Progress

WHEN we make boast of human progress it is always with the softening reflection that we have not ourselves to thank for our present high estate. Honor to whom honor is due. We need but turn to yestermorn, to recall the faith with which we held the Devil to account for the inventions of a Gutenberg or the revelations of a Galileo. Progress was of Satan. Whatever threatened to disturb the status quo was essentially sinful. God had designed things to be as they were, and it lay not in man’s province to question them. The reformer was a menace to salvation, and was by our ancestors scratched and scorched with no less assurance of right-doing than that with which to-day we strangle our murderers, and vaccinate our school-children.

It is not now the fashion, however, to believe in evil, and there are those among us who would impeach our predecessors for their intolerant behavior toward the world’s advancement. “Put together all the efforts of all the atheists who have ever lived, and they have not done so much harm to Christianity and the world as has been done by the narrow-minded, conscientious men who persecuted Roger Bacon and his compeers.” 1 So speaks a scholar of the day. And his speech is typical; but it is not according to St. Paul. Would we prove all things, we dare not judge so quickly by appearances. “We can only rightly judge of things,” says Plato, “in relation to their ultimate aim.” “Nor do we know,” responds Antonius, “whether men do wrong or not, for many things are done with certain reference to circumstances.” And, moreover, who are we that we should sit in judgment on the actors of the past? That we are now upon the stage, with altered faiths and manners, does not affect the verity that our fathers and their fathers’ fathers’ fathers were but ourselves unfolding toward to-day.

The human race has ever fought its own advancement. Jesus and Darwin were alike accepted under protest. No reform has yet been invited. Each forward move has been resisted; and resisted not alone by the Sadducees, but by the multitude. Even the gods punished Prometheus for teaching men the use of fire. There has been no step onward in the march of knowledge save over the body of some martyred torchbearer. And the first martyr was the first man. For all ages has he been accursed for his disobedience in seeking added power. Sin and tribulation came into the world through a striving after knowledge: a tasting of “the tree to be desired to make one wise.” Such is the preface to the life of every nation, from the Hebrews to the Kickapoos.

We of this big republic complacently affirm the glory of our national achievements, and are not without temptation to acclaim them as proof of superior craft and judgment. But herein do we forget that, we are on record as having cast our vote against every move that has contributed to the present century’s development. Not one of its essential factors came into play without an earnest effort on the part of the public to thwart it. We, the people, have stood squarely against each and every innovation that has moved the world beyond the days of Washington.

We raised our voices in contemptuous protest against the first projected railways. Had the locomotive awaited its signal from the people, it would not yet have started. When the electric telegraph was shown to us we brushed it aside as a toy, and laughed its inventor to scorn when he offered to sell us his rights for a few thousand dollars. We put into jail as an impostor the first man who brought anthracite coal to market. We broke to pieces Howe’s sewing-machine as an invention calculated to ruin the working classes; and we did the same thing to the harvester and the binder. We scorned the typewriter as a plaything. We gathered together in mass meetings of indignation at the first proposal to install electric trolley lines; and when Dr. Bell told us he had invented an instrument by means of which we might talk to one another across the town, we responded with accustomed ridicule, and only the reckless among us contributed to its being.

When, seventy years ago, William Lloyd Garrison, preached the abolition of slavery, we tied a halter about him, and dragged him through the streets of Boston. We rained anathemas upon the memory of Jenner when his disciples undertook to vaccinate us. We hooted Dr. Simpson as an atheist for introducing the use of anæsthetics in his surgical practice. We repelled the efforts of our first health officers to establish rules of public hygiene. We stormed in righteous wrath against Robert Ingersoll for suggesting that Moses made mistakes; and when Darwin presented his Origin of Species, our outcry was a perfect whirlwind of denunciation, a tempest that blighted men’s reputations, and cast out professors from universities and clergymen from pulpits.

There is that in our blood as a social organism which craves fixation,

Man’s first business after the Deluge was to anchor the earth to heaven, and from that time to this have we labored to the same purpose, striving ever to hold the world immobile.

“I, Galileo, being in my seventieth year, being a prisoner and on my knees, and before your Eminences, having before my eyes the Holy Gospel, which I touch with my hands, do abjure, curse, and detest the error and the heresy of the movement of the earth.” Thus, three hundred years ago, by threat of rack and fire, did we check the planet from turning on its axis, and moving round the sun. Nor was it officially released until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Pius VII put his signature to a decree permitting for the first time the publishing of works treating of the motion of the earth. Verily, a tardy recognition of affairs. But, as bodies politic., it is thus our habit. Not until a full generation after Darwin’s pronunciamento did our colleges permit the teaching of the theory of evolution. It is only now that many of our states are for the first time formally acknowledging the righteousness of alcoholic temperance; and it is but yesterday that our cities officially recognized the parasitic theory of disease, and put into practice the principles of antisepsis. And yet, even so, there still drags behind a clamorous host of individuals clinging faithfully to Moses and to their charms of whiskey and of asafœtida.

We look in vain for the phenomenon of progress among other social forms of life — the bees, the ants, the apes, the beavers; even primitive groups of man himself, as we find them in the Hottentot, the Bushman, and the Gypsy. They are to-day where they were when the shepherds came to Arcady. They are living as their Abrahams lived; doing what they did; thinking what they thought. Each generation follows its predecessor in unfailing similitude of knowledge, of habit, of social condition. And, were we let alone, would not we, too, exhibit the same invariability? Indeed, do we not come now and again upon some community hid in the very midst of us that has held fast to a bygone age? — some community which the angel of progress has passed over, leaving it at peace with the tools and the faith of its fathers?

Every onward movement of civilization has been in subjection to an impulse from without. Never does the impulse spring from the race itself. Nor does it at once comprehend the race in seeking its expression. This impulse — from whatsoever realm of mind it may come—confines its epiphany to the Individual. Now here, now there, it seizes upon a son of man and makes of him the reformer, the inventor, the revelator of God. In him is the divine vis a tergo made manifest, and by means of him does it push the race from its orbit of instinctive fixity and send it spinning in a larger arc.

The history of human progress is but the world’s commentary upon the gospel of the Individual. No truth is ever revealed directly to mankind. The Individual is always the intermediary. Yet never has the race called him or been prepared to welcome him. It has never had any conscious need of him. He has ever been a disturber of peace; a heretic; a dreamer of dreams; despised and rejected of men. Nor does it avail to ask him for what gain he endures the flings and the rage of a perverse generation. It is not for fame, it is not for wealth, it is not for any profit within the giving or the comprehension of his fellows. His genius is not of the race. And his mission, from whom does it come? Verily, not from the rulers of earth.

“Necessity,” quotes the sophomore, “is the mother of invention.” But whence comes necessity? The bee, the ant, the Terra del Fuegan, has had in the making each need anticipated. Life is balanced. There is neither necessity nor invention. Which, therefore, of the two came first upon the earth to break the spell of Paradise? Though we had no records to inform us, we should by reasoning alone decide in favor of invention; for we cannot think of Eden as harboring necessity. Through the Serpent came invention — discovery, a finding out; and from the fruit of this first excursion sprang the needs of man. Therefore, would we record the genesis of progress, we must reverse the glib quotation, for, of a truth, invention is the mother of necessity.

We have already noted that every discovery and every new thing that has been instrumental in changing the thought and activities of man, came into being in face of the world’s opposition. Each in turn was rejected as unholy, or a toy without worth. The advent of each of them found man content with the means at hand. No conscious need of his called other implements to his aid. Necessity was not the mother of any of them. The world did not want any one of them. It had no place, no use, for them, until each for itself had created a new field of need and industry. The necessity was not of the world’s providing. It sprang from the things themselves.

Like an unbottled genie, each invention has laid hold of man, and made of him its servitor. Every new convenience has added fresh conditions to the fulfilling of life. Each has come to us guised as a means of saving time and effort, yet each has made time more precious and effort more imperative. The machinery that is ours transcends the mechanical helpmates of ancient Egypt as the electric arc outblazes the firefly, yet never has the world been so busy as it is to-day. Every labor-saving device increases the cost of labor; every time-saving contrivance makes the day shorter. Worse handicapped are we than Sisyphus. We measure now the day in fractions of a second. A few centuries ago men knew not the meaning of seconds nor of minutes; the hour-glass sufficed for every need of peace or war; while Solomon, with all his wit, saw not beyond the age when there should be demand for closer reckoning than morning, noon, and eventide.

’T is common knowledge that we, to-day, are far more pressed for time, more overborne with work, more distantly removed from opportunity for rest and converse with our souls, than were our countrymen who walked with Franklin. Yet in those days they had not steam nor gas nor dynamo, nor any one of all the multitude of modern agencies designed to conquer time and lengthen life.

Truly, we have sought out many inventions; and to what end? Should the Nazarene return to-day he would but underscore his teachings. He would have no word less to speak. Our wonder-working flames and engines have built: for us no avenue to heaven. Neither Paul nor Plato would have uttered different truths because of telegraphs or railways, nor would the Psalmist have sung to-day in closer tune with God. With all our devices, all our multiplicity of knowledge, there has come no higher wisdom to the race. We yet must turn for life’s essential guidance to the teachers of the past.

And is there then no meaning in the present progress of the world? To him who can receive it, the answer is already his.

  1. Andrew D. White: A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology.