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TEN: THE PERFECTING OF MAN BY SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS - John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man 
The Perfectibility of Man (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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THE PERFECTING OF MAN BY SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS
At the very most, the Lockian, the Benthamite, the geneticist, can plausibly claim to have established that man is in principle perfectible, and by natural, as distinct from supernatural, means. So as against that picture of man which ascribes to him an all-pervasive corruption they have produced arguments to show that nothing in man’s nature prevents him from being perfected. And as against the view that he can be perfected only by divine grace, they have demonstrated to their own satisfaction that he can be perfected by the judicious use of educative, legislative or genetic controls. But they often write as if they had established much more than this: that man can in fact look forward to an endless history of constant improvement. Very obviously, however, there is a vast gap between demonstrating that man can be perfected and demonstrating that he will be perfected. How, if at all, can the gap be bridged?
The French Enlighteners were almost completely blind to the prospect that education, legislation, genetic control, might all of them be used to pervert men rather than to perfect them. In England, where the perfectibilists were politically much more sophisticated than their French colleagues, there was a higher degree of alertness to this possibility. Thus, for all his confidence in Providence, Hartley wrote of his associationism that it “cannot fail both to instruct and alarm all such as have any degree of interested concern for themselves, or of a benevolent one for others.”1 Even more significant is the unanimous opposition of English associationists to State education.
From Priestley to J. S. Mill, the associationists were all of them radicals, both in politics and in religion. They valued diversity: the last thing they wanted to see was the imposition of uniformity on human society. Yet, if, as they believed, all men are equal at birth and if, as they also argued, education can mould them to whatever shape is desired, the State is at once supplied, in the mechanisms of education, with an effective method of destroying every kind of radical dissent. Priestley had no doubt, therefore, that a system of State education would be “prejudicial to the proper design of education”;2 J. S. Mill more forthrightly condemned State education as “a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another.” “The mould in which it casts them,” he went on to say, “is that which pleases the predominant power in the government . . . ; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.”3
The English associationists were convinced, however, that the sole precaution needed in order to avoid this danger was to keep education in private hands. It must be remembered, of course, that in England State and Church were one; keeping education out of the hands of the State also meant keeping it out of the hands of the Established Church. But even if by this means they could have preserved diversity, it is far from clear that the perfectibilists would thereby have achieved any of their wider aspirations for education. A set of private educators may each of them exercise his private despotism: what are called “private schools” may be nothing more than the instruments by which minorities try to enforce uniformity on their members; private schools, indeed, may be more despotic, more authoritarian, than their State counterparts.
The French associationists were well aware of that fact. Many of them had been educated at Jesuit schools; the effect, as in Helvetius’s case, was to make them ardent advocates of State education. Helvetius never seriously faces the practical question how a State system is to be prevented from establishing a despotism over the mind; at most, he tries to circumvent this objection by suggesting a degree of decentralization. This is not as surprising as it might seem. Helvetius had plenty of experience of a State which ignored education, which saw in it a threat to autocratic government; he had no experience of a State which used a system of education deliberately to further its own despotic purposes. In England, in contrast, both Mill and Priestley greatly underestimated the difficulties of setting up educational institutions which should be at once privately controlled and genuinely devoted to free inquiry. The Dissenting Academies, in which Priestley himself had placed such hopes, survived for only a few years.
Even if, in respect to perfectibility by education, it is necessary to distinguish between the position of the French and the English Enlighteners, the fact still remains that the English Enlighteners, too, were to modern eyes surprisingly ready to presume that now the means of perfecting men had been discovered, it could confidently be expected that they would in fact be perfected. This attitude survived well into the twentieth century. Fifty years ago, as the biologist Luria has pointed out, the prospect that methods will be found for directly controlling human heredity would have been contemplated not only without alarm but even with enthusiasm. “The culture of enlightenment,” he goes on to say, “had fostered in them [men] the comfortable conviction that human progress and the ideals of brotherhood were advancing monotonously at a steady, if often uneven, pace.”4 This “comfortable conviction” carried with it the belief that scientific discoveries would always fall into “the right hands” and were certain, therefore, to be used for the benefit of mankind.
On what was this belief grounded? In the first place, the Enlighteners were tremendously impressed by their own emergence as, so they thought, a new and distinct social class. To a striking degree they formed, for all their squabbles, a single, self-conscious, community. It might seem ridiculous to his French admirers that Priestley should continue to defend Christianity; Hume and Rousseau might find themselves at odds. The fact remains that Hume felt himself morally obliged to care for Rousseau in England when local hostility drove him out of Switzerland. And the French revolutionaries elected Priestley a citizen of the Republic. “The philosophers of different nations,” wrote Condorcet, “who considered the interests of the whole of humanity without distinction of country, race, or creed, formed a solid phalanx banded together against all forms of error, against all manifestations of tyranny, despite their differences in matters of theory.”5 In short, they made up the secular equivalent of Augustine’s “City of God,” a Republic of Letters, devoted not to God but to truth and humanity.
It was their responsibility, the Enlighteners thought, at once to keep themselves remote from the intrigues of political life and yet to be the true governors of the people. “Happy are men of letters,” so D’Alembert summed up, “if they recognize at last that the surest way of making themselves respectable is to live united and almost shut up among themselves.” D’Alembert is not suggesting that the Enlighteners should ignore the world; it was only that they should exert their influence on government indirectly, through their teachings, rather than directly, by the exercise of political power. It is by this means that they would, D’Alembert thought, promote “the too rare art of good government.”6 Charles Duclos was no less convinced that the true role of the intellectual was to be “the power behind the throne,” the actual, although not the overt, governor of men. “Of all empires that of the intellectuals,” he wrote, “though invisible, is the widest spread. Those in power command, but the intellectuals govern, because in the end they form public opinion, which sooner or later subdues or upsets all despotisms.”7 In short, the Enlighteners hoped, in Churchill’s famous phrase about journalists, to exercise “the privilege of the harlot in every age: power without responsibility.”
There is no need to worry, for example, lest State education should fall into the hands of the wrong people. Condorcet was quite clear how this possibility was to be avoided: the State would pay the teachers, but Enlighteners would select them. It does not occur to him for a moment that the State might not acquiesce in this arrangement. If the French Enlighteners could happily envisage a State-controlled education, it was because they were convinced that they would do the controlling. Priestley and Mill, in contrast, were only too aware that their influence on a State-controlled system would be negligible.8 Helvetius’s optimism was no doubt at times subdued, but only because he felt constrained to admit that the number of enlightened men prepared to devote their attention to the problems of government is limited: that fact might delay, but could not for ever hold back, he is still confident, the perfecting of government and, through the perfecting of government, the perfecting of mankind.
The Enlighteners also thought they knew who was bound to come to overt power in the State—the commercial classes. And there was, they were convinced, a natural alliance between the new governors and the spirit of enlightenment. Overt power to the middle class, actual power to the intellectuals—that was the future of society as they envisaged it. The “honest man,” the merchant, the “civically good” man, replaced the aristocrat and the hero—in England especially—as the “ideal type” of humanity. The merchant class, it began to be argued, was the true nobility. Molière might have his fun at the expense of “le bourgeois gentilhomme,” but Molière’s seventeenth-century “cit turned gentleman” is for Steele and Addison in the eighteenth century the “new master,” entitled by his enterprise and diligence to take the place of the aristocrat, turned lazy and effete.9
Whereas the twentieth-century radical is normally hostile not only to “Big Business” but, often enough, to commerce in general, that was not at all the situation in the eighteenth century or in the early years of the nineteenth century. Commerce and liberty, so Voltaire maintained in his Philosophical Letters, are intimately associated. The close link between literature and finance was, he thought, one of the glories of the eighteenth century.10 No Rotarian could be more enthusiastic about the benefits of commerce than was Joseph Priestley. By bringing the merchant into contact with other places and people, he tells us, commerce “tends greatly to expand the mind and to cure us of many hurtful prejudices”; it encourages benevolence and a love of peace; it develops such virtues as punctuality and “the principles of strict justice and honour.” The small shopkeeper, Priestley was prepared to admit, may be grasping and avaricious; large-scale commerce, trade, he remained convinced, is a powerful influence for the good. “Men of wealth and influence,” so he sums up, “who act upon the principles of virtue and religion, and conscientiously make their power subservient to the good of their country, are the men who are the greatest honour to human nature, and the greatest blessing to human societies.”11 Condorcet, more realistically, was fain to admit that commerce did not seem, as yet, to have spread liberty and enlightenment through Asia and Africa. He was nevertheless confident that “the moment approaches when, no longer presenting ourselves as always either tyrants or corrupters, we shall become for them the beneficent instruments of their freedom.”12 For, the assumption is, commercial interests are “naturally” enlightened; once the influence of the Church was destroyed, their enlightenment would develop apace.
Of course, there were dissentients: this is one of the many respects in which Rousseau, with his mistrust of commerce and his yearnings for a simple life, was odd man out. Holbach, too, argued that agriculture, not commerce, must be the basis of a sound social order; he was once moved to observe that “there is no more dangerous creature alive, than the businessman seeking his prey.”13 But well into the nineteenth century social reformers still looked to the industrialists for support.* The socialist Saint-Simon anticipated a form of society in which industrialists and scientists would be joint governors; the anarchist P. J. Proudhon addressed himself to “you, businessmen” who “have always been the boldest, the most skilful revolutionaries”; the Utilitarians exhorted the middle classes to cast off those aristocratic-inspired illusions which prevented them from recognizing that it was in their own interest to pursue the general interest.14
Only gradually did nineteenth-century thinkers come to be disillusioned with the middle classes. In the nineteenth century there was a gradual lowering of the social classes to whom reformers appealed: Godwin, primarily, to farmers and “small men,” Marx to the industrial proletariat, Bakunin to peasants and unskilled labourers. It had become apparent, Marx argued, that the middle class would not permit itself to be enlightened beyond a certain point. But it was still presumed that there was some class or other which could be relied upon to speed enlightenment.
Helvetius, as we have already seen, rested his hopes not so much on a social class as on individuals—“enlightened despots.” Not many of the Enlighteners were happy with this solution. Diderot directed against Helvetius what he called A Sustained Refutation of the Book of Helvetius entitled “Concerning Man.” One point he made in his “refutation” is that at best, since the despot is not omniscient, there is no assurance that he will select as his successor a man of capacity and benevolence. And if once freedom dies out, Diderot warns, it is not easily recovered; the “benevolent despot” may do no more than prepare the way for a malignant tyranny. His very “benevolence,” indeed, is a menace to human society.15
Skinner and Watson, or so we have suggested, are faced with the same problem. Neither the admittedly imperfect parent nor the admittedly imperfect leader can be wholly confident of producing precisely that kind of successor who can be trusted, when the time comes, to select his successor with the same care and the same good fortune. “The authoritarian,” as Karl Popper has argued, “will in general select those who obey, who believe, who respond to his influence. But in doing so, he is bound to select mediocrities.”16 It is perhaps significant that in his Republic Plato envisages the final collapse of his ideal state as arising in a not dissimilar way: mistakes are made in breeding, as a result of which men are appointed to office who are unworthy to rule.
The God of traditional Christian theology does not have this problem; God has no successor, and he is endowed with omniscience and omnipotence. (To judge from the Christian story of the fall of the angels, however, even God’s choice of ministers can leave something to be desired.) But a secular perfectibilist cannot plausibly, even if he sometimes comes very close to doing so, ascribe immortality, or omniscience, or omnipotence, to his legislators, his psychologists, or his geneticists. Secular perfectibilism, as we have so far described it, lacks that metaphysical underpinning which lends what plausibility it possesses, for all its vulnerability to philosophical criticism, to the idea of perfection by divine action. If men are to be perfected by educators or legislators or geneticists, this can only be by a series of fortunate chances, as a result of which the right sort of men come to power and choose the right successors. There is nothing to guarantee, or even faintly to suggest, that these conditions will be fulfilled.
If, however, human history is so designed as to guarantee that man will continue to improve his condition, then occasional mistakes in the selection of educators, or legislators, or psychologists, or geneticists, can be dismissed as unimportant. In the long run men are bound to be perfected, whatever setbacks they may suffer as the result of errors of judgement. That was what the economist-statesman Turgot argued in his famous lecture at the Sorbonne, delivered almost precisely midway through the eighteenth century, on December 11, 1750: “Manners are gradually softened, the human mind is enlightened, separate nations draw nearer to each other, commerce and policy connect at last every part of the globe, and the total mass of the human race, by alternating between calm and agitation, good and bad, marches always, however slowly, towards greater perfection.”17
The idea of progress,18 thus conceived, is a peculiarly modern one. It is scarcely to be met with, if at all, before the first decades of the eighteenth century, in the optimistic prophecies of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre. Greek thought, for the most part, was committed either to the belief that men had declined ever since the Golden Age and would continue hereafter to do so or else, as with the Stoics, to the belief that human history was cyclical in character, progressing only to a point at which it reaches its climax. Then it must start again, perhaps passing once more through the identical course of history, perhaps through a course of history which is essentially similar but differs in detail. On the first interpretation of the cyclical view—maintained, for example, by the Stoic Posidonius—Socrates, snub-nose and all, would be born again, would teach precisely the same doctrines and would again be put to death; on the second interpretation, someone very like Socrates in a society very like Athens would suffer a very similar fate. Neither form of cyclical theory, it will be obvious, held out to men any hope of infinite improvability.*
No doubt, this is not the whole story. In the fifth century bc, men were by no means indisposed to pride themselves on the degree to which they had improved on their predecessors. The musician-dramatist Timotheus boasted in a manner which is nowadays only too familiar: “I do not sing ancient melodies, my own are better by far; . . . ancient muse, begone.”19 The mere fact that in the Republic Plato was so emphatic that novelties must be prohibited testifies to his conviction that if not restrained they were inevitable. Aristotle, writing a little later, was fully confident that he had improved on his predecessors; later still, in his Naturales quaestiones, Seneca expressed his conviction that his successors will solve many scientific problems to which he did not himself know the answer. So much must be admitted. But it is one thing to assert that over a limited period of time the human situation has improved, or will improve, whether in knowledge or in artistic achievement, quite another thing to assert that mankind as a whole is gradually perfecting itself—not only in some particular respect but universally—and that it will continue to do so throughout the course of human history.
In its more orthodox forms, Christianity did not encourage such hopes. At first, indeed, Christians lived in the immediate expectation of a Second Coming, to be followed, many early Christians believed, by the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. But that was a cataclysmic occurrence; the idea of a Second Coming lends no support to a doctrine of gradual secular progress, in which all mankind would participate. Quite the contrary. It was only Christ’s saints who would participate in God’s Kingdom, and they would be perfected in an instant, by divine grace.
Origen tried to incorporate the cyclical theory of history into Christianity. He saw no reason why the Word should not be made flesh once more, once more to save mankind from their sins, or why individual Christians, once judged, might not find themselves forced to re-enter life, to win salvation.20 But Augustine wholly rejected this possibility. “Once Christ died for our sins,” he wrote, “and, rising from the dead, he dieth no more. . . . We ourselves after the resurrection shall be ever with the Lord.”21 Augustine’s rejection of the cyclical theory “left room,” as a cyclical theory does not, for interpreting history as progressive. But it is one thing to maintain, as Augustine did, that history is lineal, quite another to assert that history is working towards the perfection of all men.
On Augustine’s view, men progress towards perfection only if God so chooses. And although the number of perfected saints, members of God’s chosen few, will increase throughout history until the appointed number has been reached, this does not carry with it any suggestion that there will be a corresponding improvement in secular society. Augustine was prepared to concede, even, that secular society had actually declined since the birth of Christ; his main anxiety was lest the Fall of Rome should be interpreted as proof that God was not at work in history.
Some early Christians, impressed by the fact that the birth of Jesus had taken place during the age of Augustus, were attracted by the hypothesis that mankind had now set out upon a progressive path, in which Caesar and God would conjointly assure man’s temporal and spiritual welfare. Eusebius went so far as to proclaim that the prophecies of Isaiah had been fulfilled, and swords could now safely be beaten into ploughshares. The Fall of Rome, in these circumstances, came as a tremendous shock to Christian opinion. For this very reason Augustine was the more concerned to show that Christianity did not set its hopes for man on secular progress.22
He did not deny, in fact he argues at length, that men have shown themselves ingeniously inventive, and have so far added to the richness of human society. But even when, for his own special reasons, he is particularly emphasizing the munificence of God in endowing men with rationality and inventiveness, he is quick to point out that human inventiveness is often enough employed for purposes which are “superfluous, . . . dangerous and destructive,” as when it is displayed, for example, in the ingenious arguments by which heretics defend “errors and misapprehensions.” Man’s inventiveness, as distinct from his grace-infused supernatural virtue, is always double-edged.23 As Socrates was fond of pointing out, the art of medicine, normally directed towards healing, can also be made use of by a murderer. In the mere fact of human inventiveness, there is nothing to justify any confidence in the future of mankind.
The very idea of a “future for mankind” is, however, Augustinian in its inspiration. The Greeks did not for the most part think in terms of “mankind,” as distinct from freemen and slaves, Greeks and barbarians. Augustine did. All mankind, he often emphasizes, descends from the same pair—from Adam and Eve. And God arranged matters in this way, he says, so as “to give unity to mankind by the likeness of nature.” If we think of mankind as a unity, with a history, then it is also natural to think of that history as being parallel in certain respects to the history of individual human beings. And this might well lead us to suppose that just as a child must by its nature—short of dying—develop into an adult human being, so a society must finally grow to the perfection of maturity. Augustine himself suggested that with the birth of Christ mankind has entered into what corresponds, in the individual, to full maturity; it has finally achieved that degree of spirituality which man’s earthly condition permits.24 No fundamental change is to be expected until the Second Coming.
In the early seventeenth century, as one manifestation of the general depreciation of man and the world so characteristic of that period, it was not uncommonly argued that the world was now in a state, not of maturity, but of senility. The extravagance with which this view was sometimes expressed is scarcely credible. In a sermon delivered in 1625, the poet-clergyman, John Donne, saw “the age and impotency of the world” clearly revealed in the irregularity of the seasons, the diminished warmth of the sun, the shortening of man’s stature and the annual appearance of “new species of worms, and flies, and sicknesses, which argue more and more putrefaction of which they are engendered.”25 Although this gloomy picture of human history did not go unchallenged, its challengers commonly admitted that they were writing against the mainstream of contemporary thought. As late as 1741, when David Hume published his essay Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations, his immediate motive was to dispute the view that the modern world had fallen into a state of decline, as evidenced by the fact that it had been greatly reduced in population.
Bacon, however, had already taken a very different view, and as so often he was the harbinger of the new age. Men are misled, he says, because they speak of Greece and Rome as “antiquity” or as “the world in which the ancients lived” and ascribe to that world, therefore, the wisdom proper to maturity. But in fact, paradoxical though this may sound, it is the moderns who are the ancients, it is they who have achieved, as a result of the long history of mankind, a “greater knowledge of human things and a riper judgement” than the relatively young “ancient world” could have at its disposal.26
There were obvious dangers, however, from the point of view of the proponents of progress, in this way of looking at the situation. Perhaps men had reached maturity in the great achievements of the seventeenth century, the century of genius, perhaps nothing more could now be expected except a gradual slide into senility. Writing at the end of the seventeenth century, Charles Perrault, more interested in literature than in technical innovation, suggested that his own century had “arrived in some sort at the highest perfection.” Progress had recently been slower; it could scarcely be pretended that the new writers were serious rivals of Molière or Racine—oddly, if typically, Perrault identifies the fate of France with the fate of mankind. There was some consolation in this fact: “I have the further joy of thinking that we shall probably not have much to envy in those who will come after us.”27 In the end, indeed, Perrault was led to suspect that mankind might at last be passing into senility, as “the distaste which one often finds nowadays for the best things” may seem to indicate.28
Fontenelle, in his essay On the Ancients and Moderns, took a rather different view. All men, he suggests, are naturally equal; modern man has the same brains, the same nervous system, as the ancients possessed. There is nothing they could do which men can no longer do. As it happens, however, circumstances in the ancient world were particularly propitious to the development of eloquence; perhaps modern men will, in this respect, only equal and not surpass the ancients. But the situation in science, he argues, is very different; science requires a degree of maturity into which mankind had only recently grown. “A good cultivated mind contains, so to speak,” he writes, “all the minds of preceding centuries; it is but a single identical mind which has been developing and improving itself all this time.” In its infancy it was wholly devoted to keeping alive; in its youth to eloquence and poetry; now is the time for the exercise of reason and intelligence in science.
What of the fear that senility may come? At this point, Fontenelle suggests, the analogy must be abandoned: once such a mind has reached maturity it need have no fear of decline—“men will never degenerate, and there will be no end to the growth and development of human wisdom.”29 But to argue thus, very obviously, is to try to have it both ways: to make full use of the analogy between the development of individual men and the development of mankind in order to establish the “necessity” of progress while abandoning the analogy as soon as its consequences turn out to be uncomfortable. Not unless it could be maintained, as Saint-Pierre maintained in his 1737 Observations on the Continuous Progress of Universal Reason, that mankind was still only in its infancy, could it safely be concluded that unlimited progress still lay ahead of him.30
This controversy, on the face of it, could have gone on for ever. (It still in fact goes on. In a contemporary “philosophical novel” it is solemnly argued that mankind is now at “mid-adolescence.”)31 What possible grounds were there for maintaining that mankind was now in its infancy, its manhood, or its second childhood? Saint-Pierre, and after him Turgot and Condorcet,* were convinced, however, that there were excellent grounds for believing that mankind was only now seriously setting out on its long march towards perfection.
In part, they based their arguments on purely inductive grounds. Perrault, they said, was wrong: in every respect human culture was still advancing, and therefore could properly be expected to continue to do so. “Anybody who has read Locke,” wrote Voltaire, “is bound to find Plato merely a fine talker and nothing else. From the point of view of philosophy a chapter from Locke or Clarke is, compared with the babble of antiquity, what Newton’s Optics are compared with those of Descartes.”* Two points strike us in Voltaire’s observation: not only has mankind progressed from the babbling of a Plato to the intellectual grandeur of a Samuel Clarke, but, more striking still, it has progressed, with the same great steps and in less than a century, from Descartes to Newton. The human mind, it is clear, was on the march.
But there were great difficulties in a purely inductive argument for progress. No one could be more contemptuous than were the eighteenth-century perfectibilists of the Dark and the Middle Ages. “The triumph of Christianity,” according to Condorcet, “was the signal for the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences.” The Arabs saved mankind, taking over the torch of science from the Greeks. This fact, Condorcet suggests, ought to preserve us from “anxiety about the future.” But if Arab science, as Condorcet also argues, was “only a temporary exception to the general laws of nature which condemn servile and superstitious nations to ignorance and degradation,”32 it has rather the appearance of a miracle than anything it would be safe to count upon. What grounds are there for believing that the torch of knowledge will not flicker once more, this time to be finally extinguished?
The first ground for this belief, Enlightenment philosophers replied, was that mankind had in the seventeenth century lit upon a method of discovery, a method which would guarantee future progress. The emphasis on method, indeed, was one of the leading characteristics of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought. Bacon, if only for controversial purposes, was prepared to allow that the ancients had more native genius than the moderns: if he nevertheless held out great hopes for the future of the world, this was because he thought he had discovered a new method, by which scientific investigation and the improvement of human life—prospects dear to Bacon’s heart—could be advanced to heights previously unheralded. Descartes took the slightly different view that all men were substantially equal in genius, but that he himself had advanced beyond other men because he had hit on the right method of inquiry. (The original title he had proposed for his Discourse on Method, it is worth observing, was The Prospect of a Universal Science which can Elevate our Nature to its Highest Perfection.) Leibniz made claims for his “art of inventing” which now strike us as being little short of fantastic; it would solve, he was convinced, all the major problems not only of geometry and physics but of medicine, morals, law, theology and metaphysics. Any qualms there might still have been about the practical usefulness of the new methods were speedily removed by the scientific triumphs of Newton, widely hailed as a compelling demonstration of the riches to be hoped for from a combination of the “inductive” method in which Bacon had placed his faith and the mathematical method on which Descartes had relied. “God said, Let Newton be, and there was light,” as Pope so eloquently turned a commonplace.
The new scientific method was the break-through, the revelation men needed to ensure their future progress; now the way lay clear ahead to the unremitting growth of enlightenment. Even so, even granted that physical science was now embarked upon a triumphant path, it still had to be shown that scientific progress would do anything to improve men morally or to remedy the ills of human society. Pascal had been one of the first to argue that science must, by its very nature, progress, but that sturdy Augustinian would certainly not admit that scientific progress was bound to bring with it an amelioration of man’s moral condition.* Fontenelle, for all his optimism about the progress not only of science but of literature, was not prepared to conclude that in virtue, too, man must constantly improve his condition. “The heart,” he wrote, “changes not at all, and the heart is the whole man.” On no part of the earth’s surface, he thought, are enough rational men likely to be born “to establish a fashion for virtue and uprightness.”33
The first step towards arguing the contrary was to demonstrate that the new methods could be applied as much to the study of human nature and human society as to the study of the physical world. So much both Hume and Hartley thought they could demonstrate. In its subtitle, Hume described his Treatise of Human Nature as “an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects”; Hartley set out, with equal confidence, to apply to the study of the mind “the method of analysis and synthesis recommended and followed by Sir Isaac Newton.” In the eighteenth century, indeed, it was a poor-spirited moral and political philosopher who did not aspire to be “the Newton” of his speciality. Helvetius described himself as the Newton of legislation; Bentham was convinced that he was the Newton, and Helvetius only the Bacon.
There were obvious objections, nevertheless, to any attempt to Newtonize the social sciences. Superficially, at least, human behaviour and social change display a species of complexity which does not lend itself to being reduced to a deductive mathematical pattern, of the type Newton had employed in his Principia Mathematica. No doubt Hobbes and Spinoza attempted to apply the geometrical method to the study of human nature and Locke expressed his conviction that moral conclusions are as capable of being demonstrated as mathematical conclusions. But in the eighteenth century philosophers came to be more and more suspicious of purely deductive philosophical systems; the moral sciences, it was generally agreed, had to rely upon “probable reasoning.”
What saved the day was the recognition that “probable reasoning” could itself be reduced to a mathematical form. Leibniz had drawn attention to the resemblance between the situation of a man who is called upon to make a practical decision and the situation of a gambler who is trying to determine where to place a bet; he had complained that logicians, putting all their emphasis on demonstration, had failed to realize that probabilities could be accurately estimated.34 Once Laplace and de Moivre had worked out their calculus of probabilities, philosophers were even more convinced that practical decisions could be made rational with the help of a calculus which would reduce them to mathematical form. If, as Bishop Butler maintained, “probability is the guide of life,” the calculus of probability would enable men to follow that guide with more confident steps.
Hartley is characteristic in fixing his hopes for the further development of the social sciences on de Moivre’s theory of chances and Newton’s differential calculus. “Future generations,” he was prepared to anticipate, “should put all kinds of evidences and inquiries into mathematical forms . . . so as to make mathematics and logic, natural history and civil history, natural philosophy and philosophy of all other kinds, coincide omni ex parte.”35 If it is possible in principle, as Hartley here suggests, to reduce even history to “mathematics and logic”—Kant, too, was to look forward to the emergence of a “Newton of history”—there were certainly the best of reasons for believing that mathematical analysis was the royal road to the understanding of human nature and human society. In a similar spirit, Condorcet, trained as a mathematician, tried to show in detail how the calculus of probabilities could be used as a way of determining not only the social laws by which human history was governed, but the wisest political policy to adopt in a given situation.36 If the calculus of probabilities could be successfully employed in the analysis of gambling—the very paradigm of chance and uncertainty—there was no reason why it should not be employed with equal success in the analysis of political decisions.
In our own century the mathematical “theory of games” has aroused similar hopes. It has been recommended not only as a tool for understanding economic behaviour and international relations but even as a reliable method of determining what moral policy it is best to adopt.37 In the light of our own experience, it is easy to understand why the eighteenth century was so enthusiastic about the calculus of probabilities as a guide to political decision-making. As for moral decisions, Francis Hutcheson had already suggested that these could be made rational by the application of a mathematical method, a line of approach which Bentham more systematically developed in his “hedonic calculus.”38
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that these hopes were well-founded, that social and moral problems can be solved by mathematical analysis. Let us suppose, in other words, that it is possible by mathematical means to determine what, in a Benthamite sense, “is the best thing to do.” Two obvious gaps have still to be filled, before we can conclude that the way now lies open to the perfectibility of man. It has first to be shown that the truths thus mathematically arrived at can be communicated to the ruling powers, and secondly, that once they are thus communicated, the ruling powers will govern their actions by them.
On the first point, a striking feature of eighteenth-century thought is its belief in the possibility of designing an ideal language. In his Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, written as early as 1668, Bishop Wilkins had set out to construct such a language. Not only would it facilitate commerce, he promised in his “Epistle Dedicatory”—it would also greatly help in diffusing the knowledge of true religion “by unmasking many wild errors, that shelter themselves under the disguise of affected phrases.” Leibniz went even further. “Once missionaries are able to introduce this universal language,” he wrote, “then also will the true religion, which stands in intimate harmony with reason, be established, and there will be as little reason to fear any apostasy in the future as to fear a renunciation of arithmetic and geometry once they have been learnt.”39 The Enlighteners substituted “true science” for “true religion” while otherwise retaining the optimistic expectations of Wilkins and Leibniz. Science, Condillac suggested, is nothing but a well-made language; once the newly-acquired truths about human society are set out in a well-made language men’s “wild errors” about human society would disappear, and there need be no fear of scientific apostasy.40 It is only “the inexactitude of language,” Condorcet similarly maintained, which makes it impossible for ordinary men to understand the great truths of science. “The perfection of scientific language, which is at present so vague and obscure” will solve, he thinks, the problem of communication.41
So much granted—granted, that is, that the governors will be able to understand the mathematically-derived conclusions of the scientists—a problem still remains. Suppose the moral scientist can communicate to his fellow-men, clearly and unmistakably, and in a form they cannot help understanding, a set of fundamental truths about human society and human nature. Suppose, even, he is able to demonstrate, on the basis of these truths, that a particular policy is the best policy to adopt. There is surely still the risk that men will not act as the moral scientist would advise them to act. Understanding does not necessarily bring with it agreement, and men do not always do what it is best for them to do.
At this point in the argument, the seventeenth-century secularization of the moral ideal comes to be of the first importance. So long as the doctrine prevailed that what it is best for men to do is to see God, or unite with the One, or love God with their whole heart, there is an obvious gap between knowing what it is best to do and actually doing it. That is precisely why Augustine and his successors were so convinced that men cannot possibly do what is best without the aid of God’s grace. But once doing what is best is identified with being as benevolent as possible—or, in the language of utilitarianism, pursuing the greatest happiness of the greatest number—the situation is transformed.
In the first place, it is now a technical problem to determine what it is best to do; advice on how to act, it would seem, can properly come only from men who are expert in calculating consequences. Secondly, the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number is, at first sight at least, an attainable ideal, which men have no excuse for not pursuing: the new perfectibilism is to this degree Pelagian. (Although it is un-Pelagian in so far as it tends to regard bad environment and the consequential formation of bad habits as an absolute barrier to moral action, not something which a person can overcome by an act of will.) Finally, and more relevantly, whereas there is no plausibility whatever in Aquinas’s view that what every man really seeks after is to “see God,” there is at least a superficial plausibility in the doctrine that what he “naturally” seeks is the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Only a superficial plausibility, to be sure. Bentham, for one, was well aware that men could be persuaded to seek the general interest only if, by the imposition of sanctions, it was made to coincide with their own interest. But there were many others who agreed with Shaftesbury and Pope that private and public interest coincide by nature, as a direct consequence of the Providential government of the world, the “guiding hand.” It is always and inevitably in the individual’s own interest, on this view, for him to pursue what is best for the greatest number. Once he is told what this “best” is, the conclusion was then drawn, he will at once be persuaded to act accordingly.
To a striking degree, then, the Enlighteners accepted the Socratic doctrine that vice is always a form of ignorance, that if a man once learns what it is best for him to do, he will necessarily act in that way. Even Thomas Hobbes, scarcely the most optimistic of men, expressed his conviction that if only “the moral philosophers” had made the same progress as the physical philosophers so that “the nature of human actions [were] as distinctly known” then “the strength of avarice and ambition, which is sustained by the erroneous opinions of the vulgar, as touching the nature of right and wrong, would presently faint and languish; and mankind should enjoy such an immortal peace, that . . . there would hardly be left any pretence for war.”42 Avarice and ambition, that is, are special varieties of ignorance; banish that ignorance and perpetual peace lies near at hand.
A mistaken sense of interest, Condorcet similarly suggested, is “the most common cause of actions contrary to the general welfare”; the violence of our passions is the result either of habits we have adopted “through miscalculation” or of our not knowing how to restrain them, and so in either case has its origin in ignorance. The growth of physical sciences, he pointed out, has certainly led to an improvement in technology. “Is it not also part of the necessary order of nature,” he went on to ask, “that the moral and political sciences should exercise a similar influence upon the motives that direct our feelings and our actions?”43 Diderot, to take yet another case, was convinced that “we are criminals only because we judge wrongly”; it is neither their passions nor the corruption of their will but their mistaken judgements which lead men morally astray.44
This line of thought reached its apotheosis in Godwin. In his perfectibilism, everything depends upon it. Not for him, Helvetius’s trust in enlightened despots or Bentham’s in an ideal legislator. “To dragoon men into the adoption of what we think right, is,” he says, “an intolerable tyranny.”45 If men are to be perfected, then, it cannot be by legislation, backed by sanctions, but only by changing their opinions, convincing them by rational argument.
Godwin had read his Hume, as few of his contemporaries had done. He accepted Hume’s argument that “reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition,” that reason “is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”46 But this did not perturb him, or alter his conviction that opinions are the source of all our volitions. For Hume had also admitted that “the moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means, our passions yield to our reason without any opposition.”47 Reason is no doubt the slave of our passions, in that reason cannot act except by means of the passions. The passions are nevertheless governed by reason in the sense that if reason shows them “things as they are”—Godwin’s favourite, Stoic, phrase—then the passions are bound to pay heed to its conclusions. So it is possible to govern men’s passions by changing their opinions. Their passions the reformer cannot alter; men will continue, whatever he does, to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. But by argument, by pointing to the truth, the direction of their passions can be altered. The manner in which men act and even—what is for Godwin, as not for a pure Utilitarian, very important—the way in which they feel can be profoundly modified. They can come to love what they previously hated, and to hate what they previously loved. “I may desire,” Hume had said, “any fruit as of an excellent relish; but whenever you convince me of my mistake [in believing it to taste well] my longing ceases.”48 And what is true of fruit is equally true of more fundamental objects of desire.
If we ask why men, for all their rational powers, are nevertheless imperfect, why it is that their history is, as Godwin freely admits, “little else than a record of crimes,”49 the answer, according to Godwin, is quite simple: the opinions which now govern their voluntary actions are mere prejudices, deliberately fostered, as often as not, by “sinister forces,” especially by Church and State. The philosopher can rid men of these prejudices if only he is free to argue with them; if his arguments sometimes fail this must be because they are not sufficiently “laborious, patient and clear.” That is Godwin’s ground for believing that men are perfectible; their “vices and moral weakness” can always be dispelled by reason and replaced by “nobler and more beneficent principles in their stead.” So, he felt free to conclude, “every perfection or excellence that human beings are competent to conceive, human beings, unless in cases that are palpably and unequivocally excluded by the structure of their frame, are competent to attain.”50 Granted, then, that science, our knowledge of “things as they really are,” was bound indefinitely to improve, it immediately followed that men’s “vices” and “moral weakness” would gradually be dispelled—unless “sinister forces,” “vested interests,” succeeded in placing a barrier between the Enlighteners and the to-be-enlightened.
These hopes for science persisted into the nineteenth century. In Thomas Love Peacock’s novel Headlong Hall, first published in 1816, the perfectibilist, Mr Foster, has no hesitation in asserting that “men are virtuous in proportion as they are enlightened and that, as every generation increases in knowledge, it also increases in virtue.”51 This is the source of nineteenth-century Utopianism. For if in order to improve themselves men only need to know what is best, then Utopias have a practical utility: show men what it is best for them to do, appeal to their reason, and nothing more is necessary in order to perfect them. Or nothing except to persuade “vested interests” not to interfere.
Robert Owen’s The Book of the New Moral World is in this respect typical. It bears the subtitle “containing the rational system of society, founded on demonstrable facts, developing the constitution and laws of human nature and of society,” and was addressed to William IV, King of England. Owen’s perfectibilist claims were unrestrained: his book “opens to the family of man,” he says, “without a single exception, the means of endless progressive improvement, physical, intellectual, and moral, and of happiness, without the possibility of retrogression or of assignable limit.” Human society so far, according to Owen, had rested on “fundamental errors of the imagination”; that explained why it was so corrupt. But from now on things were going to be very different: “Under your reign, Sire, the change from this [corrupt] system, . . . to another founded on self-evident truths, ensuring happiness to all, will, in all probability, be achieved.” The time was ripe; as a consequence of their experience of the Napoleonic Wars men could not but see that a new kind of society must be established. William the Fourth, with the British Empire behind him, had the power to act. What he had to do was to institute an alliance with only two clauses: “The first, That the contracting parties shall abandon, by the most public declaration, the fundamental error on which society has hitherto been based: and second, That they shall adopt the opposite truth for the base of all their future measures.”52 Let not William the Fourth imagine that he can side-step his responsibilities. “The progress of knowledge,” according to Owen, “now renders this revolution, in the general condition and character of mankind, so irresistible, that no earthly power can prevent, or much retard its course.”53 The only real question is whether it was to be brought about by William the Fourth or by violence.
If we now ask what are the truths, at last discovered, which are so momentous to mankind, it turns out that there are some twenty-five of them. But they can be summed up thus: all men are made what they are by their characters and their circumstances. The great error which “the allied powers” had to forswear is the belief that man has free will; the great truth is that his “feelings, thoughts, will and actions are predetermined for him by the influence of external circumstances acting upon his original constitution.” To those who maintain that the belief in free will is the foundation of morality, Owen replies that it is only necessary to look around to see what dire consequences that belief has had for the world; we need have no doubt that the universal acceptance of the opposite belief, emphasizing the fundamental importance of education, will enable men to train their descendants “to be . . . a race of superior beings physically, intellectually and morally.”54
Owen was by no means a mere visionary. He was a business man of considerable practical competence, whose model community at New Lanark was, for once in the history of such communities, a financial success. His belief in the power of knowledge to bring about moral change is not the dream of an intellectual, hungry for power. It is a testimony, rather, to the fact that able, practical men could think it self-evident that by a simple alteration in men’s beliefs a new world could be brought into being. Let men once see that everything depends on education, and they would immediately introduce the best possible education and could thus perfect men and their society.
The nineteenth-century Utilitarians were not prepared to allow as much as Godwin had allowed to the passions. Describing his own youthful attitude, J. S. Mill tells us he was hostile to any praise of, or favourable reference to, feeling. He was a thoroughgoing Utilitarian who, quite unlike Godwin, regarded only actions as worthy of praise or blame; feelings, or any sort of motive, were morally irrelevant.55 It was the opponents of the Utilitarians who appealed to feelings, denouncing utilitarianism as “cold” or “hard-hearted.” The Utilitarians, for their part, condemned any reference to feelings as “sentimentality.” “What we principally thought of,” Mill writes, “was to alter people’s opinions; to make them believe according to evidence, and know what was their real interest, which when they once knew, they would, we thought, by the instrument of opinion, enforce a regard to it upon one another.” By altering men’s opinions mid-Victorian Utilitarians sought to secure “the regeneration of mankind.”56 Mill himself, attracted by the “developmental” theories of progress to which he was introduced by Saint-Simon and Comte, moved somewhat away from this absolute reliance on the power of opinion. But it by no means entirely ceased to influence him, or his contemporaries.
There gradually developed, then, in the eighteenth century a chain of inference which ran thus: Man had until that time been a mere child in respect of knowledge and, in consequence, of virtue; he was now at last in a position, as a result of the development of science, to determine how human nature develops and what is the best thing for human beings to do; this new knowledge could be expressed in a form in which all men would find it intelligible; once they knew what it is best to do, men would act accordingly and so would constantly improve their moral, political and physical condition. Provided only, then, that “sinister interests” did not prevent the communication of knowledge, the development of science was bound to carry with it the constant improvement of the human condition, to a degree which would be, like the growth of science itself, unlimited.
Similar views are still with us. It is not uncommonly presumed that what is wrong with the world is that, as it is put, “the social sciences have failed to keep step with the progress of the physical sciences.” Elton Mayo’s comment is typical of a thousand others: “If,” he writes, “our social skills had advanced step by step with our technical skills, there would not have been another European war.”57 Often enough, indeed, the exponents of such a view express it more naïvely than Godwin ever did. Godwin certainly believed that once men came “to see things as they are” they would act in such a manner as to increase the happiness of their fellow-men. But no one could be more conscious than he was of the force of prejudice and the degree to which it is fostered by social institutions like the State and the Church. He was more than prepared to concede that men are for the most part swayed by sentiment and governed by habit rather than directed by rational opinion. Were they to see “how empty are the claims of birth and privilege,” they would assuredly demand their overthrow; of that much Godwin was confident. But he was not at all optimistic that vested interests would ever permit men to attain to such clarity of vision. Something more is needed, then, some additional argument, if we are to have good grounds for believing that humanity will in fact be perfected—as distinct from being, in principle, perfectible.
Sometimes that “something more” was derived from Biblical prophecies. There was, for example, that prophecy of Isaiah which looks forward to a time when, under the guidance of Providence, men “shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”58 And then there were the darker prophecies of the apocalyptic books, and especially the Book of Daniel, with the help of which men sought to predict the stages by which “the whole creation moves” towards what Tennyson called that “one far-off divine event.” It is often supposed that speculation about the future, based on Biblical prophecy, attracted only the credulous monk or the no less credulous Protestant sectary. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this was far from being the case. The Cambridge Platonist, Ralph Cudworth, wrote a Commentary on the Seventy Weeks of Daniel which his fellow-Platonist Henry More described as “of as much price and worth in theology as either the circulation of the blood in physic, or the motion of the earth in natural philosophy.”59 Newton devoted much of his life to the interpretation of prophecies. In that section of the Observations on Man in which Hartley described the calculus of probabilities and the differential calculus, he set alongside these methods, as of equal worth, the methods of prophetic interpretation introduced by Joseph Mede, teacher of Cudworth and Henry More.*
The most interesting example of the way in which secular and prophetic arguments for progress were combined is to be found in the writings of Joseph Priestley, often described as the founder of modern perfectibilism. About his confidence in the future, certainly, there can be no doubt. “Whatever was the beginning of this world,” he once wrote, “the end will be glorious and paradisaical, beyond what our imaginations can now conceive.”60 If we ask, however, on what evidence he based these optimistic forecasts, no simple answer can be given.
In the first place, Priestley enthusiastically accepted Hartley’s associationism, as a mechanism for perfecting. In principle, then, men could be perfected by education. Secondly, he saw in the history of science an exemplification of what in the preface to his The History and Present State of Electricity he called “a perpetual progress and improvement,” which could be expected to continue, he thought, to heights which are “really boundless and sublime.” The growth of science was a living demonstration that progress was not only possible, but actual. Thirdly, such secular changes as the French and the American Revolutions, and more generally the rise of commerce, increased Priestley’s confidence that governments everywhere would gradually be liberalized. Fourthly, he believed that if once vested interests, as a result of these political developments, lost their force, truth was bound to prevail. But finally and in the last resort, his expectations for the future were based on his belief in the providential government of the world, and on the prophecies of Scripture.
A time must come, he was convinced, when “the common parent of mankind will cause wars to cease to the ends of the earth, when men shall beat their swords into ploughshares.”61 He had to confess that when he looked at human history, as distinct from the history of science, he found it difficult to extract from that history any support for his belief in the inevitability of progress. But if ever his belief in progress faltered, he had only to remember God’s promises to men: it is Providence who perfects man through associative mechanisms, Providence who gives its energy to science, Providence who is gradually perfecting human society by advancing trade and commerce, Providence who will ensure, in his own good time, the destruction of vested interests.* If then we ask, “Who shall perfect the perfecter?” Priestley’s answer is—“Providence.” Not God the grace-infuser working directly on the soul of the individual believer, but God as Providence working through associative mechanisms, through science, through revolutions.
God—as Hartley had also maintained—will perfect not only human society but each and every individual man. Hartley and Priestley share Origen’s belief, generally accounted heretical, that in the end all men, however sinful, will be saved.62 Origen’s views had been revived in the seventeenth century by the Cambridge Platonists.63 They incorporate a concept of God which accords with the new moral temper of the age: God is beneficence, universal benevolence, or in Shaftesbury’s words “the best-natured Being in the world.” That is why he must finally save all men, and produce on earth a better world for them to live in. As Godwin was to define him, God is “abounding in benevolence, without the slightest cloud of frustration or passion . . . forever active and seeking at all times and in every direction for opportunities of doing good.”64 No other God, and certainly not the Calvinist God, could satisfy Priestley’s and Hartley’s and Godwin’s moral demands. If he worked rather slowly to achieve his ends, this was because men had first to be disciplined, to be educated, so as to be worthy of perfection. The apparent evils in human history were, for Hartley and Priestley, part of that education. But, in saying so much, Hartley and Priestley were feeling their way towards a theory of progress as “natural development,” not as a mere consequence of the growth of knowledge, but as inherent in the very nature of the Universe. Will this fill the gap between the doctrine that man is, in principle, perfectible and the promise that he can look forward, in fact, to the constant improvement of his moral character, his degree of happiness, and his social relationships?
[1. ]Observations on Man, Pt. I, ch. 1, §2, Prop. XIV, Cor. 5 (my italics); in the 5th ed. Vol. 1, p. 84.
[2. ]Joseph Priestley: An Essay on the First Principles of Government (2nd ed., 1771), Section IV, excerpted in Priestley’s Writings, ed. Passmore, p. 306.
[3. ]J. S. Mill: Utilitarianism, Liberty and Representative Government, introd. A. D. Lindsay, Everyman’s Library (London, 1910; repr. 1944), p. 161.
[4. ]S. E. Luria: “Directed Genetic Change: Perspectives from Molecular Genetics” in The Control of Human Heredity and Evolution, ed. T. M. Sonneborn (New York, 1965), p. 16.
[5. ]A. N. de Condorcet: Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, trans. June Barraclough, Library of Ideas (London, 1955), p. 141.
[6. ]Quoted by Charles Frankel: The Faith of Reason (New York, 1948), p. 10, from the trans. by John Morley in Diderot, I, 129.
[7. ]Quoted in M. Roustan: The Pioneers of the French Revolution, trans. F. Whyte (London, 1926), p. 265.
[8. ]For details see J. S. Schapiro: Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism (New York, 1934; repr. 1963), ch. XI, pp. 211–12.
[9. ]Compare Paul Hazard: La Crise de la conscience européenne, 1680–1715 (Paris, 1935), Pt. III, ch. vii, pp. 339–47, and Voltaire: Lettres philosophiques, Letter X.
[10. ]The first reference is to the tenth of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques (1734). For the second reference see Voltaire: Oeuvres complètes, ed. Moland, 52 vols (Paris, 1877–85), Vol. XXII (1879), pp. 364–65, quoted in Mario Einaudi: The Early Rousseau (Ithaca, N.Y., 1967), p. 37.
[11. ]The first quotation is from Lectures on History and General Policy, 4th ed. (London, 1826), Lecture LI, pp. 412–25, included in Priestley’s Writings, ed. Passmore, pp. 267–68. The second quotation is from Lectures on History and General Policy (London, 1788), p. 423, as quoted in Basil Willey: The Eighteenth-Century Background (London, 1940; Penguin ed. Harmondsworth, 1962), p. 193.
[12. ]Condorcet: Sketch of the Progress of the Human Mind, p. 176.
[13. ]Quoted in Ian Cumming: Helvetius, p. 112. For his general view see Baron d’Holbach: Système sociale, 3 vols (Londres, 1773), Vol. III, ch. VII. For Rousseau see Einaudi, loc. cit. and pp. 109–10.
[* ]The attitude of the Enlightenment on this matter is by no means wholly absurd. It is only in middle-class societies that the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, justice, tolerance, have been, however imperfectly, realized. But the presumption that the commercial state would be content to act as the executive of the intelligentsia is, of course, an extraordinary fantasy. (Sometimes it was defended by reference to the example of China, where, so it was supposed, the philosophers decided, and the Emperors transformed their decisions into actions.) Enlightenment ideals die hardest in the United States; both the Roosevelt and the Kennedy Presidencies sought to put into practice the ideal of a “natural alliance” between intellectuals and an enlightened middle class.
[14. ]For Saint-Simon see J. L. Talmon: Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase (London, 1960), p. 59; for Proudhon, his General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Robinson, p. 5; for the Utilitarians, see Elie Halévy: The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, trans. M. Morris, Foreword to Pt. III, pp. 313–15.
[15. ]Réfutation suivie de l’ouvrage d’Helvétius intitulé L’Homme in Oeuvres complètes, ed. Assézat, Vol. 2, p. 381.
[16. ]The Open Society and Its Enemies, 4th ed., rev. (London, 1962), Vol. 1, pp. 134–35.
[17. ]Turgot was an abbé, and the discourse was originally delivered in Latin. It can be read complete in Oeuvres, ed. Gustave Schelle, 5 vols (Paris, 1913–23), Vol. 1, pp. 214–38. The passage trans. above is on pp. 215–16. A partial trans. is included in the Appendix to The Life and Writings of Turgot, ed. W. W. Stephens (London, 1895), pp. 159–73, where this passage occurs on p. 160.
[18. ]See, for a laborious analysis of the manifold varieties of progress theory, C. Van Doren: The Idea of Progress (New York, 1967). F. J. Teggart, ed.: The Idea of Progress: A Collection of Readings, rev. ed. by G. H. Hildebrand (Berkeley, 1949), contains most of the leading documents; J. B. Bury: The Idea of Progress (London, 1920; repr. 1924) is still the most important historical study. But see also Morris Ginsberg: The Idea of Progress: A Revaluation (London, 1953). For a Protestant version see John Baillie: The Belief in Progress (London, 1950; repr. 1951) and, for a Roman Catholic version, Christopher Dawson: Progress and Religion: An Historical Enquiry (London, 1929; repr. 1945). For details about French theories of progress, in particular, consult the bibliography in Henry Vyverberg: Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass., 1958).
[* ]One sometimes runs across the cyclical theory in the eighteenth century—Vico’s Scienza nuova, first published in 1725, is the most notable example. But Vico was very little read in his own century; not until the mid-nineteenth century was he at all widely referred to. He did not come fully into his own until the present century. It is interesting that he should have provided the central philosophical framework for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake which, in so many respects, rejects Enlightenment ideals.
[19. ]As trans. on p. 35 of Ludwig Edelstein: The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity (Baltimore, 1967), the most thorough-going case for the belief in progress in the Graeco-Roman world.
[20. ]The contrary is often asserted. But compare Origen: De Principiis, Bk. II, iii. 1–5 and Bk. III. v. 2 f., trans. as On First Principles by G. W. Butterworth (London, 1936; repr. New York, 1966), pp. 83–89, 238 f. He denied, however, that identically the same world might recur.
[21. ]The City of God, Bk. XII, ch. 13, as trans. M. Dods (Edinburgh, 1872), repr. in Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, ed. W. J. Oates, Vol. 2, p. 192.
[22. ]See especially Theodor E. Mommsen: “St. Augustine and the Christian Idea of Progress,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XII, No. 3, pp. 364–74, repr. in P. P. Wiener and A. Noland, eds.: Ideas in Cultural Perspective (New Brunswick, N.J., 1962), pp. 515–43.
[23. ]The City of God, Bk. XXII, ch. 24, as trans. M. Dods, in Basic Writings, Vol. 2, p. 649.
[24. ]De Genesi contra Manichaeos, Bk. 1, ch. xxiii–xxiv, in J. P. Migne: Patrologia latina (Paris, 1845), Vol. 34, col. 190–94. The doctrine of “ages” is discussed in R. L. P. Milburn: Early Christian Interpretations of History (London, 1954), pp. 79–80.
[25. ]John Donne: Sermon XXXVI of the ed. of 1640, as quoted in R. F. Jones: Ancients and Moderns, 2nd ed., rev. (St. Louis, 1961), p. 25, which should be consulted generally for a fuller account of the whole controversy about mankind’s age.
[26. ]Francis Bacon: Novum Organum, aphorism LXXXIV, as trans. in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, D. D. Heath, 14 vols (London, 1857–74; facs. repr. Stuttgart, 1962), Vol. IV, p. 82. Pascal uses the same argument in his Fragment d’un traité du vide. It was generally agreed that “antiquity” in human history did not carry with it senility but maturity.
[27. ]Parallèle des anciens et des modernes en ce qui regarde les arts et les sciences (Paris, 1688–97), Vol. I, p. 99.
[28. ]Ibid., Vol. I, p. 54.
[29. ]B. le B. de Fontenelle: On the Ancients and the Moderns, excerpted in F. J. Teggart, ed.: The Idea of Progress, p. 184. Pascal’s Preface to a Treatise on a Vacuum, written about 1647, takes the same view that all mankind can be considered as a single mind. Compare Teggart, pp. 164–69.
[30. ]For Fontenelle and Saint-Pierre see J. B. Bury: The Idea of Progress, chs. V and VI.
[31. ]John Barth: Giles Goat-Boy (New York, 1966), Vol. I, Third Reel, ch. 3, pp. 254–55.
[* ]The choice of names is important. By no means all Enlightenment thinkers, especially in France, were convinced that progress was inevitable, even if for the most part they at least granted it to be possible. Compare Peter Gay: The Party of Humanity (London, 1964), pp. 270–73.
[* ]Voltaire, however, is by no means a consistent exponent of progress. No Frenchman with any literary perception could fail to realize that Perrault was right: eighteenth-century French literature had fallen far below the levels set in the seventeenth century by Racine and Molière. In defence of his own age, Voltaire sometimes suggests that what the eighteenth century lacks in genius it more than compensates for in enlightenment. But at other times he writes with unrelieved gloom about the cultural decline of his own age. It was much easier to be optimistic if one forgot about art and literature and concentrated on science. Compare Vyverberg: Historical Pessimism, pp. 183–85.
[32. ]Sketch of the Progress of the Human Mind, pp. 72, 87. On Voltaire’s opinion of Plato, compare the article “Platon, section II” in his Dictionnaire philosophique, 2e éd. (Paris, 1826), Vol. VII, pp. 367–69 (Oeuvres complètes, Vol. LVII).
[* ]Even Gibbon shows some hesitancy on this point. He concludes the thirty-eighth chapter of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire thus: “We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased and still increases the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race” (my italics).
[33. ]Dialogues des morts anciens et modernes, in Oeuvres de Fontenelle (Paris, 1790–92), I, 239–40, as trans. in H. Vyverberg: Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment, pp. 44–45. This book should be consulted generally as a corrective to the view that eighteenth-century writers were unanimously optimistic about the future.
[34. ]“New Proposals” in Selections, ed. P. P. Wiener (New York, 1951), pp. 578–79, trans. from Louis Couturat: Opuscules et fragments inédits de Leibniz (Paris, 1903), pp. 224 ff.
[35. ]Observations on Man, Pt. I, ch. 3, §2, Prop. LXXXVII, in the 5th ed., Vol. 1, p. 363.
[36. ]For fuller details see J. S. Schapiro: Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism, pp. 116–18. In his Sketch of the Progress of the Human Mind, p. 191, Condorcet admits that such a calculus is still “in its earliest stages” but emphasizes its tremendous potentialities.
[37. ]Compare, for example, R. B. Braithwaite: Theory of Games as a Tool for the Moral Philosopher (Cambridge, 1955).
[38. ]For the history of this idea see Louis I. Bredvold: “The Invention of the Ethical Calculus” in R. F. Jones et al.: The Seventeenth Century, pp. 165–80.
[39. ]“Towards a Universal Characteristic” (1677), as trans. in Selections, ed. P. P. Wiener, p. 25, from Philosophische Werke, ed. A. Buchenau and Ernst Cassirer, Vol. 1: Hauptschriften zur Grundlegung der Philosophie (Leipzig, 1924). For predecessors of Wilkins and Leibniz, see Jonathan Cohen: “On the Project of a Universal Character” in Mind, Vol. LXIII, 1954, pp. 49–63.
[40. ]Compare Charles Frankel: The Faith of Reason, pp. 53–56. Condillac did not, however, approve of the attempt to set up a universal language. See I. F. Knight: The Geometric Spirit (New Haven, 1968), p. 175.
[41. ]Sketch of the Progress of the Human Mind, p. 191.
[42. ]De Cive, ed. S. P. Lamprecht (New York, 1949), p. 3.
[43. ]Sketch of the Progress of the Human Mind, p. 192.
[44. ]Denis Diderot: Introduction aux grands principes, in Oeuvres complètes, ed. Assézat, Vol. 2, p. 88.
[45. ]Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Bk. IV, ch. 1, ed. Priestley, Vol. 1, p. 257.
[46. ]David Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. II, Pt. III, Section III, ed. Selby-Bigge, pp. 414–15.
[47. ]Ibid., p. 416. For evidence that Godwin had, at an early date, read Hume, see B. R. Pollin: Education and Enlightenment in the Works of William Godwin, pp. 41–44, 58. For a substantial philosophical discussion of the points at issue see D. H. Monro: Godwin’s Moral Philosophy (London, 1953), chs. 2, 6.
[48. ]Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. II, Pt. III, Section III, ed. cit., pp. 416–17.
[49. ]Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Bk. I, ch. 2; ed. Priestley, Vol. 1, p. 6.
[50. ]Ibid., Bk. I, ch. 5; ed. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 88–93.
[51. ]Ch. IV; in the one-volume collected ed. by David Garnett (London, 1948), p. 25.
[52. ]Quotations from R. Owen: The Book of the New Moral World, pp. iv–vii.
[53. ]Ibid., p. xi.
[54. ]Ibid., pp. 20, 24.
[55. ]J. S. Mill: Autobiography, ed. cit., ch. II, pp. 48–49.
[56. ]Ibid., p. 111.
[57. ]Elton Mayo: The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization (Cambridge, Mass., 1945; London, 1949), p. 21.
[58. ]Isaiah 2:4.
[59. ]Henry More: Explanation of the Grand Mystery of Godliness, Preface, as quoted by T. Birch in R. Cudworth: The True Intellectual System of the Universe, 2nd ed. (London, 1743; repr. 1820), I, Preface, xiii.
[* ]The apocalyptic books of the Bible had been very important to Luther and his Protestant successors; Luther identified the Pope with Antichrist and sought to explain by means of the Revelation of St. John the Divine why God’s Church had for so long been ruled by anti-Christ. The Cambridge Platonists, characteristically, looked at the Book of Revelation in an optimistic spirit, as promising a millennium which, in Milton’s words, “shall put an end to all earthly tyrannies, proclaiming thy [Christ’s] universal and mild monarchy through Heaven and Earth.” For the relation of these millennial views to the theory of progress see E. L. Tuveson: Millennium and Utopia (Berkeley, 1949; Harper Torchbook ed., 1964). The quotation from Milton is on p. 92.
[60. ]An Essay on the First Principles of Government, 2nd ed. (London, 1771), Section 1, pp. 1–10, excerpted in Priestley’s Writings, ed. Passmore, p. 198. See also the passage from Priestley’s Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 3rd ed. (London, 1791), pp. 143–55, there excerpted, pp. 251–58.
[61. ]Letters to Edmund Burke, p. 148, as excerpted in Priestley’s Writings, p. 255.
[* ]This use of the word “Providence” as a synonym for “God” dates back, according to the Oxford Dictionary, only to 1602. Before that time it was no doubt possible to speak of “God’s providence,” meaning by that his providential care, but not to use “Providence” as a kind of personal noun. Written into this novel use is the conception of a God whose whole concern it is to care for the felicity of mankind; “providential care” is no longer, that is, only one of God’s activities but the function which constitutes, if we can put the matter thus, his whole reason for existing. God is that which so governs the total scheme of things as to ensure that it will serve men’s—which are also God’s—interests. And God’s objective is not, primarily, to redeem men, to forgive them, or to mete out justice to them but to secure their final felicity, their ultimate perfection. He is, in short, a most un-Augustinian God. For a general survey of the role of Providence in eighteenth-century thought, see Norman Hampson: The Enlightenment, The Pelican History of European Thought, 4 (Harmondsworth, 1968), Pt. I, chs. 2–4. See also Basil Willey: The Eighteenth-Century Background: passim, and compare pp. 53–55 below.
[62. ]See Origen: De Principiis, Bk. III. vi. 5, as trans. G. W. Butterworth, pp. 250–51, together with Butterworth’s note 3, p. 250 and note 1, p. 251. For the subsequent history of Origen’s doctrine see C. A. Patrides: “The Salvation of Satan” in Journal of the History of Ideas, XXVIII, 1967, pp. 467–78.
[63. ]See especially George Rust (?): A Letter of Pleasant Resolution Concerning Origen, anonymously publ. in 1661. For a discussion of its authorship see D. P. Walker: The Decline of Hell (London, 1964), pp. 125–26.
[64. ]William Godwin: Essays Never Before Published (London, 1873), p. 248, as quoted in B. R. Pollin: Education and Enlightenment in the Works of William Godwin, p. 48.