The book opens with melancholy reflections amid the ruins of Palmyra. “Thus perish the works of men, and thus do nations and empires vanish away ... Who can assure us that desolation like this will not one day be the lot of our own country?” Some traveller like himself will sit by the banks of the Seine, the Thames, or the Zuyder Zee, amid silent ruins, and weep for a people inurned and their greatness changed into an empty name. Has a mysterious Deity pronounced a secret malediction against the earth?
In this disconsolate mood he is visited by an apparition, who unveils the causes of men’s misfortunes and shows that they are due to themselves. Man is governed by natural invariable laws, and he has only to study them to know the springs of his destiny, the causes of his evils and their remedies. The laws of his nature are self-love, desire of happiness, and aversion to pain; these are the simple and prolific principles of everything that happens in the moral world. Man is the artificer of his own fate. He may lament his weakness and folly; but “he has perhaps still more reason to be confident in his energies when he recollects from what point he has set out and to what heights he has been capable of elevating himself.”
The supernatural visitant paints a rather rosy picture of the ancient Egyptian and Assyrian kingdoms. But it would be a mistake to infer from their superficial splendour that the inhabitants generally were wise or happy. The tendency of man to ascribe perfection to past epochs is merely “the discoloration of his chagrin.” The race is not degenerating; its misfortunes are due to ignorance and the mis-direction of self-love. Two principal obstacles to improvement have been the difficulty of transmitting ideas from age to age, and that of communicating them rapidly from man to man. These have been removed by the invention of printing. The press is “a memorable gift of celestial genius.” In time all men will come to understand the principles of individual happiness and public felicity. Then there will be established among the peoples of the earth an equilibrium of forces; there will be no more wars, disputes will be decided by arbitration, and “the whole species will become one great society, a single family governed by the same spirit and by common laws, enjoying all the felicity of which human nature is capable.” The accomplishment of this will be a slow process, since the same leaven will have to assimilate an enormous mass of heterogeneous elements, but its operation will be effectual.
Here the genius interrupts his prophecy and exclaims, turning toward the west, “The cry of liberty uttered on the farther shores of the Atlantic has reached to the old continent.” A prodigious movement is then visible to their eyes in a country at the extremity of the Mediterranean; tyrants are overthrown, legislators elected, a code of laws is drafted on the principles of equality, liberty, and justice. The liberated nation is attacked by neighbouring tyrants, but her legislators propose to the other peoples to hold a general assembly, representing the whole world, and weigh every religious system in the balance. The proceedings of this congress follow, and the book breaks off incomplete.