The general argument of the book may be resumed briefly. Felicity has never been realised in any period of the past. No government, however esteemed, set before itself to achieve what ought to be the sole object of government, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of individuals.” Now, for the first time in human history, intellectual enlightenment, other circumstances fortunately concurring, has brought about a condition of things, in which this object can no longer be ignored, and there is a prospect that it will gradually gain the ascendant. In the meantime, things have improved; the diffusion of knowledge is daily ameliorating men’s lot, and far from envying any age in the past we ought to consider ourselves much happier than the ancients.
We may wonder at this writer’s easy confidence in applying the criterion of happiness to different societies. Yet the difficulty of such comparisons was, I believe, first pointed out by Comte. [Footnote: Cours de philosophie positive, iv. 379.] It is impossible, he says, to compare two states of society and determine that in one more happiness was enjoyed than in the other. The happiness of an individual requires a certain degree of harmony between his faculties and his environment. But there is always a natural tendency towards the establishment of such an equilibrium, and there is no means of discovering by argument or by direct experience the situation of a society in this respect. Therefore, he concludes, the question of happiness must be eliminated from any scientific treatment of civilisation.
Chastellux won a remarkable success. His work was highly praised by Voltaire, and was translated into English, Italian, and German. It condensed, on a single issue, the optimistic doctrines of the philosophers, and appeared to give them a more solid historical foundation than Voltaire’s Essay on Manners had supplied. It provided the optimists with new arguments against Rousseau, and must have done much to spread and confirm faith in perfectibility. [Footnote: Soon after the publication of the book of Chastellux— though I do not suggest any direct connection—a society of Illuminati, who also called themselves the Perfectibilists, was founded at Ingoldstadt, who proposed to effect a pacific transformation of humanity. See Javary, De l’idee de progres, p. 73.]
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The leaders of thought in France did not look far forward into the future or attempt to trace the definite lines on which the human race might be expected to develop. They contented themselves with principles and vague generalities, and they had no illusions as to the slowness of the process of social amelioration; a rational morality, the condition of improvement, was only in its infancy. A passage in a work of the Abbe Morellet probably reflects faithfully enough the comfortable though not extravagant optimism which was current. [Footnote: Reflexions sur les avantages d’ecrire et d’imprimer sur les matieres de l’administration (1764); in Melanges, vol. iii. p. 55. Morellet held, like d’Holbach, that society is only the development and improvement of nature itself (ib. p. 6).]