The Idea of Progress
The Idea of
W. R. INGE
C.V.O., D.D., Hon. Fellow of Hertford College
IN THE SHELDONIAN THEATRE
27 MAY, 1920
AT THE CLARENDON PRESS1920
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
LONDON EDINBURGH GLASGOW NEW YORK
TORONTO MELBOURNE CAPE TOWN BOMBAY
PUBLISHER TO THE UNIVERSITY
The belief in Progress, not as an ideal but as an indisputable fact, not a task for humanity but as a law of Nature, has been the working faith of the West for about a hundred and fifty years. Some would have us believe that it is a long neglected part of the Christian revelation, others that it is a modern discovery. The ancient Pagans, we are told, put their golden age in the past; we put ours in the future. The Greeks prided themselves on being the degenerate descendants of gods, we on being the very creditable descendants of monkeys. The Romans endeavoured to preserve the wisdom and virtue of the past, we to anticipate the wisdom and virtue of the future. This, however, is an exaggeration. The theory of progress and the theory of decadence are equally natural, and have in fact been held concurrently wherever men have speculated about their origin, their present condition, and their future prospects. Among the Jews the theory of decadence derived an inspired authority from Genesis, but the story of the Fall had very little influence upon the thought of that tenaciously optimistic race. Among the Greeks, who had the melancholy as well as the buoyancy of youth, it was authorized by Hesiod, whose scheme of retrogression, from the age of gold to the age of iron, was never forgotten in antiquity. Sophocles, in a well-known chorus imitated by Bacon, holds that the best fate for men is 'not to be born, or being born to die'. Aratus develops the pessimistic mythology of Hesiod. In the golden age Dike or Astraea wandered about the earth freely; in the silver age her visits became fewer, and in the brazen age she set out for heaven and became the constellation Virgo. Perhaps Horace had read the lament of the goddess: 'What a race the golden sires have left—worse than their fathers; and your offspring will be baser still.' In the third century after Christ, when civilization was really crumbling, Pagans and Christians join in a chorus of woe. On the other side, the triumphs of man over nature are celebrated by the great tragedians, and the Introduction to the First Book of Thucydides sketches the past history of Greece in the spirit of the nineteenth century. Lucretius has delighted our anthropologists by his brilliant and by no means idealized description of savage life, and it is to him that we owe the blessed word Progress in its modern sense.
'Usus et impigrae simul experientia mentis
paulatim docuit pedetemtim progredientes.
sic unum quicquid paulatim protrahit aetas
in medium, ratioque in luminis erigit oras.'
Pliny believes that each age is better than the last. Seneca, in a treatise, parts of which were read in the Middle Ages, reminds us that 'not a thousand years have passed since Greece counted and named the stars, and it is only recently that we have learned why the moon is eclipsed. Posterity will be amazed that we did not know some things that will seem obvious to them.' 'The world', he adds, 'is a poor affair if it does not contain matter for investigation for men in every age. We imagine that we are initiated into the mysteries of Nature; but we are still hanging about her outer courts.' These last are memorable utterances, even if Seneca confines his optimism to the pleasure of exploring Nature's secrets. The difference between Rousseau, who admired the simple life, and Condorcet, who believed in modern civilization, was no new one; it was a common theme of discussion in antiquity, and the ancients were well aware that the same process may be called either progress or decline. As Freeman says, 'In history every step in advance has also been a step backwards'. (The picture is a little difficult to visualize, but the meaning is plain.) The fruit of the tree of knowledge, always drives man from some paradise or other; and even the paradise of fools is not an unpleasant abode while it is habitable. Few emblematic pictures are more striking than the Melencolia (as he spells it) of Dürer, representing the Spirit of the race sitting mournfully among all her inventions: and this was at the beginning of the age of discovery! But the deepest thought of antiquity was neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It was that progress and retrogression are only the incoming and outgoing tide in an unchanging sea. The pulse of the universe beats in an alternate expansion and contraction. The result is a series of cycles, in which history repeats itself. Plato contemplates a world-cycle of 36,000 solar years, during which the Creator guides the course of events; after which he relaxes his hold of the machine, and a period of the same length follows, during which the world gradually degenerates. When this process is complete, the Creator restores again the original conditions, and a new cycle begins. Aristotle thinks that all the arts and sciences have been discovered and lost 'an infinite number of times'. Virgil in the Fourth Eclogue tries to please Augustus by predicting the near approach of a new golden age, which, he says, is now due. This doctrine of recurrence is not popular to-day; but whether we like it or not, no other view of the macrocosm is even tenable. Even if those physicists are right who hold that the universe is running down like a clock, that belief postulates a moment in past time when the clock was wound up; and whatever power wound it up once may presumably wind it up again. The doctrine of cycles was held by Goethe, who, in reply to Eckermann’s remark that 'the progress of humanity seems to be a matter of thousands of years', answered, 'Perhaps of millions. Men will become more clever and discerning, but not better or happier, except for limited periods. I see the time coming when God will take no more pleasure in our race, and must again proceed to a rejuvenated creation. I am sure that the time and hour in the distant future are already fixed for the beginning of this epoch. But we can still for thousands of years enjoy ourselves on this dear old 'playground of ours.' Nietzsche also maintained the law of recurrence, and so did the Danish philosophic theologian Kierkegaard. Shelley’s line poem, 'The world's great age begins anew', is based upon it. Still, I must admit that on the whole the ancients did tend to regard time as the enemy: 'damnosa quid non imminuit dies?' they would have thought the modern notion of human perfectibility at once absurd and impious.
The Dark Ages knew that they were dark, and we hear little talk about progress during those seven centuries which, as far as we can see, might have been cut out of history without any great loss to posterity. The Middle Ages (which we ought never to confuse, with the Dark Ages), though they developed an interesting type of civilization, set their hopes mainly on another world. The Church has never encouraged the belief that this world is steadily improving; the Middle Ages, like the early Christians, would have been quite content to see the earthly career of the race closed in their own time. Even Roger Bacon, who is claimed as the precursor of modern science, says, that all wise men believe that we are not far from the time of Antichrist, which was to be the herald of the end. The Renaissance was a conscious recovery from the longest and dreariest set-back that humanity has ever experienced within the historical period—a veritable glacial age of the spirit. At this time men were too full of admiration for the newly recovered treasures of antiquity to look forward to the future. In the seventeenth century a doctrine of progress was already in the air, and a long literary battle was waged between the Ancients and the Moderns. But it was only in the eighteenth century that Western Europe began to dream of an approaching millennium without miracle, to be gradually ushered in under the auspices of a faculty which was called Reason. Unlike some of their successors, these optimists believed that perfection was to be attained by the self-determination of the human will; they were not fatalists. In France, the chief home of this heady doctrine, the psychical temperature soon began to rise under its influence, till it culminated in the delirium of the Terror. The Goddess of Reason hardly survived Robespierre and his guillotine, but the belief in progress, which might otherwise have subsided when the French resumed their traditional pursuits—'rem militarem et argute loqui'—was reinforced by the industrial revolution, which was to run a very different course from that indicated by the theatrical disturbances at Paris between 1789 and 1794, the importance of which has perhaps been exaggerated. In England above all, the home of the new industry, progress was regarded (in the words which Mr. Mallock puts into the mouth of a nineteenth-century scientist) as that kind of improvement which can be measured by statistics. This was quite seriously the view of the last century generally, and there had never been, nor will there ever be again, such an opportunity for gloating over this kind of improvement. The mechanical inventions of Watt, Arkwright, Crompton, Stephenson, and others led to an unparalleled increase of population. Exports and imports also progressed, in a favourite phrase of the time, by leaps and bounds. Those who, like Malthus, sounded a note of warning, showing that population increases, unlike the supply of food, by geometrical progression, were answered that compound interest follows the same admirable law. It was obvious to many of our grandparents that a nation which travels sixty miles an hour must be five times as civilized as one which travels only twelve, and that, as Glanvill had already declared in the reign of Charles II, we owe more gratitude to the inventor of the mariner's compass 'than to a thousand Alexanders and Caesars, or to ten times the number of Aristotles'. The historians of the time could not contain their glee in recording these triumphs. Only the language of religion seemed appropriate in contemplating so magnificent a spectacle. If they had read Herder, they would have quoted with approval his prediction that 'the flower of humanity, captive still in its germ, will blossom out one day into the true form of man like unto God, in a state which no man on earth can imagine the greatness and the majesty'. Determinism was much in vogue by this time; but why should determinism be a depressing creed? The law which we cannot escape is the blessed law of progress—'that kind of improvement that can be measured by statistics'. We had only to thank our stars for placing us in such an environment, and to carry out energetically the course of development which Nature has prescribed for us, and to resist which would be at once impious and futile.Thus the superstition of progress was firmly established. To become a popular religion, it is only necessary for a superstition to enslave a philosophy. The superstition of progress had the singular good fortune to enslave at least three philosophies—those of Hegel, Comte, and of Darwin. The strange thing is that none of these philosophies is really favourable to the belief which it was supposed to support. Leaving for the present the German and the French thinkers, we observe with astonishment that many leading men in Queen Victoria’s reign found it possible to use the great biological discovery of Darwin to tyrannize over the minds of their contemporaries, to give their blessing to the economic and social movements of their time, and to unite determinism with teleology in the highly edifying manner to which I have already referred. Scientific optimism was no doubt rampant before Darwin. For example, Herschel says: 'Man's progress towards a higher state need never fear a check, but must continue till the very last existence of history.' But Herbert Spencer asserts the perfectibility of man with an assurance makes us gasp. 'Progress is not an accident but a necessity. What we call evil and good must disappear. It is certain that man must become perfect.' 'The ultimate development of the ideal man is certain—as certain as any conclusion in the most implicit faith; for instance, that all men will die.' 'Always towards perfection is the mighty movement—towards a complete development and a more unmixed good.'
It has been pointed out by Mr. Bradley that these apocalyptic prophecies have nothing whatever to do with Darwinism. If we take the so-called doctrine of evolution in Nature as a metaphysics of existence, which Darwin never intended it to be, 'there is in the world nothing like value, or good, or evil. Anything evolution, in the ordinary sense of development or progress, is wholly rejected.' The survival of the fittest does not mean that the most virtuous or the most useful or the most beautiful or even the most complex survive; there is no moral or aesthetic judgement pronounced on the process or any part of it. 'Darwinism', Mr. Bradley goes on to say, 'often recommends itself because it is confused with a doctrine of evolution which is radically different. Humanity is taken in that doctrine as a real being, or even as the one real being; and humanity (it is said) advances continuously. Its history is development and progress towards a goal, because the type and character in which its reality consists is gradually brought more and more into fact. That which is strongest on the whole must therefore be good, and the ideas which come to prevail must therefore be true. This doctrine, though I certainly cannot accept it, for good or evil more or less dominates or sways our minds to an extent which most of us perhaps are dangerously unaware. Any such view of course conflicts radically with Darwinism, which only teaches that the true idea is the idea which prevails, and this leaves us in the end with no criterion at all.' It may further be suggested that Spencer's optimism depends on the transmissibility of acquired characters; but this is too dangerous a subject for a layman in science to discuss.
Although the main facts of cosmic evolution, and the main course of human history from Pithecanthropus downwards, are well known to all my hearers, and to some of them much better than to myself, it may be worth while to recall to you, in bald and colourless language what science really tells us about the nature and destiny of our species. It is so different from the gay colours of the rhapsodists whom I have just quoted, that we must be amazed that such doctrines should ever have passed for scientific. Astronomy gives us a picture of a wilderness of space, probably boundless, sparsely sewn with aggregations of elemental particles in all stages of heat and cold. These heavenly bodies are in some cases growing hotter, in other cases growing colder; but the fate of every globe must be, sooner or later, to become cold and dead, like the moon. Our sun, from which we derive the warmth which makes our life possible, is, I believe, an elderly star, which has long outlived the turbulent heats of youth, and is on its way to join the most senile class of luminiferous bodies, in which the star Antares is placed. When a star has once become cold, it must apparently remain dead until some chance collision sets the whole cycle going again. From time to time a great conflagration in the heavens, which occurred perhaps in the seventeenth century, becomes visible from this earth; and we may imagine, if we will, that two great solar systems have been reduced in a moment to incandescent gas. But space is probably so empty that the most pugnacious of astral knights-errant might wander for billions of years without meeting an opponent worthy of its bulk. If time as well as space is infinite, worlds must be born and die innumerable times, however few and far between their periods of activity may be. Of progress, in such a system taken as a whole, there cannot be a trace. Nor can there be any doubt about the fate of our own planet. Man and all his achievements will one day be obliterated like a child's sand-castle when the next tide comes in. Lucretius, who gave us the word progress, has told us our ultimate fate in sonorous lines:
'Quorum naturam triplicem, tria corpora, Memmi,
tres species tam dissimiles, tria talia texta,
una dies dabit exitio, multosque per annos
sustentata ruet moles et machina mundi'.
The racial life of the species to which we happen to belong is a brief episode even in the brief life of the planet. And what we call civilization or culture, though much older than we used to suppose, is a brief episode in the life of our race. For tens of thousands of years the changes in our habits must have been very slight, and chiefly those which were forced upon our rude ancestors by changes of climate. Then in certain districts man began, as Samuel Butler says, to wish to live beyond his income. This was the beginning of the vast series of inventions which have made our life so complex. And, we used to be told, the 'law of all progress is the same, the evolution of the simple into the complex by successive differentiations'. This is the gospel according to Herbert Spencer. As a universal law of nature, it is ludicrously untrue. Some species have survived by becoming more complex, others, like the whole tribe of parasites, by becoming more simple. On the whole, perhaps the parasites have had the best of it. The progressive species have in many cases flourished for a while and then paid the supreme penalty. The living dreadnoughts of the Saurian age have left us their bones, but no progeny. But the microbes, one of which had the honour of killing Alexander the Great at the age of thirty-two, and so changing the whole course of history, survive and flourish. The microbe illustrates the wisdom of the maxim, λάθε βιώσας. It took thousands of years to find him out. Our own species, being rather poorly provided by nature for offence and defence, had to live by its wits, and so came to the top. It developed many new needs, and set itself many insoluble problems. Physiologists like Metchnikoff have shown how very ill adapted our bodies are to the tasks which we impose upon them; and in spite of the Spencerian identification of complexity with progress, our surgeons try to simply our structure by forcibly removing various organs which they assure us that we do not need. If we turn to history for a confirmation of the Spencerian doctrine, we find, on the contrary, that civilization is a disease which is almost invariably fatal, unless its course is checked in time. The Hindus and Chinese after advancing to a certain point, were content to mark time; and they survive. But the Greeks and Romans are gone; and aristocracies everywhere die out. Do we not see to-day the complex organization of the ecclesiastic and college don succumbing before the simple squeezing and sucking organs of the profiteer and trade-unionist? If so-called civilized nations show any protracted vitality, it is because they are only civilized at the top. Ancient civilizations were destroyed by imported barbarians; we breed our own.
It is also an unproved assumption that the domination of the planet by our own species is a desirable thing, which must give satisfaction to its Creator. We have devastated the loveliness of the world; we have exterminated several species more beautiful and less vicious than ourselves; we have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form. If it is progress to turn the fields and woods of Essex into East and West Ham, we may be thankful that progress is a sporadic and transient phenomenon in history. It is a pity that our biologists, instead of singing paeans to Progress and thereby stultifying their own speculations, have not preached us sermons on the sin of racial self-idolatry, a topic which really does arise out of their studies. L'anthropolatrie, voilà l'ennemi, is the real ethical motto of biological science, and a valuable contribution to morals.
It was impossible that such shallow optimism as that of Herbert Spencer should not arouse protests from other scientific thinkers. Hartmann had already shown how a system of pessimism, resembling that of Schopenhauer, may be built upon the foundation of evolutionary science. And in this place we are not likely to forget the second Romanes Lecture, when Professor Huxley astonished his friends and opponents alike by throwing down the gauntlet in the face of Nature, and bidding mankind to find salvation by accepting for itself the position which the early Christian writer Hippolytus gives as a definition of the Devil—'he who resists the cosmic process' (ὁ ἀντιτάττων τοῖς κοσμικοῖς.) The revolt was not in reality so sudden as some of Huxley’s hearers supposed. He had already realized that 'so far from gradual progress forming any necessary part of the Darwinian creed, it appears to us that it is perfectly consistent with indefinite persistence in one state, or with a gradual retrogression. Suppose, e.g., a return of the glacial period or a spread of polar climatical conditions over the whole globe.' The alliance between determinism and optimism was thus dissolved; and as time went on, Huxley began to see in the cosmic process something like a power of evil. The natural process, he told us in this place, has no tendency to bring about the good of mankind. Cosmic nature is no school of virtue, but the head-quarters of the enemy of ethical nature. Nature is the realm of tiger-rights; it has no morals and no ought-to-be; its only rights are brutal powers. Morality exists only in the 'artificial' world: man is a glorious rebel, a Prometheus defying Zeus. This strange rebound into Manicheism sounded like a blasphemy against all the gods whom the lecturer was believed to worship, and half-scandalized even the clerics in his audience. It was bound to raise the question whether this titanic revolt against the cosmic process has any chance of success. One recent thinker, who accepts Huxley’s view that the nature of things is cruel and immoral, is willing to face the probability that we cannot resist it with any prospect of victory. Mr. Bertrand Russell, in his arresting essay, 'A Free Man's Worship', shows us Prometheus again, but Prometheus chained to the rock and still hurling defiance against God. He proclaims the moral bankruptcy of naturalism, which he yet holds to be forced upon us. 'That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the Solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only with the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.' Man belongs to 'an alien and inhuman world', alone amid 'hostile forces'. What is man to do? The God who exists is evil; the God whom we can worship is the creation of our own conscience, and has no existence outside it. The 'free man' will worhsip the latter; and, like John Stuart Mill, 'to hell he will go'.
If I wished to criticize this defiant pronouncement, which is not without a touch of bravado, I should say that so complete a separation of the real from the ideal is impossible, and that the choice which the writer offers us, of worshipping a Devil who exists or a God who does not is no real choice, since we cannot worship either. But my object in quoting from this essay is to show how completely naturalism has severed its alliance with optimism and belief in progress. Professor Huxley and Mr. Russell have sung their palinode and smashed the old gods of their creed. No more proof is needed, I think, that the alleged law of progress has no scientific basis whatever.
But the superstition has also invaded and vitiated our history, our political science, our philosophy, and our religion.
The historian is a natural snob; he sides with the gods against Cato, and approves the winning side. He lectures the vanquished for their wilfulness and want of foresight, sometimes rather prematurely, as when Seeley, looking about for an example of perverse refusal to recognize facts, exclaims, 'Sedet, aeternumque sedebit unhappy Poland!' The nineteenth-century historian was so loath to admit retrogression that he liked to fancy the river of progress flowing underground all through the Dark Ages, and endowed the German barbarians who overthrew Mediterranean civilization with all its manly virtues. If a nation, or a religion, or a school of art dies, the historian explains why it was not worthy to live.
In political science the corruption of the scientific spirit by the superstition of progress has been flagrant. It enables the disputant to overbear questions of right and wrong by confident prediction, a method which has the double advantage of being peculiarly irritating and incapable of refutation. On the theory of progress, what is 'coming' must be right. Forms of government and modes of thought which for the time being are not in favour are assumed to have been permanently left behind. A student of history who believed in cyclical changes and long swings of the pendulum would take a very different and probably much sounder view of contemporary affairs. The votaries of progress mistake the flowing tide for the river of eternity, and when the tide turns they are likely to be left stranded like the corks and scraps of seaweed which mark the high-water line. This has already happened, though few realize it. The praises of Liberty are mainly left to Conservatives, who couple it with Property as something to be defended, and to conscientious objectors, who dissociate it from their country, which is not to be defended. Democracy—the magic ballot-box—has few worshippers any longer except in America, where men will still shout for about two hours—and indeed much longer—that she is 'great'. But our pundits will be slow to surrender the useful words 'progressive' and 'reactionary'. The classification is, however, a little awkward. If a reactionary is any one who will not float with the stream, and a progressive anyone who has the flowing tide with him, we must classify the Christian Fathers and the French Encyclopaedists as belonging to the same type, the progressive; while the Roman Stoics under the Empire and the Russian bureaucrats under Nicholas II will be placed together under the opposite title, as reactionaries. Or is the progressive not the supporter of the winning cause for the time being, but the man who thinks, with a distinguished Head of a College who, as I remember, affirmed his Convocation, that 'any leap in the dark is better than standing still'; and is the reactionary the man whose constitutional timidity would deter him from performing this act of faith when caught by a mist on the Matterhorn? Machiavelli recognizes fixed types of human character, such as the cautious Fabius and the impetuous Julius II, and observes that these qualities lead sometimes to success and sometimes to failure. If a reactionary only means an adherent of political opinions which we happen to dislike, there is no reason why a bureaucrat should not call a republican a reactionary, Maecenas may have applied the name to Brutus and Cassius. Such examples of evolution as that which turned the Roman Republic into a principate and then into an empire of the Asiatic type, are inconvenient for those who say 'It is coming', and think that they have vindicated the superiority of their own theories of government.
We have next to consider the influence of the superstition of progress on the philosophy of the last century. To attempt such a task in this place is a little rash, to prove the charge in a few minutes would be impossible even for one much better equipped than I am. But something must be said. Hegel and Comte are often said to have been the chief advocates of the doctrine of progress among philosophers. Both of them give definitions of the word—a very necessary thing to do, and I have not yet attempted to do it. Hegel defines progress as spiritual freedom; Comte as true or positive social philosophy. The definitions are peculiar; and neither theory can be made to fit past history, though that of Comte, at any rate, falls to the ground if it does not fit past history. Hegel is perhaps more independent of facts; his predecessor Fichte professes to be entirely indifferent to them. 'The philosopher', he says, 'follows the a priori thread of the world-plan which is clear to him without any history; and if he makes use of history, it is not to prove anything, since his theses are already proved independently of all history.' Certainly, Hegel's dialectical process cannot easily be recognized in the course of European events; and, what is more fatal to the believers in a law of progress who appeal to him, he does not seem to have contemplated any further marked improvements upon the political system of Prussia in his own time, which he admired so much that his critics have accused him of teaching that the Absolute first attained full self-consciousness at Berlin in the nineteenth century. He undoubtedly believed that there has been progress in the past; but he does not, it appears, look forward to further changes; as a politician, at any rate, he gives us something like a closed system. Comte can only bring his famous 'three stages' into history by arguing that the Catholic monotheism of the Middle Ages was an advance upon pagan antiquity. A Catholic might defend such a thesis with success; but for Comte the chief advantage seems to be that the change left the Olympians with only one neck to cut off. But Comte himself is what his system requires us to call a reactionary; he is back in the 'theological stage'; he would like a theocracy, if he could have one without a God. The state is to be subordinate to the Positive Church, and he will allow 'no unlimited freedom of thought'. The connection of this philosophy with the doctrine of progress seems very slender. It is not so easy to answer the question in the case of Hegel, because his contentment with the Prussian government may be set down to idiosyncrasy or prudence; but it is significant that some of his ablest disciples have discarded the belief. To say that 'the world is as it ought to be' does not imply that it goes on getting better, though some would think it was not good if it was not getting better. It is hard to believe that a great thinker really supposed that the universe as a whole is progressing, a notion which Mr. Bradley has stigmatized as 'nonsense, unmeaning or blasphemous'. Mr. Bradley may perhaps be interpreting Hegel rightly when he says that for a philosopher 'progress can never have any temporal sense', and explains that a perfect philosopher would see the whole world of appearance as a 'progress', by which he seems to mean only a rearrangement in terms of ascending and descending value and reality. But it might be objected that to use 'progress' in this sense is to lay a trap for the unwary. Mathematicians undoubtedly talk of progress, or rather of progression, without any implication of temporal sequence; but outside this science to speak of 'progress without any temporal sense' is to use a phrase which some would call self-contradictory. Be that as it may, popularized Hegelianism has laid hold of the idea of a self-improving universe, of perpetual and universal progress, in a strictly temporal sense. The notion of an evolving and progressing cosmos, with a Creator who is either improving himself (though we do not put it quite so crudely) or who is gradually coming into his own, has taken strong hold of the popular imagination. The latter notion leads straight to ethical dualism of the Manichean type. The theory of a single purpose in the universe seems to me untenable. Such a purpose, being infinite, could never have been conceived, and if conceived, could never be accomplished. The theory condemns both God and man to the doom of Tantalus. Mr. Bradley is quite right in finding this belief incompatible with Christianity.
It would not be possible, without transgressing the limits set for lecturers on this foundation, to show how the belief in a law of progress has prejudicially affected the religious beliefs of our time. I need only recall to you the discussions whether the perfect man could have lived in the first, and not in the nineteenth or twentieth century—although one would have thought that the ancient Greeks, one nation only, have produced many examples of hitherto unsurpassed genius; the secularization of religion by throwing its ideals into the near future—a new apocalyptism which is doing mischief enough in politics without the help of the clergy; and the unauthorized belief in future probation, which rests on the queer assumption that, if a man is given time enough he must necessarily become perfect. In fact, the superstition which is the subject of this lecture has distorted Christianity almost beyond recognition. Only one great Church, old in worldly wisdom, knows that human nature does not change, and acts on the knowledge. Accordingly, the papal syllabus of 1864 declares: Si quis dixerit: Romanus pontifex potest ac debet cum progressu, cum liberalismo, et cum recenti civilitate sese reconciliare et componere, anathema sit.'
Our optimists have not made it clear to themselves or others what they mean by progress, and we may suspect that the vagueness of the idea is one of its attractions. There has been no physical progress in our species for many thousands of years. The Cro-Magnon race, which lived perhaps twenty thousand years ago, was at least equal to any modern people in size and strength; the ancient Greeks were, I suppose, handsomer and better formed than we are; and some unprogressive races, such as the Zulus, Samoans, and Tahitians, are envied by Europeans either for strength or beauty. Although it seems not to be true that the sight and hearing of civilized peoples are inferior to those of savages, we have certainly lost our natural weapons, which from one point of view is a mark of degeneracy. Mentally, we are now told that the men of the Old Stone Age, ugly as most of them must have been, had as large brains as ours; and he would be a bold man who should claim that we are intellectually equal to the Athenians or superior to the Romans. The question of moral improvement is much more difficult. Until the Great War few would have disputed that civilized man had become much more humane, much more sensitive to the sufferings of others, and so more just, more self-controlled, and less brutal in his pleasures and in his resentments. The habitual honesty of the Western European might also have been contrasted with the rascality of inferior races in the past and present. It was often forgotten that, if progress means the improvement of human nature itself, the question to be asked is whether the modern civilized man behaves better in the same circumstances than his ancestor would have done. Absence of temptation may produce an appearance of improvement; but this is hardly what we mean by progress, and there is an old saying that the Devil has a clever trick of pretending to be dead. It seems to me very doubtful whether when we are exposed to the same temptations we are more humane or more sympathetic or juster or less brutal than the ancients. Even before this war, the examples of the Congo, and Putumayo, and American lynchings, proved that contact with barbarians reduces many white men to the moral condition of savages; and the outrages committed on the Chinese after the Boxer rebellion showed that even a civilized nation cannot rely on being decently treated by Europeans if its civilization is different from their own. During the Great War, even if some atrocities were magnified with the amiable object of rousing a good-natured people to violent hatred, it was the well-considered opinion of Lord Bryce's commission that no such cruelties had been committed for three hundred years as those which the Germans practised in Belgium and France. It was startling to observe how easily the blood—lust was excited in young men straight from the fields, the factory, and the counter, many of whom had never before killed anything larger than a wasp, and that in self-defence. As for the Turks, we must go back to Genghis Khan to find any parallel to their massacres in Armenia; and the Russian terrorists have reintroduced torture into Europe, with the help of Chinese experts in the art. With these examples before our eyes, it is difficult to feel any confidence that either the lapse of time or civilization has made the bête humaine. On biological grounds there is no reason to expect it. No selection in favour of superior types is not going on; on the contrary, civilization tends now, as always, to an Ausrottung der Besten—a weeding-out of the best; and the new practice of subsidizing the unsuccessful by taxes extorted from the industrious is cacogenics erected into a principle. The best hope of stopping this progressive degeneration is in the science of eugenics. But this science is still too tentative to be made the basis of legislation, and we are not yet agreed what we should breed for. The two ideals, that of the perfect man and that of the perfectly organized State, would lead to very different principles of selection. Do we want a nation of moderately efficient Greek gods, or do we want mastiffs for policemen, human greyhounds for postmen, and so on? However, the opposition which eugenics has now to face is based on less respectable grounds, such as pure hedonism ('would the superman be any happier?'); indifference to the future welfare of the race ('posterity has done nothing for me; why should I do anything for posterity?'); and, in politics, the reflection that the unborn have no votes.
We have, then, been driven to the conclusion that neither science nor history gives us any warrant for believing that humanity has advanced, except by accumulating knowledge and experience and the instruments of living. The value of these accumulations is not beyond dispute. Attacks upon civilization have been frequent, from Crates, Pherecrates, Antisthenes, and Lucretius in antiquity to Rousseau, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Ruskin, Morris, and Edward Carpenter in modern times. I cannot myself agree with these extremists. I believe that the accumulated experience of mankind, and his wonderful discoveries, are of great value. I only point out that they do not constitute real progress in human nature itself, and that in the absence of any real progress these gains are external, precarious, and liable to be turned to our own destruction, as new discoveries in chemistry may easily be.
But it is possible to approach the whole question of progress from another side, and from this side the results will not be quite the same, and may be more encouraging. We have said that there can be no progress in the macrocosm, and no single purpose in a universe which has neither beginning nor end in time. But there may be an infinite number of finite purposes, some much greater and others much smaller than the span of an individual life; and within each of these some Divine thought may be working itself out, bringing some life or series of lives, some nation or race or species, to that perfection which is natural to it—what the Greeks called its 'nature'. The Greeks saw no contradiction between this belief and the theory of cosmic cycles, and I do not think that there is any contradiction. It may be that there is an immanent teleology which is shaping the life of the human race towards some completed development which has not yet been reached. To advocate such a theory seems like going back from Darwin to Lamarck, but 'vitalism', if it be a heresy, is a very vigorous and obstinate one; we can hardly dismiss it as unscientific. The possibility that such a development is going on is not disproved by the slowness of the change within the historical period. Progress in the recent millennia seems to us to have been external, precarious, and disappointing. But let this last adjective give us pause. By what standard do we pronounce it disappointing, and who gave us this standard? This disappointment has been a constant phenomenon, with a very few exceptions. What does it mean? Have those who reject the law of progress taken it into account? The philosophy of naturalism always makes the mistake of leaving human nature out. The climbing instinct of humanity, and our discontent with things as they are, are facts accounted for no less than the stable instincts of nearly all other species. We all desire to make progress, and our ambitions are not limited to our own lives or our own lifetimes. It is part of our nature to aspire and hope; even on biological grounds this instinct must be assumed to serve some function. The first Christian poet, Prudentius, quite in the spirit of Robert Browning, names Hope as the distinguishing characteristic of mankind.
'Nonne hominum et pecudum distantia separat una? quod bona quadrupedum ante oculos sita sunt, ego contra spero.'
We must consider seriously what this instinct of hope means and implies in the scheme of things.
It is of course possible to dismiss it as fraud. Perhaps this was the view most commonly held in antiquity. Hope was regarded as a gift of dubious value, an illusion which helps us to endure life, and a potent spur to action; but in the last resort an ignis fatuus. A Greek could write for his tombstone:
'I've entered port. Fortune and Hope, adieu!
Make game of others, for I've done with you.'
And Lord Brougham chose this epigram to adorn his villa at Cannes. So for Schopenhauer hope is the bait by which Nature gets her hook in our nose, and induces us to serve her purposes, which are not our own. This is pessimism, which, like optimism, is a mood, not a philosophy. Neither of them needs refutation, except for the adherent of the opposite mood; and these will never convince each other, for the same arguments are fatal to both. If our desires are clearly contrary to the nature of things, of which we are a part, it is our wisdom and our duty to correct our ambitions, and, like the Bostonian Margaret Fuller, to decide to 'accept the universe'. 'Gad! she'd better,' was Carlyle’s comment on this declaration. The true inference from Nature’s law of vicarious sacrifice is not that life is a fraud, but that selfishness is unnatural. The pessimist can only condemn the world by a standard which he finds somewhere, if only in his own heart; in passing sentence upon it he affirms an optimism which he will not surrender to any appearances.
The ancients were not pessimists; but they distrusted Hope. I will not follow those who say that they succumbed to the barbarians because they looked back instead of forward; I do not think it is true. If the Greeks and Romans had studied chemistry and metallurgy instead of art, rhetoric, and law, they might have discovered gunpowder and poison gas and kept the Germans north of the Alps. But St. Paul's deliberate verdict on pagan society, that is 'had no hope', cannot be lightly set aside. No other religion before Christianity, ever erected hope into a moral virtue. 'We are saved by hope', was a new doctrine when it was pronounced. The later Neoplatonists borrowed St. Paul’s triad, Faith, Hope, and Love, adding Truth as a fourth. Hopefulness may have been partly a legacy from Judaism; but it was much more a part of the intense spiritual vitality which was disseminated by the new faith. In an isolated but extremely interesting passage St. Paul extends his hope of 'redemption into the glorious liberty of the children of God' to the 'whole creation' generally. In the absence of any explanation or parallel passages it is difficult to say what vision of cosmic deliverance was in his mind. Students of early Christian thought must be struck by the vigour of hope in the minds of men, combined with great fluidity in the forms or moulds into which it ran. After much fluctuation, it tended to harden as belief in a supramundane future, a compromise between Jewish and Platonic eschatology, since the Jews set their hopes on a terrestrial future, the Platonists on a supramundane present. Christian philosophers inclined to the Platonic faith, while popular belief retained the apocalyptic Jewish idea under the form of Millenarianism. Religion has oscillated between these two types of belief ever since, and both have suffered considerably by being vulgarized. In times of disorder and decadence, the Platonic ideal world, materialized into a supraterrestrial physics and geography, has tended to prevail: in times of crass prosperity and intellectual confidence the Jewish dream of a kingdom of the saints on earth has been coarsened into promises of 'a good time coming'. At the time when we were inditing the paeans to Progress which I quoted near the beginning of my lecture, we were evolving a Deuteronomic religion for ourselves even more flattering than the combination of determinism with optimism which science was offering at the same period. We almost persuaded ourselves that the words 'the meek-spirited shall possess the earth' were a prophecy of the expansion of England. Our new privileged class, organized Labour, is now weaving similar dreams for itself.
It is easy to criticize the forms which Hope has assumed. But the Hope which has generated them is a solid fact, and we have to recognize its tenacity and power of taking new shapes. The belief in a law of progress, which I have criticized so unmercifully, is one of these forms; and if I am not mistaken, it is nearly worn out. Disraeli in his detached way said, 'The European talks of progress because by the aid of a few scientific discoveries he has established a society which has mistaken comfort for civilization'. It would not be easy to sum up better the achievements of the nineteenth century, which will be always remembered as the century of accumulation and expansion. It was one of the great ages of the world; and its greatness was bound up with that very idea of progress which, in the crude forms which it usually assume, we have seen to be an illusion. It was a strenuous, not a self-indulgent age. The profits of industry were not squandered, but turned into new capital, providing new markets and employment for more labour. The nation, as an aggregate, increased in wealth, numbers, and power every day; and public opinion approved this increase, and the sacrifices which it involved. It was a great century; there were giants in the earth in those days; I have no patience with the pygmies who gird at them. But, as its greatest and most representative poet said: 'God fulfils himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.' The mould in which the Victorian age cast its hopes is broken. There is no law of progress; and the gains of that age now seem to some of us to have been purchased too high, or even to be themselves of doubtful value. In Clough’s fine poem, beginning, 'Hope evermore and believe, O man', a poem in which the ethics of Puritanism find their perfect expression, the poet exhorts us:
'Go! say not in thine heart, And what then, were it accomplished,
Were the wild impulse allayed, what were the use and the good?'But this question, which the blind Puritan asceticism resolutely thrust on one side, has begun to press for an answer. It had begun to press for an answer before the great cataclysm, which shattered the material symbols of the cult which for a century and a half had absorbed the chief energies of mankind. Whether our widespread discontent is mainly caused, as I sometimes think, by the unnatural conditions of life in large towns, or by the decay of the ideal itself, it is not easy to say. In any case, the gods of Queen Victoria’s reign are no longer worshipped. And I believe that the dissatisfaction with things as they are is caused not only by the failure of nineteen-century civilization, but partly also by its success. We no longer wish to progress on those lines if we could. Our apocalyptic dream is vanishing into thin air. It may be that the industrial revolution which began in the reign of George the Third has produced most of its fruits, and has had its day. We may have to look forward to such a change as is imagined by Anatole France at the end of his Isle of the Penguins, when, after an orgy of revolution and destruction, we shall slide back into the quiet rural life of the early modern period. If so, the authors of the revolution will have cut their own throats, for there can be no great manufacturing towns in such a society. Their disappearance will be no great loss. The race will have tried a great experiment, and will have rejected it as unsatisfying. We shall have added something to our experience. Fontenelle exclaimed, 'How many foolish things we should say now, if the ancients had not said them all before us!' Fools are not so afraid of plagiarism as this Frenchman supposed; but it is true that 'Eventu rerum stolidi didicere magistro'.
There is much to support the belief that there is a struggle for existence among ideas, and that those tend to prevail which correspond with the changing needs of humanity. It does not necessarily follow that the ideas which prevail are better morally, or even truer to the laws of Nature, than those which fail. Life is so chaotic, and development so sporadic and one-sided, that a brief and brilliant success may carry with it the seeds of its own early ruin. The great triumphs of humanity have not come all at once. Architecture reached its climax in an age otherwise barbarous; Roman Law was perfected in a dismal age of decline: and the nineteenth century, with its marvels of applied science, has produced the ugliest of all civilizations. There have been notable times of the Spirit of Man—Ages of Pericles, Augustan Ages, Renaissances. The laws which determine these efflorescences are unknown. They may depend on undistinguished periods when force is being stored up. So in individual greatness, the wind bloweth where it listeth. Some of our greatest may have died unknown, 'carent quia vate sacro'. Emerson indeed tells us that 'One accent of the Holy Ghost The careless world has never lost'. But I should like to know how Emerson obtained this information. The world has not always been 'careless' about its inspired prophets; it has often, as Faust remarks, burnt or crucified them, before they have delivered all their message. The activities of the Race—Spirit have been quite unaccountable. It has stumbled along blindly, falling into every possible pitfall.
The laws of Nature neither promise progress nor forbid it. We could do much to determine our own future; but there has been no consistency about our aspirations, and we have frequently followed false lights, and been disillusioned as much by success as by failure. The well-known law that all institutions carry with them the seeds of their own dissolution is not so much an illustration of the law of cyclical revolution, as a proof that we have been carried to and fro by every wind of doctrine. What we need is a fixed and absolute standard of values, that we may know what we want to get and where we want to go. It is no answer to say that all values are relative and ought to change. Some values are not relative but absolute. Spiritual progress must be within the sphere of a reality which is progressing, or for which, in Milton’s grand words, 'progresses the dateless and irrevoluble circle of its own perfection, joining inseparable hands with joy and bliss in over-measure for ever'. Assuredly there must be advance in our apprehension of the ideal, which can never be fully realized because it belongs to the eternal world. We count not ourselves to have apprehended in aspiration any more than in practice. As Nicolas of Cusa says: 'To be able to know ever more and more without end, this is our likeness to the eternal Wisdom. Man always desires to know better what he knows, and to love more what he loves; and the whole world is not sufficient for him, because it does not satisfy his craving for knowledge.' But since our object is to enter within the realm of unchanging perfection, finite and relative progress cannot be our ultimate aim, and such progress, like everything else most worth having, must not be aimed at too directly. Our ultimate aim is to live in the knowledge and enjoyment of the absolute values, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. If the Platonists are right, we shall shape our surroundings more effectively by this kind of idealism than by adopting the creed and the methods of secularism. I have suggested that our disappointments have been very largely due to the unworthiness of our ideals, and to the confused manner in which we have set them before our minds. The best men and women do not seem to be subject to this confusion. So far as they can make their environment, it is a society immensely in advance of anything which has been realized among mankind generally.
If any social amelioration is to be hoped for, and I can see few favourable signs at present, its main characteristic will probably be simplification rather than further complexity. This, however, is not a question which can be handled at the end of a lecture.
Plato says of his ideal State that it does not much matter whether it is ever realized on earth or not. The type is laid up in heaven, and approximations to it will be made from time to time, since all living creatures are drawn upwards towards the source of their being. It does not matter very much, if he was right in believing—as we too believe—in human immortality. And yet it does matter; for unless our communing with the eternal Ideas endows us with some creative virtue, some power which makes itself felt upon our immediate environment, it cannot be that we have made those Ideas in any sense our own. There is no alchemy by which we may get golden conduct out of leaden instincts—so Herbert Spencer told us very truly; but if our ideals are of gold, there is an alchemy which will transmute our external activities, so that our contributions to the spiritual temple may be no longer 'wood, hay, and stubble', to be destroyed in the next conflagration, but precious and durable material.
For individuals, then, the path of progress is always open; but, as Hesiod told us long before the Sermon on the Mount, it is a narrow path, steep and difficult, especially at first. There will never be a crowd gathered round this gate; 'few there be that find it'. For this reason, we must cut down our hopes for our nation, for Europe, and for humanity at large, to a very modest and humble aspiration. We have no millennium to look forward to; but neither need we fear any protracted or widespread retrogression. There will be new types of achievement which will enrich the experience of the race; and from time to time, in the long vista which science seems to promise us, there will be new flowering-times of genius and virtue, not less glorious than the age of Sophocles or the age of Shakespeare. They will not merely repeat the triumphs of the past but will add new varieties to the achievements of the human mind.
Whether the human type itself is capable of further physical, intellectual, or moral improvement, we do not know. It is safe to predict that we shall go on hoping, though our recent hopes have ended in disappointment. Our lower ambitions partly succeed and partly fail, and never wholly satisfy us; of our more worthy visions for our race we may perhaps cherish the faith that no pure hope can ever wither, except that a purer may grow out of its roots.