With the extension of rationalism into the social domain, it came about naturally that the idea of intellectual progress was enlarged into the idea of the general Progress of man. The transition was easy. If it could be proved that social evils were due neither to innate and incorrigible disabilities of the human being nor to the nature of things, but simply to ignorance and prejudices, then the improvement of his state, and ultimately the attainment of felicity, would be only a matter of illuminating ignorance and removing errors, of increasing knowledge and diffusing light. The growth of the “universal human reason”—a Cartesian phrase, which had figured in the philosophy of Malebranche—must assure a happy destiny to humanity.
Between 1690 and 1740 the conception of an indefinite progress of enlightenment had been making its way in French intellectual circles, and must often have been a topic of discussion in the salons, for instance, of Madame de Lambert, Madame de Tencin, and Madame Dupin, where Fontenelle was one of the most conspicuous guests. To the same circle belonged his friend the Abbe de Saint-Pierre, and it is in his writings that we first find the theory widened in its compass to embrace progress towards social perfection. [Footnote: For his life and works the best book is J. Drouet’s monograph, L’Abbe de Saint-Pierre: l’homme et l’oeuvre (1912), but on some points Goumy’s older study (1859) is still worth consulting. I have used the edition of his works in 12 volumes published during his lifetime at Rotterdam, 1733-37.]
He was brought up on Cartesian principles, and he idealised Descartes somewhat as Lucretius idealised Epicurus. But he had no aptitude for philosophy, and he prized physical science only as far as it directly administered to the happiness of men. He was a natural utilitarian, and perhaps no one was ever more consistent in making utility the criterion of all actions and theories. Applying this standard he obliterated from the roll of great men most of those whom common opinion places among the greatest. Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne receive short shrift from the Abbe de Saint-Pierre. [Footnote: Compare Voltaire, Lettres sur les Anglais, xii., where Newton is acclaimed as the greatest man who ever lived.] He was superficial in his knowledge both of history and of science, and his conception of utility was narrow and a little vulgar. Great theoretical discoverers like Newton and Leibnitz he sets in a lower rank than ingenious persons who used their scientific skill to fashion some small convenience of life. Monuments of art, like Notre Dame, possessed little value in his eyes compared with a road, a bridge, or a canal.