice and veracity apart from their
relation to happiness. The degree of public happiness is measured by
the excellence of religion, science, government, laws, arts,
commerce, conveniences of life, and especially by the degrees of
personal security and personal liberty. In all these the ancients
were inferior, and therefore they enjoyed less happiness. The
present state of Europe is vastly preferable to what it was in any
former period. And "the plan of this divine drama is opening more
and more." In the future, Knowledge will increase and accumulate and
diffuse itself to the lower ranks of society, who, by degrees, will
find leisure for speculation; and looking beyond their immediate
employment, they will consider the complex machine of society, and
in time understand it better than those who now write about it.

See his Lectures, pp. 371, 388 sqq., 528-53.

The English thinker did not share all the views of his French
masters. As a Unitarian, he regarded Christianity as a "great remedy
of vice and ignorance," part of the divine plan; and he ascribed to
government a lesser role than they in the improvement of humanity.
He held, for instance, that the state should not interfere in
education, arguing that this art was still in the experimental
stage, and that the intervention of the civil power might stereotype
a bad system.

Not less significant, though less influential, than the writings of
Priestley and Ferguson was the work of James Dunbar, Professor of
Philosophy at Aberdeen, entitled Essays on the History of Mankind in
Rude and Cultivated Ages (2nd ed., 1781). He conceived history as
progressive, and inquired into the general causes which determine
the gradual improvements of civilisation. He dealt at length with
the effects of climate and local circumstances, but unlike the
French philosophers did not ignore heredity. While he did not enter
upon any discussion of future developments, he threw out
incidentally the idea that the world may be united in a league of

Posterity, he wrote, "may contemplate, from a concurrence of various
causes and events, some of which are hastening into light, the
greater part, or even the whole habitable globe, divided among
nations free and independent in all the interior functions of
government, forming one political and commercial system" (p. 287).

Dunbar's was an optimistic book, but his optimism was more cautious
than Priestley's. These are his final words:

If human nature is liable to degenerate, it is capable of
proportionable improvement from the collected wisdom of ages. It is
pleasant to infer from the actual progress of society, the glorious
possibilities of human excellence. And, if the principles can be
assembled into view, which most directly tend to diversify the
genius and character of nations, some theory may be raised on these
foundations that shall account more systematically for past
occurrences and afford some openings and anticipations into the
eventual history of the world.]

The problem of dark ages, which an advocate of Progress must
explain, was waved away by Priestley in his Lectures on History with
the observation that they help the subsequent advance of knowledge
by "breaking the progress of authority." [Footnote: This was
doubtless suggested to him by some remarks of Hume in The Rise of
Arts and Sciences.] This is not much of a plea for such periods
viewed as machinery in a Providential plan. The great history of the
Middle Ages, which in the words of its author describes "the triumph
of barbarism and religion," had been completed before Priestley's
Lectures appeared, and it is remarkable that he takes no account of
it, though it might seem to be a work with which a theory of
Progress must come to terms.

Yet the sceptical historian of the Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire, who was more at home in French literature than any of his
fellow-countrymen, was not opposed to the theory of Progress, and he
even states it in a moderate form. Having given reasons for
believing that civilised society will never again be threatened by
such an irruption of barbarians as that which oppressed the arms and
institutions of Rome, he allows us to "acquiesce in the pleasing
conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still
increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge and perhaps
the virtue of the human race."

"The discoveries of ancient and modern navigators, and the domestic
history or tradition of the most enlightened nations, represent the
HUMAN SAVAGE, naked both in mind and body, and destitute of laws, of
arts, of ideas, and almost of language. From this abject condition,
perhaps the primitive and universal state of man, he has gradually
arisen to command the animals, to fertilise the earth, to traverse
the ocean, and to measure the heavens. His progress in the
improvement and exercise of his mental and corporeal faculties has
been irregular and various, infinitely slow in the beginning, and
increasing by degrees with redoubled velocity; ages of laborious
ascent have been followed by a moment of rapid downfall; and the
several climates of the globe have felt the vicissitudes of light
and darkness. Yet the experience of four thousand years should
enlarge our hopes and diminish our apprehensions; we cannot
determine to what height the human species may aspire in their
advances towards perfection; but it may safely be presumed that no
people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into
their original barbarism." [Footnote: Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire, ch. xxxviii. ad fin.]

But Gibbon treats the whole subject as a speculation, and he treats
it without reference to any of the general principles on which
French thinkers had based their theory. He admits that his reasons
for holding that civilisation is secure against a barbarous
cataclysm may be considered fallacious; and he also contemplates the
eventuality that the fabric of sciences and arts, trade and
manufacture, law and policy, might be "decayed by time." If so, the
growth of civilisation would have to begin again, but not ab initio.
For "the more useful or at least more necessary arts," which do not
require superior talents or national subordination for their
exercise, and which war, commerce, and religious zeal have spread
among the savages of the world, would certainly survive.

These remarks are no more than obiter dicta but they show how the
doctrine of Progress was influencing those who were temperamentally
the least likely to subscribe to extravagant theories.


The outbreak of the French Revolution evoked a sympathetic movement
among English progressive thinkers which occasioned the Government
no little alarm. The dissenting minister Dr. Richard Price, whose
Observations on Civil Liberty (1776), defending the action of the
American colonies, had enjoyed an immense success, preached the
sermon which provoked Burke to write his Reflections; and Priestley,
no less enthusiastic in welcoming the Revolution, replied to Burke.
The Government resorted to tyrannous measures; young men who
sympathised with the French movement and agitated for reforms at
home were sent to Botany Bay. Paine was prosecuted for his Rights of
Man, which directly preached revolution. But the most important
speculative work of the time, William Godwin's Political Justice,
escaped the censorship because it was not published at a popular
price. [Footnote: Godwin had helped to get Paine's book published in
1791, and he was intimate with the group of revolutionary spirits
who were persecuted by the Government. A good account of the episode
will be found in Brailsford's Shelley, Godwin, and their Circle.]

The Enquiry concerning Political Justice, begun in 1791, appeared in
1793. The second edition, three years later, shows the influence of
Condorcet's Sketch, which had appeared in the meantime. Godwin says
that his original idea was to produce a work on political science to
supersede Montesquieu. The note of Montesquieu's political
philosophy was respect for social institutions. Godwin's principle
was that social institutions are entirely pernicious, that they
perpetuate harmful prejudices, and are an almost insuperable
obstacle to improvement. If he particularly denounced monarchical
government, he regarded all government as evil, and held that social
progress would consist, not in the reformation of government, but in
its abolition. While he recognised that man had progressed in the
past, he considered history mainly a sequence of horrors, and he was
incapable of a calm survey of the course of civilisation. In English
institutions he saw nothing that did not outrage the principles of
justice and benevolence. The present state of humanity is about as
bad as it could be.

It is easy to see the deep influence which the teaching of Rousseau
exercised on Godwin. Without accepting the theory of Arcadia Godwin
followed him in unsparing condemnation of existing conditions.
Rousseau and Godwin are the two great champions in the eighteenth
century of the toiling and suffering masses. But Godwin drew the
logical conclusion from Rousseau's premisses which Rousseau
hesitated to draw himself. The French thinker, while he extolled the
anarchical state of uncivilised society, and denounced government as
one of the sources of its corruption, nevertheless sought the remedy
in new social and political institutions. Godwin said boldly,
government is the evil; government must go. Humanity can never be
happy until all political authority and social institutions

Now the peculiarity of Godwin's position as a doctrinaire of
Progress lies in the fact that he entertained the same pessimistic
view of some important sides of civilisation as Rousseau, and at the
same time adopted the theories of Rousseau's opponents, especially
Helvetius. His survey of human conditions seems to lead inevitably
to pessimism; then he turns round and proclaims the doctrine of

The explanation of this argument was the psychological theory of
Helvetius. He taught, as we saw, and Godwin developed the view in
his own way, that the natures and characters of men are moulded
entirely by their environment--not physical, but intellectual and
moral environment, and therefore can be indefinitely modified. A man
is born into the world without innate tendencies. His conduct
depends on his opinions. Alter men's opinions and they will act
differently. Make their opinions conformable to justice and
benevolence, and you will have a just and benevolent society.
Virtue, as Socrates taught, is simply a question of knowledge. The
situation, therefore, is not hopeless. For it is not due to the
radical nature of man; it is caused by ignorance and prejudice, by
governments and institutions, by kings and priests. Transform the
ideas of men, and society will be transformed. The French
philosopher considered that a reformed system of educating children
would be one of the most powerful means for promoting progress and
bringing about the reign of reason; and Condorcet worked out a
scheme of universal state education. This was entirely opposed to
Godwin's principles. State schools would only be another instrument
of power in the hands of a government, worse even than a state
Church. They would strengthen the poisonous influence of kings and
statesmen, and establish instead of abolishing prejudices. He seems
to have relied entirely on the private efforts of enlightened
thinkers to effect a gradual conversion of public opinion.

In his study of the perfectibility of man and the prospect of a
future reign of general justice and benevolence, Godwin was even
more visionary than Condorcet, as in his political views he was more
radical than the Revolutionists. Condorcet had at least sought to
connect his picture of the future with a reasoned survey of the
past, and to find a chain of connection, but the perfectibility of
Godwin hung in the air, supported only by an abstract theory of the
nature of man.

It can hardly be said that he contributed anything to the
theoretical problem of civilisation. His significance is that he
proclaimed in England at an opportune moment, and in a more
impressive and startling way than a sober apostle like Priestley,
the creed of progress taught by French philosophers, though
considerably modified by his own anarchical opinions.


Perfectibility, as expounded by Condorcet and Godwin, encountered a
drastic criticism from Malthus, whose Essay on the Principle of
Population appeared in its first form anonymously in 1798. Condorcet
had foreseen an objection which might be raised as fatal to the
realisation of his future state. Will not the progress of industry
and happiness cause a steady increase in population, and must not
the time come when the number of the inhabitants of the globe will
surpass their means of subsistence? Condorcet did not grapple with
this question. He contented himself with saying that such a period
must be very far away, and that by then "the human race will have
achieved improvements of which we can now scarcely form an idea."
Similarly Godwin, in his fancy picture of the future happiness of
mankind, notices the difficulty and shirks it. "Three-fourths of the
habitable globe are now uncultivated. The parts already cultivated
are capable of immeasurable improvement. Myriads of centuries of
still increasing population may pass away and the earth be still
found sufficient for the subsistence of its inhabitants."

Malthus argued that these writers laboured under an illusion as to
the actual relations between population and the means of
subsistence. In present conditions the numbers of the race are only
kept from increasing far beyond the means of subsistence by vice,
misery, and the fear of misery. [Footnote: This observation had been
made (as Hazlitt pointed out) before Malthus by Robert Wallace (see
A Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind, p. 13, 1753). It was
another book of Wallace that suggested the difficulty to Godwin.] In
the conditions imagined by Condorcet and Godwin these checks are
removed, and consequently the population would increase with great
rapidity, doubling itself at least in twenty-five years. But the
products of the earth increase only in an arithmetical progression,
and in fifty years the food supply would be too small for the
demand. Thus the oscillation between numbers and food supply would
recur, and the happiness of the species would come to an end.

Godwin and his adherents could reply that one of the checks on over-
population is prudential restraint, which Malthus himself
recognised, and that this would come more extensively into operation
with that progress of enlightenment which their theory assumed.
[Footnote: This is urged by Hazlitt in his criticism of Malthus in
the Spirit of the Age.] But the criticisms of Malthus dealt a
trenchant blow to the doctrine that human reason, acting through
legislation and government, has a virtually indefinite power of
modifying the condition of society. The difficulty, which he stated
so vividly and definitely, was well calculated to discredit the
doctrine, and to suggest that the development of society could be
modified by the conscious efforts of man only within restricted
limits. [Footnote: The recent conclusions of Mr. Knibbs,
statistician to the Commonwealth of Australia, in vol. i. of his
Appendix to the Census of the Commonwealth, have an interest in this
connection. I quote from an article in the Times of August 5, 1918:
"An eminent geographer, the late Mr. E. G. Ravenstein, some years
ago, when the population of the earth was estimated at 1400 million,
foretold that about the middle of this century population would have
reached a limit beyond which increase would be disastrous. Mr.
Knibbs is not so pessimistic and is much more precise; though he
defers the disastrous culmination, he has no doubt as to its
inevitability. The limits of human expansion, he assures us, are
much nearer than popular opinion imagines; the difficulty of food
supplies will soon be most grave; the exhaustion of sources of
energy necessary for any notable increase of population, or advance
in the standards of living, or both combined, is perilously near.
The present rate of increase in the world's population cannot
continue for four centuries."]


The Essay of Malthus afterwards became one of the sacred books of
the Utilitarian sect, and it is interesting to notice what Bentham
himself thought of perfectibility. Referring to the optimistic views
of Chastellux and Priestley on progressive amelioration he observed
that "these glorious expectations remind us of the golden age of
poetry." For perfect happiness "belongs to the imaginary region of
philosophy and must be classed with the universal elixir and the
philosopher's stone." There will always be jealousies through the
unequal gifts of nature and of fortune; interests will never cease
to clash and hatred to ensue; "painful labour, daily subjection, a
condition nearly allied to indigence, will always be the lot of
numbers"; in art and poetry the sources of novelty will probably be
exhausted. But Bentham was far from being a pessimist. Though he
believes that "we shall never make this world the abode of
happiness," he asserts that it may be made a most delightful garden
"compared with the savage forest in which men so long have
wandered." [Footnote: Works, vol. i. p. 193 seq.]


The book of Malthus was welcomed at the moment by all those who had
been thoroughly frightened by the French Revolution and saw in the
"modern philosophy," as it was called, a serious danger to society.
[Footnote: Both Hazlitt and Shelley thought that Malthus was playing
to the boxes, by sophisms "calculated to lull the oppressors of
mankind into a security of everlasting triumph" (Revolt of Islam,
Preface). Bentham refers in his Book of Fallacies (Works, ii. p.
462) to the unpopularity of the views of Priestley, Godwin, and
Condorcet: "to aim at perfection has been pronounced to be utter
folly or wickedness."] Vice and misery and the inexorable laws of
population were a godsend to rescue the state from "the precipice of
perfectibility." We can understand the alarm occasioned to believers
in the established constitution of things, for Godwin's work--now
virtually forgotten, while Malthus is still appealed to as a
discoverer in social science--produced an immense effect on
impressionable minds at the time. All who prized liberty,
sympathised with the downtrodden, and were capable of falling in
love with social ideals, hailed Godwin as an evangelist. "No one,"
said a contemporary, "was more talked of, more looked up to, more
sought after; and wherever liberty, truth, justice was the theme,
his name was not far off." Young graduates left the Universities to
throw themselves at the feet of the new Gamaliel; students of law
and medicine neglected their professional studies to dream of "the
renovation of society and the march of mind." Godwin carried with
him "all the most sanguine and fearless understandings of the time."
[Footnote: Hazlitt, Spirit of the Age: article on Godwin (written in

The most famous of his disciples were the poets Wordsworth,
Coleridge, Southey, and afterwards Shelley. Wordsworth had been an
ardent sympathiser with the French Revolution. In its early days he
had visited Paris:

An emporium then
Of golden expectations and receiving
Freights every day from a new world of hope.

He became a Godwinian in 1795, when the Terror had destroyed his
faith in Revolutionary France. Southey, who had come under the
influence of Rousseau, was initiated by Coleridge into Godwin's
theories, and in their utopian enthusiasm they formed the design of
founding a "pantisocratic" settlement in America, to show how
happiness could be realised in a social environment in which duty
and interest coincide and consequently all are virtuous. The plan
anticipated the experiments of Owen and Cabet; but the pantisocrats
did not experience the disappointments of the socialists, for it was
never carried out. Coleridge and Southey as well as Wordsworth soon
abandoned their Godwinian doctrines. [Footnote: In letters of 1797
and 1798 Coleridge repudiated the French doctrines and Godwin's
philosophy. See Cestre, La Revolution francaise et les poetes
anglais (1789-1809), pp. 389, 414.] They had, to use a phrase of
Hazlitt, lost their way in Utopia, and they gave up the abstract and
mechanical view of society which the French philosophy of the
eighteenth century taught, for an organic conception in which
historic sentiment and the wisdom of our ancestors had their due
place. Wordsworth could presently look back and criticise his
Godwinian phase as that of

A proud and most presumptuous confidence
In the transcendent wisdom of the age
And its discernment. [Footnote: Excursion, Book ii.]

He and Southey became conservative pillars of the state. Yet
Southey, reactionary as he was in politics, never ceased to believe
in social Progress. [Footnote: See his Colloquies; and Shelley,
writing in 1811, says that Southey "looks forward to a state when
all shall be perfected and matter become subjected to the
omnipotence of mind" (Dowden, Life of Shelley, i. p. 212). Compare
below, p. 325.] Amelioration was indeed to be effected by slow and
cautious reforms, with the aid of the Church, but the intellectual
aberrations of his youth had left an abiding impression.

While these poets were sitting at Godwin's feet, Shelley was still a
child. But he came across Political Justice at Eton; in his later
life he reread it almost every year; and when he married Godwin's
daughter he was more Godwinian than Godwin himself. Hazlitt, writing
in 1814, says that Godwin's reputation had "sunk below the horizon,"
but Shelley never ceased to believe in his theory, though he came to
see that the regeneration of man would be a much slower process than
he had at first imagined. In the immature poem Queen Mab the
philosophy of Godwin was behind his description of the future, and
it was behind the longer and more ambitious poems of his maturer
years. The city of gold, of the Revolt of Islam, is Godwin's future
society, and he describes that poem as "an experiment on the temper
of the public mind as to how far a thirst for a happier condition of
moral and political society survives, among the enlightened and
refined, the tempests which have shaken the age in which we live."
As to Prometheus Unbound his biographer observes: [Footnote: Dowden,
ib. ii. p. 264. Elsewhere Dowden remarks on the singular
insensibility of Shelley's mind "to the wisdom or sentiment of
history" (i. p. 55).]

All the glittering fallacies of "Political Justice"--now
sufficiently tarnished--together with all its encouraging and
stimulating truths, may be found in the caput mortuum left when the
critic has reduced the poetry of the "Prometheus" to a series of
doctrinaire statements.

The same dream inspired the final chorus of Hellas. Shelley was the
poet of perfectibility.


The attraction of perfectibility reached beyond the ranks of men of
letters, and in Robert Owen, the benevolent millowner of Lanark, it
had an apostle who based upon it a very different theory from that
of Political Justice and became one of the founders of modern

The success of the idea of Progress has been promoted by its
association with socialism. [Footnote: The word was independently
invented in England and France. An article in the Poor Man's
Guardian (a periodical edited by H. Hetherington, afterwards by
Bronterre O'Brien), Aug. 24, 1833, is signed "A Socialist"; and in
1834 socialisme is opposed to individualism by P. Leroux in an
article in the Revue Encyclopedique. The word is used in the New
Moral World, and from 1836 was applied to the Owenites. See
Dolleans, Robert Owen (1907), p. 305.] The first phase of socialism,
what has been called its sentimental phase, was originated by Saint-
Simon in France and Owen in England at about the same time; Marx was
to bring it down from the clouds and make it a force in practical
politics. But both in its earlier and in its later forms the
economical doctrines rest upon a theory of society depending on the
assumption, however disguised, that social institutions have been
solely responsible for the vice and misery which exist, and that
institutions and laws can be so changed as to abolish misery and
vice. That is pure eighteenth century doctrine; and it passed from
the revolutionary doctrinaires of that period to the constructive
socialists of the nineteenth century.

Owen learned it probably from Godwin, and he did not disguise it.
His numerous works enforce it ad nauseam. He began the propagation
of his gospel by his "New View of Society, or Essays on the
formation of the human character, preparatory to the development of
a plan for gradually ameliorating the condition of mankind," which
he dedicated to the Prince Regent. [Footnote: 3rd ed. 1817. The
Essays had appeared separately in 1813-14.] Here he lays down that
"any general character, from the best to the worst, may be given to
any community, even to the world at large, by the application of
proper means; which means are to a great extent at the command and
under the control of those who have influence in the affairs of
men." [Footnote: P. 19.] The string on which he continually harps is
that it is the cardinal error in government to suppose that men are
responsible for their vices and virtues, and therefore for their
actions and characters. These result from education and
institutions, and can be transformed automatically by transforming
those agencies. Owen founded several short-lived journals to diffuse
his theories. The first number of the New Moral World (1834-36)
[Footnote: This was not a journal, but a series of pamphlets which
appeared in 1836-1844. Other publications of Owen were: Outline of
the Rational System of Society (6th ed., Leeds, 1840); The
Revolution in the Mind and Practice of the Human Race, or the coming
change from Irrationality to Rationality (1849); The Future of the
Human Race, or a great, glorious and peaceful Revolution, near at
hand, to be effected through the agency of departed spirits of good
and superior men and women (1853); The New Existence of Man upon
Earth, Parts i.-viii., 1854-55.] proclaimed the approach of an ideal
society in which there will be no ignorance, no poverty, and no
charity--a system "which will ensure the happiness of the human race
throughout all future ages," to replace one "which, so long as it
shall be maintained, must produce misery to all." His own
experimental attempt to found such a society on a miniature scale in
America proved a ludicrous failure.

It is to be observed that in these socialist theories the conception
of Progress as indefinite tends to vanish or to lose its
significance. If the millennium can be brought about at a stroke by
a certain arrangement of society, the goal of development is
achieved; we shall have reached the term, and shall have only to
live in and enjoy the ideal state--a menagerie of happy men. There
will be room for further, perhaps indefinite, advance in knowledge,
but civilisation in its social character becomes stable and rigid.
Once man's needs are perfectly satisfied in a harmonious environment
there is no stimulus to cause further changes, and the dynamic
character of history disappears.

Theories of Progress are thus differentiating into two distinct
types, corresponding to two radically opposed political theories and
appealing to two antagonistic temperaments. The one type is that of
constructive idealists and socialists, who can name all the streets
and towers of "the city of gold," which they imagine as situated
just round a promontory. The development of man is a closed system;
its term is known and is within reach. The other type is that of
those who, surveying the gradual ascent of man, believe that by the
same interplay of forces which have conducted him so far and by a
further development of the liberty which he has fought to win, he
will move slowly towards conditions of increasing harmony and
happiness. Here the development is indefinite; its term is unknown,
and lies in the remote future. Individual liberty is the motive
force, and the corresponding political theory is liberalism; whereas
the first doctrine naturally leads to a symmetrical system in which
the authority of the state is preponderant, and the individual has
little more value than a cog in a well-oiled wheel: his place is
assigned; it is not his right to go his own way. Of this type the
principal example that is not socialistic is, as we shall see, the
philosophy of Comte.




The philosophical views current in Germany during the period in
which the psychology of Locke was in fashion in France and before
the genius of Kant opened a new path, were based on the system of
Leibnitz. We might therefore expect to find a theory of Progress
developed there, parallel to the development in France though
resting on different principles. For Leibnitz, as we saw, provided
in his cosmic optimism a basis for the doctrine of human Progress,
and he had himself incidentally pointed to it. This development,
however, was delayed. It was only towards the close of the period--
which is commonly known as the age of "Illumination"--that Progress
came to the front, and it is interesting to observe the reason.

Wolf was the leading successor and interpreter of Leibnitz. He
constrained that thinker's ideas into a compact logical system which
swayed Germany till Kant swept it away. In such cases it usually
happens that some striking doctrines and tendencies of the master
are accentuated and enforced, while others are suffered to drop out
of sight.

So it was here. In the Wolfian system, Leibnitz's conception of
development was suffered to drop out of sight, and the dynamic
element which animated his speculation disappeared. In particular,
he had laid down that the sum of motive forces in the physical world
is constant. His disciples proceeded to the inference that the sum
of morality in the ethical world is constant. This dogma obviously
eliminates the possibility of ethical improvement for collective
humanity. And so we find Mendelssohn, who was the popular exponent
of Wolf's philosophy, declaring that "progress is only for the
individual; but that the whole of humanity here below in the course
of time shall always progress and perfect itself seems to me not to
have been the purpose of Providence." [Footnote: See Bock, Jakob
Wegelin als Geschichtstheoretiker, in Leipsiger Studien, ix. 4, pp.
23-7 (1902).]

The publication of the Nouveaux Essais in 1765 induced some thinkers
to turn from the dry bones of Wolf to the spirit of Leibnitz
himself. And at the same time French thought was penetrating. In
consequence of these influences the final phase of the German
"Illumination" is marked by the appearance of two or three works in
which Progress is a predominating idea.

We see this reaction against Wolf and his static school in a little
work published by Herder in 1774--"a philosophy of history for the
cultivation of mankind." There is continuous development, he
declares, and one people builds upon the work of another. We must
judge past ages, not by the present, but relatively to their own
particular conditions. What exists now was never possible before,
for everything that man accomplishes is conditioned by time,
climate, and circumstances.

Six years later Lessing's pamphlet on the Education of the Human
Race appeared, couched in the form of aphoristic statements, and to
a modern reader, one may venture to say, singularly wanting in
argumentative force. The thesis is that the drama of history is to
be explained as the education of man by a progressive series of
religions, a series not yet complete, for the future will produce
another revelation to lift him to a higher plane than that to which
Christ has drawn him up. This interpretation of history proclaimed
Progress, but assumed an ideal and applied a measure very different
from those of the French philosophers. The goal is not social
happiness, but a full comprehension of God. Philosophy of religion
is made the key to the philosophy of history. The work does not
amount to more than a suggestion for a new synthesis, but it was
opportune and arresting.

Herder meanwhile had been thinking, and in 1784 he gave the German
world his survey of man's career--Ideas of the Philosophy of the
History of Humanity. In this famous work, in which we can mark the
influence of French thinkers, especially Montesquieu, as well as of
Leibnitz, he attempted, though on very different lines, the same
task which Turgot and Condorcet planned, a universal history of

The Deity designed the world but never interferes in its process,
either in the physical cosmos or in human history. Human history
itself, civilisation, is a purely natural phenomenon. Events are
strictly enchained; continuity is unbroken; what happened at any
given time could have happened only then, and nothing else could
have happened. Herder's rigid determinism not only excludes
Voltaire's chance but also suppresses the free play of man's
intelligent will. Man cannot guide his own destinies; his actions
and fortunes are determined by the nature of things, his physical
organisation and physical environment. The fact that God exists in
inactive ease hardly affects the fatalistic complexion of this
philosophy; but it is perhaps a mitigation that the world was made
for man; humanity is its final cause.

The variety of the phases of civilisation that have appeared on
earth is due to the fact that the possible manifestations of human
nature are very numerous and that they must all be realised. The
lower forms are those in which the best, which means the most human,
faculties of our nature are undeveloped. The highest has not yet
been realised. "The flower of humanity, captive still in its germ,
will blossom out one day into the true form of man like unto God, in
a state of which no terrestrial man can imagine the greatness and
the majesty." [Footnote: Ideen, v. 5.]

Herder is not a systematic thinker--indeed his work abounds in
contradictions--and he has not made it clear how far this full
epiphany results from the experiences of mankind in preceding
phases. He believes that life is an education for humanity (he has
taken the phrase of Lessing), that good progressively develops, that
reason and justice become more powerful. This is a doctrine of
Progress, but he distinctly opposes the hypothesis of a final and
unique state of perfection as the goal of history, which would imply
that earlier generations exist for the sake of the later and suffer
in order to ensure the felicity of remote posterity--a theory which
offends his sense of justice and fitness. On the contrary, man can
realise happiness equally in every stage of civilisation. All forms
of society are equally legitimate, the imperfect as well as the
perfect; all are ends in themselves, not mere stages on the way to
something better. And a people which is happy in one of these
inferior states has a perfect right to remain in it.

Thus the Progress which Herder sees is, to use his own geometrical
illustration, a sequence of unequal and broken curves, corresponding
to different maxima and minima. Each curve has its own equation, the
history of each people is subject to the laws of its own
environment; but there is no general law controlling the whole
career of humanity. [Footnote: Ib. xv. 3. The power of ideas in
history, which Herder failed to appreciate, was recognised by a
contemporary savant from whom he might have learned. Jakob Wegelin,
a Swiss, had, at the invitation of Frederick the Great, settled in
Berlin, where he spent the last years of his life and devoted his
study to the theory of history. His merit was to have perceived that
"external facts are penetrated and governed by spiritual forces and
guiding ideas, and that the essential and permanent in history is
conditioned by the nature and development of ideas." (Dierauer,
quoted by Bock, op. cit. p. 13.) He believed in the progressive
development of mankind as a whole, but as his learned brochures seem
to have exerted no influence, it would be useless here to examine
more closely his views, which are buried in the transactions of the
Prussian Academy of Science. In Switzerland he came under the
influence of Rousseau and d'Alembert. After he moved to Berlin
(1765) he fell under that of Leibnitz. It may be noted (1) that he
deprecated attempts at writing a universal history as premature
until an adequate knowledge of facts had been gained, and this would
demand long preliminary labours; (2) that he discussed the question
whether history is an indefinite progression or a series of constant
cycles, and decided for the former view. (Memoire sur le cours
periodique, 1785). Bock's monograph is the best study of Wegelin;
but see also Flint's observations in Philosophy of History, vol. i.

Herder brought down his historical survey only as far as the
sixteenth century. It has been suggested [Footnote: Javary, De
l'idee de progres, p. 69.] that if he had come down further he might
have comprehended the possibility of a deliberate transformation of
societies by the intelligent action of the human will--an historical
force to which he does not do justice, apparently because he fancied
it incompatible with strict causal sequence. The value of his work
does not lie in the philosophical principles which he applied. Nor
was it a useful contribution to history; of him it has been said, as
of Bossuet, that facts bent like grass under his feet. [Footnote:
Jouffroy, Melanges, p. 81.] But it was a notable attempt to do for
human phenomena what Leibnitz in his Theodicy sought to do for the
cosmos, and it pointed the way to the rationalistic philosophies of
history which were to be a feature of the speculations of the
following century.


The short essay of Kant, which he clumsily called the Idea of a
Universal History on a Cosmopolitical Plan, [Footnote: 1784. This
work of Kant was translated by De Quincey (Works, vol. ix. 428 sqq.,
ed. Masson), who is responsible for cosmopolitical as the rendering
of weltburgerlich.] approaches the problems raised by the history
of civilisation from a new point of view.

He starts with the principle of invariable law. On any theory of
free will, he says, human actions are as completely under the
control of universal-laws of nature as any other physical phenomena.
This is illustrated by statistics. Registers of births, deaths, and
marriages show that these events occur with as much conformity to
laws of nature as the oscillations of the weather.

It is the same with the great sequence of historical events. Taken
alone and individually, they seem incoherent and lawless; but viewed
in their connection, as due to the action not of individuals but of
the human species, they do not fail to reveal "a regular stream of
tendency." Pursuing their own often contradictory purposes,
individual nations and individual men are unconsciously promoting a
process to which if they perceived it they would pay little regard.

Individual men do not obey a law. They do not obey the laws of
instinct like animals, nor do they obey, as rational citizens of the
world would do, the laws of a preconcerted plan. If we look at the
stage of history we see scattered and occasional indications of
wisdom, but the general sum of men's actions is "a web of folly,
childish vanity, and often even of the idlest wickedness and spirit
of destruction."

The problem for the philosopher is to discover a meaning in this
senseless current of human actions, so that the history of creatures
who pursue no plan of their own may yet admit of a systematic form.
The clew to this form is supplied by the predispositions of human

I have stated this problem almost in Kant's words, and as he might
have stated it if he had not introduced the conception of final
causes. His use of the postulate of final causes without justifying
it is a defect in his essay. He identifies what he well calls a
stream of tendency with "a natural purpose." He makes no attempt to
show that the succession of events is such that it cannot be
explained without the postulate of a purpose. His solution of the
problem is governed by this conception of finality, and by the
unwarranted assumption that nature does nothing in vain.

He lays down that all the tendencies to which any creature is
predisposed by its nature must in the end be developed perfectly and
agreeably to their final purpose. Those predispositions in man which
serve the use of his reason are therefore destined to be fully
developed. This destiny, however, cannot be realised in the
individual; it can only be realised in the species. For reason works
tentatively, by progress and regress. Each man would require an
inordinate length of time to make a perfect use of his natural
tendencies. Therefore, as life is short, an incalculable series of
generations is needed.

The means which nature employs to develop these tendencies is the
antagonism which in man's social state exists between his gregarious
and his antigregarious tendencies. His antigregarious nature
expresses itself in the desire to force all things to comply to his
own humour. Hence ambition, love of honour, avarice. These were
necessary to raise mankind from the savage to the civilised state.
But for these antisocial propensities men would be gentle as sheep,
and "an Arcadian life would arise, of perfect harmony and mutual
love, such as must suffocate and stifle all talents in their very
germs." Nature, knowing better than man what is good for the
species, ordains discord. She is to be thanked for competition and
enmity, and for the thirst of power and wealth. For without these
the final purpose of realising man's rational nature would remain
unfulfilled. This is Kant's answer to Rousseau.

The full realisation of man's rational nature is possible only in a
"universal civil society" founded on political justice. The
establishment of such a society is the highest problem for the human
species. Kant contemplates, as the political goal, a confederation
of states in which the utmost possible freedom shall be united with
the most rigorous determination of the boundaries of freedom.

Is it reasonable to suppose that a universal or cosmopolitical
society of this kind will come into being; and if so, how will it be
brought about? Political changes in the relations of states are
generally produced by war. Wars are tentative endeavours to bring
about new relations and to form new political bodies. Are
combinations and recombinations to continue until by pure chance
some rational self-supporting system emerges? Or is it possible that
no such condition of society may ever arrive, and that ultimately
all progress may be overwhelmed by a hell of evils? Or, finally, is
Nature pursuing her regular course of raising the species by its own
spontaneous efforts and developing, in the apparently wild
succession of events, man's originally implanted tendencies?

Kant accepts the last alternative on the ground that it is not
reasonable to assume a final purpose in particular natural processes
and at the same time to assume that there is no final purpose in the
whole. Thus his theory of Progress depends on the hypothesis of
final causes.

It follows that to trace the history of mankind is equivalent to
unravelling a hidden plan of Nature for accomplishing a perfect
civil constitution for a universal society; since a universal
society is the sole state in which the tendencies of human nature
can be fully developed. We cannot determine the orbit of the
development, because the whole period is so vast and only a small
fraction is known to us, but this is enough to show that there is a
definite course.

Kant thinks that such a "cosmopolitical" history, as he calls it, is
possible, and that if it were written it would give us a clew
opening up "a consolatory prospect into futurity, in which at a
remote distance we shall discover the human species seated upon an
eminence won by infinite toil, where all the germs are unfolded
which nature has implanted and its own destination upon this earth


But to see the full bearing of Kant's discussion we must understand
its connection with his ethics. For his ethical theory is the
foundation and the motive of his speculation on Progress. The
progress on which he lays stress is moral amelioration; he refers
little to scientific or material progress. For him morality was an
absolute obligation founded in the nature of reason. Such an
obligation presupposes an end to be attained, and this end is a
reign of reason under which all men obeying the moral law mutually
treat each other as ends in themselves. Such an ideal state must be
regarded as possible, because it is a necessary postulate of reason.
From this point of view it may be seen that Kant's speculation on
universal history is really a discussion whether the ideal state,
which is required as a subjective postulate in the interest of
ethics, is likely to be realised objectively.

Now, Kant does not assert that because our moral reason must assume
the possibility of this hypothetical goal civilisation is therefore
moving towards it. That would be a fallacy into which he was
incapable of falling. Civilisation is a phenomenon, and anything we
know about it can only be inferred from experience. His argument is
that there are actual indications of progress in this desirable
direction. He pointed to the contemporary growth of civil liberty
and religious liberty, and these are conditions of moral
improvement. So far his argument coincides in principle with that of
French theorists of Progress. But Kant goes on to apply to these
data the debatable conception of final causes, and to infer a
purpose in the development of humanity. Only this inference is put
forward as a hypothesis, not as a dogma.

It is probable that what hindered Kant from broaching his theory of
Progress with as much confidence as Condorcet was his perception
that nothing could be decisively affirmed about the course of
civilisation until the laws of its movement had been discovered. He
saw that this was a matter for scientific investigation. He says
expressly that the laws are not yet known, and suggests that some
future genius may do for social phenomena what Kepler and Newton did
for the heavenly bodies. As we shall see, this is precisely what
some of the leading French thinkers of the next generation will
attempt to do.

But cautiously though he framed the hypothesis Kant evidently
considered Progress probable. He recognised that the most difficult
obstacle to the moral advance of man lies in war and the burdens
which the possibility of war imposes. And he spent much thought on
the means by which war might be abolished. He published a
philosophical essay on Perpetual Peace, in which he formulated the
articles of an international treaty to secure the disappearance of
war. He considered that, while a universal republic would be the
positive ideal, we shall probably have to be contented with what he
calls a negative substitute, consisting in a federation of peoples
bound by a peace-alliance guaranteeing the independence of each
member. But to assure the permanence of this system it is essential
that each state should have a democratic constitution. For such a
constitution is based on individual liberty and civil equality. All
these changes should be brought about by legal reforms; revolutions-
-he was writing in 1795---cannot be justified.

We see the influence of Rousseau's Social Contract and that of the
Abbe de Saint-Pierre, with whose works Kant was acquainted. There
can be little doubt that it was the influence of French thought, so
powerful in Germany at this period, that turned Kant's mind towards
these speculations, which belong to the latest period of his life
and form a sort of appendix to his philosophical system. The theory
of Progress, the idea of universal reform, the doctrine of political
equality--Kant examined all these conceptions and appropriated them
to the service of his own highly metaphysical theory of ethics. In
this new association their spirit was changed.

In France, as we saw, the theory of Progress was generally
associated with ethical views which could find a metaphysical basis
in the sensationalism of Locke. A moral system which might be built
on sensation, as the primary mental fact, was worked out by
Helvetius. But the principle that the supreme law of conduct is to
obey nature had come down as a practical philosophy from Rabelais
and Montaigne through Moliere to the eighteenth century. It was
reinforced by the theory of the natural goodness of man. Jansenism
had struggled against it and was defeated. After theology it was the
turn of metaphysics. Kant's moral imperative marked the next stage
in the conflict of the two opposite tendencies which seek natural
and ultra-natural sanctions for morality.

Hence the idea of progress had a different significance for Kant and
for its French exponents, though his particular view of the future
possibly in store for the human species coincided in some essential
points with theirs. But his theory of life gives a different
atmosphere to the idea. In France the atmosphere is emphatically
eudaemonic; happiness is the goal. Kant is an uncompromising
opponent of eudaemonism. "If we take enjoyment or happiness as the
measure, it is easy," he says, "to evaluate life. Its value is less
than nothing. For who would begin one's life again in the same
conditions, or even in new natural conditions, if one could choose
them oneself, but of which enjoyment would be the sole end?"

There was, in fact, a strongly-marked vein of pessimism in Kant. One
of the ablest men of the younger generation who were brought up on
his system founded the philosophical pessimism--very different in
range and depth from the sentimental pessimism of Rousseau--which
was to play a remarkable part in German thought in the nineteenth
century. [Footnote: Kant's pessimism has been studied at length by
von Hartmann, in Zur Geschichte und Begrundung des Pessimismus
(1880).] Schopenhauer's unpleasant conclusion that of all
conceivable worlds this is the worst, is one of the speculations for
which Kant may be held ultimately responsible. [Footnote:
Schopenhauer recognised progress social, economic, and political,
but as a fact that contains no guarantee of happiness; on the
contrary, the development of the intelligence increases suffering.
He ridiculed the optimistic ideals of comfortable, well-regulated
states. His views on historical development have been collected by
G. Sparlinsky, Schopenhauers Verhaltnis zur Geschichte, in Berner
Studien s. Philosophie, Bd. lxxii. (1910).]


Kant's considerations on historical development are an appendix to
his philosophy; they are not a necessary part, wrought into the woof
of his system. It was otherwise with his successors the Idealists,
for whom his system was the point of departure, though they rejected
its essential feature, the limitation of human thought. With Fichte
and Hegel progressive development was directly deduced from their
principles. If their particular interpretations of history have no
permanent value, it is significant that, in their ambitious attempts
to explain the universe a priori, history was conceived as
progressive, and their philosophies did much to reinforce a
conception which on very different principles was making its way in
the world. But the progress which their systems involved was not
bound up with the interest of human happiness, but stood out as a
fact which, whether agreeable or not, is a consequence of the nature
of thought.

The process of the universe, as it appeared to Fichte, [Footnote:
Fichte's philosophy of history will be found in Die Grundzuge des
gegenwartigen Zeitalters (1806), lectures which he delivered at
Berlin in 1804-5.] tends to a full realisation of "freedom"; that is
its end and goal, but a goal that always recedes. It can never be
reached; for its full attainment would mean the complete suppression
of Nature. The process of the world, therefore, consists in an
indefinite approximation to an unattainable ideal: freedom is being
perpetually realised more and more; and the world, as it ascends in
this direction, becomes more and more a realm of reason.

What Fichte means by freedom may be best explained by its opposition
to instinct. A man acting instinctively may be acting quite
reasonably, in a way which any one fully conscious of all the
implications and consequences of the action would judge to be
reasonable. But in order that his actions should be free he must
himself be fully conscious of all those implications and

It follows that the end of mankind upon earth is to reach a state in
which all the relations of life shall be ordered according to
reason, not instinctively but with full consciousness and deliberate
purpose. This end should govern the ethical rules of conduct, and it
determines the necessary stages of history.

It gives us at once two main periods, the earliest and the latest:
the earliest, in which men act reasonably by instinct, and the
latest, in which they are conscious of reason and try to realise it
fully. But before reaching this final stage they must pass through
an epoch in which reason is conscious of itself, but not regnant.
And to reach this they must have emancipated themselves from
instinct, and this process of emancipation means a fourth epoch. But
they could not have wanted to emancipate themselves unless they had
felt instinct as a servitude imposed by an external authority, and
therefore we have to distinguish yet another epoch wherein reason is
expressed in authoritarian institutions to which men blindly submit.
In this way Fichte deduces five historical epochs: two in which
progress is blind, two in which it is free, and an intermediate in
which it is struggling to consciousness. [Footnote: First Epoch:
that of instinctive reason; the age of innocence. Second: that of
authoritarian reason. Third: that of enfranchisement; the age of
scepticism and unregulated liberty. Fourth: that of conscious
reason, as science. Fifth: that of regnant reason, as art.] But
there are no locked gates between these periods; they overlap and
mingle; each may have some of the characteristics of another; and in
each there is a vanguard leading the way and a rearguard lagging

At present (1804) we are in the third age; we have broken with
authority, but do not yet possess a clear and disciplined knowledge
of reason. [Footnote: Three years later, however, Fichte maintained
in his patriotic Discourses to the German Nation (1807) that in 1804
man had crossed the threshold of the fourth epoch. He asserted that
the progress of "culture" and science will depend henceforward
chiefly on Germany.] Fichte has deduced this scheme purely a priori
without any reference to actual experience. "The philosopher," he
says, "follows the a priori thread of the world-plan which is clear
to him without any history; and if he makes use of history, it is
not to prove anything, since his theses are already proved
independently of all history."

Historical development is thus presented as a necessary progress
towards a goal which is known but cannot be reached. And this fact
as to the destiny of the race constitutes the basis of morality, of
which the fundamental law is to act in such a way as to promote the
free realisation of reason upon earth. It has been claimed by a
recent critic that Fichte was the first modern philosopher to
humanise morals. He completely rejected the individualistic
conception which underlay Kantian as well as Christian ethics. He
asserted that the true motive of morality is not the salvation of
the individual man but the Progress of humanity. In fact, with
Fichte Progress is the principle of ethics. That the Christian ideal
of ascetic saintliness detached from society has no moral value is a
plain corollary from the idea of earthly Progress. [Footnote: X.
Leon, La Philosophie de Fichte (1902), pp. 477-9.]

One other point in Fichte's survey of history deserves notice--the
social role of the savant. It is the function of the savant to
discover the truths which are a condition of moral progress; he may
be said to incarnate reason in the world. We shall see how this idea
played a prominent part in the social schemes of Saint-Simon and
Comte. [Footnote: Fichte, Ueber die Bestimmung des Gelehrten


Hegel's philosophy of history is better known than Fichte's. Like
Fichte, he deduced the phases a priori from his metaphysical
principles, but he condescended to review in some detail the actual
phenomena. He conceived the final cause of the world as Spirit's
consciousness of its own freedom. The ambiguous term "freedom" is
virtually equivalent to self-consciousness, and Hegel defines
Universal History as the description of the process by which Spirit
or God comes to the consciousness of its own meaning. This freedom
does not mean that Spirit could choose at any moment to develop in a
different way; its actual development is necessary and is the
embodiment of reason. Freedom consists in fully recognising the

Of the particular features which distinguish Hegel's treatment, the
first is that he identifies "history" with political history, the
development of the state. Art, religion, philosophy, the creations
of social man, belong to a different and higher stage of Spirit's
self-revelation. [Footnote: The three phases of Spirit are (1)
subjective; (2) objective; (3) absolute. Psychology, e.g., is
included in (1), law and history in (2), religion in (3).] In the
second place, Hegel ignores the primitive prehistoric ages of man,
and sets the beginning of his development in the fully-grown
civilisation of China. He conceives the Spirit as continually moving
from one nation to another in order to realise the successive stages
of its self-consciousness: from China to India, from India to the
kingdoms of Western Asia; then from the Orient to Greece, then to
Rome, and finally to the Germanic world. In the East men knew only
that ONE is free, the political characteristic was despotism; in
Greece and Rome they knew that SOME are free, and the political
forms were aristocracy and democracy; in the modern world they know
that ALL are free, and the political form is monarchy. The first
period, he compared to childhood, the second to youth (Greece) and
manhood (Rome), the third to old age, old but not feeble. The third,
which includes the medieval and modern history of Europe, designated
by Hegel as the Germanic world--for "the German spirit is the spirit
of the modern world"--is also the final period. In it God realises
his freedom completely in history, just as in Hegel's own absolute
philosophy, which is final, God has completely understood his own

And here is the most striking difference between the theories of
Fichte and Hegel. Both saw the goal of human development in the
realisation of "freedom," but, while with Fichte the development
never ends as the goal is unattainable, with Hegel the development
is already complete, the goal is not only attainable but has now
been attained. Thus Hegel's is what we may call a closed system.
History has been progressive, but no path is left open for further
advance. Hegel views this conclusion of development with perfect
complacency. To most minds that are not intoxicated with the
Absolute it will seem that, if the present is the final state to
which the evolution of Spirit has conducted, the result is
singularly inadequate to the gigantic process. But his system is
eminently inhuman. The happiness or misery of individuals is a
matter of supreme indifference to the Absolute, which, in order to
realise itself in time, ruthlessly sacrifices sentient beings.

The spirit of Hegel's philosophy, in its bearing on social life, was
thus antagonistic to Progress as a practical doctrine. Progress
there had been, but Progress had done its work; the Prussian
monarchical state was the last word in history. Kant's
cosmopolitical plan, the liberalism and individualism which were
implicit in his thought, the democracies which he contemplated in
the future, are all cast aside as a misconception. Once the needs of
the Absolute Spirit have been satisfied, when it has seen its full
power and splendour revealed in the Hegelian philosophy, the world
is as good as it can be. Social amelioration does not matter, nor
the moral improvement of men, nor the increase of their control over
physical forces.


The other great representative of German idealism, who took his
departure from Kant, also saw in history a progressive revelation of
divine reason. But it was the processes of nature, not the career of
humanity, that absorbed the best energies of Schelling, and the
elaboration of a philosophical idea of organic evolution was the
prominent feature of his speculation. His influence--and it was
wide, reaching even scientific biologists--lay chiefly in diffusing
this idea, and he thus contributed to the formation of a theory
which was afterwards to place the idea of Progress on a more
imposing base. [Footnote: Schelling's views notoriously varied at
various stages of his career. In his System of Transcendental
Idealism (1800) he distinguished three historical periods, in the
first of which the Absolute reveals itself as Fate, in the second as
Nature, in the third as Providence, and asserted that we are still
living in the second, which began with the expansion of Rome (Werke,
i. 3, p. 603). In this context he says that the conception of an
infinite "progressivity" is included in the conception of "history,"
but adds that the perfectibility of the race cannot be directly
inferred. For it may be said that man has no proper history but
turns round on a wheel of Ixion. The difficulty of establishing the
fact of Progress from the course of events lies in discovering a
criterion. Schelling rejects the criterion of moral improvement and
that of advance in science and arts as unpractical or misleading.
But if we see the sole object of history in a gradual realisation of
the ideal state, we have a measure of Progress which can be applied;
though it cannot be proved either by theory or by experience that
the goal will be attained. This must remain an article of faith (ib.
592 sqq.).]

Schelling influenced, among others, his contemporary Krause, a less
familiar name, who worked out a philosophy of history in which this
idea is fundamental. Krause conceived history, which is the
expression of the Absolute, as the development of life; society as
an organism; and social growth as a process which can be deduced
from abstract biological principles.

[Footnote: Krause divided man's earthly career into three Ages--
infancy, growth, and maturity. The second of these falls into three
periods characterised by (1) polytheism, (2) monotheism (Middle
Ages), (3) scepticism and liberty, and we are now in the third of
these periods. The third Age will witness the union of humanity in a
single social organism, and the universal acceptance of
"panentheism" (the doctrine of the unity of all in God), which is
the principle of Krause's philosophy and religion. But though this
will be the final stage on the earth, Krause contemplates an
ulterior career of humanity in other solar systems.

Krause never attracted attention in England, but he exerted some
influence in France and Spain, and especially in Belgium,
notwithstanding the grotesque jargon in which he obscured his
thoughts. See Flint, Philosophy of History, pp. 474-5. Flint's
account of his speculations is indulgent. The main ideas of his
philosophy of history will be found in the Introduction a la
philosophie (ed. 2, 1880) of G. Tiberghien, a Belgian disciple.]

All these transcendent speculations had this in common that they
pretended to discover the necessary course of human history on
metaphysical principles, independent of experience. But it has been
rightly doubted whether this alleged independence was genuine. We
may question whether any of them would have produced the same
sequence of periods of history, if the actual facts of history had
been to them a sealed book. Indeed we may be sure that they were
surreptitiously and subconsciously using experience as a guide,
while they imagined that abstract principles were entirely
responsible for their conclusions. And this is equivalent to saying
that their ideas of progressive movement were really derived from
that idea of Progress which the French thinkers of the eighteenth
century had attempted to base on experience.

The influence, direct and indirect, of these German philosophers
reached far beyond the narrow circle of the bacchants or even the
wandbearers of idealism. They did much to establish the notion of
progressive development as a category of thought, almost as familiar
and indispensable as that of cause and effect. They helped to
diffuse the idea of "an increasing purpose" in history. Augustine or
Bossuet might indeed have spoken of an increasing purpose, but the
"purpose" of their speculations was subsidiary to a future life. The
purpose of the German idealists could be fulfilled in earthly
conditions and required no theory of personal immortality.

This atmosphere of thought affected even intelligent reactionaries
who wrote in the interest of orthodox Christianity and the Catholic
Church. Progressive development is admitted in the lectures on the
Philosophy of History of Friedrich von Schlegel. [Footnote:
Translated into English in 2 vols., 1835.] He denounced Condorcet,
and opposed to perfectibility the corruptible nature of man. But he
asserted that the philosophy of history is to be found in "the
principles of social progress." [Footnote: Op. cit. ii, p. 194,
sqq.] These principles are three: the hidden ways of Providence
emancipating the human race; the freewill of man; and the power
which God permits to the agents of evil,--principles which Bossuet
could endorse, but the novelty is that here they are arrayed as
forces of Progress. In fact, the point of von Schlegel's
pretentious, unilluminating book is to rehabilitate Christianity by
making it the key to that new conception of life which had taken
shape among the enemies of the Church.


As biological development was one of the constant preoccupations of
Goethe, whose doctrine of metamorphosis and "types" helped to
prepare the way for the evolutionary hypothesis, we might have
expected to find him interested in theories of social progress, in
which theories of biological development find a logical extension.
But the French speculations on Progress did not touch his
imagination; they left him cool and sceptical. Towards the end of
his life, in conversation with Eckermann, he made some remarks which
indicate his attitude. [Footnote: Gesprache mit Goethe, 23 Oktober
1828.] "'The world will not reach its goal so quickly as we think
and wish. The retarding demons are always there, intervening and
resisting at every point, so that, though there is an advance on the
whole, it is very slow. Live longer and you will find that I am

"'The development of humanity,' said Eckermann, 'appears to be a
matter of thousands of years.'

"'Who knows?' Goethe replied, 'perhaps of millions. But let humanity
last as long as it will, there will always be hindrances in its way,
and all kinds of distress, to make it develop its powers. Men will
become more clever and discerning, but not better nor happier nor
more energetic, at least except for limited periods. I see the time
coming when God will take no more pleasure in the race, and must
again proceed to a rejuvenated creation. I am sure that this will
happen and that the time and hour in the distant future are already
fixed for the beginning of this epoch of rejuvenation. But that time
is certainly a long way off, and we can still for thousands and
thousands of years enjoy ourselves on this dear old playing-ground,
just as it is.'"

That is at once a plain rejection of perfectibility, and an opinion
that intellectual development is no highroad to the gates of a
golden city.




The failure of the Revolution to fulfil the visionary hopes which
had dazzled France for a brief period--a failure intensified by the
horrors that had attended the experiment--was followed by a reaction
against the philosophical doctrines and tendencies which had
inspired its leaders. Forces, which the eighteenth century had
underrated or endeavoured to suppress, emerged in a new shape, and
it seemed for a while as if the new century might definitely turn
its back on its predecessor. There was an intellectual
rehabilitation of Catholicism, which will always be associated with
the names of four thinkers of exceptional talent, Chateaubriand, De
Maistre, Bonald, and Lamennais.

But the outstanding fame of these great reactionaries must not
mislead us into exaggerating the reach of this reaction. The spirit
and tendencies of the past century still persisted in the circles
which were most permanently influential. Many eminent savants who
had been imbued with the ideas of Condillac and Helvetius, and had
taken part in the Revolution and survived it, were active under the
Empire and the restored Monarchy, still true to the spirit of their
masters, and commanding influence by the value of their scientific
work. M. Picavet's laborious researches into the activities of this
school of thinkers has helped us to understand the transition from
the age of Condorcet to the age of Comte. The two central figures
are Cabanis, the friend of Condorcet, [Footnote: He has already
claimed our notice, above, p. 215.] and Destutt de Tracy. M. Picavet
has grouped around them, along with many obscurer names, the great
scientific men of the time, like Laplace, Bichat, Lamarck, as all in
the direct line of eighteenth century thought. "Ideologists" he
calls them. [Footnote: Ideology is now sometimes used to convey a
criticism; for instance, to contrast the methods of Lamarck with
those of Darwin.] Ideology, the science of ideas, was the word
invented by de Tracy to distinguish the investigation of thought in
accordance with the methods of Locke and Condillac from old-
fashioned metaphysics. The guiding principle of the ideologists was
to apply reason to observed facts and eschew a priori deductions.
Thinkers of this school had an influential organ, the Decade
philosophique, of which J. B. Say the economist was one of the
founders in 1794. The Institut, which had been established by the
Convention, was crowded with "ideologists," and may be said to have
continued the work of the Encyclopaedia. [Footnote: Picavet, op.
cit. p. 69. The members of the 2nd Class of the Institut, that of
moral and political science, were so predominantly Ideological that
the distrust of Napoleon was excited, and he abolished it in 1803,
distributing its members among the other Classes.] These men had a
firm faith in the indefinite progress of knowledge, general
enlightenment, and "social reason."


Thus the ideas of the "sophists" of the age of Voltaire were alive
in the speculative world, not withstanding political, religious, and
philosophical reaction. But their limitations were to be
transcended, and account taken of facts and aspects which their
philosophy had ignored or minimised. The value of the reactionary
movement lay in pressing these facts and aspects on the attention,
in reopening chambers of the human spirit which the age of Voltaire
had locked and sealed.

The idea of Progress was particularly concerned in the general
change of attitude, intellectual and emotional, towards the Middle
Ages. A fresh interest in the great age of the Church was a natural
part of the religious revival, but extended far beyond the circle of
ardent Catholics. It was a characteristic feature, as every one
knows, of the Romantic movement. It did not affect only creative
literature, it occupied speculative thinkers and stimulated
historians. For Guizot, Michelet, and Auguste Comte, as well as for
Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, the Middle Ages have a significance
which Frenchmen of the previous generation could hardly have

We saw how that period had embarrassed the first pioneers who
attempted to trace the course of civilisation as a progressive
movement, how lightly they passed over it, how unconvincingly they
explained it away. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the
medieval question was posed in such a way that any one who undertook
to develop the doctrine of Progress would have to explore it more
seriously. Madame de Stael saw this when she wrote her book on
Literature considered in its Relation to Social Institutions (1801).
She was then under the influence of Condorcet and an ardent believer
in perfectibility, and the work is an attempt to extend this theory,
which she testifies was falling into discredit, to the realm of
literature. She saw that, if man regressed instead of progressing
for ten centuries, the case for Progress was gravely compromised,
and she sought to show that the Middle Ages contributed to the
development of the intellectual faculties and to the expansion of
civilisation, and that the Christian religion was an indispensable
agent. This contention that Progress was uninterrupted is an advance
on Condorcet and an anticipation of Saint-Simon and Comte.

A more eloquent and persuasive voice was raised in the following
year from the ranks of reaction. Chateaubriand's Genie du
Christianisme appeared in 1802, "amidst the ruins of our temples,"
as the author afterwards said, when France was issuing from the
chaos of her revolution. It was a declaration of war against the
spirit of the eighteenth century which had treated Christianity as a
barbarous system whose fall was demanded in the name of Progress.
But it was much more than polemic. Chateaubriand arrayed arguments
in support of orthodox dogmas, original sin, primitive degeneration,
and the rest; but the appeal of the book did not lie in its logic,
it lay in the appreciation of Christianity from a new point of view.
He approached it in the spirit of an artist, as an aesthete, not as
a philosopher, and so far as he proved anything he proved that
Christianity is valuable because it is beautiful, not because it is
true. He aimed at showing that it can "enchanter l'ame aussi
divinement que les dieux de Virgile et d'Homere." He might call to
his help the Fathers of the Church, but it was on Dante, Milton,
Racine that his case was really based. The book is an apologia, from
the aesthetic standpoint of the Romantic school. "Dieu ne defend pas
les routes fleuries quand elles servent a revenir a lui."

It was a matter of course that the defender of original sin should
reject the doctrine of perfectibility. "When man attains the highest
point of civilisation," wrote Chateaubriand in the vein of Rousseau,
"he is on the lowest stair of morality; if he is free, he is rude;
by civilising his manners, he forges himself chains. His heart
profits at the expense of his head, his head at the expense of his
heart." And, apart from considerations of Christian doctrine, the
question of Progress had little interest for the Romantic school.
Victor Hugo, in the famous Preface to his Cromwell (1827), where he
went more deeply than Chateaubriand into the contrasts between
ancient and modern art, revived the old likeness of mankind to an
individual man, and declared that classical antiquity was the time
of its virility and that we are now spectators of its imposing old

From other points of view powerful intellects were reverting to the
Middle Ages and eager to blot out the whole development of modern
society since the Reformation, as the Encyclopaedic philosophers had
wished to blot out the Middle Ages. The ideal of Bonald, De Maistre,
and Lamennais was a sacerdotal government of the world, and the
English constitution was hardly less offensive to their minds than
the Revolution which De Maistre denounced as "satanic." Advocates as
they were of the dead system of theocracy, they contributed,
however, to the advance of thought, not only by forcing medieval
institutions on the notice of the world but also by their perception
that society had been treated in the eighteenth century in too
mechanical a way, that institutions grow, that the conception of

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit Twitter Pinterest