Front Page Titles (by Subject) EIGHTH EPOCH. From the Invention of Printing, to the Period when the Sciences and Philosophy threw off the Yoke of Authority. - Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind
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EIGHTH EPOCH. From the Invention of Printing, to the Period when the Sciences and Philosophy threw off the Yoke of Authority. - Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind 
Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind, being a posthumous work of the late M. de Condorcet. (Translated from the French.) (Philadelphia, 1796).
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Those who have reflected but superficially upon the march of the human mind in the discovery, whether of the truths of science, or of the processes of the arts, must be astonished that so long a period should elapse between the knowledge of the art of taking impressions of drawings, and the discovery of that of printing characters.
Some engravers of plates had doubtless conceived this idea of the application of their art; but they were more struck with the difficulty of executing it, than with the advantages of success: and it is fortunate that they did not comprehend it in all its extent; since priests and kings would infaliably have united to stifle, from its birth, the enemy that was to unmask their hypocrisy, and hurl them from their thrones.
The press multiplies indefinitely, and at a small expence, copies of any work. Those who can read are hence enabled to furnish themselves with books suitable to their taste and their wants; and this facility of exercising the talent of reading, has increased and propagated the desire of learning it.
These multiplied copies, spreading themselves with greater rapidity, facts and discoveries not only acquire a more extensive publicity, but acquire it also in a shorter space of time. Knowledge has become the object of an active and universal commerce.
Printers were obliged to seek manuscripts, as we seek at present works of extraordinary genius. What was read before by a few individuals only, might now be perused by a whole people, and strike almost at the same instant every man that understood the same language.
The means are acquired of addressing remote and dispersed nations. A new species of tribune is established, from which are communicated impressions less lively, but at the same time more solid and profound; from which is exercised over the passions an empire less tyrannical, but over reason a power more certain and durable; where all the advantage is on the side of truth, since what the art may lose in point of seduction, is more than counterbalanced by the illumination it conveys. A public opinion is formed, powerful by the number of those who share in it, energetic, because the motives that determine it act upon all minds at once, though at considerable distances from each other. A tribunal is erected in favour of reason and justice, independent of all human power, from the penetration of which it is difficult to conceal any thing, from whose verdict there is no escape.
New inventions, the history of the first steps in the road to a discovery, the labours that prepare the way for it, the views that suggest the idea or give rise merely to the wish of pursuing it, these, communicating themselves with celerity, furnish every individual with the united means which the efforts of all have been able to create, and genius appears to have more than doubled its powers.
Every new error is resisted from its birth; frequently attacked before it has disseminated itself, it has not time to take root in the mind. Those which, imbibed from infancy, are identified in a manner with the reason of every individual, and by the influence of hope or of terror endeared to the existence of weak understandings have been shaken, from this circumstance alone, that it is now impossible to prevent their discussion, impossible to conceal that they are capable of being examined and rejected, impossible they should withstand the progress of truths which, daily acquiring new light, must conclude at last with displaying all the absurdity of such errors.
It is to the press we owe the possibility of spreading those publications which the emergency of the moment, or the transient fluctuations of opinion, may require, and of interesting thereby in any question, treated in a single point of view, whole communities of men reading and understanding the same language.
All those means which render the progress of the human mind more easy, more rapid, more certain, are also the benefits of the press. Without the instrumentality of this art, such books could not have been multiplied as are adapted to every class of readers, and every degree of instruction. To the press we owe those continued discussions which alone can enlighten doubtful questions, and six upon an immoveable basis, truths too abstract, too subtile, too remote from the prejudices of the people or the common opinion of the learned, not to be soon forgotten and lost. To the press we owe those books purely elementary, dictionaries, works in which are collected, with all their details, a multitude of facts, observations, and experiments, in which all their proofs are developed, all their difficulties investigated. To the press we owe those valuable compilations, containing sometimes all that has been discovered, written, thought, upon a particular branch of science, and sometimes the result of the annual labours of all the literati of a country. To the press we owe those tables, those catalogues, those pictures of every kind, of which some exhibit a view of inductions which the mind could only have acquired by the most tedious operations; others present at will the fact, the discovery, the number, the method, the object which we are desirous of ascertaining; while others again furnish, in a more commodious form and a more arranged order, the materials from which genius may fashion and derive new truths.
To these benefits we shall have occasion to add others, when we proceed to analyse the effects that have arisen from the substitution of the vernacular tongue of each country, in the room of the almost exclusive application, which had preceded, so far as relates to the sciences, of one language, the common medium of communication between the learned of all nations.
In short, is it not the press that has freed the instruction of the people from every political and religious chain? In vain might either despotism invade our schools; in vain might it attempt, by rigid institutions, invariably to six what truths shall be preserved in them, what errors inculcated on the mind; in vain might chairs, consecrated to the moral instruction of the people, and the tuition of youth in philosophy and the sciences, be obliged to deliver no doctrines but such as are favourable to this double tyranny: the press can diffuse at the same time a pure and independent light. That instruction which is to be acquired from books in silence and solitude, can never be universally corrupted: a single corner of the earth free to commit their leaves to the press, would be a sufficient security. How admist that variety of productions, amidst that multitude of existing copies of the same book, amidst impressions continually renewed, will it be possible to shut so closely all the doors of truth, as to leave no opening, no crack or crevice by which it may enter? If it was difficult even when the business was to destroy a few copies only of a manuscript, to prevent for ever its revival, when it was sufficient to proscribe a truth, or opinion, for a certain number of years to devote it to eternal oblivion, is not this difficulty now rendered impossible, when it would require a vigilance incessantly occupied, and an activity that should never slumber? And even should success attend the suppression of those too palpable truths, that wound directly the interests of inquisitors, how are others to be prevented from penetrating and spreading, which include those proscribed truths without suffering them to be perceived, which prepare the way, and must one day infallibly lead to them? Could it be done without obliging the personages in question to throw off that mask of hypocrisy, the fall of which would prove no less fatal than truth itself to the reign of error? We shall accordingly see reason triumphing over these vain efforts: we shall see her in this war, a war continually reviving, and frequently cruel, successful alike against violence and stratagem; braving the flames, and resisting seduction; crushing in turn, under its mighty hand, both the fanatical hypocrisy which requires for its dogmas a sincere adoration, and the political hypocrisy imploring on its knees that it may be allowed to enjoy in peace the profit of errors, in which, if you will take its word, it is no less advantageous to the people than to itself, that they should for ever be plunged.
The invention of the art of printing nearly coincides with two other events, of which one has exercised an immediate influence on the progress of knowledge, while the influence of the other on the destiny of the whole human species can never cease but with the species itself.
I refer to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, and the discovery both of the new world, and of the route which has opened to Europe a direct communication with the eastern parts of Africa and Asia.
The Greek literati, flying from the sovereignty of the Tartars, sought an asylum in Italy. They acquired the ability of reading, in their original language, the poets, orators, historians, philosophers, and antiquarians of Greece. They first furnished manuscripts, and soon after editions of the works of those authors. The veneration of the studious was no longer consined to what they agreed in calling the doctrine of Aristotle. They studied this doctrine in his own writings. They ventured to investigate and oppose it. They contrasted him with Plato: and it was advancing a step towards throwing off the yoke, to acknowledge in themselves the right of choosing a master.
The perusal of Euclid, Archimedes, Diophantus, and Aristotle’s philosophical book upon animals, rekindled the genius of natural philosophy and of geometry; while the antichristian opinions of philosophers awakened ideas that were almost extinct of the ancient prerogatives of human reason.
Intrepid individuals, instigated by the love of glory and a passion for discoveries, had extended for Europe the bounds of the universe, had exhibtted a new heaven, and opened to its view an unknown earth. Gama had penetrated into India, after having pursued with indefatigable patience the immense extent of the African coasts; while Columbus, consigning him to the waves of the Atlantic ocean, had reached that country, hitherto unknown, extending from the west of Europe to the east of Asia.
If this passion, whose restless activity, embracing at that period every object, gave promise of advantages highly important to the progress of the human species, if a noble curiosity had animated the heroes of navigation, a mean and cruel avarice, a stupid and brutal fanaticism governed the kings and robbers who were to reap the profits of their labour. The unfortunate beings who inhabited these new countries were not treated as men, because they were not christians. This prejudice, more degrading to the tyrants than the victims, stifled all sense of remorse, and abandoned, without controul, to their inextinguishable thirst for gold and for blood, those greedy and unfeeling men that Europe disgorged from her bosom. The bones of five millions of human beings have covered the wretched countries to which the Spaniards and Portugueze transported their avarice, their superstition, and their fury. These bones will plead to everlasting ages against the doctrine of the political utility of religions, which is still able to find its apologists in the world.
It is in this epoch only of the progress of the human mind, that man has arrived at the knowledge of the globe which he inhabits; that he has been able to study, in all its countries, the species to which he belongs, modified by the continued influence of natural causes, or social institutions; that he has had an opportunity of observing the productions of the earth, or of the sea, in all temperatures and climates. And accordingly, among the happy consequences of the discoveries in question, may be included the resources of every kind which those productions afford to mankind, and which, so far from being exhausted, men have yet no idea of their extent; the truths which the knowledge of those objects may have added to the sciences, or the long received errors that may thereby have been destroyed; the commercial activity that has given new life to industry and navigation, and, by a necessary chain of connection, to all the arts and all the sciences: and lastly, the force that free nations have acquired from this activity by which to resist tyrants, and subjected nations to break their chains, and free themselves at least from feodal despotism. But these advantages will never expiate what the discoveries have cost to suffering humanity, till the moment when Europe, abjuring the sordid and oppressive system of commercial monopoly, shall acknowledge that men of other climates, equals and brothers by the will of nature, have never been formed to nourish the pride and avarice of a few privileged nations; till, better informed respecting its true interests, it shall invite all the people of the earth to participate in its independence, its liberty, and its illumination. Unfortunately, we have yet to learn whether this revolution will be the honourable fruit of the advancement of philosophy, or only, as we have hitherto seen, the shameful consequence of national jealousy, and the enormous excesses of tyranny.
Till the present epoch the crimes of the priesthood had escaped with impunity. The cries of oppressed humanity, of violated reason, had been stifled in flames and in blood. The spirit which dictated those cries was not extinct: but the silence occasioned by the operation of terror emboldened the priesthood to farther outrages. At last, the scandal of farming to the monks the privilege of selling in taverns and public places the expiation of sins, occasioned a new explosion. Luther, holding in one hand the sacred books, exposed with the other the right which the Pope had arrogated to himself of absolving crimes and selling pardons; the insolent despotism which he exercised over the bishops, for a long time his equals; the fraternal supper of the primitive christians, converted, under the name of mass, into a species of magical incantation and an object of commerce; priests condemned to the crime of irrevocable celibacy; the same cruel and scandulous law extended to the monks and nuns with which pontifical ambition had inundated and polluted the church; all the secrets of the laity consigned, by means of confession, to the intrigues and the passions of priests; God himself, in short, scarcely retaining a feeble share in the adorations bestowed in prosusion upon bread, men, bones and statues.
Luther announced to the astonished multitude, that these disgusting institutions formed no part of christianity, but on the contrary were its corruption and shame; and that, to be faithful to the religion of Jesus, it was first of all necessary to abjure that of his priests. He employed equally the arms of logic and erudition, and the no less powerful weapon of ridicule. He wrote at once in German and in Latin. It was no longer as in the days of the Abigenses, or of John Huss, whose doctrine, unknown beyond the walls of their churches, was so easily calumniated. The German books of the new apostles penetrated at the same time into every village of the empire, while their Latin productions roused all Europe from the shameful sleep into which superstition had plunged it. Those whose reason had outstripped the reformers, but whom fear had retained in silence; those who were tormented with secret doubts, but which they trembled to avow even to their consciences; those who, more simple, were unacquainted with all the extent of theological absurdities; who, having never reflected upon questions of controversy, were astonished to learn that they had the power of chusing between different opinions; entered eagerly into these discussions, upon which they conceived depended at once their temporal interests and their eternal felicity.
All the christian part of Europe, from Sweden to Italy, and from Hungary to Spain, was in an instant covered with the partisans of the new doctrines; and the reformation would have delivered from the yoke of Rome all the nations that inhabited it, if the mistaken policy of certain princes had not relieved that very sacerdotal sceptre which had so frequently fallen upon the heads of kings.
This policy, which their successors unhappily have yet not abjured, was to ruin their states by seeking to add to them, and to measure their power by the extent of their territory, rather than by the number of their subjects.
Thus, Charles the fifth and Francis the first, while contending for Italy, sacrificed to the interest of keeping well with the pope, that superior interest of profiting by the advantages offered by the reformation to every country that should have the wisdom to adopt it.
Perceiving that the princes of the empire were favourable to opinions calculated to augment their power and their wealth, the emperor became the partisan and supporter of the old abuses, actuated by the hope that a religious war would furnish an opportunity of invading their states, and destroying their independence; while Francis imagined that, by burning the protestants, and protecting at the same time their leaders in Germany, he should preserve the friendship of the Pope, without losing his valuable allies.
But this was not their only motive. Despotism has also its instinct; and that instinct suggested to these kings, that men, after subjecting religious prejudices to the examination of reason, would soon extend their enquiries to prejudices of another sort; that, enlightened upon the usurpations of popes, they might wish at last to be equally enlightened upon those of princes; and that the reform of ecclesiastical abuses, beneficial as it was to royal power, might involve the reform of abuses, still more oppressive, upon which that power was founded. Accordingly, no king of any considerable nation favoured voluntarily the party of the reformers. Henry the eighth, terrified at the pontifical anathema, joined in the persecution against them. Edward and Elizabeth, unable to embrace popery without pronouncing themselves usurpers, estalished in England the faith and worship that approached nearest to it. The protestant monarchs of Great Britain have indeed uniformly favoured the catholic religion, whenever it has ceased to threaten them with a pretender to the crown.
In Sweden and Denmark, the establshment of the religion of Luther was considered by their kings only as a necessary precaution to secure the expulsion of the catholic tyrant, to whose despotism they succeeded; and in the Prussian monarchy, founded by a philosophical prince, we already perceive his successor unable to disguise his secret attachment to this religion, so dear to the hearts of sovereigns.
Religious intolerance was common to every sect, and communicated itself to all the governments. The papists persecuted the reformed communions; while these, pronouncing anathemas against each other, joined at the same time against the anti-trinitarians, who, more consistent in their conduct, had tried every doctrine, if not by the touchstone of reason, at least by that of an enlightened criticism, and who did not see the necessity of freeing themselves from one species of absurdity, to fall into others equally disgusting.
This intolerance served the cause of popery. For a long time there had existed in Europe, and especially in Italy, a class of men who, rejecting every kind of superstition, indifferent alike to all modes of worship, governed only by reason, regarded religion as of human invention, at which one might laugh in secret, but towards which prudence and policy dictated an outward respect.
This free-thinking assumed afterwards superior courage; and, while in the schools the philosophy of Aristotle, imperfectly understood, had been employed to improve the subtleties of theology, and render ingenious what would naturally have borne the features of absurdity, some men of learning established upon his true doctrine a system destructive of every religious idea, in which the human soul was considered only as a faculty that vanished with life, and in which no other providence, no other ruler of the world was admitted than the necessary laws of nature. This system was combated by the Platonists, whose sentiments, resembling what has since been called by the name of deism, were more terrifying still to sacerdotal orthodoxy.
But the operation of punishment soon put a stop to this impolitic boldness. Italy and France were polluted with the blood of those martyrs to the freedom of thought. All sects, all governments, every species of authority, inimical as they were to each other in every point else, seemed to be of accord in granting no quarter to the exercise of reason. It was necessary to cover it with a veil, which, hiding it from the observation of tyrants might still permit it to be seen by the eye of philosophy.
Accordingly the most timid caution was observed respecting this secret doctrine, which had never failed of numerous adherents. It had particularly been propagated among the heads of governments, as well as among those of the church; and, about the period of the reformation, the principles of religious Machiavelism became the only creed of princes, of ministers, and of pontiffs. These opinions had even corrupted philosophy. What code of morals indeed was to be expected from a system of which one of the principles is, that it is necessary to support the morality of the people by false pretences; that men of enlightened minds have a right to deceive them, provided they impose only useful truths, and to retain them in chains from which they have themselves contrived to escape?
If the natural equality of mankind, the principal basis of its rights, be the foundation of all genuine morality, what could it hope from a philosophy, of which an open contempt of this equality and these rights is a distinguishing feature? This same philosophy has contributed no doubt to the advancement of reason, whose reign it silently prepared; but so long as it was the only philosophy, its sole effect was to substitute hypocrisy in the place of fanaticism, and to corrupt, at the same time that it raised above prejudices, those who presided in the destiny of states.
Philosophers truly enlightened, strangers to ambition, who contented themselves with undeceiving men gradually and with caution, but without suffering themselves at the same time to confirm them in their errors, these philosophers would naturally have been inclined to embrace the reformation: but, deterred by the intolerance that every where displayed itself the majority were of opinion that they ought not to expose themselves to the inconveniences of change, when by so doing, they would still be subjected to similar restraint. As they must have continued to shew a respect for absurdities which they had already rejected, they saw no mighty advantage in having the number somewhat diminished; they were fearful also of exposing themselves, by their abjuration, to the appearance of a voluntary hypocrisy; and thus, by persevering in their attachment to the old religion, they strengthened it with the authority of their reputation.
The spirit which animated the reformers did not introduce a real freedom of sentiment. Each religion, in the country in which it prevailed, had no indulgence but for certain opinions. Meanwhile, as the different creeds were opposed to each other, few opinions existed that had not been attacked or supported in some part of Europe. The new communions had beside been obliged to relax a little from their dogmatical rigour. They could not, without the grossest contradiction, confine the right of examination within the pale of their own church, since upon this right was founded the legitimacy of their separation. If they refused to restore to reason its full liberty, they at least consented that its prison should be less confined: the chains were not broken, but they were rendered less burthensome and more permanent. In short, in those countries where a single religion had found it impracticable to oppress all the others, there was established what the insolence of the ruling sect called by the name of toleration, that is, a permission, granted by some men to other men, to believe what their reason adopts, to do what their conscience dictates to them, to pay to their common God the homage they think best calculated to please him: and in these countries the tolerated doctrines might then be vindicated with more or less freedom.
We thus see making its appearance in Europe a sort of freedom of thought, not for men, but for christians: and, if we except France, for christians only does it any where exist to this day.
But this intolerance obliged human reason to seek the recovery of rights too long forgotten, or which rather had never been properly known and understood.
Ashamed at seeing the people oppressed, in the very sanctuary of their conscience, by kings, the superstitious or political slaves of the priesthood, some generous individuals dared at length to investigate the foundations of their power; and they revealed this grand truth to the world: that liberty is a blessing which cannot be alienated; that no title, no convention in favour of tyranny, can bind a nation to a particular family; that magistrates, whatever may be their appellation, their functions, or their power, are the agents, not the masters, of the people; that the people have the right of withdrawing an authority originating in themselves alone, whenever that authority shall be abused, or shall cease to be thought useful to the interests of the community: and lastly, that they have the right to punish, as well as to cashier their servants.
Such are the opinions which Althusius and Languet, and afterwards Needham and Harrington, boldly professed, and investigated thoroughly.
From deference to the age in which they lived, they too often build upon texts, authorites, and examples; and their opinions appear to have been the result of the strength of their minds, and dignity of their characters, rather than of an accurate analysis of the true principles of social order.
Meanwhile other philosophers, more timid, contented themselves with establishing, between the people and kings, an exact reciprocity of duties and rights, and a mutual obligation to preserve inviolate settled conventions. An hereditary magistrate might indeed be deposed or punished, but it was only upon his having infringed this sacred contract, which was not the less binding on his family. This doctrine, which sacrificed natural right, by bringing every thing under positive institution, was supported both by civilians and divines. It was favourable to powerful men, and to the projects of the ambitious, as it struck rather at the individual who might be invested with sovereignty, than at sovereignty itself. For this reason it was almost generally embraced by reformists, and adopted as a principle in political dissentions and revolutions.
History exhibits few steps of actual progress towards liberty during this epoch; but we see more order and efficacy in governments, and in nations a stronger and particularly a more just sense of their rights. Laws are better combined; they appear less frequently to be the immature and shapeless production of circumstances and caprice; they are the offspring of men of learning, if they cannot be said as yet to be the children of philosophy.
The popular commotions and revolutions which agitated England, France, and the republics of Italy, attracted the notice of philosophers to that branch of politics which consists in observing and predicting the effects that the constitution, laws and establishments of a country are likely to produce upon the liberty of the people, and the prosperity, strength, independence, and form of government of the state. Some, in imitation of Plato, as More, for instance, and Hobbes, deduced from general positions the plan of an entire system of social order, and exhibited the model towards which it was necessary in practice continually to approach. Others, like Machiavel, sought, in a profound investigation of historical facts, the rules by which were to be obtained the future mastery of nations.
The science of political economy did not, in this epoch, exist. Princes estimated not the number of men, but of soldiers, in the state; finance was the mere art of plundering the people, without driving them to the desperation that should end in revolt; and governments paid no other attention to commerce but that of loading it with taxes, of restricting it by privileges, or of disputing for its monopoly.
The nations of Europe, occupied by the common interests that should unite, or the opposite ones that they conceived ought to divide them, felt the necessity of observing certain rules of conduct which, independently of treaties, were to operate in their pacific intercourse; while other rules, respected even in the midst of war, were calculated to soften its ferocity, to diminish its ravages, and to prevent at least unproductive and unnecessary calamities. I refer to the science of the law of nations: but these laws unfortunately were sought, not in reason and nature, the only authorities that independent nations may acknowledge, but in established usages and the opinions of antiquity. The rights of humanity, justice towards individuals, were less consulted, in this business, than the ambition, the pride, and the avarice of governments.
In this epoch we do not observe moralists interrogating the heart of man, analysing his faculties and his feelings, thereby to discover his nature, and the origin, law and sanction of his duties. On the contrary, we see them employing all the subtlety of the schools to discover, respecting actions the lawfulness of which is uncertain, the precise limit where innocence ends, and sin is to begin; to ascertain what authority has the proper degree of weight to justify the practice of any of these dubious sort of actions; to assist them in classing sins methodically, sometimes in genus and species, and sometimes according to the respective heinousness of their nature; and lastly, to mark those in particular of which the commission of one only is sufficient to merit eternal damnation.
The science of morals, it is apparent, could not at that time have being, since priests alone enjoyed the privilege of being its interpreters and judges. Meanwhile, as a skilful mechanic, by studying an uncouth machine, frequently derives from it the idea of a new one, less imperfect and truly useful; so did these very subtleties lead to the discovery, or assist in ascertaining the degree of moral turpitude of actions or their motives, the order and limits of our duties, as well as the principles that should determine our choice whenever these duties shall appear to clash.
The reformation, by destroying, in the countries in which it was embraced, confession, indulgences, and monks, refined the principles of morality, and rendered even manners less corrupt. It freed them from sacerdotal expiations, that dangerous encouragement to vice, and from religious celibacy, the bane of every virtue, because the enemy of the domestic virtues.
This epoch, more than all the rest, was blotted and disfigured with acts of attrocious cruelty. It was the epoch of religious massacres, holy wars, and the depopulation of the new world. There we see established, the slavery of ancient periods, but a slavery more barbarous, more productive of crimes against nature: and that mercantile avidity, trafficking with the blood of men, selling them like other commodities, having first purchased them by treason, robbery or murder, and dragging them from one hemisphere to be devoted in another, amidst humiliation and outrages, to the tedious punishment of a lingering, a cruel, but infallible destruction.
At the same time hypocrisy covers Europe with executions at the stake, and assassinations. The monster, fanaticism, maddened by the wounds it has received, appears to redouble its fury, and hastens to burn its victims in heaps, fearful that reason might be approaching to deliver them from his hands.
Meanwhile we may observe some of those mild but intrepid virtues making their appearance, which are the honour and consolation of humanity. History furnishes names which may be pronounced without a blush. A few unsullied and mighty minds, uniting superior talents to the dignity of their characters, relieve, here and there, these scenes of perfidy, of corruption, and of carnage. The picture of the human race is still too dreary for the philosopher to contemplate it without extreme mortification; but he no longer despairs, since the dawn of brighter hopes is exhibited to his view.
The march of the sciences is rapid and brilliant. The Algebraic language becomes generalized, simplified and perfected, or rather it is now only that it was truly formed. The first foundations of the general theory of equations are laid, the nature of the solutions which they give is ascertained, and those of the third and fourth degree are resolved.
The ingenious invention of logarithms, as abridging the operations of arithmetic, facilitates the application of calculation to the various objects of nature and art, and thus extends the sphere of all those sciences in which a numerical process is one of the means of comparing the results of an hypothesis or theory with the actual phenomena, and thus arriving at a distinct knowledge of the laws of nature. In mathematics, in particular, the mere length and complication of the numerical process practically considered, bring us, upon certain occasions, to a term beyond which neither time, opportunity, nor even the stretch of our faculties, can carry us; this term, had it not been for the happy intervention of logarithms, would have also been the term beyond which science could never pass, or the efforts of the proudest genius proceed.
The law of the descent of bodies was discovered by Galileo, from which he had the ingenuity to deduce the theory of motion uniformly accelerated, and to calculate the curve described by a body impelled into the air with a given velocity, and animated by a force constantly acting upon it in parallel directions.
Copernicus revived the true system of the world, so long buried in oblivion, destroyed, by the theory of apparent motions, what the senses had found so much difficulty in reconciling, and opposed the extreme simplicity of the real motions resulting from this system, to the complication, bordering upon absurdity, of the Ptolemean hypothesis. The motions of the planets were better understood; and by the genius of Kepler were discovered the forms of their orbits, and the eternal laws by which those orbits perform their evolutions.
Galileo, applying to astronomy the recent discovery of telescopes, which he carried to greater perfection, opened to the view of mankind a new firmament. The spots which he observed on the disk of the sun led him to the knowledge of its rotation, of which he ascertained the precise period, and the laws by which it was performed. He demonstrated the phases of Venus, and discovered the four satellites that sarround and accompany Jupiter in his immense orbit.
He also furnished an accurate mode of measuring time, by the vibrations of a pendulum.
Thus man owes to Galileo the first mathematical theory of a motion that is not at once uniform and rectilinear, as well as one of the mechanical laws of nature; while to Kepler he is indebted for the acquisition of one of those empirical laws, the discovery of which has the double advantage of leading to the knowledge of the mechanical law of which they express the result, and of supplying such degrees of this knowledge as man finds himself yet incapable of attaining.
The discovery of the weight of the air, and of the circulation of the blood, distinguish the progress of experimental philosophy, born in the school of Galileo, and of anatomy, already too far advanced not to form a science distinct from that of medicine.
Natural history, and chymistry, in spite of its chimerical hopes and its enigmatical language, as well as medicine and surgery, astonish us by the rapidity of their progress, though we are frequently mortified at the sight of the monstrous prejudices which these sciences still retain.
Without mentioning the works of Gesner and Agricola containing such a fund of real information, with so slight a mixture of scientific or popular errors, we observe Bernard de Palissi sometimes displaying to us the quarries from which we derive the materials of our edifices; sometimes masses of stone that compose our mountains formed from the skeletons of sea animals, and authentic monuments of the ancient revolutions of the globe; and sometimes explaining how the waters, raised from the sea by evaporation, restored to the earth by rain, stopped by beds of clay, assembled in snow upon the hills, supply the eternal streams of rivers, brooks, and fountains: while John Rei discovered those combinations of air with metallic substances, which gave birth to the brilliant theories by which, within a few years, the bounds of chymistry have been so much extended.
In Italy the arts of epic poetry, painting and sculpture, arrived at a perfection unknown to the ancients. In France, Corneille evinced that the dramatic art was about to acquire a still nobler elevation; for whatever superiority the enthusiastical admirers of antiquity may suppose, perhaps with justice, the chess-d’œuvres of its first geniuses to possess, it is by no means difficult, by comparing their works with the productions of France and of Italy, for a rational enquirer to perceive the real progress which the art itself has attained in the hands of the moderns.
The Italian language was completely formed, and in those of other nations we see the marks of their ancient barbarism continually disappearing.
Men began to feel the utility of metaphysics and grammar, and of acquiring the art of analysing and explaining philosophically both the rules and the processes established by custom in the composition of words and phrases.
We every where perceive, during this epoch, reason and authority striving for the mastery, a contest that prepared and gave promise of the triumph of the former.
This also was the period auspicious to the birth of that spirit of criticism which alone can render erudition truly productive. It was still necessary to examine what had been done by the ancients; but men were aware that, however they might admire, they were entitled to judge them. Reason, which sometimes supported itself upon authority, and against which authority had been so frequently employed, was desirous of appreciating the value of the assistance she might derive therefrom, as well as the motive of the sacrifice that was demanded of her. Those who assumed authority for the basis of their opinions, and the guide of their conduct, felt how important it was that they should be sure of the strength of their arms, and not expose themselves to the danger of having them broken to pieces upon the first attack of reason.
The habit of writing only in Latin upon the sciences, philosophy, jurisprudence, and even history, with a few exceptions, gradually yielded to the practice of employing the common language of the respective country. And here we may examine what influence upon the progress of the human mind was produced by this change, which rendered the sciences more popular, but diminished the facility with which the learned were able to follow them in their route; which caused a book to be read by more individuals of inferior information in a particular country, but by fewer enlightened minds through Europe in general; which superseded the necessity of learning Latin in a great number of men desirous of instruction, without having the leisure or the means of sounding the depths of erudition, but at the same time obliged the philosopher to consume more time in acquiring a knowledge of different languages.
We may show that, as it was impossible to make the Latin a vulgar tongue common to all Europe, the continuance of the custom of writing in it upon the sciences would have been attended with a transient advantage only to those who studied them; that the existence of a sort of scientific language among the learned of all nations, while the people of each individual nation spoke a different one, would have divided men into two classes, would have perpetuated in the people prejudices and errors, would have placed an insurmountable impediment to true equality, to an equal use of the same reason, to an equal knowledge of necessary truths; and thus by stopping the progress of the mass of mankind, would have ended at last, as in the East, by putting a period to the advancement of the sciences themselves.
For a long time there had been no instruction but in churches and cloisters.
The universities were still under the domination of the priests. Compelled to resign to the civil authority a part of their influence, they retained it without the smallest defalcation, so far as related to the early instruction of youth, that instruction which is equally sought in all professions, and among all classes of mankind. Thus they possessed themselves of the soft and flexible mind of the child, of the boy, and directed at their pleasure the first unfinished thoughts of man. To the secular power they left the superintendence of those studies which had for their object jurisprudence, medicine, scientifical analysis, literature and the humanities, the schools of which were less numerous, and received no pupils who were not already broken to the sacerdotal yoke.
In reformed countries the clergy lost this influence. The common instruction, however, though dependent on the government, did not cease to be directed by a theological spirit; but it was no longer confined to members of the priesthood. It still corrupted the minds of men by religious prejudices, but it did not bend them to the yoke of sacerdotal authority; it still made fanatics, visionaries, sophists, but it no longer formed slaves for superstition.
Meanwhile education, being every where subjugated had corrupted every where the general understanding, by clogging the reason of children with the weight of the religious prejudices of their country, and by stifling in youth, destined to a superior course of instruction, the spirit of liberty by means of political prejudices.
Left to himself, every man not only found between him and truth a close and terrible phalanx of the errors of his country and age, but the most dangerous of those errors were in a manner already rendered personal to him. Before he could dissipate the errors of another, it was necessary he should begin with ascertaining his own; before he combated the difficulties opposed by nature to the discovery of truth, his understanding, so to speak, was obliged to undergo a thorough repair. Instruction at this period conveyed some knowledge; but to render it useful, the operation of refining must take place, to separate it from the dross in which superstition and tyranny together had contrived to bury it.
We may show what obstacles, more or less powerful, these vices of education, those religious and contradictory creeds, that influence of the different forms of government, opposed to the progress of the human mind. It will be seen that this progress was by so much the slower and unequal, in proportion as the objects of speculative enquiry intimately affected the state of politics and religion; that philosophy, in its most general sense, as well as metaphysics, the truths of which were in direct hostility to every kind of superstition, were more obstinately retarded than political enquiry itself, the improvement of which was only dangerous to the authority of kings and aristocratic assemblies; and that the same observation will equally apply to the science of material nature.
We may farther develope the other sources of this inequality, as they may be traced in the objects of which each science treats, and the methods to which it has recourse.
In the same manner the sources of inequality and counteraction, which operate respecting the very same science in different countries, are also the joint effect of political and natural causes. We may enquire, in this inequality, what it is that is to be ascribed to the different modes of religion, to the form of government, to the wealth of any nation, to its political importance, to its personal character, to its geographical situation, to the events and vicissitudes it has experienced, in fine, to the accident which has produced in the midst of it any of those extraordinary men, whose influence, while it extends over the whole human race, exercises itself with a double energy in a more restrained sphere.
We may distinguish the progress of each science as it is in itself, which has no other limit than the number of truths it includes within its sphere, and the progress of a nation in each science, a progress which is regulated first by the number of men who are acquainted with its leading and most important truths, and next by the number and nature of the truths so known.
In fine, we are now come to that point of civilization, at which the people derive a profit from intellectual knowledge, not only by the services it reaps from men uncommonly instructed, but by means of having made of intellectual knowledge a sort of patrimony, and employing it directly and in its proper form to resist error, to anticipate or supply their wants, to relieve themselves from the ills of life, or take off the poignancy of these ills by the intervention of additional pleasure.
The history of the persecutions to which the champions of liberty were exposed, during this epoch, ought not to be forgotten. These persecutions will be found to extend from the truths of philosophy and politics to those of medicine, natural history and astronomy. In the eighth century an ignorant pope had persecuted a deacon for contending that the earth was round, in opposition to the opinion of the rhetorical Saint Austin. In the seventeenth, the ignorance of another pope, much more inexcuseable, delivered Galileo into the hands of the inquisition, accused of having proved the diurnal and annual motion of the earth. The greatest genius that modern Italy has given to the sciences, overwhelmed with age and infirmities, was obliged to purchase his release from punishment and from prison, by asking pardon of God for having taught men better to understand his works, and to admire him in the simplicity of the eternal laws by which he governs the universe.
Meanwhile, so great was the absurdity of the theologians, that, in condescension to human understanding, they granted a permission to maintain the motion of the earth, at the same time that they insisted that it should be only in the way of an hypothesis, and that the faith should receive no injury. The astronomers, on the other hand, did the exact opposite of this; they treated the motion of the earth as a reality, and spoke of its immoveableness with a deference only hypothetical.
The transition from the epoch we have been considering to that which follows, has been distinguished by three extraordinary personages, Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. Bacon has revealed the true method of studying nature, by employing the three instruments with which she has furnished us for the discovery of her secrets, observation, experiment and calculation. He was desirous that the philosopher, placed in the midst of the universe, should, as a first and necessary step in his career, renounce every creed he had received, and even every notion he had formed, in order to create, as it were, for himself, a new understanding, in which no idea should be admitted but what was precise, no opinion but what was just, no truth of which the degree of certainty or probability had not been scrupulously weighed. But Bacon, though possessing in a most eminent degree the genius of philosophy, added not thereto the genius of the sciences; and these methods for the discovery of truth, of which he furnished no example, were admired by the learned, but produced no change in the march of the sciences.
Galileo had enriched them with the most useful and brilliant discoveries; he had taught by his own example the means of arriving at the knowledge of the laws of nature in a way sure and productive, in which men were not obliged to sacrifice the hope of success to the fear of being misled. He founded the first school in which the sciences have been taught without a mixture of superstition, prejudice, or authority; in which every other means than experiment and calculation have been rigorously proscribed; but confining himself exclusively to the mathematical and physical sciences, he was unable to communicate to the general mind that impulsion which it seemed to want.
This honour was reserved for the daring and ingenious Descartes. Endowed with a master genius for the sciences, he joined example to precept, in exhibiting the method of finding and ascertaining truth. This method he applied to the discovery of the laws of dioptrics, of the collision of bodies, and finally of a new branch of mathematical science, calculated to extend and enlarge the bounds of all the other branches.
He wished to extend his method to every object of human intelligence; God, man, the universe, were in turn the subject of his meditations. If, in the physical sciences, his march be less sure than that of Galileo, if his philosophy be less wary than that of Bacon, if he may be accused of not having sufficiently availed himself of the lessons of the one, and the example of the other, to distrust his imagination, to interrogate nature by experiment alone, to have no faith but in calculation, to observe the universe, instead of instructing it, to study man instead of trusting to vague conjectures for a knowledge of his nature; yet the very boldness of his errors was instrumental to the progress of the human species. He gave activity to minds which the circumspection of his rivals could not awake from their lethargy. He called upon men to throw off the yoke of authority, to acknowledge no influence but what reason should avow: and he was obeyed, because he subjected by his daring, and fascinated by his enthusiasm.
The human mind was not yet free, but it knew that it was formed to be free. Those who persisted in the desire of retaining it in its fetters, or who attempted to forge new ones, were under the necessity of proving that they ought to be imposed or retained, and it requires little penetration to foresee that from that period they would soon be broken in pieces.