“You would sooner build a city in the air,” said Plutarch, “than cause a State to subsist without religion.” Some have contested in modern times this opinion of ancient wisdom. The philosophy of the last century, as we have said already, wished to separate duty from the idea of God. It pretended to give as the only foundation for society a civil morality, the rules and sanction of which were to be found upon earth. The men of blood who for a short time governed France, gave once as the order of the day—Terror and all the virtues: this was a terrible application of this theory. Virtue rested on a decree of political power, and, for want of the judgment of God, the guillotine was the sanction of its precepts. Healthier views begin now to prevail in the schools of philosophy. One of the members of the Institut de France, M. Franck, has lately published a volume on the history of ancient civilization, with the express intention of showing that the conception which a people has of God is the true root of its social organization. According to the worth of the religious idea is that of the civil constitution. Before M. Franck, twenty years ago, a man of the very highest distinction as a public lecturer, indicated this movement of modern thought. M. Edgard Quinet, in his Lyons course, taught that the religious idea is the very substance of civilization, and the generating principle of political constitutions. He announced “a history of civilization by the monuments of human thought,” and added: “Religion above all is the pillar of fire which goes before the nations in their march across the ages; it shall serve us as a guide." Benjamin Constant exhibits in the variation of his opinions the transition from the stand-point of the last century to that of the present. He had at first conceived of his work upon religion as a monument raised to atheism, he ends by seeking in religious sentiments the condition necessary to the existence of civilized societies. Here is a real progress; and this progress brings us back to the thought above quoted from Plutarch. In fact, take away the idea of God, and the first consequence will be that you will sacrifice all the conquests of modern civilization; the next, that you will soon have rendered impossible the existence of any society whatever. I am going to ask your close attention to these two points successively.
History does not offer to our view an uninterrupted progress, as certain optimists suppose; still less does it present the spectacle of an ever-increasing deterioration, as misanthropes affirm; and lastly, it is not true, as we hear it said sometimes, that all epochs are alike, as good one as another. There are times better than those which follow them; and there are epochs less degraded than those which precede them. Human societies fall and rise again; their march exhibits windings and retrograde steps, because that march is under the influence of created