Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XIII.: WILL THE HUMAN RACE BE EVER IN A BETTER CONDITION THAN AT PRESENT. - The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAP. XIII.: WILL THE HUMAN RACE BE EVER IN A BETTER CONDITION THAN AT PRESENT. - Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, marquis de Volney, The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires 
The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires, 3rd ed. (London: J. Johnson, 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.
WILL THE HUMAN RACE BE EVER IN A BETTER CONDITION THAN AT PRESENT.
Oppressed with sorrow at the predictions of the Genius, and the severity of his reasoning: Unhappy nations, cried I, bursting into tears! Unhappy my own lot! I now despair of the felicity of man! since his evils flow from his own heart, since he must himself apply the remedy, woe for ever to his existence! For what can restrain the inordinate desire of the powerful? Who shall enlighten the ignorance of the weak? Who instruct the multitude in the knowledge of its rights, and force the chiefs to discharge the duties of their station? Individual will not cease to oppress individual, one nation to attack another nation, and never will the day of prosperity and glory again dawn upon these countries. Alas! conquerors will come; they will drive away the oppressors, and will establish themselves in their place; but, succeeding to their power, they will succeed also to their rapacity, and the earth will have changed its tyrants, without lessening the tyranny.
Then turning towards the Genius: O Genius! said I, despair has taken hold of my heart. While you have instructed me in the nature of man, the depravity of governors, and the abjectness of those who are governed, have given me a disgust to life; and since there is no alternative but to be the accomplice or the victim of oppression, what has the virtuous man to do but to join his ashes to those of the tombs!
The Genius, fixing upon me a look of severity mixed with compassion, was silent. After a few minutes he replied: Is it then in dying that virtue consists? The wicked man is indefatigable in the consummation of vice, and the just disheartened at the first obstacle which stands in the way of doing good! . . . . But such is the human heart: success intoxicates it to presumption, disappointment dejects and terrifies it. Always the victim of the sensation of the moment, it judges not of things by their nature but by the impulse of passion. . . . Moral, who despairest of the human race, upon what profound calculation of reasonings and events is your judgment formed? Have you scrutinized the organization of sensible beings, to determine with precision whether the springs that incline them to happiness are weaker than those which repel? or rather, viewing at a glance the history of the species, and judging of the future by the example of the past, have you hence discovered with certainty, that all proficiency is impossible? Let me ask: Have societies, since their origin, made no step towards instruction and a better state of things? Are men still in the woods, destitute of every thing, ignorant, stupid, and ferocious? Are there no nations advanced beyond the period, when nothing was to be seen upon the face of the globe but savage freebooters or savage slaves? If individuals have at certain times, and in certain places, become better, why should not the mass improve? If particular societies have attained a considerable degree of perfection, why should not the progress of the general society advance? If first obstacles have been overcome, why should succeeding ones be insurmountable?
But you are of opinion that the human race is degenerating? Guard yourself against the illusion and paradoxes of misanthropy. Dissatisfied with the present, man supposes in the past a perfection which does not exist, and which is merely the discoloration of his chagrin. He praises the dead from enmity to the living, and employs the bones of the fathers as an instrument of chastisement against the children.
To establish this principle of a retrograde perfection, it is necessary that we should contradict the testimony of facts and reason. Nor is this all; the facts of history might indeed be equivocal, but it is farther necessary that we should contradict the living fact of the nature of man; that we should assert that he is born with a perfect science in the use of his senses; that, previous to experience, he is able to distinguish poison from aliment; that the sagacity of the infant is greater than that of his bearded progenitor; that the blind man can walk with more assurance than the man endued with sight; that man, the creature of civilization, is less favoured by circumstances than the cannibal; in a word, that there is no truth in the existing gradation of instruction and experience.
Young man, believe the voice of tombs and the testimony of monuments. There are countries which have doubtless fallen off from what they were at certain epochas: but if the understanding were to analyse thoroughly the wisdom and felicity of their inhabitants at those periods, their glory would be found to have less of reality than of splendour; it would be seen, that even in the most celebrated states of antiquity, there existed enormous vices and cruel abuses, the precise cause of their instability; that in general the principles of government were atrocious; that, from people to people, audacious robbery, barbarous wars, and implacable animosities were prevalent(x) ; that natural right was unknown; that morality was perverted by senseless fanaticism and deplorable superstition; that a dream, a vision, an oracle, were the frequent occasion of the most terrible commotions. Nations are not perhaps yet free from the power of these evils; but their force is at least diminished, and the experience of past times has not been wholly lost. Within the three last centuries especially, the light of knowledge has been increased and disseminated; civilization, aided by various happy circumstances, has perceptibly advanced, and even inconveniences and abuses have proved advantageous to it: for if conquests have extended kingdoms and states beyond due bounds, the people of different countries, uniting under the same yoke, have lost that spirit of estrangement and division which made them all enemies to one another. If the hands of power have been strengthened, an additional degree of system and harmony has at least been introduced in its exercise. If wars have become more general in the mass of their influence and operation, they have been less destructive in their details. If the people carry to the combat less personality and less exertion, their struggles are less sanguinary and ferocious. If they are less free, they are less turbulent; if they are more effeminate, they are more pacific. Despotism itself seems not to have been unproductive of advantages: for if the government has been absolute, it has been less perturbed and tempestuous; if thrones have been regarded as hereditary property, they have excited less dissention, and exposed the people to fewer convulsions; in fine, if despots, with timid and mysterious jealousy have interdicted all knowledge of their administration, all rivalship for the direction of affairs, the passions of mankind, excluded from the political career, have fixed upon the arts and the science of nature; the sphere of ideas has been enlarged on every side; man, devoted to abstract studies, has better understood his place in the system of nature, and his social relations; principles have been more fully discussed, objects more accurately discerned, knowledge more widely diffused, individuals made more capable, manners more sociable, life more benevolent and pleasing; the species at large, particularly in certain countries, have been evidently gainers: nor can this improvement fail to proceed, since its two principal obstacles, those which have hitherto rendered it so slow, and frequently retrograde, the difficulty of transmitting ideas from age to age, and communicating them rapidly from man to man, have been removed.
With the people of antiquity, every canton and every city, having a language peculiar to itself, stood aloof from the rest, and the result was favourable to ignorance and anarchy: they had no communication of ideas, no participation of discoveries, no harmony of interests or of will, no unity of action or conduct. Beside, the only means of diffusing and transmitting ideas being that of speech, fugitive and limited, and that of writing, slow of execution, expensive, and acquired by few, there resulted an extreme difficulty as to instruction in the first instance, the loss of advantages one generation might derive from the experience of another, instability, retrogradation of science, and one unvaried scene of chaos and childhood.
On the contrary, in the modern world, and particularly in Europe, great nations having allied themselves by a sort of universal language, the firm of opinion has been placed upon a broader basis; the minds of men have sympathised, their hearts have enlarged; we have seen agreement in thinking, and concord in acting: in fine, that sacred art, that memorable gift of celestial genius, the press, furnished a means of communicating, of diffusing at one instant any idea to millions of the species, and of giving it a permanence which all the power of tyrants has been able neither to suspend nor to suppress. Hence has the vast mass of instruction perpetually increased; hence has the atmosphere of truth continually grown brighter, and a strength of mind been produced that is in no fear of counteraction. And this improvement is the necessary effect of the laws of nature; for by the law of sensation, man as invincibly tends to make himself happy, as the flame to ascend, the stone to gravitate, the water to gain its level. His ignorance is the obstacle which misleads him as to the means, and deceives him respecting causes and effects. By force of experience he will become enlightened; by force of errors he will set himself right; he will become wise and good, because it is his interest to be so: and ideas communicating themselves through a nation, whole classes will be instructed, science will be universally familiar, and all men will understand what are the principles of individual happiness and of public felicity; they will understand what are their respective relations, their rights, and their duties, in the social order; they will no longer be the dupes of inordinate desire; they will perceive that morality is a branch of the science of physics, composed it is true of elements complicated in their operation, but simple and invariable in their nature, as being no other than the elements of human organization itself. They will feel the necessity of being moderate and just, because therein consists the advantage and security of each; that to wish to enjoy at the expence of another is a false calculation of ignorance, because the result of such proceeding, are reprisals, enmity, and revenge; and that dishonesty is invariably the offspring of folly.
Individuals will feel that private happiness is allied to the happiness of society:
The weak, that instead of dividing their interests, they ought to unite, because equality constitutes their strength:
The rich, that the measure of enjoyment is limited by the constitution of the organs, and that lassitude follows satiety:
The poor, that the highest degree of human felicity consists in peace of mind and the due employment of time:
Public opinion, reaching kings on their thrones, will oblige them to keep themselves within the bounds of a regular authority:
Chance itself, serving the cause of nations, will give them sometimes incapable chiefs, who, through weakness, will suffer them to become free; and sometimes enlightened chiefs, who will virtuously emancipate them:
Individuality will be a term of greater comprehension, and nations, free and enlightened will hereafter become one complex individual, as single men are now: the consequences will be proportioned to the state of things. The communication of knowledge will extend from society to society, till it comprehends the whole earth. By the law of imitation the example of one people will be followed by others, who will adopt its spirit and its laws. Despots themselves, perceiving that they can no longer maintain their power without justice and beneficence, will be induced, both from necessity and rivalship, to soften the rigour of their government; and civilization will be universal.
Among nations there will be established an equilibrium of force, which, confining them within the limits of just respect for their reciprocal rights, will put an end to the barbarous practice of war, and induce them to submit to civil arbitration the decision of their disputes(y) ; and the whole species will become one grand society, one individual family governed by the same spirit, by common laws, and enjoying all the felicity of which human nature is capable.
This great work will doubtless be long accomplishing, because it is necessary that one and the same motion should be communicated to the various parts of an immense body; that the same leaven should assimilate an enormous mass of heterogeneous elements: but this motion will effectually operate. Already society at large, having passed through the same stages as particular societies have done, promises to lead to the same results. At first, disconnected in its parts, each individual stood alone; and this intellectual solitude constituted its age of anarchy and childhood. Divided afterwards into sections of irregular size, as chance directed, which have been called states and kingdoms, it has experienced the fatal effects which result from the inequality of wealth and conditions; and the aristocracy by which great empires have domineered over their dependencies, have formed its second age. In process of time, these paramount chiefs of the globe have disputed with each other for superiority, and then was seen the period of factions and civil broils. And now the parties, tired of their discords and feeling the want of laws, sigh for the epocha of order and tranquillity. Let but a virtuous chief arise, a powerful and just people appear, and the earth will arrive at supreme power. It waits a legislative people; this is the object of its wishes and its prayers, and my heart hears its voice. . . . . Then turning to the quarter of the West: Yes, continued he, a hollow noise already strikes my ear; the cry of liberty, uttered upon the farther shore of the Atlantic, has reached to the old continent. At this cry a secret murmur against oppression is excited in a powerful nation; a salutary alarm takes place respecting its situation; it enquires what it is and what it ought to be; it examines into its rights, its resources, and what has been the conduct of its chiefs . . . . One day, one reflection more . . . . and an immense agitation will arise, a new age will make its appearance, an age of astonishment to vulgar minds, of surprise and dread to tyrants, of emancipation to a great people, and of hope to the whole world.
[Page 107. (x).]From people to people barbarous wars were prevalent. Read the history of the wars of Rome and Carthage, of Sparta and Messina, of Athens and Syracuse, of the Hebrews and the Phenicians: yet these are the nations of which antiquity boasts as being most polished!
[Page 114. (y).]The decision of their disputes. What is a people? An individual of the society at large. What a war? A duel between two individual people. In what manner ought a society to act when two of its members fight? Interfere and reconcile, or repress them. In the days of the Abbe de Saint-Pierre this was treated as a dream, but happily for the human race it begins to be realized.