Is The Human Race On The Down Grade? by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

As to individual nations, it is matter of notoriety that they are often improgressive. As a whole, it may be true that the human race is under a necessity of slowly advancing; and it may be a necessity, also, that the current of the moving waters should finally absorb into its motion that part of the waters which, left to itself, would stagnate. All this may be true–and yet it will not follow that the human race must be moving constantly upon an ascending line, as thus:


B
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/
/
/
/
/
A

nor even upon such a line, with continual pauses or rests interposed, as thus:

[Illustration]

where there is no going back, though a constant interruption to the going forward; but a third hypothesis is possible: there may be continual loss of ground, yet so that continually the loss is more than compensated, and the total result, for any considerable period of observation, may be that progress is maintained:

At O, by comparison with the previous elevation at A, there is a repeated falling back; but still upon the whole, and pursuing the inquiry through a sufficiently large segment of time, the constant report is–ascent.

Upon this explanation it is perfectly consistent with a general belief in the going forward of man–that this particular age in which we live might be stationary, or might even have gone back. It cannot, therefore, be upon any a priori principle that I maintain the superiority of this age. It is, and must be upon special examination, applied to the phenomena of this special age. The last century, in its first thirty years, offered the spectacle of a death-like collapse in the national energies. All great interests suffered together. The intellectual power of the country, spite of the brilliant display in a lower element, made by one or two men of genius, languished as a whole. The religious feeling was torpid, and in a degree which insured the strong reaction of some irritating galvanism, or quickening impulse such as that which was in fact supplied by Methodism. It is not with that age that I wish to compare the present. I compare it with the age which terminated thirty years ago–roused, invigorated, searched as that age was through all its sensibilities by the electric shock of the French Revolution. It is by comparison with an age so keenly alive, penetrated by ideas stirring and uprooting, that I would compare it; and even then the balance of gain in well-calculated resource, fixed yet stimulating ideals, I hold to be in our favour–and this in opposition to much argument in an adverse spirit from many and influential quarters. Indeed, it is a remark which more than once I have been led to make in print: that if a foreigner were to inquire for the moral philosophy, the ethics, and even for the metaphysics, of our English literature, the answer would be, ‘Look for them in the great body of our Divinity.’ Not merely the more scholastic works on theology, but the occasional sermons of our English divines contain a body of richer philosophical speculation than is elsewhere to be found; and, to say the truth, far more instructive than anything in our Lockes, Berkeleys, or other express and professional philosophers. Having said this by way of showing that I do not overlook their just pretensions, let me have leave to notice a foible in these writers which is not merely somewhat ludicrous, but even seriously injurious to truth. One and all, through a long series of two hundred and fifty years, think themselves called upon to tax their countrymen–each severally in his own age–with a separate, peculiar, and unexampled guilt of infidelity and irreligion. Each worthy man, in his turn, sees in his own age overt signs of these offences not to be matched in any other. Five-and-twenty periods of ten years each may be taken, concerning each of which some excellent writer may be cited to prove that it had reached a maximum of atrocity, such as should not easily have been susceptible of aggravation, but which invariably the relays through all the subsequent periods affirm their own contemporaries to have attained. Every decennium is regularly worse than that which precedes it, until the mind is perfectly confounded by the Pelion upon Ossa which must overwhelm the last term of the twenty-five. It is the mere necessity of a logical sorites, that such a horrible race of villains as the men of the twenty-fifth decennium ought not to be suffered to breathe. Now, the whole error arises out of an imbecile self-surrender to the first impressions from the process of abstraction as applied to remote objects. Survey a town under the benefit of a ten miles’ distance, combined with a dreamy sunshine, and it will appear a city of celestial palaces. Enter it, and you will find the same filth, the same ruins, the same disproportions as anywhere else. So of past ages, seen through the haze of an abstraction which removes all circumstantial features of deformity. Call up any one of those ages, if it were possible, into the realities of life, and these worthy praisers of the past would be surprised to find every feature repeated which they had fancied peculiar to their own times. Meanwhile this erroneous doctrine of sermons has a double ill consequence: first, the whole chain of twenty-five writers, when brought together, consecutively reflect a colouring of absurdity upon each other; separately they might be endurable, but all at once, predicating (each of his own period exclusively) what runs with a rolling fire through twenty-five such periods in succession, cannot but recall to the reader that senseless doctrine of a physical decay in man, as if man were once stronger, broader, taller, etc.–upon which hypothesis of a gradual descent why should it have stopped at any special point? How could the human race have failed long ago to reach the point of zero? But, secondly, such a doctrine is most injurious and insulting to Christianity. If, after eighteen hundred years of development, it could be seriously true of Christianity that it had left any age or generation of men worse in conduct, or in feeling, or in belief, than all their predecessors, what reasonable expectation could we have that in eighteen hundred years more the case would be better? Such thoughtless opinions make Christianity to be a failure.

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