Of True Greatness: Annotations and Hints
"All nature widens upwards. Evermore
The simpler essence lower lies.
More complex is more perfect, owning more
Discourse, more widely wise."
i. The Latin title of this Essay is "de proferendis imperii finibus." To Bacon, national greatness is synonymous with expansion by conquest. It is the highest excellence of states as well as of individuals (1), to profess arms. All other conditions of national prosperity, as we understand the term, are subordinate to war. Bacon must be judged by his own times, and by his literary antecedents. The ancients conceived the progress of science, but both to antiquity and mediaevalism, national progress was limited by the number of worlds to conquer. Bacon, in the Advancement (2) and Novum Organum (3), speaks enthusiastically of the advance of knowledge, though he says too much about "cycles" as opposed to continuous advance, and is too sanguine about "royal roads" to learning, and the possibility of a universal encyclopaedia. As to national greatness, he believed in the necessity of constant war, and in 1607, spoke strongly in the House of Commons in favour of a spirited war policy ; contrasting the imperial schemes of Spain with the "reckonings and audits" of Britain. Here Bacon is certainly not in advance of his own times. As a philosopher, he was the radical reformer of antiquity, and as a statesman, he might have advocated, instead of barely tolerating, the industrial spirit. There were many clear signs that the military spirit was passing away, but such prescience is hardly to be looked for in an Elizabethan statesman. France and Spain each regarded England as the prize and prey of the victor. The policy of both the Cecils, Bacon's uncle and cousin, was to play off one power against the other, and at the same time to stand prepared for an attack from either side.
ii. Progress is a modern idea. The march of humanity onwards and upwards, was but dimply perceived before the present century. Aristotle conceived of gradual ascent of matter to form, and by his doctrine of "potential existence," foreshadowed the great law of evolution. But in Greece, the commonly received idea of national life was that various forms of government succeeded one another in a cycle. Experience bore this out, and further taught that destruction, rather than progress, was to be expected. Further, the Greeks considered infinity of the nature of evil ; all that is good is finite and measurable. The spreading power of Rome, especially during the early empire, suggested the idea of a world civilized by Roman influences, but the final lesson was that overgrown power falls to pieces. The Romans never conceived progress except as the gradual absorption of the world by Roman civilization which was ex hypothesi perfect.
iii. Mediaeval thought was on the lines of antiquity. Besides, in the Middle Ages, men only saw falling kingdoms, and a shifting chaos of military supremacies, rather than well-defined national divisions. The Church, too, distinctly opposed the idea of human perfectibility. The reaction of Luther only turned men to see more clearly their own moral and spiritual degradation (4). The great discoveries of the Elizabethan age were but germs of future greatness. Even the outburst of literary life was short-lived, and seemed to pale before that of Greece and Rome. As late as the seventeenth century, it was thought necessary to prove, as Bishop Hakewill did, that man had not degenerated.
iv. Vico, who lived from 1668 to 1743, first grasped intelligently the idea of progress. According to him, there are two sorts of progress. "That of nations from insignificance, passing through a period of greatness to insignificance, and that of humanity, the march of one that advances and never recedes." This progress is from the restraint of physical force, nulle terre sans seigneur, to the free obedience of rational beings to reason. The flaw in Vico's proposition is that he conceives that nations necessarily flourish and decay, and that, as long as a nation holds the foremost place in the world, its history is the history of humanity. This is not the case: all grow together at different rates of speed as parts of a great whole.
v. Though Vico undoubtedly understood the problem of progressive history, the comparative method, which regards each phase of existence as a stepping-stone to something higher, was not conceived either by the philosophic or the popular mind in the eighteenth century. Viewed from the standpoint of evolution, progress is an infinite series of ever-increasing complexity, in which each lower factor is contained in that next above it. The two ideas which dominated the eighteenth century, were the immediate perfectibility of man, and the degradation of society. Some looked forward to a model state which existed only in imagination ; others looked back to a golden age of primitive simplicity. In some cases the tendencies were purely destructive ; existing institutions were absolutely to be destroyed. But most thought that humanity was perfectible, and preached the doctrine of an iron present, and a golden future. Doctrinaires had to learn again that utopias are vanity, humanity imperfect, and that nature nihil facit per saltum.
vi. In the nineteenth century we find the gradual rise of the comparative treatment of all branches of human knowledge applied to the phenomena of human progress. German thought, led by Hegel, with his "philosophy of history," and Goethe's "life of plants," first developed the idea to practical results. In the non-mechanical sciences, wich deals with things in process of development, the question to be asked is not "What is it and what are its antecedents now?" but, "How did this grow and to what is it growing?" In other words, the growth of causes, "crescente variables," have to be investigated. The attention is fixed solely on the increasing cause, and its law or series is determined as nearly as possible. Such a law is a law of progress, and progress is consciously realized only in so far as definite results have been obtained. Hitherto we have got plenty of laws, but many of them are hypothetical and want verification and filling up. More is required than a blank formula often vague and unsatisfying. So thought has been derived from sensation, through ideas or remembered sensation ; abstract language from onomatopoeia, and interjections definitely and consciously attached to sensations. In the case of man, the "crescent variable" is reason. Progress is convertible with the growth of reason. The end of man is to do his own proper work in the best possible way. The greater the number of men who do so, the greater and more real the progress. The better the work, the more it is in accordance with reason. Reason may be defined as the faculty by which we conceive ends, and consciously adapt means to such ends. The growth of plants and animals is through instinctive adaptation to their environment. Man consciously modifies his own surroundings, as well as adapts himself to them.
vii. Freedom to develop and opportunities for development are primary necessities. Enfranchisement and education must precede as well as follow progress. Monopolies, class privileges, standing armies, go hand in hand with ignorance. The man who has no responsibilities has no aspirations. Originality tends to heterodoxy and rebellion against authority. Science and literature subject to the requirements of sacerdotalism and despotism can attempt no daring flights.
viii. Though reason is a crescent variable capable of infinite development from within, there are stationary elements such as climate, food, geographical position, and language, which cannot completely be eliminated. The ethiopian cannot change his skin, and human agency can but sligthly modify physical surroundings.
ix. In describing progress in terms of reason, the growth of morality and religion as well as of material advance, can be equally recognized. In assuming that the world becomes more rational, it is not to be supposed that it becomes less moral, but rather that the claims of morality are more and more realized by reason, and that religion is brought into closer harmony with reason. The higher the morality, the more rational. "Kill nobody," is better wisdom than "kill not ta member of your tribe," and is at the same time more moral (5). We need not fall into Mr. Buckle's mistake of supposing that morality is stationary, reason progressive.
x. No man can do everything. Each does one thing best. Civilization tends towards specialization. At first the same man is warrior, hunter, artisan,—a jack-of-all-trades. As things increase in complexity there is a tendency to separate off one individual or class for each work. The highest stage is when the differentiated products become so special as to be severally incapable of performing the other's work. Further, every new differentiation implies increase of population. The better a man does his own work the greater his dependence on the good work of others. Every new discovery specializes, and at the same time draws men together. Printing, gunpowder, steam, railways, emphasize all pre-existing differences, create new ones, and make all more dependent on the functions of others. And further, each specialization of any class ipso facto produces organic changes which lead to the specialization of other classes. As music improves, dancing and singing improve. As the eye sees better, the hand grows better fitted for its own work. The danger of specialization is the loss of spontaneity and many-sidedness.
xi. The great truth of specialization of functions, leads to a difficulty. If the Puritan and popular standpoint is correct, and if every man can be his own prophet, priest, and king, progress depends in a great measure on the way in which every man applies for himself the principles of morality, religion, and government, to the business of life. But if, on the other hand, morality, government, and religion get more complex, and are lost sight of in the fierce rush of worldly pursuits and the engrossing claims of self-love, then more than ever men will need the great moralist, preacher, and statesman, who will point out the truth, and disentangle the principles of true life from the tangled web of competition and pleasure. Laissez faire, may be as obstructive as over-government. Leaving the social organism to run wild is not necessarily giving it room to develop. (Y aquí es donde se separan más los autores, con buen criterio, de la perspectiva hiper-liberal de Spencer).
xii. Laws of progress are only rough generalizations of tendencies. Modern thought suffers from insisting too strongly on the analogy between social and other organism, between the life of plants and of men. We can read the past only in outline, the future is a sealed book. It is not possible to forecast how far this or that nation will have advanced within a specific period. Herbert Spencer's great law is "Evolution is a process or progression from the simple homogeneous to the complex heterogeneous by continuous differentiation and integration." Or differently expressed, "All progress is through stages—unity, plurality, singularity." Humboldt says that "the end of government is the development of man in the greatest originality and variety possible." Matthew Arnold would have more "culture," a vague and ideal formula. Mill insists on the necessity of representative institutions—an engine, not an end. Comte expresses the history of humanity by three stages—the theological, metaphysical, and positive. "History," says Hegel, "is the embodiment of reason carried out through the imperfect medium of man's spirit." But the course of universal reason is either obscured or contradicted by exceptions, so that it is hardly ever possible to predict the next step. The human mind is virtually a sealed book. The great man is an incalculable factor in the problem of progress. This is especially the case with scientific as opposed to social and political progress. We can roughly sum the series and isolate the phenomena in the past, and see in outline how reason develops, but neither the nation nor the individual repeats itself, and we can only hope for a more complete union of individual ends with universal reason. A perfect science of history is an ideal which fades as we move.
xiii. Is progress a fact? There are always laudatores temporis acti, who sigh for a past that never was present. Most of us are one-sided, at the mercy of the strongest impression, and unable to look out of our life. In the present, evil seems actively predominant. Good seems ever liable to decay, except by constant watching and personal care.
"The evil that men do lives after them ;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones."
The good is oft interrèd with their bones."
The future is hidden, the good of the past—de mortuis nil nisi bonum—is alone remembered, and encircled with a halo of virtue. Reverence and imagination lend to the past an illusory brightness. Further, there has been a tendency in the human mind, from the Preacher to Schopenhauer, to believe rather in present corruption than in future progress.
xiv. Apart from the natural tendency to grumble, most reforms are attended by a certain loss. The Puritan movement was accomplished at the cost of much that was valuable in art, literature, and manners. On a comparison of the age of Elizabeth with that of the Protectorate, England, in spite of much material advance, will seem to have retrograded. Many see only retrogression in the decay of chivalry. Even feudalism is a valuable counterpoise to the worship of money. "Since the Reformation, the whole tendency of the world has been in an industrial direction." Progress is often obscured or diverted into one channel. Change is not progress (6), nor is freedom by itself. "Intellectual emancipation," says Goethe, "if it does not give us control over ourselves, is poisonous." The truest freedom is rational obedience to law, whether given from without or within. No one should be free till he knows how to obey.
xv. There is a dark side of the picture. Increased machinery and wealth have hardly benefited the masses. There is a growing tendency to inequality of property. Monopolies are not dead. Adultreation is too strong for the law. The union of democracy with the Church is not impossible, but the tendency of democracy is to aim only at material prosperity. In giving all an opportunity of rising, there seems some danger of dragging down rather than moving up, and fewer are willing to hold subordinate positions. Government tends to become "a joint-stock concern for the practice of Thrift." Improved social machinery tends to destroy self-help. Artificial helps lessen the struggle for existence, withouth which there will be degeneracy; men must go forward or go back. Malthusianism only sees ground for hope in checking population, communism is wholesale robbery and retrogression. Further, the traditional and fundamental principles of religion, morality, and society are questioned as hardly ever before. The fearful propaganda of Nihilism daily warns us that we live on a volcano. There is a feverish craving for novelty and excitement. Agnosticism is openly preached as a creed, and the sovereignty of reason is appealed to by the irrational. The policy of "blood and iron" is triumphant on the continent. These and many other considerations suggest the question, "are we progressing?" Thus the doctrine of despair, taught by Schopenhauer, is echoed in countries which have less ground for pessimism than Germany (7): "To will, i.e. to live, is to suffer," will being the conscious application of force. The higher the civilization, the more consciously active, and, therefore, the more miserable is man. The only remedy is self-annihilation.
xvi. The vigorous mind will learn to look beyond. Pessimism argues a want of historical perspective. The pessimist ignores the comparative method, looks only at the present time, and only to some special phase of the present time. Then he rails, like Carlyle in his "Latter-day Pamphlets" (8), against democracy and all the first-born of Egypt. There is a shadow which saddens life, but a great mind may feel this without bewailing that the world is all out of joint. According to Leopardi, every stage of existence—science, culture, religion, commercial industry, and politics—wherein man seeks happiness, are all stages of illusion. Pessimism can never be a philosophy of life; it belongs to the effete dreamy Eastern character. In the East, life is a constant thirst and craving which is never satisfied. Pessimism may suit the lazy mysticism of Buddhism, but vanishes before the gospel of "act and you shall know." Asceticism is only another form of pessismism, a protest against nature. It is not healthy to dwell with too accurate diagnosis on national pathology. Men are too ready to prophesy evil and then wish to see their prophecies fulfilled. Further, the disorder and evils of transition are a necessary stage.
xvii. The belief in an infinite series of progress is almost a religion to the best minds. "Let us allow and believe," says Wordsworth, "that there is a progress of the species toward unattainable perfection; or whether this be so or not, that it is a necessity of a good and gifted nature to believe in it." "Kant, while arguing that past progress does not necessarily imply future progress, sees surer ground for advance in the enthusiastic sympathies, excited throughout Europe by the outbreak of the French Revolution" (9). The French Revolution was more successful as a destructive than a constructive movement. It swept away the abuses of feudalism and class-privilege. Its dreams of universal brotherhood, a federation of nations, and a reign of universal reason were not realized. Yet with all its illusions, and in spite of all its crimes, it promoted freedom of thought, which is the tap-root of civilization. Compare the whole world, as it is, with the world as it was, or even a novel of George Eliot with one of Fielding or Smollett, and doubts will be quieted. We may yet live to see the "parliament of man, the federation of the world." The idea of international law and national conscience steadily grows. In catching sight of the universal, there seems some danger of losing many of the lights and shades of individual progress ; but the race, as a whole, is advancing, in spite of back-eddies.
"Not in vain the distance beckons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change."
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change."
Goethe says that each man, like a star, should move restless but hasteless in his own sphere. For such there will be no more sickly questions whether "life is worth living."
(1) See Essay on Empire.
(2) Bk. ii, xxiv.
(3) i. cxxix.
(4) See Guesses at Truth, p. 313, et seqq.
(5) See Essay on Goodness and Goodness of Nature.
(6) See Essay on Innovation.
(7) See Sully's Pessimism, London, 1877.
(8) On The Present Time.
(9) Guesses at Truth.
[See also Essay on Innovation]