The Idea of Progress eBook

J.B. Bury
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 354 pages of information about The Idea of Progress.

Vice and suffering, indeed, are as grave as ever, and we are afflicted by the trouble of heresies; but this does not prove a general deterioration of morals.  If that inveterate complaint, the refrain chanted by old men in every age, were true, the world would already have reached the extreme limit of wickedness, and integrity would have disappeared utterly.  Seneca long ago made the right criticism.  Hoc maiores nostri questi sunt, hoc nos querimur, hoc posteri nostri querentur, eversos esse mores ....  At ista stant loco eodem.  Perhaps Le Roy was thinking particularly of that curious book the Apology for Herodotus, in which the eminent Greek scholar, Henri Estienne, exposed with Calvinistic prejudice the iniquities of modern times and the corruption of the Roman Church. [Footnote:  L’Introduction au traite de la conformite des merveilles anciennes avec les modernes, ou traite preparatif a l’Apologie pour Herodote, ed.  Ristelhuber, 2 vols., 1879.  The book was published in 1566.]

But if we are to judge by past experience, does it not follow that this modern age must go the same way as the great ages of the past which it rivals or even surpasses?  Our civilisation, too, having reached perfection, will inevitably decline and pass away:  is not this the clear lesson of history?  Le Roy does not shirk the issue; it is the point to which his whole exposition has led and he puts it vividly.

“If the memory of the past is the instruction of the present and the premonition of the future, it is to be feared that having reached so great excellence, power, wisdom, studies, books, industries will decline, as has happened in the past, and disappear—­confusion succeeding to the order and perfection of to-day, rudeness to civilisation, ignorance to knowledge.  I already foresee in imagination nations, strange in form, complexion, and costume, overwhelming Europe—­like the Goths, Huns, Vandals, Lombards, Saracens of old—­destroying our cities and palaces, burning our libraries, devastating all that is beautiful.  I foresee in all countries wars, domestic and foreign, factions and heresies which will profane all things human and divine; famines, plagues, and floods; the universe approaching an end, world-wide confusion, and the return of things to their original chaos.” [Footnote:  It is characteristic of the age that in the last sentence the author goes beyond the issue and contemplates the possibility which still haunted men’s minds that the end of the world might not be far off.]

But having conducted us to this pessimistic conclusion Le Roy finds it repugnant, and is unwilling to acquiesce in it.  Like an embarrassed dramatist he escapes from the knot which he has tied by introducing the deus ex machina.

“However much these things proceed according to the fatal law of the world, and have their natural causes, yet events depend principally on Divine Providence which is superior to nature and alone knows the predetermined times of events.”  That is to say, it depends, after all, on Providence whether the argument from past experience is valid.  Who knows whether the modern age may not prove the exception to the law which has hitherto prevailed?  Let us act as if it would.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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