It is notable that in this literary controversy the Moderns, even Fontenelle, seem curiously negligent of the import of the theory which they were propounding of the intellectual progress of man. They treat it almost incidentally, as part of the case for the defence, not as an immensely important conclusion. Its bearings were more definitely realised by the Abbe Terrasson, whom I have just named. A geometer and a Cartesian, he took part in the controversy in its latest stage, when La Motte and Madame Dacier were the principal antagonists. The human mind, he said, has had its infancy and youth; its maturity began in the age of Augustus; the barbarians arrested its course till the Renaissance; in the seventeenth century, through the illuminating philosophy of Descartes, it passed beyond the stage which it had attained in the Augustan age, and the eighteenth century should surpass the seventeenth. Cartesianism is not final; it has its place in a development. It was made possible by previous speculations, and it will be succeeded by other systems. We must not pursue the analogy of humanity with an individual man and anticipate a period of old age. For unlike the individual, humanity “being composed of all ages,” is always gaining instead of losing. The age of maturity will last indefinitely, because it is a progressive, not a stationary, maturity. Later generations will always be superior to the earlier, for progress is “a natural and necessary effect of the constitution of the human mind.”
THE GENERAL PROGRESS OF MAN: ABBE DE SAINT-PIERRE
The revolutionary speculations on the social and moral condition of man which were the outstanding feature of the eighteenth century in France, and began about 1750, were the development of the intellectual movement of the seventeenth, which had changed the outlook of speculative thought. It was one continuous rationalistic movement. In the days of Racine and Perrault men had been complacently conscious of the enlightenment of the age in which they were living, and as time went on, this consciousness became stronger and acuter; it is a note of the age of Voltaire. In the last years of Louis XIV., and in the years which followed, the contrast between this mental enlightenment and the dark background—the social evils and miseries of the kingdom, the gross misgovernment and oppression--began to insinuate itself into men’s minds. What was the value of the achievements of science, and the improvement of the arts of life, if life itself could not be ameliorated? Was not some radical reconstruction possible, in the social fabric, corresponding to the radical reconstruction inaugurated by Descartes in the principles of science and in the methods of thought? Year by year the obscurantism of the ruling powers became more glaring, and the most gifted thinkers, towards the middle of the century, began to concentrate their brains on the problems of social science and to turn the light of reason on the nature of man and the roots of society. They wrought with unscrupulous resolution and with far-reaching effects.