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122 EAST 37th STREET

COPYHIOIHT, 1879, 1907. 1917




10 I

The Law of Human Progress

What in me is dark

niumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men.



The Law of Human Progress


IF the conclusions with which I have challenged
the current political economy are correct,
they will fall under a larger generalization.
What is the law of human progress?
This is a question which involves, directly or in-
directly, some of the very highest problems with
which the human mind can engage. But it is a
question which naturally comes up. Are or are not
the conclusions to which we have come consistent
with the great law under which human development
goes on?

What is that law? We must find the answer to
our question; for the current philosophy, though it
clearly recognizes the existence of such a law, gives
no more satisfactory account of it than the current
political economy does of the persistence of want
amid advancing wealth.



Let us, as far as possible, keep to the firm ground of
facts. Whether man was or was not gradually devel-
oped from an animal, it is not necessary to inquire.
However intimate may be the connection between
questions which relate to man as we know him and
questions which relate to his genesis, it is only from
the former upon the latter that light can be thrown.
Inference cannot proceed from the unknown to the
known. It is only from facts of which we are cogni-
zant that we can infer what has preceded cognizance.

However man may have originated, all we know of
him is as man just as he is now to be found. There
is no record or trace of him in any lower condition
than that in which savages are still to be met. By
whatever bridge he may have crossed the wide
| chasm which now separates him from the brutes,
there remain of it no vestiges. Between the lowest
savages of whom we know and the highest animals,
there is an irreconcilable difference a difference not
merely of degree, but of kind. Many of the charac-
teristics, actions, and emotions of man are exhibited
by the lower animals; but man, no matter how low
in the scale of humanity, has never yet been found
destitute of one thing of which no animal shows the
slightest trace, a clearly recognizable but almost


undefinable something, which gives him the power
of improvement which makes him the progressive

The beaver builds a dam, and the bird a nest, and
the bee a cell; but while beavers' dams, and birds'
nests, and bees' cells are always constructed on the
same model, the house of the man passes from the
rude hut of leaves and branches to the magnificent
mansion replete with modern conveniences. The
dog can to a certain extent connect cause and effect,
and may be taught some tricks; but his capacity in
these respects has not been a whit increased during
all the ages he has been the associate of improving
man, and the dog of civilization is not a whit more
accomplished or intelligent than the dog of the
wandering savage. We know of no animal that uses
clothes, that cooks its food, that makes itself tools or
weapons, that breeds other animals that it wishes to
eat, or that has an articulate language. But men
who do not do such things have never yet been
found, or heard of, except in fable. That is to say,
man, wherever we know him, exhibits this power
of supplementing what nature has done for him by
what he does for himself; and, in fact, so inferior is
the physical endowment of man, that there is no part


of the world, save perhaps some of the small islands
of the Pacific, where without this faculty he could
maintain an existence.

Man everywhere and at all times exhibits this
faculty everywhere and at all times of which we
have knowledge he has made some use of it. But
the degree in which this has been done greatly varies.
Between the rude canoe and the steamship; between
the boomerang and the repeating rifle; between the
roughly carved wooden idol and the breathing mar-
ble of Grecian art; between savage knowledge and
modern science; between the wild Indian and the
white settler; between the Hottentot woman and
the belle of polished society, there is an enormous

The varying degrees in which this faculty is used
cannot be ascribed to differences in original capacity
the most highly improved peoples of the present
day were savages within historic times, and we meet
with the widest differences between peoples of the
same stock. Nor can they be wholly ascribed to
differences in physical environment the cradles of
learning and the arts are now in many cases tenanted
by barbarians, and within a few years great cities
rise on the hunting grounds of wild tribes. All these


differences are evidently connected with social
development. Beyond perhaps the veriest rudi-
ments, it becomes possible for man to improve only
as he lives with his fellows. All these improvements,
therefore, in man's powers and condition we sum-
marize in the term civilization. Men improve as
they become civilized, or learn to co-operate in

What is the law of this improvement? By what
common principle can we explain the different stages
of civilization at which different communities have
arrived? In what consists essentially the progress
of civilization, so that we may say of varying social
adjustments, this favors it, and that does not; or
explain why an institution or condition which may
at one time advance it may at another time retard it?

The prevailing belief now is, that the progress of
civilization is a development or evolution, hi the
course of which man's powers are increased and his
qualities improved by the operation of causes
similar to those which are relied upon as explaining
the genesis of species viz., the survival of the fittest
and the hereditary transmission of acquired qualities.

That civilization is an evolution that it is, in the
language of Herbert Spencer, a progress from an


indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite,
coherent heterogeneity there is no doubt; but to
say this is not to explain or identify the causes which
forward or retard it. How far the sweeping generali-
zations of Spencer, which seek to account for all
phenomena under terms of matter and force, may,
properly understood, include all these causes, I am
unable to say; but, as scientifically expounded, the
development philosophy has either not yet definitely
met this question, or has given birth, or rather co-
herency, to an opinion which does not accord with the

The vulgar explanation of progress is, I think, very
much like the view naturally taken by the money
maker of the causes of the unequal distribution of
wealth. His theory, if he has one, usually is, that
there is plenty of money to be made by those who
have will and ability, and that it is ignorance, or idle-
ness, or extravagance, that makes the difference be-
tween the rich and the poor. And so the common
explanation of differences of civilization is of differ-
ences in capacity. The civilized races are the
superior races, and advance in civilization is accord-
ing to this superiority just as English victories
were, in common English opinion, due to the natural


superiority of Englishmen to frog-eating Frenchmen;
and popular government, active invention, and
greater average comfort are, or were until lately, in
common American opinion, due to the greater
"smartness of the Yankee Nation."

Now, just as the politico-economic doctrines which
I have met and disproved, harmonize with the com-
mon opinion of men who see capitalists paying wages
and competition reducing wages; just as the Malthu-
sian theory harmonized with existing prejudices both
of the rich and the poor; so does the explanation of
progress as a gradual race improvement harmonize
with the vulgar opinion which accounts by race dif-
ferences for differences hi civilization. It has given
coherence and a scientific formula to opinions which
already prevailed. Its wonderful spread since the
time Darwin first startled the world with his "Origin
of Species" has not been so much a conquest as an

The view which now dominates the world of
thought is this: That the struggle for existence,
just in proportion as it becomes intense, impels men
to new efforts and inventions. That this improve-
ment and capacity for improvement is fixed by
hereditary transmission, and extended by the ten-


dency of the best adapted individual, or most im-
proved individual, to survive and propagate among
individuals, and of the best adapted, or most im-
proved tribe, nation, or race to survive in the strug-
gle between social aggregates. On this theory the
differences between man and the animals, and differ-
ences in the relative progress of men, are now ex-
plained as confidently, and all but as generally, as a
little while ago they were explained upon the theory
of special creation and divine interposition.

The practical outcome of this theory is in a sort of
hopeful fatalism, of which current literature is full.*
In this view, progress is the result of forces which
work slowly, steadily and remorselessly, for the
elevation of man. War, slavery, tyranny, super-
stition, famine, and pestilence, the want and
misery which fester in modern civilization, are the
impelling causes which drive man on, by eliminating

* In semi-scientific or popularized form this may perhaps be seen in best,
because frankest, expression in "The Martyrdom of Man," by Winwood
Reade, a writer of singular vividness and power. This book is in reality a
history of progress, or, rather, a monograph upon its causes and methods,
and will well repay perusal for its vivid pictures, whatever may be thought
of the capacity of the author for philosophic generalization. The connec-
tion between subject and title may be seen by the conclusion: "I give to
universal history a strange but true title The Martyrdom of Man. In
each generation the human race has been tortured that their children
might profit by their woes. Our own prosperity is founded on the agonies
of the past. Is it therefore unjust that we also should suffer for the benefit
of those who are to come?"



poorer types and extending the higher; and heredi-
tary transmission is the power by which advances
are fixed, and past advances made the footing for
new advances. The individual is the result of
changes thus impressed upon and perpetuated
through a long series of past individuals, and the
social organization takes its form from the individuals
of which it is composed. Thus, while this theory is,
as Herbert Spencer says* "radical to a degree be-
yond anything which current radicalism conceives;"
inasmuch as it looks for changes in the very nature
of man; it is at the same time "conservative to a
degree beyond anything conceived by current con-
servatism," inasmuch as it holds tnat no change can
avail save these slow changes in men's natures.
Philosophers may teach that this does not lessen the
duty of endeavoring to reform abuses, just as the
theologians who taught predestinarianism insisted
on the duty of all to struggle for salvation; but, as
generally apprehended, the result is fatalism "do
what we may, the mills of the gods grind /on regard-
less either of our aid or our hindrance."^! allude to
this only to illustrate what I take to be the opinion
now rapidly spreading and permeating common

* "The Study of Sociology" Conclusion.


thought; not that in the search for truth any regard
for its effects should be permitted to bias the mind.
But this I take to be the current view of civilization:
That it is the result of forces, operating in the way
indicated, which slowly change the character, and
improve and elevate the powers of man; that the
difference between civilized man and savage is of a
long race education, which has become permanently
fixed in mental organization; and that this improve-
ment tends to go on increasingly, to a higher and
higher civilization. We have reached such a point
that progress seems to be natural with us, and we
look forward confidently to the greater achievements
of the coming race some even holding that the
progress of science will finally give men immortality
and enable them to make bodily the tour not only of
the planets, but of the fixed stars, and at length to
manufacture suns and systems for themselves.*

But without soaring to the stars, the moment that
this theory of progression, which seems so natural
to us amid an advancing civilization, looks around
the world, it comes against an enormous fact the
fixed, petrified civilizations. The majority of the
human race to-day have no idea of progress; the

Winwood Reade, "The Martyrdom of Man."



majority of the human race to-day look (as until a
few generations ago our own ancestors looked) upon
the past as the time of human perfection. The dif-
ference between the savage and the civilized man
may be explained on the theory that the former is as
yet so imperfectly developed that his progress is
hardly apparent; but how, upon the theory that
human progress is the result of general and continu-
ous causes, shall we account for the civilizations that
have progressed so far and then stopped? It cannot
be said of the Hindoo and of the Chinaman, as it
may be said of the savage, that our superiority is the
result of a longer education; that we are, as it were,
the grown men of nature, while they are the children.
The Hindoos and the Chinese were civilized when
we were savages. They had great cities, highly or-
ganized and powerful governments, literatures,
philosophies, polished manners, considerable division
of labor, large commerce, and elaborate arts, when
our ancestors were wandering barbarians, living in
huts and skin tents, not a whit further advanced
than the American Indians. While we have pro-
gressed from this savage state to Nineteenth Century
civilization, they have stood still. If progress be the
result of fixed laws, inevitable and eternal, which


impel men forward, how shall we account for

One of the best popular expounders of the develop-
ment philosophy, Walter Bagehot ("Physics and
Politics"), admits the force of this objection, and
endeavors in this way to explain it: That the first
thing necessary to civilize man is to tame him; to
induce him to live in association with his fellows in
subordination to law; and hence a body or "cake"
of laws and customs grows up, being intensified and
extended by natural selection, the tribe or nation
thus bound together having an advantage over those
who are not. That this cake of custom and law
finally becomes too thick and hard to permit further
progress, which can go on only as circumstances
occur which introduce discussion, and thus permit
the freedom and mobility necessary to improvement.

This explanation, which Mr. Bagehot offers, as he
says, with some misgivings, is, I think, at the expense
of the general theory. But it is not worth while
speaking of that, for it, manifestly, does not explain
the facts.

The hardening tendency of which Mr. Bagehot
speaks would show itself at a very early period of
development, and his illustrations of it are nearly
\ 141


all drawn from savage or semi-savage life. Whereas,
these arrested civilizations had gone a long distance
before they stopped. There must have been a time
when they were very far advanced as compared with
the savage state, and were yet plastic, free, and ad-
vancing. These arrested civilizations stopped at a
point which was hardly in anything inferior and in
many respects superior to European civilization of,
say, the sixteenth or at any rate the fifteenth century.
Up to that point then there must have been discus-
sion, the hailing of what was new, and mental
activity of all sorts. They had architects who carried
the art of building, necessarily by a series of innova-
tions or improvements, up to a very high point;
ship-builders who in the same way, by innovation
after innovation, finally produced as good a vessel
as the war ships of Henry VIII.; inventors who
stopped only on the verge of our most important
improvements, and from some of whom we can yet
learn; engineers who constructed great irrigation
works and navigable canals; rival schools of philoso-
phy and conflicting ideas of religion. One great
religion, in many respects resembling Christianity,
rose in India, displaced the old religion, passed into
China, sweeping over that country, and was dis-


placed again in its old seats, just as Christianity was
displaced in its first seats. There was life, and active
life, and the innovation that begets improvement,
long after men had learned to live together. And,
moreover, both India and China have received the
infusion of new life in conquering races, with different
customs and modes of thought.

The most fixed and petrified of all civilizations of
which we know anything was that of Egypt, where
even art finally assumed a conventional and inflexible
form. But we know that behind this must have been
a time of life and vigor a freshly developing and ex-
panding civilization, such as ours is now or the arts
and sciences could never have been carried to such a
pitch. And recent excavations have brought to
light from beneath what we before knew of Egypt an
earlier Egypt still in statues and carvings which,
instead of a hard and formal type, beam with life and
expression, which show art struggling, ardent, natu-
ral, and free, the sure indication of an active and ex-
panding life. So it must have been once with all now
unprogressive civilizations.

But it is not merely these arrested civilizations
that the current theory of development fails to
account for. It is not merely that men have gone


so far on the path of progress and then stopped; it
is that men have gone far on the path of progress and
then gone back. It is not merely an isolated case that
thus confronts the theory it is the universal rule.
Every civilization that the world has yet seen has
had its period of vigorous growth, of arrest and stag-
nation; its decline and fall. Of all the civilizations
that have arisen and flourished, there remain to-day
but those that have been arrested, and our own,
which is not yet as old as were the pyramids when
Abraham looked upon them while behind the
pyramids were twenty centuries of recorded history.

That our own civilization has a broader base, is
of a more advanced type, moves quicker and soars
higher than any preceding civilization is undoubt-
edly true; but in these respects it is hardly more in
advance of the Greco-Roman civilization than that
was in advance of Asiatic civilization; and if it were,
that would prove nothing as to its permanence and
future advance, unless it be shown that it is superior
in those things which caused the ultimate failure of
its predecessors. The current theory does not assume

In truth, nothing could be further from explain-
ing the facts of universal history than this theory


that civilization is the result of a course of natural
selection which operates to improve and elevate the
powers of man. That civilization has arisen at dif-
ferent times in different places and has progressed at
different rates, is not inconsistent with this theory;
for that might result from the unequal balancing of
impelling and resisting forces; but that progress
everywhere commencing, for even among the lowest
tribes it is held that there has been some progress,
has nowhere been continuous, but has everywhere
been brought to a stand or retrogression, is abso-
lutely inconsistent. For if progress operated to fix
an improvement in man's nature and thus to pro-
duce further progress, though there might be occa-
sional interruption, yet the general rule would be that
progress would be continuous that advance would
lead to advance, and civilization develop into higher

Not merely the general rule, but the universal rule,
is the reverse of this. The earth is the tomb of the
dead empires, no less than of dead men. Instead of
progress fitting men for greater progress, every
civilization that was in its own time as vigorous and
advancing as ours is now, has of itself come to a stop.
Over and over again, art has declined, learning sunk,


power waned, population become sparse, until the
people who had built great temples and mighty
cities, turned rivers and pierced mountains, culti-
vated the earth like a garden and introduced the
utmost refinement into the minute affairs of life,
remained but in a remnant of squalid barbarians, who
had lost even the memory of what their ancestors
had done, and regarded the surviving fragments of
their grandeur as the work of genii, or of the mighty
race before the flood. So true is this, that when we
think of the past, it seems like the inexorable law,
from which we can no more hope to be exempt than
the young man who "feels his life hi every limb" can
hope to be exempt from the dissolution which is the
common fate of all. "Even this, O Rome, must one
day be thy fate!" wept Scipio over the ruins of Car-
thage, and Macaulay's picture of the New Zealander
musing upon the broken arch of London Bridge
appeals to the imagination of even those who see
cities rising in the wilderness and help to lay the
foundations of new empire. And so, when we erect
a public building we make a hollow in the largest
corner stone and carefully seal within it some
mementos of our day, looking forward to the time
when our works shall be ruins and ourselves forgot.


Nor whether this alternate rise and fall of civiliza-
tion, this retrogression that always follows progres-
sion, be, or be not, the rhythmic movement of an
ascending line (and I think, though I will not open
the question, that it would be much more difficult
to prove tlie affirmative than is generally supposed)
makes no difference; for the current theory is in
either case disproved. Civilizations have died and
made no sign, and hard-won progress has been lost
to the race forever, but, even if it be admitted that
each wave of progress has made possible a higher
wave and each civilization passed the torch to a
greater civilization, the theory that civilization
advances by changes wrought in the nature of man
fails to explain the facts; for in every case it is not
the race that has been educated and hereditarily
modified by the old civilization that begins the new,
but a fresh race coming from a lower level. It is the
barbarians of the one epoch who have been the
civilized men of the next; to be in their turn suc-
ceeded by fresh barbarians. For it has been hereto-
fore always the case that men under the influences
of civilization, though at first improving, afterward
degenerate. The civilized man of to-day is vastly
the superior of the uncivilized; but so in the time of


its vigor was the civilized man of every dead civiliza-
tion. But there are such things as the vices, the
corruptions, the enervations of civilization, which
past a certain point have always heretofore shown
themselves. Every civilization that has been over-
whelmed by barbarians has really perished from
internal decay.

This universal fact, the moment that it is recog-
nized, disposes of the theory that progress is by
hereditary transmission. Looking over the history
of the world, the line of greatest advance does not
coincide for any length of time with any line of
heredity. On any particular line of heredity, retro-
gression seems always to follow advance.

Shall we therefore say that there is a national or
race life, as there is an individual life that every
social aggregate has, as it were, a certain amount

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