The period of English history that lies roughly between the accession of James I in 1603 and the English Civil War has much in common with the present day. For the historian of ideas, it is a period of questioning and irresolution and despondency; of sermonizing but also of satire; of rival religions competing for allegiance, among them the ``black doctrine of absolute reprobation''; a period during which our human propensity toward hopefulness was clouded over by a sense of inconstancy and decay. Literary historians have spoken of a ``metaphysical shudder,'' and others of a sense of crisis or of a ``failure of nerve.'' Of course, we must not imagine that ordinary people went around with the long sunk-in faces to be expected in the victims of a spiritual deficiency disease. It was philosophic or reflective man who had these misgivings, the man who is all of us some of the time but none of us all of the time, and we may take it that, then as now, the remedy for discomforting thoughts was less often to seek comfort than to abstain from thinking.
Amidst the philosophic gloom of the period I am concerned with, new voices began to be heard which spoke of hope and of the possibility of a future (a subject I shall refer to later on); which spoke of confidence in human reason, and of what human beings might achieve through an understanding of Nature and mastery of the physical world. I think there can be no question that, in this country, it was Francis Bacon who started the dawn chorus --- the man who first defined the newer purposes of learning and, less successfully, the means by which they might be fulfilled. Human spirits began to rise. To use a good old seventeenth-century metaphor, there was a slow change, but ultimately a complete one, in the ``climate of opinion.'' It became no longer the thing to mope. In a curious way the Pillars of Hercules --- the Fatal Columns guarding the Straits of Gibraltar that make the frontispiece to Bacon's Great Instauration --- provided the rallying cry of the New Philosophy. Let me quote a great American scholar's, Dr. Marjorie Hope Nicolson's, description of how this came about:
Before Columbus set sail across the Atlantic, the coat of arms of the Royal Family of Spain had been an impressa, depicting the Pillars of Hercules, the straits of Gibraltar, with the motto, Ne Plus Ultra. There was ``no more beyond.'' It was the glory of Spain that it was the outpost of the world. When Columbus made his discovery, Spanish Royalty thriftily did the only thing necessary: erased the negative, leaving the Pillars of Hercules now bearing the motto, Plus Ultra. There was more beyond . . .And so Plus Ultra became the motto of the New Baconians, and the frontispiece of the Great Instauration shows the Pillars of Hercules with ships passing freely to and fro.
One symptom of the new spirit of inquiry was, of course, the foundation of the Royal Society and of sister academies in Italy and France. That story has often been told, and in more than one version, because the parentage of the Royal Society is still in question. We shall be taking altogether too narrow a view of things, however, if we suppose that the great philosophic uncertainties of the seventeenth century were cleared up by the fulfillment of Bacon's ambitions for science. Modern scientific research began earlier than the seventeenth century. The great achievement of the last half of the seventeenth century was to arrive at a general scheme of belief within which the cultivation of science was seen to be very proper, very useful, and by no means irreligious. This larger conception or purpose, of which science was a principal agent, may be called ``rational humanism'' if we are temperamentally in its favor and take our lead from the writings of John Locke, or ``materialistic rationalism'' if we are against it and frown disapprovingly over Thomas Hobbes, but neither description is satisfactory, because the new movement had not yet taken on the explicit character of an alternative or even antidote to religion, which is the sense that ``rational humanism'' tends to carry with it today.
However we may describe it, rational humanism became the dominant philosophic influence in human affairs for the next 150 years, and by the end of the eighteenth century the spokesmen of Reason and Enlightenment --- men like Adam Ferguson and William Godwin and Condorcet --- take completely for granted many of the ideas that had seemed exhilarating and revolutionary in the century before. But over this period an important transformation was taking place. The seventeenth-century doctrine of the necessity of reason was slowly giving way to a belief in the sufficiency of reason --- so illustrating the tendency of many powerful human beliefs to develop into an extreme or radical form before they lose their power to persuade us, and in doing so to create anew many of the evils for which at one time they professed to be the remedy. (It has often been said that rationalism in its more extreme manifestations could only supplant religion by acquiring some of the characteristics of religious belief itself.) Please don't interpret these remarks as any kind of attempt to depreciate the power of reason. I emphasize the distinction between the ideas of the necessity and of the sufficiency of reason as a defense against that mad and self-destructive form of antirationalism which seems to declare that because reason is not sufficient, it is not necessary.
Many reflective people nowadays believe that we are back in the kind of intellectual and spiritual turmoil that disturbed the first half of the seventeenth century. Both epochs are marked, not by any characteristic system of beliefs (neither can be called ``The Age of'' anything) but by an equally characteristic syndrome of unfixed beliefs; by the emptiness that si left when older doctrines have been found wanting and none has yet been found to take is place. Both epochs have the characteristics of a philosophic interregnum. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the essentially medieval world-picture of Elizabethan England had lost its power to satisfy and bring comfort, just as nowadays the radical materialism traditionally associated with Victorian thinkers seems quite inadequate to remedy our complaints. By a curious inversion of thinking, scholastic reasoning is said to have failed because it discouraged new inquiry, but that was precisely the measure of its success. For that is just what successful, satisfying explanations do: they confer a sense of finality; they remove the incentive to work things out anew. At all events the repudiation of Aristotle and the hegemony of ancient learning, of the scholastic style of reasoning, of the illusion of a Golden Age, is as commonplace in the writings of the seventeenth century as dismissive references to rationalism and materialism in the literature of the past fifty years.
We can draw quite a number of detailed correspondences between the contemporary world and the first forty or fifty years of the seventeenth century, all of them part of a syndrome of dissatisfaction and unbelief; and though we might find reason to cavil at each one of them individually, they add up to an impressive case. Novels and philosophical belles-lettres have no an inward-looking character, a deep concern with matters of personal salvation and a struggle to establish the authenticity of personal existence; and we may point to the prevalence of satire and of the Jacobean style of ``realism'' on the stage. I shall leave aside the political and economic correspondences between the two epochs, important though they are, and confine myself to analogies that might be described as ``philosophical'' in the homely older sense, the sense that has to do with the purpose and conduct of life and with the attempt to answer the simple questions that children ask. Once again we are oppressed by a sense of decay and deterioration, but this time, in part at least, by a fear of the deterioration of the world through technological innovation. Artificial fertilizers and pesticides are undermining our health (we tell ourselves), soil and sea are being poisoned by chemical and radioactive wastes, drugs substitute one kind of disease for another, and modern man is under the influence of stimulants whenever he is not under the influence of sedatives. Once again there is a feeling of despondency and incompleteness, a sense of doubt about the adequacy of man, amounting in all to what a future historian might again describe as a failure of nerve. Intelligent and learned men may again seek comfort in an elevated kind of barminess (but something kind and gentle nevertheless). Mystical syntheses between science and religion, like the Cambridge Neo-Platonism of the mid-seventeenth century, have their counterpart today, perhaps, in the writings and cult of Teilhard de Chardin and in a revival of faith in the Wisdom of the East. Once again there is a rootlessness or ambivalence about philosophical thinking, as if the discovery or rediscovery of the insufficiency of reason had given a paradoxical validity to nonsense, and this gives us a special sympathy for the dilemmas of the seventeenth century. To William Lecky, the great nineteenth-century historian of rationalism, it seemed almost beyond comprehension that witch hunting and witch burning should have persisted so far into the seventeenth century, or that Joseph Glanvill should have been equally an advocate of the Royal Society and of belief in witchcraft.
We do not wonder at it now. It no longer seems strange to us that Pascal the geometer who spoke with perfect composure about infinity and the infinitesimal should have been supplanted by Pascal the great cosmophobe who spoke with anguish about the darkness and loneliness of outer space. Discoveries in astronomy and cosmology have always a specially disturbing quality. We remember the dismay of John Donne and Pascal himself and latterly of William Blake. Cosmological discoveries bring with them a feeling of awe but also, for most people, a sense of human diminishment. Our great sidereal adventures today are both elevating and frightening, and may be both at the same time. The launching of a space rocket is (to go back to seventeenth-century language) a tremendous phenomenon. It must have occurred to many who saw pictures of it that the great steel rampart or nave from which the Apollo rockets are launched had the size and shape and grandeur of a cathedral, with Apollo itself in the position of a spire. Like a cathedral it is economically pointless, a shocking waste of public money; but like a cathedral it is also a symbol of aspiration toward higher things.
When we compare the climates of opinion in the seventeenth century and today, we must again remember that cries of despair are not necessarily authentic. There was a strong element of affectation about Jacobean melancholy, and so there is today. Then as now it had tended to become a posture. One of a modern writer's claims to be taken seriously is to castigate complacency and to show up contentment for the shallow and insipid thing that it is assumed to be. But ordinary human beings continue to be vulgarly high spirited. The character we all love best in Boswell is Johnson's old college companion, Mr. Oliver Edwards --- the man who said that he had tried in his time to be a philosopher, but had failed because cheerfulness was always breaking in.
What then were the philosophic elements of the new revival (using ``philosophy'' again in its homely sense)?
The seventeenth century was an age of Utopias, though Thomas More's own Utopia was already a hundred years old. The Utopias or anti-Utopias we devise today are usually set in the future, partly because the world's surface is either tenanted or known to be empty, partly because we need and assume we have time for the fulfillment of our designs. The old Utopias --- Utopia itself, the New Atlantis, Christianopolis, and the City of the Sun --- were contemporary societies. Navigators and explorers came upon them accidentally in far-off seas. What is the meaning of the difference? One reason, of course, is that the world then still had room for undiscovered principalities, and geographical exploration itself had the symbolic significance we now associate with the great adventures of modern science. Indeed, now that outer space is coming to be our playground, we may again dream of finding ready-made Utopias out there. But this is not the most important reason. The old Utopias were not set in the future because very few people believed that there would be a future --- an earthly future, I mean; nor was it by any means assumed that the playing-out of earthly time would improve us or increase our capabilities. On the contrary, time was running out, in fulfillment of the great Judaic tradition, and we ourselves were running down.
These thoughts suffuse the philosophic speculation of the seventeenth century until quite near its end. ``I was borne in the last age of the world,'' said John Donne and Thomas Browne speaks of himself as one whose generation was ``ordained in this setting of time.'' The most convincing evidence of the seriousness of this belief is to be found not in familiar literary tags, but in the dull and voluminous writings of those who, like George Hakewill, repudiated the idea of human deterioration and the legend of a golden age, but had no doubt at all about the imminence of the world's end. The apocalyptic forecast was, of course, a source of strength and consolation to those who had no high ambitions for life on earth. The precise form the end of history would take had long been controversial --- the New Jerusalem might be founded upon the Earth itself or be inaugurated in the souls of men in heaven --- but that history would come to an end had hardly been in question. Toward the end of the sixteenth century there had been some uneasy discussion of the idea that the material world might be eternal, but the thought had been a disturbing one, and had been satisfactorily explained away.
During the seventeenth century this attitude changes. This idea of an end of history is incompatible with a new feeling about the great things human beings might achieve through their own ingenuity and exertions. The idea therefore drops quietly out of the common consciousness. It is not refuted, but merely fades away. It is true that the idea of human deterioration was expressly refuted --- in England by George Hakewill but before him by Jean Bodin (by whom Hakewill was greatly influenced) and by Louis le Roy.
There were, however, two elements of seventeenth-century thought that imply the idea of progress even if is not explicitly affirmed. The first was the recognition that the tempo of invention and innovation was speeding up, that the flux of history was becoming denser. In The City of the Sun Campanella tells us that ``his age has in it more history within a hundred years than all the world had in four thousand years before it.'' He is echoing Peter Ramus: ``We have seen in the space of one age a more plentiful crop of learned men and works than our predecessors saw in the previous fourteen.'' By the latter half of the seventeenth century the new concept had sunk in.
The second element in the concept of futurity --- in the idea that men might look forward, not only backward or upward --- is to be found in the breathtaking thought that there was no apparent limit to human inventiveness and ingenuity. It was the notion of a perpetual Plus Ultra, that what was already known was only a tiny fraction of what remained to be discovered, so that there would always be more beyond. Bacon published his Novum Organum at the beginning of the remarkable decade between 1620 and 1630, and had singled it out as the greatest obstacle to the growth of understanding, that ``men despair and think things impossible.'' ``The human understanding is unquiet,'' he wrote; ``it cannot stop or rest and still presses onward, but in vain'' --- in vain, because our spirits are oppressed by ``the obscurity of nature, the shortness of life, the deceitfulness of experiment, and the like.'' ``I am now therefore to speak of hope,'' he goes on to say, in a passage that sounds like the trumpet calls in Fidelio. The hope he held out was of a rebirth of learning, and with it the realization that if men would only concentrate and direct their faculties, ``there is no difficulty that might not be overcome.'' ``The process of Art is indefinite,'' wrote Henry Power, ``and who can set a Plus Ultra to her endeavors?'' There is a mood of exultation and glory about this new belief in human capability and the future in which it might unfold. With Thomas Hobbes ``glorying'' becomes almost a technical term: ``Joy, arising from imagination of a man's own power and ability, is that exultation of mind called glorying,'' he says, in Leviathan, and in another passage he speaks of a ``perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of knowledge.''
It does not take a specially refined sensibility to see how exciting and exhilarating these new notions must have been. During the eighteenth century, of course, everybody sobers up. The idea of progress is taken for granted --- but in some sense it gets out of hand, for not only will human inventions improve without limit, but so also (it is argued, though not very clearly) will human beings. It is interesting to compare the exhilaration of the seventeenth century with, say, William Godwin's magisterial tone of voice as the eighteenth century draws to an end. ``The extent of progress in the cultivation of human knowledge is unlimited. Hence it follows . . . that human inventions are susceptible of perpetual improvement.
Can we arrest the progress of the inquiring mind? If we can, it must be by the most unmitigated despotism. Intellect has a perpetual tendency to proceed. It cannot be held back but by a power that counteracts its genuine tendency through every moment of its existence. Tyrannical and sanguinary must be the measures employed for this purpose. Miserable and disgustful must be the scene they produce.
The seventeenth century had begun with the assumption that a powerful force would be needed to put the inventive faculty into motion; by the end of the eighteenth century it is assumed that only the application of an equally powerful force could possibly slow it down.
Before going on, it is worth asking if this conception is still acceptable --- that the growth of knowledge and know-how has no intrinsic limit. We have now grown used to the idea that most ordinary or natural growth processes (the growth of organisms or populations of organisms or, for example, of cities) is not merely limited, by self-limited, i.e. is slowed down and eventually brought to a standstill as a consequence of the act of growth itself. For one reason or another, but always for some reason, organisms cannot grow indefinitely, just as beyond a certain level of size or density a population defeats its own capacity for further growth. May not the body of knowledge also become unmanageably large, or reach such a degree of complexity that it is beyond the comprehension of the human brain? To both these questions I think the answer is ``No.'' The proliferation of recorded knowledge and the seizing-up of communications pose technological problems for which technical solutions can and are being found. As to the idea that knowledge may transcend the power of the human brain: in a sense it has long done so. No one can ``understand'' a radio set or automobile in the sense of having an effective grasp of more than a fraction of the hundred technologies that enter into their manufacture. But we must not forget the additiveness of human capabilities. We work through consortia of intelligences, past as well as present. We might, of course, blow ourselves up or devise an unconditionally lethal virus, but we don't have to. Nothing of the kind is necessarily entailed by the growth of knowledge and understanding. I do not believe that there is any intrinsic limitation upon our ability to answer the questions that belong to the domain of natural knowledge and fall therefore within the agenda of scientific inquiry.
Let us return to the contemporary world and discuss our misgivings about the way things are going now. No one need suppose that our present philosophic situation is unique in its character and gravity. It was partly to dispel such an illusion that I have been moving back and forth between the seventeenth century and the present day. Moods of complacency and discontent have succeeded each other during the past four or five hundred years of European history, and our present mood of self-questioning does not represent a new and startled awareness that civilization is coming to an end. On the contrary, the existence of these doubts is probably our best assurance that civilization will continue.
Many of the ingredients of the seventeenth-century antidote to melancholy have lost their power to bring peace of mind today, and have become a source of anxiety in themselves. Consider the tempo of innovation. In the post-Renaissance world the feeling that inventiveness was increasing and that the whole world was on the move did much to dispel the myth of deterioration and give people confidence in human capability. Nevertheless the tempo was a pretty slow one, and technical innovation had little influence on the character of common life. A man grew up and grew old in what was still essentially the world of his childhood; it had been his father's world and it would be his children's too. Today the world changes so quickly that in growing up we take leave not just of youth but of the world we were young in. I suppose we all realize the degree to which fear and resentment of what is new is really a lament for the memories of our childhood. Dear old steam trains, we say to ourselves, but nasty diesel engines, trusty old telegraph poles but horrid pylons. Telegraph poles, as the Poet Laureate told us a good many years ago, are something of a test case. Anyone who has spent part of his childhood in the countryside can remember looking up through the telegraph wires at a clouded sky and discerning the revolution of the world, or will have listened, ear to post, to the murmur of interminable conversations. For some people even the smell of telegraph poles is nostalgic, though creosote has a pretty technological smell. Telegraph poles have been assimilated into the common consciousness, and one day pylons will be, too. When pylons are dismantled and the cables finally go underground, people will think again of those majestic catenary curves, and remind each other of how steel giants once marched across the countryside in dead silence and in single file. (What is wrong with pylons is that most of them are ugly. If only the energy spent in denouncing them had been directed toward improving their appearance, they could have been made as beautiful, even majestic, as towers or bridges are allowed to be, and need not have looked incongruous in the countryside.)
When Bacon described himself as a trumpeter of the new philosophy, the message he proclaimed was of the virtue and dignity of scientific learning and of its power to make the world a better place to live in. I am continually surprised as the superficiality of the reasons which have led people to question those benefits today. Many different elements enter into the movement to depreciate the services to mankind of science and technology. I have just mentioned one of them, the tempo of innovation when measured against the span of life. We wring our hands over the miscarriages of technology and take its benefactions for granted. We are dismayed by air pollution but not proportionately cheered up by, say, the virtual abolition of poliomyelitis. (Nearly five thousand cases of poliomyelitis were recorded in England and Wales in 1957. In 1967 there were less than thirty.) There is a tendency, even a perverse willingness to suppose that the despoliation sometimes produced by technology is an inevitable and irremediable process, a trampling down of Nature by the big machine. Of course it is nothing of the kind. The deterioration of the environment produced by technology is a technological problem for which technology has found, is finding and will continue to find solutions. There is, of course, a sense in which science and technology can be arraigned for devising new instruments of warfare, but another and more important sense in which it is the height of folly to blame the weapon for the crime. I would rather put it this way: that in the management of our affairs we have too often been bad workmen, and like all bad workmen we blame our tools. I am all in favor of a vigorously critical attitude toward technological innovation: we should scrutinize all attempts to improve our condition and make sure that they do not in reality do us harm; but there is all the difference in the world between informed and energetic criticism and a drooping despondency that offers no remedy for the abuses it bewails.
Superimposed on all particular causes of complaint is a more general cause of dissatisfaction. Bacon's belief in the cultivation of science for the ``merit and emolument of life'' has always been repugnant to those who have taken it for granted that comfort and prosperity imply spiritual impoverishment. But the real trouble nowadays has very little to do with material prosperity or technology or with our misgivings about the power of research and learning generally to make the world a better place. The real trouble is our acute sense of human failure and mismanagement, a new and specially oppressive sense of the inadequacy of man. So much was hoped of us, particularly in the eighteenth century. We were going to improve, weren't we? --- and for some reason which was never made clear to us we were going to grow in moral stature as well as in general capability. Our school reports were going to get better term by term. Unfortunately they haven't done so. Every folly, every enormity that we look back on with repugnance can find its equivalent in contemporary life. Once again our intellectuals have failed us; there is a general air of misanthropy and self-contempt, of protest, but not of affirmation. There is a peculiar selfishness about modern philosophic speculation (using ``philosophy'' here again in its homely or domestic sense). The philosophic universe has contracted into a neighborhood, a suburbia of personal relationships. It is as if the classical formula of self-interest, ``I'm all right, Jack,'' was seeking a new context in our private, inner world.
We can obviously do better than this, and there is just one consideration that might help to take the sting out of our self-reproaches. In the melancholy reflections of the post-Renaissance era it was taken for granted that the poor old world was super-annuated, that history had all but run its course and was soon coming to an end. The brave spirits who inaugurated the new science dared to belief that it was not too late to be ambitious, but now we must try to understand that it is a bit too early to expect our grander ambitions to be fulfilled. Today we are conscious that human history is only just beginning. There has always been room for improvement; now we know that there is time for improvement, too. For all their intelligence and dexterity --- qualities we have always attached great importance to --- the higher primates (monkeys, apes and men) have not been very successful. Human beings have a history of more than 500,000 years. Only during the past five thousand years or thereabouts have human beings won a reward for their special capabilities; only during the past five hundred years or so have they begun to be, in the biological sense, a success. If we imagine the evolution of living organisms compressed into one year of cosmic time, then the evolution of man has occupied a day. Only during the past ten to fifteen minutes of the human day has our life on earth been anything but precarious. Until then we might have gone under altogether, or, more likely, have survived as a biological curiosity; as a patchwork of local communities only just holding there own in a bewildering and hostile world. Only during the past fifteen minutes (for reasons I shall not go into though I think they can be technically explained) has there been progress, though, of course, it doesn't amount to very much. We cannot point to a single definitive solution of any one of the problems that confront us --- political, economic, social or moral, i.e. having to do with the conduct of life. We are still beginners, and for that reason may hope to improve. To deride the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind. There is no need to be dismayed by the fact that we cannot yet envisage a definitive solution of our problems, a resting-place beyond which we need not try to go. Because he likened life to a race, and defined felicity as the state of mind of those in the front of it, Thomas Hobbes has always been thought of as the arch materialist, the first man to uphold go-getting as a creed. But that is a travesty of Hobbes's opinion. He was a go-getter in a sense, but it was the going, not the getting he extolled. The race had no finishing post as Hobbes conceived it. The great thing about the race was to be in it, to be a contestant in the attempt to make the world a better place, and it was a spiritual death he had in mind when he said that to forsake the course is to die. ``There is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind while we live here,'' he told us in Leviathan, ``because life itself is but a motion and can never be without desire, or without fear, no more than without sense''; ``there can be no contentment but in proceeding.'' I agree.