Front Page Titles (by Subject) NINTH EPOCH. From the Time of Descartes, to the Formation of the French Republic. - Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
NINTH EPOCH. From the Time of Descartes, to the Formation of the French Republic. - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
We have seen human reason forming itself slowly by the natural progress of civilization; superstition usurping dominion over it, thereby to corrupt it, and despotism degrading and stupefying the mental faculties by the operation of fear, and actual infliction of calamity.
One nation only escaped for a while this double influence. In that happy land, where liberty had kindled the torch of genius, the human mind, freed from the trammels of infancy, advanced towards truth with a firm and undaunted step. But conquest soon introduced tyranny, sure to be followed by superstition, its inseparable companion, and the whole race of man was re-plunged into darkness, destined, from appearance, to be eternal. The dawn, however, at length was observed to peep; the eyes, long condemned to obscurity, opened and shut their lids, inuring themselves gradually till they could gaze at the light, and genius dared once again to shine forth upon the globe, from which, by fanaticism and barbarity, it so long had been banished.
We have seen reason revolting at, and shaking off part of its chains, and by the continual acquisition of new strength preparing and hastening the epoch of its liberty.
We have now to run through the period in which it compleated its emancipation; in which, subjected still to a degree of bondage, it throws off, one by one, the remainder of its fetters; in which, free at length to pursue its course, it can no longer be stopped but by those obstacles, the occurrence of which is inevitable upon every new progess, as being the result of the conformation of the mind itself, or of the connection which nature has established between our means of discovering truth, and the obstacles she opposes to our efforts.
Religious intolerance had obliged seven of the Belgic provinces to throw off the yoke of Spain, and to form themselves into a federal republic. The same cause had revived in England a spirit of liberty, which, tired of long and sanguinary commotions, sat down at last contented with a constitution, admired for a while by philosophers, but having at present no other support than national superstition and political hypocrisy.
To sacerdotal persecution is it likewise to be ascribed that the Swedes had the fortitude to regain a portion of their rights.
Meanwhile, amidst the commotions occasioned by theological contests, France, Spain, Hungary and Bohemia saw the feeble remains of their liberty, or of what, at least, bore the semblance of liberty, totally vanish from their sight.
Even in countries said to be free, it is in vain to look for that freedom which violates none of the natural rights of man, and which secures their indefeasible possession and uncontrouled exercise. On the contrary, the liberty existing there, founded upon a positive right unequally shared, confers upon an individual prerogatives greater or less according to the town which he inhabits, the class in which he is born, the fortune he possesses, or the trade he may exercise; and a concise picture of these fantastical distinctions in different nations, will furnish the best answer to those men who are still disposed to vindicate the advantage and necessity of them.
In these countries, however, civil and personal liberty are guaranteed by the laws. If man be not all that he ought to be, still the dignity of his nature is not totally degraded; some of his rights are at least acknowledged; it can no longer be said of him that he is a slave, but only that he does not yet know how to become truly free.
In nations among whom, during the same period, liberty may have incurred losses more or less real, so restricted were the political rights enjoyed by the generality of the people, that the annihilation of the aristocracy, almost despotic, under which they had groaned, seems to have been more than a compensation. They have lost the title of citizen, which inequality had nearly rendered illusory; but the quality of man has been more respected, and royal despotism has saved them from a state of feodal oppression, an oppression so much the more painful and humiliating, as the number and prefence of the tyrants are continually reviving the sentiment of it.
In nations partially free the laws must necessarily have improved, because the interests of those who hold therein the reins of power, are not in all cases at variance with the general interests of the people; and they must also have improved in despotic states, either because the interest of the public prosperity is sometimes confounded with that of the despot, or because, seeking to destroy the remains of authority in the nobles or the clergy, the despot himself thereby communicates to the laws a spirit of equality, of which the motive indeed was the establishment of an equality of slavery, but which has often been attended with salutary consequences.
We may here minutely explain the causes which have produced in Europe that species of despotism, of which neither the ages that preceded, nor the other quarters of the world, have furnished an example; a despotism almost absolute, but which, restrained by opinion, influenced by the state of knowledge, and tempered in a manner by its own interest, has frequently contributed to the progress of wealth, industry, instruction, and sometimes even to that of civil liberty.
The manners of men were meliorated by the mere decay of those prejudices which had kept alive their ferocity, by the influence of commerce and industry, the natural enemies of disorder and violence, from which wealth takes it flight, by the fear and terror occasioned by the recollection, still recent, of the barbarities of the preceding period, by a more general diffusion of the philosophical ideas of justice and equality, and lastly by the slow but sure effect of the progress of mental illumination.
Religious intolerance still survived; but it was merely in the way of precaution, as a homage to the prejudices of the people, or as a safeguard against their inconstancy. It had lost its fiercest features. Executions at the stake, seldom resorted to, were replaced by other modes of directing religious opinions, which, if they frequently proved more arbitrary, were however less barbarous, till at length persecution appeared only at intervals, and resulted chiefly from the inveteracy of former habit, or from temporary weakness and complaisance.
In every nation, and upon every subject, the policy of government followed the steps not only of opinion, but even of philosophy; it was however slowly, and with a sort of reluctance: and we shall always find that, in proportion as there exists a considerable distance between the point at which men of profound meditation arrive in the science of politics and morals, and that attained by the generality of thinking men, whose sentiments, when imbibed by the multitude, form what is called the public opinion, so those who direct the affairs of a nation, whatever may be its form of government, are uniformly seen below the level of this opinion; they walk in its path, they pursue its course; but it is with so sluggish a pace, that, so far from outstripping, they never come up with it, and are always behind by a considerable number of years, and by a portion, no less considerable, of truths.
And now we arrive at the period when philosophy, the most general and obvious effects of which we have before remarked, obtained an influence on the thinking class of men, and these on the people and their governments, that, ceasing any longer to be gradual, produced a revolution in the entire mass of certain nations, and gave thereby a secure pledge of the general revolution one day to follow that shall embrace the whole human species.
After ages of error, after wandering in all the mazes of vague and defective theories, writers upon politics and the law of nations at length arrived at the knowledge of the true rights of man, which they deduced from this simple principle: that he is a being endowed with sensation, capable of reasoning upon and understanding his interests, and of acquiring moral ideas.
They saw that the maintenance of his rights was the only object of political union, and that the perfection of the social art consisted in preserving them with the most entire equality, and in their fullest extent. They perceived that the means of securing the rights of the individual, consisting of general rules to be laid down in every community, the power of choosing these means, and determining these rules, could vest only in the majority of the community: and that for this reason, as it is imposible for any individual in this choice to follow the dictates of his own understanding, without subjecting that of others, the will of the majority is the only principle which can be followed by all, without infringing, upon the common equality.
Each individual may enter into a previous engagement to comply with the will of the majority, which by this engagement becomes unanimity; he can however bind nobody but himself, nor can he bind himself except so far as the majority shall not violate his individual rights, after having recognised them.
Such are at once the rights of the majority over individuals, and the limits of these rights; such is the origin of that unanimity, which renders the engagement of the majority binding upon all; a bond that ceases to operate when, by the change of individuals, this species of unanimity ceases to exist. There are objects, no doubt, upon which the majority would pronounce perhaps oftener in favour of error and mischief, than in favour of truth and happiness; still the majority, and the majority only, can decide what are the objects which cannot properly be referred to its own decision; it can alone determine as to the individuals whose judgment it resolves to prefer to its own, and the method which these individuals are to pursue in the exercise of their judgment; in fine, it has also an indispensible authority of pronouncing whether the decisions of its officers have or have not wounded the rights of all.
From these simple principles men discovered the folly of former notions respecting the validity of contracts between a people and its magistrates, which it was supposed could only be annulled by mutual consent, or by a violation of the conditions by one of the parties; as well as of another opinion, less servile, but equally absurd, that would chain a people for ever to the provisions of a constitution when once established, as if the right of changing it were not the security of every other right, as if human institutions, necessarily defective, and capable of improvement as we become enlightened, were to be condemned to an eternal monotony. Accordingly the governors of nations saw themselves obliged to renounce that false and subtle policy, which, forgetting that all men derive from nature an equality of rights, would sometimes measure the extent of those which it might think proper to grant by the size of territory, the temperature of the climate, the national character, the wealth of the people, the state of commerce and industry; and sometimes cede them in unequal portions among the different classes of society, according to their birth, their fortune, or their profession, thereby creating contrary interests and jarring powers, in order afterwards to apply correctives, which, but for these institutions, would not be wanted, and which, after all, are inadequate to the end.
It was now no longer practicable to divide mankind into two species, one destined to govern, the other to obey, one to deceive, the other to be dupes: the doctrine was obliged universally to be acknowledged, that all have an equal right to be enlightened respecting their interests, to share in the acquisition of truth, and that no political authorities appointed by the people for the benefit of the people, can be entitled to retain them in ignorance and darkness.
These principles, which were vindicated by the generous Sydney, at the expence of his blood, and to which Locke gave the authority of his name, were afterwards developed with greater force, precision, and extent by Rousseau, whose glory it is to have placed them among those truths henceforth impossible to be forgotten or disputed.
Man is subject to wants, and he has faculties to provide for them; and from the application of these faculties, differently modified and distributed, a mass of wealth is derived, destined to supply the wants of the community. But what are the principles by which the formation or allotment, the preservation or consumption, the increase or diminution of this wealth is governed? What are the laws of that equilibrium between the wants and resources of men which is continually tending to establish itself; and from which results, on the one hand, a greater facility of providing for those wants, and of consequence an adequate portion of general felicity, when wealth increases, till it has reached its highest degree of advancement; and on the other, as wealth diminishes, greater difficulties, and of consequence proportionate misery and wretchedness, till abstinence or depopulation shall have again restored the balance; How, in this astonishing multiplicity of labours and their produce, of wants and resources; in this alarming, this terrible complication of interests, which connects the subsistence and well-being of an obscure individual with the generalsystem of social existence, which renders him dependent on all the accidents of nature and every political event, and extends in a manner to the whole globe his faculty of experiencing privations or enjoyments; how is it that, in this seeming chaos, we still perceive, by a general law of the moral world, the efforts of each individual for himself conducing to the good of the whole, and, notwithstanding the open conflict of inimical interests, the public welfare requiring that each shouldund erstand his own interest, and be able to parsue it freely and uncontrouled?
Hence it appears to be one of the rights of man that he should employ his faculties, dispose of his wealth, and provide for his wants in whatever manner he shall think best. The general interest of the society, so far from restraining him in this respect, forbids, on the contrary, every such attempt; and in this department of public administration, the care of securing to every man the rights which he derives from nature, is the only sound policy, the only controul which the general will can exercise over the individuals of the community.
But this principle acknowledged, there are still duties incumbent upon the administrators of the general will, the sovereign authority. It is for this authority to establish the regulations which are destined to ascertain, in exchanges of every kind, the weight, the bulk, the length, and quantity of things to be exchanged.
It is for this authority to ordain a common standard of valuation, that may apply to all commodities and facilitate the calculation of their valuations and comparison, and which, bearing itself an intrinsic value, may be employed in all cases as the medium of exchange; a regulation without which commerce, restrained to the mere operations of barter, cannot acquire the necessary activity.
The growth of every year presents us with a supererogatory value, which is deslined neither to remunerate the labour of which this growth is the fruit, nor to supply the stock which is to secure an equal and more abundant growth in time to come. The possessor of this supererogatory value does not owe it immediately to his labour, and possesses it independently of the daily and indispensible use of his faculties for the supply of his wants. This supererogatory growth is therefore the stock to which the sovereign authority may have recourse without injuring the rights of any, to supply the expences which are requisite for the security of the state, its intrific tranquillity, the preservation of the rights of all the exercise of the authorities instituted for the establishment or administration of law, in fine of the maintenance through all its branches of the public prosperity. There are certain operations, establishments, and institutions, beneficial to the community at large, which it is the office of the community to introduce, direct, and superintend, and which are calculated to supply the defects of personal inclination, and to parry the struggle of opposite interests, whether for the improvement of agriculture, industry, and commerce, or to prevent or diminish the evils entailed on our nature, or those which accident is continually accumulating upon us.
Till the commencement of the epoch we are now considering, and even for some time after, these objects had been abandoned to chance, to the rapacity of governments, to the artifices of pretenders, or to the prejudices and partial interests of the powerful classes of society; but a disciple of Descartes, the illustrious and unfortunate John de Witt, perceived how necessary it was that political economy, like every other science, should be governed by the principles of philosophy and subjected to the rules of a rigid calculation.
It made however little progress, till the peace of Utrecht promised to Europe a durable tranquillity. From this period, neglected as it had hitherto been, it became a subject of almost general attention; and by Stuart, Smith, and particularly by the French economists, it was suddenly elevated, at least as to precision and purity of principles, to a degree of perfection, not to have been expected after the long and total indifference which had prevailed upon the subject.
The cause however of so unparalleled a progress is chiefly to be found in the advancement of that branch of philosophy comprehended in the term metaphysics, taking the word in its most extensive signification.
Descartes had restored this branch of philosophy to the dominion of reason. He perceived the propriety of deducing it from those simple and evident truths which are revealed to us by an investigation of the operations of the mind. But scarcely had he discovered this principle than his eager imagination led him to depart from it, and philosophy appeared for a time to have resumed its independence only to become the prey of new errors. At length Locke made himself master of the proper clew. He shewed that a precise and accurate analysis of ideas, reducing them to ideas earlier in their origin or more simple in their structure, was the only means to avoid the being lost in a chaos of notions incomplete, incoherent, and undetermined, disorderly because suggested by accident, and afterwards entertained without reflecting on their nature.
He proved by this analysis, that the whole circle of our ideas results merely from the operations of our intellect upon the sensations we have received, or more accurately speaking, are compounded of sensations offering themselves simultaneously to the memory, and after such a manner, that the attention is fixed and the perception bounded to a particular branch or view of the sensations themselves.
He shewed that by taking one single word to represent one single idea, properly analised and defined, we are enabled to recal constantly the same idea, that is, the same simultaneous result of certain simple ideas, and of consequence can introduce this idea into a train of reasoning without risk of misleading ourselves.
On the contrary, if our words do not represent fixed and definite ideas, they will at different times suggest different ideas to the mind and become the most fruitful source of error.
In fine, Locke was the first who ventured to prescribe the limits of the human understanding, or rather to determine the nature of the truths it can ascertain and the objects it can embrace.
It was not long before this method was adopted by philosophers in general, in treating of morals and politics, by which a degree of certainty was given to those sciences little inferior to that which obtained in the natural sciences admitting only of such conclusions as could be proved, separating these from doubtful notions, and content to remain ignorant of whatever is out of the reach of human comprehension.
In the same manner, by analysing the faculty of experiencing pain and pleasure, men arrived at the origin of their notions of morality, and the foundation of those general principles which form the necessary and immutable laws of justice; and consequently discovered the proper motives of conforming their conduct to those laws, which, being deduced from the nature of our feeling, may not improperly be called our moral constitution.
The same system became, in a manner, a general instrument of acquiring knowledge. It was employed to ascertain the truths of natural philosophy, to try the facts of history, and to give laws to taste. In a word, the process of the human mind in every species of enquiry was regulated by this principle; and it is this latest effort of science which has placed an everlasting barrier between the human race and the old mistakes of its infancy, that will for ever preserve us from a relapse into former ignorance, since it has prepared the means of undermining not only our present errors, but all those by which they may be replaced, and which will succeed each other only to possess a feeble and temporary influence.
In Germany, however, a man of a vast and profound genius laid the foundations of a new theory. His bold and ardent mind disdained to rest on the suppositions of a modest philosophy, which left in doubt those great questions of spiritual existence, the immortality of the soul, the free will of man and of God, and the existence of vice and misery in a world framed by a being whose infinite wisdom and goodness might be supposed to banish them from his creation. Leibnitz cut the knot which a timid system had in vain attempted to unloose. He supposed the universe to be composed of atoms, which were simple, eternal, and equal in their nature. He contended that the relative situation of each of these atoms, with respect to every other, occasioned the qualities distinguishing it from all others; the human soul, and the minutest particle of a mass of stone, being each of them equally one of these atoms, differing only in consequence of the respective places they occupy in the order of the universe.
He maintained that, of all the possible combinations which could be formed of these atoms, an infinitely wise being had preferred, and could not but prefer, the most perfect; and that if, in that which exists, we are afflicted with the presence of vice and misery, still there is no other possible combination that would not be productive of greater evils.
Such was the nature of this theory, which, supported by the countrymen of Leibnitz, retarded in that part of the world the progress of philosophy. Meanwhile there started up in England an entire sect, who embraced with zeal, and defended with eloquence, the scheme of optimism; but, less acute and profound than Leibnitz, who founded his system upon the supposition of its being impossible, from his very nature, that an all-wise being should plan any other universe than that which was best, they endeavoured to discover in the terraqueous part of the world the proofs of this perfection, and losing thereby the advantages which attach to this system considered generally and in the abstract, they frequently fell into absurd and ridiculous reasonings.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, other philosophers, not perceiving that the analysis of the developement of our actual faculties led to a principle which gave to the morality of our actions a basis sufficiently solid and pure, attributed to the human soul a new faculty, distinct from those of sensation and reason, tho’ at the sametime combining itself with them; of the existence of which they could advance no other proof, than that it was impossible to form a consistent theory without it. In the history of these opinions it will be seen, that, while they have proved injurious to the progress of philosophy itself, they have tended to give a more rapid and extensive spread to ideas truly scientific, connected with philosophy.
Hitherto we have exhibited the state of philosophy only among men by whom it has in a manner been studied, investigated, and perfected. It remains to mark its influence on the general opinion, and to show, that, while it arrived at the certain and infallible means of discovering and recognising truth, reason at the same time detected the delusions into which it had so often been led by a respect for authority or a misguided imagination, and undermined those prejudices in the mass of individuals which had so long been the scourge, at once corrupting and inflicting calamity upon the human species.
The period at length arrived when men no longer feared openly to avow the right, so long withheld, and even unknown, of subjecting every opinion to the test of reason, or, in other words, of employing, in their search after truth, the only means they possess for its discovery. Every man learned, with a degree of pride and exultation, that nature had not condemned him to see with the eyes and to conform his judgment to the caprice of another. The superstitions of antiquity accordingly disappeared; and the debasement of reason to the shrine of supernatural faith, was as rarely to be found in society as in the circles of metaphysics and philosophy.
A class of men speedily made their appearance in Europe, whose object was less to discover and investigate truth, than to disseminate it; who, pursuing prejudice through all the haunts and asylums in which the clergy, the schools, governments, and privileged corporations had placed and protected it, made it their glory rather to eradicate popular errors, than add to the stores of human knowledge; thus aiding indirectly the progress of mankind, but in a way neither less arduous, nor less beneficial.
In England, Collins and Bolingbroke, and in France, Bayle, Fontenelle, Montesquieu, and the respective disciples of these celebrated men, combated on the side of truth with all the weapons that learning, wit and genius were able to furnish; assuming every shape, employing every tone, from the sublime and pathetic to pleasantry and satire, from the most laboured investigation to an interesting romance or a fugitive essay: accommodating truth to those eyes that were too weak to bear its effulgence; artfully caressing prejudice, the more easily to strangle it; never aiming a direct blow at errors, never attacking more than one at a time, nor even that one in all its fortresses; sometimes soothing the enemies of reason, by pretending to require in religion but a partial toleration, in politics but a limited freedom; siding with despotism, when their hostilities were directed against the priesthood, and with priests when their object was to unmask the despot; sapping the principle of both these pests of human happiness, striking at the root of both these baneful trees, while apparently wishing for the reform only of glaring abuses and seemingly confining themselves to lopping off the exuberant branches; sometimes representing to the partisans of liberty, that superstition, which covers despotism as with a coat of mail, is the first victim which ought to be sacrificed, the first chain that ought to be broken; and sometimes denouncing it to tyrants as the true enemy of their power, and alarming them with recitals of its hypocritical conspiracies and its sanguinary vengeance. These writers, meanwhile, were uniform in their vindication of freedom of thinking and freedom of writing, as privileges upon which depended the salvation of mankind. They declaimed, without cessation or weariness, against the crimes both of fanatics and tyrants, exposing every feature of severity, of cruelty, of oppression, whether in religion, in administration, in manners, or in laws; commanding kings, soldiers, magistrates and priests, in the name of truth and of nature, to respect the blood of mankind; calling upon them, with energy, to answer for the lives still profusely sacrificed in the field of battle or by the infliction of punishments, or else to correct this inhuman policy, this murderous insensibility; and lastly, in every place, and upon every occasion, rallying the friends of mankind with the cry of reason, toleration, and humanity.
Such was this new philosophy. Accordingly to those numerous classes that exist by prejudice, that live upon error, and that, but for the credulity of the people, would be powerless and extinct, it became a common object of detestation. It was every where received, and every where persecuted, having kings, priests, nobles and magistrates among the number of its friends as well as of its enemies. Its leaders, however, had almost always the art to elude the pursuits of vengeance, while they exposed themselves to hatred; and to screen themselves from persecution, while at the same time they sufficiently discovered themselves not to lose the laurels of their glory.
It frequently happened that a government rewarded them with one hand, and with the other paid their enemies for calumniating them; proscribed them, yet was proud that fortune had honoured its dominions with their birth; punished their opinions, and at the same time would have been ashamed not to be supposed a convert thereto.
These opinions were shortly embraced by every enlightened mind. By some they were openly avowed, by others concealed under an hypocrisy more or less apparent, according to the timidity or firmness of their characters, and accordingly as they were influenced by the contending interests of their profession or their vanity. At length the pride of ranging on the side of erudition became predominant; and sentiments were professed with the slightest caution, which, in the ages that preceded, had been concealed by the most profound dissimulation.
Look to the different countries of Europe into which, from the prevalence of the French language, become almost universal, it was impossible for the inquisitorial spirit of governments and priests to prevent this philosophy from penetrating, and we shall see how rapid was its progress. Meanwhile we cannot overlook how artfully tyranny and superstition employed against it all the arguments invented to prove the weakness and fallibility of human judgment, all the motives which the knowledge of man had been able to suggest for mistrusting his senses, for doubting and scrutinizing his reason; thus converting scepticism itself into an instrument by which to aid the cause of credulity.
This admirable system, so simple in its principles, which considers an unrestricted freedom as the surest encouragement to commerce and industry, which would free the people from the destructive pestilence, the humiliating yoke of those taxes apportioned with so great inequality, levied with so improvident an expence, and often attended with circumstances of such attrocious barbarity, by substituting in their room a mode of contribution at once equal and just, and of which the burthen would scarcely be felt; this theory, which connects the power and wealth of a state with the happiness of individuals and a respect for their rights, which unites by the bond of a common felicity the different classes into which societies naturally divide themselves; this benevolent idea of a fraternity of the whole human race, of which no national interest shall ever more intervene to disturb the harmony; these principles, so attractive from the generous spirit that pervades them, as well as from their simplicity and comprehension, were propagated with enthusiasm by the French economists.
The success of these writers was less rapid and less general than that of the philosophers; they had to combat prejudices more refined, errors more subtle. Frequently they were obliged to enlighten before they could undeceive, and to instruct good sense before they could venture to appeal to it as their judge.
If, however, to the whole of their doctrine they gained but a small number of converts; if the general nature and inflexibility of their principles were discouraging to the minds of many; if they injured their cause by affecting an obscure and dogmatical style, by too much postponing the interests of political freedom to the freedom of commerce, and by insisting too magisterially upon certain branches of their system, which they had not sufficiently investigated; they nevertheless succeeded in rendering odious and contemptible that dastardly, that base and corrupt policy which places the prosperity of a nation in the subjection and impoverishment of its neighbours, in the narrow views of a code of prohibitions, and in the petty calculations of a tyrannical revenue.
But the new truths with which genius had enriched philosophy and the science of political economy, adopted in a greater or less degree by men of enlightened understandings, extended still farther their salutary influence.
The art of printing had been applied to so many subjects, books had so rapidly increased, they were so admirably adapted to every taste, every degree of information, and every situation of life, they afforded so easy and frequently so delightful an instruction, they had opened so many doors to truth, which it was impossible ever to close again, that there was no longer a class or profession of mankind from whom the light of knowledge could absolutely be excluded. Accordingly, though there still remained a multitude of individuals condemned to a forced or voluntary ignorance, yet was the barrier between the enlightened and unenlightened portion of mankind nearly effaced, and an insensible gradation occupied the space which separates the two extremes of genius and stupidity.
Thus there prevailed a general knowledge of the natural rights of man; the opinion even that these rights are inalienable and imprescriptible; a decided partiality for freedom of thinking and writing; for the enfranchisement of industry and commerce; for the melioration of the condition of the people; for the repeal of penal statutes against religious nonconformists; for the abolition of torture and barbarous punishments; the desire of a milder system of criminal legislation; of a jurisprudence that should give to innocence a complete security; of a civil code more simple, as well as more conformable to reason and justice; indifference as to systems of religion, considered at length as the offspring of superstition, or ranked in the number of political inventions; hatred of hypocrisy and fanaticism; contempt for prejudices; and lastly, a zeal for the propagation of truth; These principles, passing by degrees from the writings of philosophers into every class of society whose instruction was not confined to the catechism and the scriptures, became the common creed, the symbol and type of all men who were not idiots on the one hand, or, on the other, assertors of the policy of Machiavelism. In some countries these sentiments formed so nearly the general opinion, that the mass even of the people seemed ready to obey their dictates and act from their impulse.
The love of mankind, that is to say, that active compassion which interests itself in all the afflictions of the human race, and regards with horror whatever, in public institutions, in the acts of government, or the pursuits of individuals, adds to the inevitable misfortunes of nature, was the necessary result of these principles. It breathed in every work, it prevailed in every conversation, and its benign effects were already visible even in the laws and administration of countries subject to despotism.
The philosophers of different nations embracing, in their meditations, the entire interests of man, without distinction of country, of colour, or of sect, formed, notwithstanding the difference of their speculative opinions, a firm and united phalanx against every description of error, every species of tyranny. Animated by the sentiment of universal philanthropy, they declaimed equally against injustice, whether existing in a foreign country, or exercised by their own country against a foreign nation. They impeached in Europe the avidity which stained the shores of America, Africa, and Asia with cruelty and crimes. The philosophers of France and England gloried in assuming the appellation, and fulsilling the duties, of friends to those very negroes whom their ignorant oppressors disdained to rank in the class of men. The French writers bestowed the tribute of their praise on the toleration granted in Russia and Sweden, while Beccaria refuted in Italy the barbarous maxims of Gallic jurisprudence. The French also endeavoured to open the eyes of England respecting her commercial prejudices, and her superstitious reverence for the errors of her constitution; while the virtuous Howard remonstrated at the same time with the French upon the cool barbarity which sacrisiced so many human victims in their prisons and hospitals.
Neither the violence nor the corrupt arts of government, neither the intolerance of priests, nor even the prejudices of the people themselves, possessed any longer the fatal power of suppressing the voice of truth; and nothing remained to screen the enemies of reason, or the oppressors of liberty, from the sentence which was about to be pronounced upon them by the unanimous suffrage of Europe.
While the fabric of prejudice was thus tottering to its foundations, a fatal blow was given to it by a doctrine, of which Turgot, Price, and Priestley were the first and most illustrious advocates; it was the doctrine of the infinite perfectibility of the human mind. The consideration of this opinion will fall under the tenth division of our work, where it will be developed with sufficient minuteness. But we shall embrace this opportunity of exposing the origin and progress of a false system of philosophy, to the overthrow of which the doctrine of the perfectibility of man is become so necessary.
The sophistical doctrine to which I allude, derived its origin from the pride of some men, and the selfishness of others. Its real, though concealed object, was to give duration to ignorance, and to prolong the reign of prejudice. The adherents of this doctrine, who have been numerous, sometimes attempted to delude the reason by brilliant paradoxes, or to seduce it by the specious charms of an universal pyrrhonism. Sometimes they assumed the boldness peremptorily to declare, that the advancement of knowledge threatened the most fatal consequences to human happiness and liberty; at other times they declaimed, with pompous enthusiasm, in favour of an imaginary wisdom and sublimity, that disdained the cold progress of analysis, and the tardy mechanical path of experience. Upon one occasion, they were accustomed to speak of philosophy and the abstruse sciences as theories too subtle for the investigation of the human understanding, urged as we are by daily wants, and subjected to the most sudden vicissitudes; at another, they treated them as a mass of blind and idle conjectures, the false estimation of which was sure to disappear from the mind of a man habituated to life and experience. Incessantly did they lament the decay and decrepitude of knowledge, in the midst of its most brilliant progress; the rapid degradation of the human species, at the moment that men were ready to assert their rights and trust to their own understandings; an approaching æra of barbarism, darkness and slavery, when evidence was so perpetually accumulating, that the revival of such an æra was no longer to be feared. They seemed humbled by the advances of their species, either because they could not boast of having contributed to them, or because they saw themselves menaced with a speedy termination of their influence or importance. In the meanwhile, a certain number of intellectual mountabanks, more skilful than those who desperately endeavoured to prop the edisice of declining superstition, attempted, out of the wreck of superstition, to erect a new religious creed which should no longer demand of our reason any more than a sort of formal submission, and which indulged us with a perfect liberty of conscience, provided we would admit some slight fragment of incomprehensibility into our system. A second class of these mountebanks assayed to revive, by means of secret associations, the forgotten mysteries of a fort of oriental theurgy. The errors of the people they left undisturbed: upon their own disciples they entailed new dogmas and new terrors, and ventured to hope, by a process of cunning, to restore the ancient tyranny of the sacerdotal princes of India and Egypt. In the mean time, philosophy, leaning upon the pillar which science had prepared, smiled at their efforts, and saw one attempt vanish after another, as the waves retire from the foot of an immoveable rock.
By comparing the disposition of the public mind, which I have already sketched, with the prevailing systems of government, we shall perceive, without difficulty, that an important revolution was inevitable, and that there were two ways only in which it could take place: either the people themselves would establish a system of policy upon those principles of nature and reason, which philosophy had rendered so dear to their hearts; or government might hasten to supersede this event, by reforming its vices, and governing its conduct by the public opinion. One of these revolutions would be more speedy, more radical, but also more tempestuous; the other less rapid, less complete, but more tranquil; in the one, liberty and happiness would be purchased at the expence of transient evils; in the other, these evils would be avoided; but a part of the enjoyments necessary to a state of perfect freedom, would be retarded in its progress, perhaps, for a considerable period, though it would be impossible in the end that it should not arrive.
The corruption and ignorance of the rulers of nations have preferred, it seems, the former of these modes; and the sudden triumph of reason and liberty has avenged the human race.
The simple dictates of good sense had taught the inhabitants of the British colonies, that men born on the American side of the Atlantic ocean had received from nature the same rights as others born under the meridian of Greenwich, and that a difference of sixty-six degrees of longitude could have no power of changing them. They understood, more perfectly perhaps than Europeans, what were the rights common to all the individuals of the human race; and among these they included the right of not paying any tax to which they had not consented. But the British Government, pretending to believe that God had created America, as well as Asia, for the gratification and good pleasure of the inhabitants of London, resolved to hold in bondage a subject nation, situated across the seas at the distance of three thousand miles, intending to make her the instrument in due time of enslaving the mother country itself. Accordingly, it commanded the servile representatives of the people of England to violate the rights of America, by subjecting her to compulsory taxation. This injustice, she conceived, authorised her to dissolve every tie of connection, and she declared her independence.
Then was observed, for the first time, the example of a great people throwing off at once every species of chains, and peaceably framing for itself the form of government and the laws which it judged would be most conducive to its happiness; and as, from its geographical position, and its former political state, it was obliged to become a federal nation, thirteen republican constitutions were seen to grow up in its bosom, having for their basis a solemn recognition of the natural rights of man, and for their first object the preservation of those rights through every department of the union.
If we examine the nature of these constitutions, we shall discover in what respect they were indebted to the progress of the political sciences, and what was the portion of error, resulting from the prejudices of education which formed its way into them: why, for instance, the simplicity of these constitutions is disfigured by the system of a balance of powers; and why an identity of interests, rather than an equality of rights, is adopted as their principle. It is manifest that this principle of identity of interests, when made the rule of political rights is not only a violation of such rights, with respect to those who are denied an equal share in the exercise of them, but that it ceases to exist the very instant it becomes an actual inequality. We insist the rather upon this, as it is the only dangerous error remaining, the only error respecting which men of enlightened minds want still to be undeceived. At the same time, however, we see realized in these republics an idea, at that time almost new even in theory; I mean the necessity of establishing by law a regular and peaceable mode of reforming the constitutions themselves, and of placing this business in other hands than those entrusted with the legislative power.
Meanwhile, in consequence of America declaring herself independent of the British government, a war ensued between the two enlightened nations, in which one contended for the natural rights of mankind, the other for that impious doctrine which subjects these rights to prescription, to political interests, and written conventions. The great cause at issue was tried, during this war, in the tribunal of opinion, and, as it were, before the assembled nations of mankind. The rights of men were freely investigated, and strenuously supported in writings which circulated from the banks of the Neva to those of the Guadalquivir. These discussions penetrated into the most enslaved countries, into the most distant and retired hamlets. The simple inhabitants were astonished to hear of rights belonging to them: they enquired into the nature and importance of those rights: they found that other men were in arms, to re-conquer or to defend them.
In this state of things it could not be long before the transatlantic revolution must find its imitators in the European quarter of the world. And if there existed a country in which, from attachment to their cause, the writings and principles of the Americans were more widely disseminated than in any other part of Europe; a country at once the most enlightened, and the least free; in which philosophers had soared to the sublimest pitch of intellectual attainment, and the government was sunk in the deepest and most intolerable ignorance; where the spirit of the laws was so far below the general spirit and illumination, that national pride and inveterate prejudice were alike ashamed of vindicating the old institutions: if, I say, there existed such a country, were not the people of that country destined by the very nature of things, to give the first impulse to this revolution, expected by the friends of humanity with such eager impatience, such ardent hope? Accordingly it was to commence with France.
The impolicy and unskilfulness of the French government hastened the event. It was guided by the hand of philosophy, and the populor force destroyed the obstacles that otherwise might have arrested its progress.
It was more complete, more entire than that of America, and of consequence was attended with greater convulsions in the interior of the nation, because the Americans, satisfied with the code of civil and criminal legislation which they had derived from England, having no corrupt system of finance to reform, no feodal tyrannies, no hereditary distinctions, no privileges of rich and powerful corporations, no system of religious intolerance to destroy, had only to direct their attention to the establishment of new powers to be substituted in the place of those hitherto exercised over them by the British government. In these innovations there was nothing that extended to the mass of the people, nothing that altered the subsisting relations formed between individuals: whereas the French revolution, for reasons exactly the reverse, had to embrace the whole economy of society, to change every social relation, to penetrate to the smallest link of the political chain, even to those individuals, who, living in peace upon their property, or by their industry, were equally unconnected with public commotions, whether by their opinions and their occupations, or by the interests of fortune, of ambition, or of glory.
The Americans, as they appeared only to combat against the tyrannical prejudices of the mother country, had for allies the rival powers of England; while other nations, jealous of the wealth, and disgusted at the pride of that country, aided, by their secret aspirations, the triumph of justice: thus all Europe leagued, as it were, against the oppressor. The French, on the contrary, attacked at once the despotism of kings, the political inequality of constitutions partially free, the pride and prerogatives of nobility, the domination, intolerance, and rapacity of priests, and the enormity of feodal claims, still respected in almost every nation in Europe; and accordingly the powers we have mentioned, united in favour of tyranny; and there appeared on the side of the Gallic revolution the voice only of some enlightened sages, and the timid wishes of certain oppressed nations: succours, meanwhile, of which all the artifices of calumny have been employed to deprive it.
It would be easy to show how much more pure, accurate, and profound, are the principles upon which the constitution and laws of France have been formed, than those which directed the Americans, and how much more completely the authors have withdrawn themselves from the influence of a variety of prejudices; that the great basis of policy, the equality of rights, has never been superseded by that fictitious identity of interests, which has so often been made its feeble and hypocritical substitute; that the limits prescribed to political power have been put in the place of that specious balance which has so long been admired; that we were the first to dare, in a great nation necessarily dispersed, and which cannot personally be assembled but in broken and numerous parcels, to maintain in the people their rights of sovereignty, the right of obeying no laws but those which, though originating in a representative authority, shall have received their last sanction from the nation itself, laws which, if they be found injurious to its rights or interests, the nation is always organized to reform by a regular act of its sovereign will.
From the time when the genius of Descartes impressed on the minds of men that general impulse, which is the first principle of a revolution in the destiny of the human species, to the happy period of entire social liberty, in which man has not been able to regain his natural independence till after having passed through a long series of ages of misfortune and slavery, the view of the progress of mathematical and physical science presents to us an immense horizon, of which it is necessary to distribute and assort the several parts, whether we may be desirous of fully comprehending the whole, on of observing their mutual relations.
The application of algebra to geometry not only became the fruitful source of discoveries in both sciences, but they prove, from this striking example, how much the method of computation of magnitudes in general may be extended to all questions, the object of which consists in measure and extension. Descartes first announced the truth, that they would be employed with equal success hereafter upon all objects susceptible of precise valuation; and this great discovery, by shewing for the first time the ultimate purpose of these sciences, that is to say, the strict calculation of every species of truth, afforded the hope of attaining this point, at the same time that it exhibited the means.
This discovery was soon succeeded by that of a new method of computing, which teaches us to find the ratios of the successive increments or decrements of a variable quantity, or to deduce the quantity itself when this ratio is given; whether the increments be supposed of finite magnitude, or their ratio be sought for the instant only of their vanishment; a method which, being extended to all the combinations of variable magnitudes, and to all the hypotheses of their variations, leads to a determination, with regard to all things precisely mensurable, of the ratios of their elements, or of the things themselves, from the knowledge of those proportions which they mutually have, provided the ratios of their elements only be given.
We are indebted to Newton and Leibnitz for the invention of these methods; but the labours of the geometers of the preceding age prepared the way for this discovery. The progress of these sciences, which has been uninterrupted for more than a century, is the work, and establishes the reputation, of a number of men of genius. They present to the eyes of the philosopher, who is able to observe them, even though he may not follow their steps, a striking monument of the force of the human mind.
When we explain the formation and principles of algebraic language, which alone is accurate and truly analytic; the nature of the technical processes of this science; and the comparison of these processes with the natural operations of the human mind, we may prove that, if this method be not itself a peculiar instrument in the science of quantity, it certainly includes the principles of an universal instrument applicable to all possible combinations of ideas.
Rational mechanics soon became a vast and profound science. The true laws of the collision of bodies, respecting which Descartes was deceived, were at length known.
Huyghens discovered the laws of circular motions; and at the same time he gives a method of determining the radius of curvature for every point of a given curve. By uniting both theories, Newton invented the theory of curve-lined motions, and applied it to those laws according to which Kepler had discovered that the planets describe their elliptical orbits.
A planet, supposed to be projected into space at a given instant, with a given velocity and direction, will describe round the sun an ellipsis, by virtue of a force directed to that star, and proportional to the inverse ratio of the squares of the distances. The same force retains the satellites in their orbits round the primary planets: it pervades the whole system of heavenly bodies, and acts reciprocally between all their component parts.
The regularity of the planetary ellipses is disturbed, and the calculation precisely explains the very slightest degrees of these perturbations. It is equally applicable to the comets, and determines their orbits with such precision, as to foretel their return. The peculiar motion observed in the axes of rotation of the earth and the moon, affords additional proof of the existence of this universal force. Lastly, it is the cause of the weight of terrestrial bodies, in which effect it appears to be invariable, because we have no means of observing its action at distances from the centre, which are sufficiently remote from each other.
Thus we see man has at last become acquainted, for the first time, with one of the physical laws of the universe. Hitherto it stands unparalleled, as does the glory of him who discovered it.
An hundred years of labour and investigation have confirmed this law, to which all the celestial phenomena are subjected, with an accuracy which may be said to be miraculous. Every time in which an apparent deviation has presented itself, the transient uncertainty has soon become a subject of new triumph to the science.
The philosopher is, in almost every instance, compelled to have recourse to the works of a man of genius for the secret clue which led him to discovery; but here interest, inspired by admiration, has discovered and preserved anecdotes of the greatest value, since they permit us to follow Newton step by step. They serve to show how much the happy combinations of external events, or chance, unite with the efforts of genius in producing a great discovery, and how easily combinations of a less favourable nature might have retarded them, or reserved them for other hands.
But Newton did more, perhaps, in favour of the progress of the human mind, than merely discovering this general law of nature; he taught men to admit in natural philosophy no other theories but such as are precise, and susceptible of calculation; which give an account not only of the existence of a phenomenon, but its quantity and extent. Nevertheless he was accused of reviving the occult qualities of the ancients, because he had confined himself to refer the general cause of celestial appearances to a simple fact, of which observation proved the incontestable reality; and this accusation is itself a proof how much the methods of the sciences still require to be enlightened by philosophy.
A great number of problems in statics and dynamics had been successively proposed and resolved, when Alembert discovered a general principle adequate to the determination of the motions of any number of points acted on by any forces, and connected by conditions. He soon extended the same principle to finite bodies of a determinate figure; to those which, from elasticity or flexibility, are capable of changing their figure, but according to certain laws and preserving certain relations between their parts; and lastly to fluids themselves, whether they preserve the same density, or exist in a state of expansibility. A new calculation was necessary to resolve these last questions; the means did not escape him, and mechanics at present form a science of pure calculation.
These discoveries belong to the mathematical sciences; but the nature of the law of universal gravitation, or of these principles of mechanics, and the consequences which may thence be drawn and applied to the eternal order of the universe, belong to philosophy. We learn that all bodies are subject to necessary laws, which tend of themselves to produce or maintain an equilibrium, which causes or preserves the regularity of their motions.
The knowledge of those laws which govern the celestial phenomena, the discoveries of that mathematical analysis which leads to the most precise methods of calculating the appearances, the very unexpected degree of perfection to which optical and goniometrical instruments have been brought, the precision of machines for measuring time, the more general taste for the sciences, which unites itself with the interest of governments, to multiply the number of astronomers and observations; all these causes unite to secure the progress of astronomy.
The heavens are enriched for the man of science with new stars, and he applies his knowledge to determine and foretel with accuracy their positions and movements. Natural philosophy, gradually delivered from the vague explanations of Descartes, in the same manner as it before was disembarrassed from the absurdities of the schools, is now nothing more than the art of interrogating nature by experiment, for the parpose of afterwards deducing more general facts by computation.
The weight of the air is known and measured: it is known that the transmission of light is not instantancous; its velocity is determined, with the effects which must result from that velocity, as to the apparent position of the celestial bodies; and the decomposition of the solar rays into others of different refrangibility and colour. The rainbow is explained, and the methods of causing its colours to be produced or to disappear are subjected to calculation. Electricity, formerly considered as the property of certain substances only, is now known to be one of the most general phenomena in the universe. The cause of thunder is no longer a secret; Franklin has taught the artist to change its course, and direct it at pleasure. New instruments are employed to measure the variations of weight and humidity in the atmosphere, and the temperature of all bodies. A new science, under the name of meteorology, teaches us to know, and sometimes to foretel, the atmospheric appearances of which it will hereafter disclose to us the unknown laws.
While we present a sketch of these discoveries, we may remark how much the methods which have directed philosophers in their researches are simplified and brought to perfection; how greatly the art of making experiments, and of constructing instruments, has successively become more accurate; so that philosophy is not only enriched every day with new truths, but the truths already known have been more exactly ascertained; so that not only an immense mass of new facts have been observed and analysed, but the whole has been submitted in detail to methods of greater strictness.
Natural philosophy has been obliged to combat with the prejudices of the schools, and the attraction of general hypotheses, so seducing to indolence. Other obstacles retarded the progress of chemistry. It was imagined that this science ought to afford the secret of making gold, and that of rendering man immortal.
The effect of great interests, is to render man superstitious. It was not supposed that such promises, which flatter the two strongest passions of vulgar minds, and besides rouse that of acquiring glory, could be accomplished by ordinary means; and every thing which credulity or folly could ever invent of extravagance, seemed to unite in the minds of chemists.
But these chimeras gradually gave place to the mechanical philosophy of Descartes, which in its turn gave place to a chemistry truly experimental. The observation of those facts which accompany the mutual composition and decomposition of bodies, the research into the laws of these operations, with the analysis of substances into elements of greater simplicity, acquire a degree of precision and strictness ever increasing.
But to these advances of chemistry we must add others, which embrace the whole system of the science, and rather by extending the methods than immediately increasing the mass of truths, foretel and prepare a revolution of the happiest kind. Such has been the discovery of new means of confining and examining those elastic fluids, which formerly were suffered to escape; a discovery which, by permitting us to operate upon an entire class of new principles, and upon those already known, reduced to a state which escaped our researches, and by adding an element the more to almost every combination, has changed, as it were, the whole system of chemistry. Such has beenthe formation of a language, in which the names denoting substances sometimes express the resemblance or differences of those which have a common element, and sometimes the class to which they belong. To these advantages we may add the use of a scientific method, wherein these substances are represented by characters analytically combined, and moreover capable of expressing the most common operations and the general laws of affinity. And, again, this science is enriched by the use of all the means and all the instruments which philosophers have applied to compute with the utmost rigor the results of experiment; and lastly, by the application of the mathematics to the phenomena of chrystalization, and to the laws according to which the elements of certain bodies effect in their combination regular and constant forms.
Men who long had possessed no other knowledge than that of explaining by superstitious or philosophical reveries the formation of the earth, before they endeavoured to become acquainted with its parts, have at last perceived the necessity of studying with the most scrupulous attention the surface of the ground, the internal parts of the earth into which necessity has urged men to penetrate, the substances there found, their fortuitous or regular distribution, and the disposition of the masses they have formed by their union. They have learned to ascertain the effects of the slow and long continued action of the waters of the sea, of rivers, and the effect of volcanic fires; to distinguish those parts of the surface and exterior crust of the globe, of which the inequalities, disposition, and frequently the materials themselves, are the work of these agents; from the other portion of the surface, formed for the most part of heterogeneous substances, bearing the marks of more ancient revolutions by agents with which we are yet acquainted.
Minerals, vegetables, and animals are divided into various species, of which the individuals differ by insensible variations scarcely constant, or produced by causes purely local. Many of these species resemble each other by a greater or less number of common qualities, which serve to establish successive divisions regularly more and more extended. Naturalists have invented methods of classing the objects of science from determinate characters easily ascertained, the only means of avoiding confusion in the midst of this numberless multitude of individuals. These methods are, indeed, a real language, wherein each object is denoted by some of its most constant qualities, which, when known, are applicable to the discovery of the name which the article may bear in common language. These general languages, when well composed, likewise indicate, in each class of natural objects, the truly essential qualities which by their union cause a more or less perfect resemblance in the rest of their properties.
We have formerly seen the effects of that pride which magnifies in the eyes of men the objects of an exclusive study, and knowledge painfully acquired, which attaches to these methods an exaggerated degree of importance, and mistakes for science itself that which is nothing more than the dictionary and grammar of its real language. And so likewise, by a contrary excess, we have seen philosophers falsely degrade these same methods, and confound them with arbitrary nomenclatures, as futile and laborious compilations.
The chemical analysis of the substances in the three great kingdoms of nature; the description of their external form; the exposition of their physical qualities and usual properties; the history of the developement of organized bodies, animals, or plants; their nutrition and reproduction; the details of their organization; the anatomy of their various parts; the functions of each; the history of the manners of animals and their industry to procure food, defence, and habitation, or to seize their prey, or escape from their enemies; the societies of family or species which are formed amongst them; that great mass of truth to which we are led by meditating on the immense chain of organised beings; the relation which successive years produce from brute matter at the most feeble degree of organization, from organised matter to that which affords the first indications of sensibility and spontaneous motion; and from this station to that of man himself; the relation of all these beings with him, whether relative to his wants, the analogies which bring him nearer to them, or the differences by which he is separated: such is the sketch presented to the mind by modern natural history.
The physical man is himself the object of a separate science, anatomy, which, in its general acceptation, includes physiology. This science, which a superstitious respect for the dead had retardad, has taken advantage of the general disappearance of prejudice, and has happily opposed the interest of the preservation of man, which has secured it the patronage of men of eminence. Its progress has been such, that it seems in some sort to be at a stand, in the expectation of more perfect instruments and new methods. It is nearly reduced to seek in the comparative anatomy of the parts of animals and man, in the organs common to the different species, and the manner in which they exercise similar functions, those truths which the direct observation of the human frame appears to refuse. Almost every thing which the eye of the observer, assisted by the microscope, has been able to discover, is already ascertained. Anatomy appears to stand in need of experiments, so useful to the progress of other sciences; but the nature of its object deprives it of this means, so evidently necessary to its perfection.
The circulation of the blood was long since known; but the disposition of the vessels which conveyed the chyle to mix with it, and repair its losses; the existence of a gastric fluid which disposes the elements to the decomposition necessary to separate from organised matter, that portion which is proper to become assimilated with the living fluids; the changes undergone by the various parts and organs in the interval between conception and birth, and afterwards during the different ages of life; the distinction between the parts possessing sensibility and those in which irritability only resides, a property discovered by Haller, and common to almost every organic substance: these facts are the whole of what physiology has been enabled to discover, by indubitable observations, during this brilliant epoch; and these important truths may serve as an apology for the numerous explanations, mechanical, chemical, and organical, which have succeeded each other, and loaded this science with hypotheses destructive to its progress, and dangerous when used as the ground of medical practice. To the outline of the sciences we may add that of the arts, which, being founded upon them, have advanced with greater certainty, and broken the shackles of custom and common practice, which heretofore impeded their progress.
We may shew the influence which the progress of mechanics, of astronomy, of optics, and of the art of measuring time, has exercised on the art of constructing, moving, and directing vessels at sea. We may shew how greatly an increase of the number of observers, and a greater degree of accuracy in the astronomical determinations of positions, and in topographical methods, have at last produced an acquaintance with the surface of the globe, of which so little was known at the end of the last century.
How greatly the mechanic arts, properly so called, have given perfection to the processes of art in constructing instruments and machines in the practice of trade, and these last have no less added force to rational mechanism and philosophy. These arts are also greatly indebted to the employment of first movers already known, with less of expence and loss, as well as to the invention of new principles of motion.
We have beheld architecture extend its researches into the science of equilibriums and the theory of fluids, for the means of giving the most commodious and least expensive form to arches, without fear of altering their solidity; and to oppose against the effort of water a resistance computed with greater certainty; to direct the course of that fluid, and to employ it in canals with greater skill and success.
We have beheld the arts dependent on chymistry enriched with new processes; the ancient methods have been simplified, and cleared from useless or noxious substances, and from absurd or imperfect practices introduced from former rude trials; means have been invented to avert those frequently terrible dangers to which workmen were exposed. Thus it is that the application of science has secured to us more of riches and enjoyment, with much less of painful sacrifice or of regret.
In the mean time, chemistry, botany, and natural history, have very much enlightened the economical arts, and the culture of vegetables destined to supply our wants; such as the art of supporting, multiplying, and preserving domestic animals; the bringing their races to perfection, and meliorating their products; the art of preparing and preserving the productions of the earth, or those articles which are of animal product.
Surgery and pharmacy have become almost new arts, from the period when anatomy and chemistry have offered them more enlightened and more certain direction.
The art of medicine, for in its practice it must be considered as an art, is by this means delivered at least of its false theories, its pedantic jargon, its destructive course of practice, and the servile submission to the authority of men, or the doctrine of colleges; it is taught to depend only on experience. The means of this art have become multiplied, and their combination and application better known; and though it may be admitted that in some parts its progress is merely of a negative kind, that is to say, in the destruction of dangerous practices and hurtful prejudices, yet the new methods of studying chemical medicine, and of combining observations, give us reason to expect more real and certain advances.
We may endeavour more especially to trace that practice of genius in the sciences which at one time descends from an abstract and profound theory to learned and delicate applications; at another, simplifying its means, and proportioning them to its wants, concludes by spreading its advantages through the most ordinary practices; and at others again being rouzed by the wants of this same course of art, it plunges into the most remote speculations, in search of resources which the ordinary state of our knowledge must have refused.
We may remark that those declamations which are made against the utility of theories, even in the most simple arts, have never shewn any thing but the ignorance of the declaimers. We may prove that it is not to the profundity of these theories, but, on the contrary, to their imperfection, that we ought to attribute the inutility or unhappy effects of so many useless applications.
These observations will lead us to one general truth, that in all the arts the results of theory are necessarily modified in practice; that certain sources of inaccuracy exist, which are really inevitable, of which our aim should be to render the effect insensible, without indulging the chimerical hope of removing them; that a great number of data relative to our wants, our means, our time, and our expences which are necessarily overlooked in the theory, must enter into the relative problem of immediate and real practice; and that, lastly by introducing these requisites with that skill which truly constitutes the genius of the practical man, we may at the same time go beyond the narrow limits wherein prejudice against theory threatens to detain the arts, and prevent those errors into which an improper use of theory might lead us.
Those sciences which are remote from each other, cannot be extended without bringing them nearer, and forming points of contact between them.
An exposition of the progress of each science is sufficient to shew, that in several the intermediate application of numbers has been useful, as, in almost all, it has been employed to give a greater degree of precision to experiments and observations; and that the sciences are indebted to mechanics which has supplied them with more perfect and more accurate instruments. How much have the discovery of microscopes, and of meteorological instruments contributed to the perfection of natural history. How greatly is this science indebted to chemistry, which, alone, has been sufficient to lead to a more profound knowledge of the objects it considers, by displaying their most intimate nature, and most essential properties—by shewing their composition and elements; while natural history offers to chymistry so many operations to execute, such a numerous set of combinations formed by nature, the true elements of which require to be separated, and sometimes discovered, by an imitation of the natural processes: and, lastly, how great is the mutual assistance afforded to each other by chymistry and natural philosophy; and how greatly have anatomy and natural history been already benefited by these sciences.
But we have yet exposed no more than a small portion of the advantages which have been received, or may be expected, from these applications.
Many geometers have given us general methods of deducing, from observations of the empiric laws of phenomena, methods which extend to all the sciences; because they are in all cases capable of affording us the knowledge of the law of the successive values of the same quantity, for a series of instants or positions; or that law according to which they are distributed, or which is followed by the various properties and values of a fimilar quality among a given number of objects.
Applications have already proved, that the science of combination may be successfully employed to dispose observations, in such a manner, that their relations, results, and sum may with more facility be seen.
The uses of the calculation of probabilities sorctel how much they may be applied to advance the progress of other sciences; in one case, to determine the probability of extraordinary facts, and to shew whether they ought to be rejected, or whether, on the contrary, they ought to be verified; or in calculating the probability of the return of those facts which often present themselves in the practice of the arts, and are not connected together in an order, yet considered as a general law. Such, for example, in medicine, is the salutary effect of certain remedies, and the success of certain preservatives. These applications likewise shew us how great is the probability that a series of phenomena should result from the intention of a thinking being; whether this being depends on other co-existent, or antecedent phenomena; and how much ought to be attributed to the necessary and unknown cause denominated chance, a word the sense of which can only be known with precision by studying this method of computing.
The sciences have likewise taught us to ascertain the several degrees of certainty to which we may hope to attain; the probability according to which we can adopt an opinion, and make it the basis of our reasonings, without injuring the rights of sound argument, and the rules of our conduct—without deficiency in prudence, or offence to justice. They shew what are the advantages or disadvantages of various forms of election, and modes of decision dependant on the plurality of voices; the different degrees of probability which may result from such proceedings; the method which public interest requires to be followed, according to the nature of each question; the means of obtaining it nearly with certainty, when the decision is not absolutely necessary, or when the inconveniences of two conclusions being unequal, neither of them can become legitimate until beneath this probability; or the assurance beforehand of most frequently obtaining this same probability, when, on the contrary, a decision is necessary to be made, and the most feeble preponderance of probability is sufficient to produce a rule of practice.
Among the number of these applications we may likewise state, an examination of the probability of facts for the use of such as have not the power, or means, to support their conclusions upon their own observations; a probability which results either from the authority of witnesses, or the connection of those facts with others immediately observed.
How greatly have inquiries into the duration of human life, and the influence in this respect of sex, temperature, climate, profession, government, and habitudes of life; on the mortality which results from different diseases; the changes which population experiences; the extent of the action of different causes which produce these changes; the manner of its distribution, in each country, according to the age, sex, and occupation:—how greatly useful have these researches been to the physical knowledge of man, to medicine, and to public economy.
How extensively have computations of this nature been applied for the establishment of annuities, tontines, accumulating funds, benefit societies, and chambers of assurance of every kind.
Is not the application of numbers also necessary to that part of the public economy which includes the theory of public measures, of coin, of banks and financial operations, and lastly, that of taxation, as established by law, and its real distribution, which so frequently differs, in its effects on all the parts of the social system.
What a number of important questions in this same science are there, which could not have been properly resolved without the knowledge acquired in natural history, agriculture, and the philosophy of vegetables, which influence the mechanical or chymical arts.
In a word, such has been the general progress of the sciences, that it may be said there is not one which can be considered as to the whole extent of its principles and detail, without our being obliged to borrow the assistance of all the others.
In presenting this sketch both of the new facts which have enriched the sciences respectively, and the advantages derived in each from the application of theories, or methods, which seem to belong more particularly to another department of knowledge, we may endeavour to ascertain what is the nature and the limits of those truths to which observation, experience, or meditation, may lead us in each science; we may likewise investigate what it is precisely that constitutes that talent of invention which is the first faculty of the human mind, and is known by the name of genius; by what operations the understanding may attain the discoveries it pursues, or sometimes be led to others not sought, or even possible to have been foretold; we may shew how far the methods which lead to discovery may be exhausted, so that science may, in a certain respect, be at a stand, till new methods are invented to afford an additional instrument to genius, or to facilitate the use of those which cannot be employed without too great a consumption of time and fatigue.
If we confine ourselves to exhibit the advantages deduced from the sciences in their immediate use or application to the arts, whether for the welfare of individuals or the prosperity of nations, we shall have shewn only a small part of the benefits they afford. The most important perhaps is, that prejudice has been destroyed, and the human understanding in some sort rectified; after having been forced into a wrong direction by absurd objects of belief, transmitted from generation to generation, taught at the misjudging period of infancy, and enforced with the terrors of superstition and the dread of tyranny.
All the errors in politics and in morals are founded upon philosophical mistakes, which, themselves, are connected with physical errors. There does not exist any religious system, or supernatural extravagance, which is not founded on an ignorance of the laws of nature. The inventors and defenders of these absurdities could not foresee the successive progress of the human mind. Being persuaded that the men of their time knew every thing, they would ever know, and would always believe that in which they then had fixed their faith; they confidently built their reveries upon the general opinions of their own country and their own age.
The progress of natural knowledge is yet more destructive of these errors, because it frequently destroys them without seeming to attack them, by attaching to those who obstinately defend them the degrading ridicule of ignorance.
At the same time, the just habit of reasoning on the object of these sciences, the precise ideas which their methods afford, and the means of ascertaining or proving the truth, must naturally lead us to compare the sentiment which forces us to adhere to opinions founded on these real motives of credibility, and that which attaches us to our habitual prejudices, or forces us to yield to authority. This comparison is sufficient to teach us to mistrust these last opinions, to shew that they were not really believed, even when that belief was the most earnestly and the most sincerely professed. When this discovery is once made, their destruction becomes much more speedy and certain.
Lastly, this progress of the physical sciences, which the passions and interest do not interfere to disturb; wherein it is not thought that birth, profession, or appointment have given a right to judge what the individual is not in a situation to understand; this more certain progress cannot be observed, unless enlightened men shall search in the other sciences to bring them continually together. This progress at every step exhibits the model they ought to follow; according to which they may form a judgment of their own efforts, ascertain the false steps they may have taken, preserve themselves from pyrrhonism as well as credulity, and from a blind mistrust or too extensive submission to the authorities even of men of reputation and knowledge.
The metaphysical analysis would, no doubt, lead to the same results, but it would have afforded only abstract principles. In this method, the same abstract principles being put into action, are enlightened by example, and fortified by success.
Until the present epoch, the sciences have been the patrimony only of a few; but they are already become common, and the moment approaches in which their elements, their principles, and their most simple practice, will become really popular. Then it will be seen how truly universal their utility will be in their application to the arts, and their influence on the general rectitude of the mind.
We may trace the progress of European nations in the instruction of children, or of men; a progress hitherto feeble, if we attend merely to the philosophical system of this instruction, which, in most parts, is still confined, to the prejudices of the schools; but very rapid if we consider the extent and nature of the objects taught, which no longer comprehending any points of knowledge but such as are real, includes the elements of almost all the sciences; while men of all descriptions find in dictionaries, abridgments, and journals the information they require, though not always of the purest kind. We may examine the degree of utility resulting from oral instruction in the sciences, added to that which is immediately received by books and study; whether any advantage has resulted from the labour of compilation having become a real trade, a means of subsistence, which has multiplied the number of inferior works, but has likewise multiplied the means of acquiring common knowledge to men of small information. We may mark the influence which learned societies have exercised on the progress of the human mind, a barrier which will long be useful to oppose against ignorant pretenders and false knowledge: and lastly, we may exhibit the history of the encouragements given by governments to that progress, and the obstacles which have often been opposed to it in the same country and at the same period. We may shew what prejudices or principles of Machiavelism have directed them in this opposition to the advances of man towards truth; what views of interested policy, or even public good, have directed them when they have appeared, on the contrary, to be desirous of accelerating and protecting them.
The picture of the fine arts offers to our view results of no less brilliancy. Music is become, in a certain respect, a new art; while the science of combination, and the application of numbers to the vibrations of sonorous bodies, and the oscillations of the air, have enlightened its theory. The arts of design, which formerly passed from Italy to Flanders, Spain and France, elevated themselves in this last country to the same degree that Italy carried them in the preceding epocha; where they have been supported with more reputation than in Italy itself. The art of our painters is that of Raphael and Carrachi. All the means of the art being preserved in the schools, are so far from being lost, that they have become more extended. Nevertheless, it must be admitted, that too long a time has elapsed without producing a genius which may be compared to them, to admit of this long sterility being attributed to chance. It is not because the means of art are exhausted that great success is really become difficult; it is not that nature has refused us organs equally perfect with those of the Italians of the sixth age; it is merely to the changes of politics and manners that we ought to attribute, not the decay of the art, but the mediocrity of its productions.
Literary productions (cultivated in Italy with less success but without having degenerated) have made such progress in the French language, as has acquired it the honour of becoming, in some sort, the universal language of Europe.
The tragic art, in the hands of Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire, has been raised, by successive progress, to a perfection before unknown. The comic art is indebted to Moliere for having speedily arrived to an elevation not yet attained by any other people.
In England, from the commencement of the same epoch, and in a still later time in Germany, language has been rendered more perfect. The art of poetry, as well as that of prose writing, have been subjected, though with less docility than in France, to the universal rules of reason and nature, which ought to direct them. These rules are equally true for all languages and all people, though the number of men has hitherto been few who have succeeded in arriving at the knowledge of them, and rising to the just and pure taste which results from that knowledge. These rules presided over the compositions of Sophocles and Virgil, as well as those of Pope and Voltaire; they taught the Greeks and Romans, as well as the French, to be struck with the same beauties, and shocked at the same faults. We may also investigate what it is in each nation that has favoured or retarded the progress of these arts; by what causes the different kinds of poetry, or works in prose, have attained in the different countries a degree of perfection so unequal; and how far these universal rules may, without offending their own fundamental principles, be modified by the manners and opinions of the people who are to possess their productions, and even by the nature of the uses to which their different species are designed. Thus, for example, a tragedy daily recited before a small number of spectators, in a theatre of confined extent, cannot follow the same practical rules as a tragedy exhibited on an immense theatre, in the solemn festivals to which a whole people was invited. We may attempt to shew, that the rules of taste possess the same generality and the same constancy, though they are susceptible of the same modifications as the other laws of the moral and physical universe, when it is necessary to apply them to the immediate practice of a common art.
We may shew how far the art of printing, by multiplying and disseminating even those works which are designed to be publicly read or recited, transmit them to a number of readers incomparably greater than that of the auditors. We may shew how most of the important decisions by numerous assemblies, having been determined from the previous instruction their members had received by writing, there must have resulted in the art of persuasion among the ancients and among the moderns, differences in the rules, analogous to the effect intended to be produced and the means employed; and how, lastly, in the different species of knowledge, even with the ancients, certain works were for perusal only—such as those of history or philosophy. The facility which the invention of printing affords, to enter into a more extensive detail and more accurate developement, must have likewise influenced the same rules.
The progress of philosophy and the sciences have extended and favoured those of letters, and these in their turn have served to render the study of the sciences more easy, and philosophy itself more popular. They have lent mutual assistance to each other, in spite of the efforts of ignorance and folly to disunite and render them inimical. Erudition, which a respect for human authority and ancient things seemed to have destined to support the cause of hurtful prejudices; this erudition has, nevertheless, assisted in destroying them, because the sciences and philosophy have enlightened it with a more legitimate criticism. It already knew the method of weighing authorities, and comparing them with each other, but it has at length submitted them to the tribunal of reason; it had rejected the prodigies, absurd tales, and facts contrary to probability; but, by attacking the testimony upon which they were supported, men have learned to reject them, in spite of the force of these witnesses, that they might give way to that evidence which the physical or moral improbability of extraordinary facts might carry with them.
Hence it is seen that all the intellectual occupations of men, however differing in their object, their method, or the qualities of mind which they require, have concurred in the progress of human reason. It is the same with the entire system of the labours of men as with a well-composed work; of which the parts, though methodically distinct, must, nevertheless, be closely connected to form one single whole, and tend to one single object.
While we thus take a general view of the human species, we may prove that the discovery of true methods in all the sciences; the extent of the theories they include; their application to all the objects of nature, and all the wants of man; the lines of communication established between them; the great number of those who cultivate them; and, lastly, the multiplication of printing presses, are sufficient to assure us, that none of them will hereafter descend below the point to which it has been carried. We may shew that the principles of philosophy, the maxims of liberty, the knowledge of the true rights of man, and his real interest, are spread over too many nations, and in each of those nations direct the opinions of too great a number of enlightened men, for them ever to fall again into oblivion.
What fear can be entertained when we find that the two languages the most universally extended, are, likewise, the languages of two people who possess the most extended liberty; who have best known its principles. So that no confederacy of tyrants, nor any possible combination of policy, can prevent the rights of reason, as well as those of liberty, from being openly defended in both languages.
But if it be true, as every prospect assures us, that the human race shall not again relapse into its ancient barbarity; if every thing ought to assure us against that pusillanimous and corrupt system which condemns man to eternal oscillations between truth and falsehood, liberty and servitude, we must, at the same time, perceive that the light of information is spread over a small part only of our globe; and the number of those who possess real instruction, seems to vanish in the comparison with the mass of men consigned over to ignorance and prejudice. We behold vast countries groaning under slavery, and presenting nations in one place, degraded by the vices of civilization, so corrupt as to impede the progress of man; and in others, still vegetating in the infancy of its early age. We perceive that the exertions of these last ages have done much for the progress of the human mind, but little for the perfection of the human species; much for the glory of man, somewhat for his liberty, but scarcely any thing yet for his happiness. In a few directions, our eyes are struck with a dazzling light; but thick darkness still covers an immense horison. The mind of the philosopher reposes with satisfaction upon a small number of objects, but the spectacle of the stupidity, the slavery, the extravagance, and the barbarity of man, afflicts him still more strongly. The friend of humanity cannot receive unmixed pleasure but by abandoning himself to the endearing hope of the future.
Such are the objects which ought to enter into an historical sketch of the progress of the human mind. We may endeavour, while we hold them forward, to shew more especially the influence of this progress upon the opinions and the welfare of the general mass of different nations, at the different epochas of their political existence; to shew what truths they have known, what errors have been destroyed, what virtuous habits contracted, what new developement of their faculties has established a happier proportion between their powers and their wants: And, under an opposite point of view, what may be the prejudices to which they have been enslaved; what religious or political superstitions have been introduced; by what vices, of ignorance or despotism, they have been corrupted; and to what miseries, violence or their own degradation have subjected them.
Hitherto, political history, as well as that of philosophy and the sciences, has been merely the history of a few men. That which forms in truth the human species, the mass of families, which subsist almost entirely upon their labour, has been forgotten; and even among that class of men who, devoted to public professions, act not for themselves but for society; whose occupation it is to instruct, to govern, to defend, and to comfort other men, the chiefs only have fixed the attention of historians.
It is enough for the history of individuals that facts be collected, but the history of a mass of men can be founded only on observations; and, in order to select them, and to seize the essential traits, it is requisite the historian should possess considerable information, and no less of philosophy, to make a proper use of them.
Again, these observations relate to common things, which strike the eyes of all, and which every one is capable himself of knowing when he thinks proper to attend to them. Hence the greater part have been collected by travellers and foreigners, because things very trivial in the place where they exist, have become an object of curiosity to strangers. Now it unfortunately happens, that these travellers are almost always inaccurate observers; they see objects with too much rapidity, through the medium of the prejudices of their own country, and not unfrequently by the eyes of the men of the country they run through: their conferences are held with such men as accident has connected them with; and the answer is, in almost every case, dictated by interest, party spirit, national pride, or ill-humour.
It is not alone, therefore, to the baseness of historians, as has been justly urged against those of monarchies, that we are to attribute the want of monuments from which we may trace this most important part of the history of men.
The defect cannot be supplied but very imperfectly by a knowledge of the laws, the practical principles of government and public economy, or by that of religion and general prejudices.
In fact, the law as written, and the law as executed; the principles of those who govern, and the manner in which their action is modified by the genius of those who are governed; the institution such as it has flowed from the men who formed it, and such as it becomes when realized by practice; the religion of books, and that of the people; the apparent universality of prejudice, and the real reception which it obtains, may differ to such a degree, that the effects shall absolutely cease to correspond to these public and known causes.
To this part of the history of the human species, which is the most obscure, the most neglected, and for which facts offer us so few materials, it is that we should more particularly attend in this outline; and whether an account be rendered of a new discovery, an important theory, a new system of laws, or a political revolution, the problem to be determined will consist in ascertaining what effects ought to have arisen from the will of the most numerous portion of each society. This is the true object of philosophy; because all the intermediate effects of these same causes can be considered only as means of acting, at least upon this portion, which truly constitutes the mass of the human race.
It is by arriving at this last link of the chain, that the observation of past events, as well as the knowledge acquired by meditation, become truly useful. It is by arriving at this term, that men learn to appreciate their real titles to reputation, or to enjoy, with a well-grounded pleasure, the progress of their reason. Hence, alone, it is, that they can judge of the true improvement of the human species.
The notion of referring every thing to this latter point, is dictated by justice and by reason; but it may be supposed to be without foundation. The supposition, nevertheless, is not true; and it will be enough if we prove it in this place by two striking examples.
The possession of the common objects of consumption, however abundantly they may now satisfy the wants of man; of those objects which the ground produces in consequence of human effort, is due to the continued exertions of industry, assisted by the light of the sciences; and thence it follows, from history, that this possession attaches itself to the gain of the battle of Salamis, without which the darkness of oriental despotism threatened to cover the whole of the earth. And, again, the accurate observation of the longitude, which preserves navigators from shipwreck, is indebted to a theory which, by a chain of truths, goes as far back as to discoveries made in the school of Plato, though buried for twenty centuries in perfect inutility.