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ignorant Christian knows what the wisest of the heathens only guessed. Wherever we turn, on whatsoever we cast our glance -- but no, let us spare the reader more of this subject, on which more vapid and stupid declamation has been poured out in this our “ talking era,” than on any given theme that ever young gentlemen in a debating society prelected upon. Cross the literary saloon, and
you will hear some man of much thought and of high feeling talk of universal decadence — there is less of the chivalry of olden times, sordid views are more prevalent, confidence in public characters is shaken, repudiated debts and speculative fevers mark the breaking up of nations. These, one might be tempted to think, are the opposite poles of political opinion, which will never be brought together till the destruction of the world or the arrival of Millennium. Now, without attempting to accelerate either of these events, we do not despair of reconciling the two opinions of the IIopeful and the Despondent Politician. For the truth is, that there are two sorts of political progress ; that of nations, which Vico showed to be cyclical, from insignificance passing through a period of greatness to insignificance again, and that of humanity, a steady progress, the march of one that advances and never recedes. The difference may be illustrated in this way: The human species engages in a race of intellectual progress after the fashion of the Greek torch-race, where the bearers of the torch handed it from one to another as they became exhausted * ; but no one is allowed to take up the torch till he is in the flower of youth, and must hand it over to his next neighbour as soon as age or accident has weakened his frame or retarded his pace. He falls back and dies ; his neighbour carries along the torch till he too hands it to another. The torch then, which is Humanity, the onward progress of mankind's improvement, whatever may be the goal to which it must ultimately come, has advanced without any perceptible tendency to retrograde, then the fan while the bearers of the torch — the nations of the world still Chatining
Λαμπάδα έχοντες διαδώσουσιν αλλήλοις.-Plato, De Rep. lib. i.
— have fallen away and died when their part in the great race of human advancement has been played.
We need not marvel that the progress of humanity has not yet found its historian, for to expound its course would be to write the history of every science, every art, every form of human knowledge; we should have, irrespective of all national considerations, to trace the progress of astronomy, chemistry, medicine, manufactures, financial science, the art of locomotion, and all those many little scraps of intellectual work that are now and then taken up enthusiastically and improved, and then let alone perhaps for centuries, but each of them fitting as a piece of mosaic, or rather as one of the numerous wires in a coil of telegraph, into the great human progress which is advanced, however slightly, by helping on any fragment of the moving mass. I do not know a more fascinating occupation than to trace this progress of the Spirit of Man, one far more pleasing than the work we undertake ; for we seek our facts and data amid wrecks, and sepulchres, and ruins, and deduce our conclusions from the revolutions of empires and the demolition of nations ; while in this grander progress we know of nothing but improvement, every new tableau has more light and less cloud than its predecessors, and not a single retrograde step occurs to make us lament the past or despair of the future. “For I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs, And the thoughts of men are widened by the process of the suns."
A. TENNYSON. There are stars which at this moment see our earth as it was four thousand years ago; others who now may behold Babylon in its glory, and perhaps see the Chaldæan shepherds looking at them from their folds; to others nearer us the days of Pericles are visible, or the two brothers are founding the city on the Tiber; while
to some closer neighbours our world now appears as it was when Harold Haarfagre sent forth the Scandinavian hordes to found the aristocracies of Europe. I have sometimes amused myself by thinking that the inhabitants of those orbs gifted with keener visions and with subtler minds than are found here, may sketch the great features of the scene that passes before them, and mark in characters more enduring than those graven on the substances of this earth, each great step in the advancement of human knowledge; and while the trivial details which fill our paltry annals perish in the neglect they deserve, the great epoch-forming movements, whereby nations have been called forth and developed and again destroyed, are there selected and recorded. It may be in every sense a vision of the night, but who has ventured to contemplate this progress without introducing some unreal fancy to fill those voids we uselessly lament? The utmost limits of human research, the highest grasp of human intellect, can hope to reproduce but a faint image of this mighty career.
Whither tends it ? the impatient spectator has frequently asked, not without a hope, if its destination is agreeable, of being carried along with it. We have various shades of opinion on that point, from the believer in a great world-catastrophe in the year 2000 A.D., to M. Comte, the founder of a new religion which he calls the Religion of Humanity. Some believe that the trail of the serpent will ever deface mankind; others think that our species is destined to attain, in future ages, that perfection which not the most vain among us can arrogate to it now, and that the spirit of humanity may say with Milton :
“Fly, envious Time, till thou run out thy race.
Attired with stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee, O Time." The idea of human perfectibility, which is necessarily
connected to some extent with notions of eternity, was apparently first spread among the French by M. Turgot's “ Discours dont l'objet devoit être les progrès de l'esprit humain.” He had many followers in France and some few in England ; among the latter was William Jackson, of Exeter. His book entitled “ Four Ages,” was intended to astonish the world in 1798. The Iron and Brazen Ages having been dismissed with deep scorn, Mr. Jackson says that since the Restoration we have been
increasing in velocity towards perfection, like a comet as it approaches the sun.” The majority of the Americans are said to be convinced of the indefinite perfectibility of man, and M. de. Tocqueville devotes a chapter to the question whether this idea has been fostered by their social equality. But however caused, speculations on an event so remote, and affording no ground for sober calculation, are surely a mischievous vanity.
To ruminate on the fate of mankind, and, reposing on some sunny bank, to conjure up in the mind's eye the shifting scenes, each more happy and more glorious, through which humanity is destined to pass till it reaches an earthly paradise, and takes up its residence in a nation where justice reigns without a rival ; where the distinctions of wealth and poverty are unknown; where disease attempts an inroad in vain, and the crimes with which we are familiar have no name in their language, no representative in their acts; where deeds of beneficence are universal, and differ only from ours because conferred on persons who want neither the power nor the will to return them ; where the conquest of mind over matter is accomplished, and the great design of the Deity, which may be read in the face and form of nature, to make man lord of all terrestrial things, has been completed by his own exertions; where paid ministers of religion exist not, because the mind of man is so pure and his heart so open, that, imbued with the sense of his insignificance he offers with spontaneous humility those simple prayers of which
ours, uttered by deputy, are but a mockery — or to yield to the bold conception of the French philosopher, and suppose that humanity is on its way to a throne in heaven, which shall surpass any that have been imagined there before, and that, borne thereto at last by the sweat and labour of four thousand centuries, the races of the earth will fall down and worship before that idol, which they and their ancestors have erected -- to indulge in these and such like reveries may be the congenial occupa. tion of the poetic mind which, ignorant of the laws of the celestial sphere, should people the planets with the creation of its own heated brain, or find in the orbs that shine above us the last homes of the blessed or of the damned. But in like manner as practical astronomy would gain no benefit, but rather be confused by the dreams of the one; so are social and historical inquiries obscured and misdirected by the vain imaginings of the other. When we have established the laws which have
regulated with invariable action past events, we are then, rawat and not till then, in a position to consider whether there
is anything to prevent a similar action hereafter.
Now, it is obvious that every national progress has, during a certain period, been connected with the great progress of human knowledge—the bearers of the torch moving as fast as the torch moves so long as they hold it—the nation advancing itself while it advances humanity. We shall have to note hereafter how the history of every nation which has made a stir in the world, informs us that at some one period that nation impressed its character on the century, that among its citizens were nearly all the inventors, the successful diplomatists, the great thinkers of the age, all, in short, who were then advancing knowledge and controlling the movements of the world ; but history equally teaches us that when a more fresh and vigorous nation has arisen, its predecessor, enfeebled by the glorious but enervating race, may turn piteously and ask,
" Qui prior es, cur me in decursu lampada poscas ?"