We are trying in this book to give some impression of the principal changes and developments of Western thought in what might roughly be called ‘the last generation’, though this limit of time has been, as it must be, treated liberally. From the political point of view the two most impressive milestones, events which will always mark for the consciousness of the West the beginning and the end of a period, are no doubt the war of 1870 and the Great War which has just ended. From 1870 to 1914 would therefore be the most obvious delimitation of our study; and it is a striking illustration of human paradox, that a great stage in the growth of unity should be marked by two international tragedies and crowned by the most terrible of all.
Nearly coincident with the political divisions there are important landmarks in the history of thought. During the ’sixties, while the power of Prussia was rising to its culmination in the Franco-Prussian War, the Darwinian theory of development was gaining command in biology. To many thinkers there has appeared a clear connexion between that biological doctrine and the ‘imperialism’, Teutonic and other, which was so marked a feature of the time. In any case ‘post-Darwinian’ might well describe the scientific thought of the age we have in view.
Industrially the epoch is as clearly defined as it is in politics and science. For in 1871, the year of the Treaty of Frankfort, an act was passed after a long working-class agitation, assisted by certain eminent members of the middle class, legalizing strikes and Trade Unions. And now at the end of the war, all over the world, society is faced by the problem of reconciling the full rights, and in some cases the extreme demands, of ‘labour’, with democratic government and the prosperity and social union of the whole community. This is the situation discussed in our seventh and eighth chapters.
In philosophy and literature a similar dividing line appears. In the ’sixties Herbert Spencer was publishing the capital works of his system. The Principles of Psychology was published in 1872. This ’Synthetic Philosophy’ has proved up to the present the last attempt of its kind, and with the vast increase of knowledge since Spencer’s day it might well prove the last of all such syntheses carried out by a single mind. Specialism and criticism have gained the upper hand, and the fresh turn to harmony, which we shall notice later on, is rather a harmony of spirit than an encyclopaedic unity such as the great masters of system from Descartes to Comte and Spencer had attempted before.