18 AUGUST 1990, Page 27


The March of Mind

Colin Welch

THE IDEA OF PROGRESS IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN by David Spadafora Most top people in 18th-century Bri- tain, according to Mr Spadafora, who teaches history at Yale, believed in pro- gress. Not all the Victorians were so sure, he adds. They were not really such optim- ists, though they have that reputation. They were oppressed by cyclical theories and fears of decadence. I am inclined to agree, though I think Mr Spadafora has rather packed his enormous team of 18th- century progressives by including in it all sorts of oddballs who were not progressive at all as we think of it. The result is rather like the present English Test team, filled up with all sorts of arbitrarily qualified outsiders. Mr Spadafora further guards against mischance by fielding hundreds of players at once. Umpire Bird might not be amused.

Mr Spadafora's modus operandi is, I fancy, a weird and catholic one. He ran- sacks the written remains and reported opinions of the 18th-century clerisy. Wherever in them the word 'progress' occurs, his eyes light up and he starts quoting. Conflicting usages of the word do not seem to disqualify. In different con- texts, we speak of the Harlot's Progress and the Rake's, of Private's Progress and the Pilgrim's, of the progress of a disease. We could even note 'progress' achieved in the struggle against impious progressive opinions and heresies. By incautiously doing so, we might well attract Mr Spada- fora's unsleeping, omnivorous and benign attention. We too might qualify as progres- sives.

As a result, his handsomely produced and illustrated book is an immense ragbag or holdall, with everything stuffed into it, gold, dross, dull fustian and fascinating embroidery. Lacking alone (apart from one surprising omission which I shall note later) is that all-ordering judgment which separates the interesting book, which this is, from the masterwork. Instead, we get a sort of judicious seesaw balance — on the one hand, on the other.

At the beginning we spend too much time with bores whose obscurity is understandable. But wait: we are soon in the company, far more interesting than I'd thought, of such prodigies as Joseph Priest- ley, preacher, chemist, historian, linguist, member of the Lunar Society, universal man. And the Great Scots of the Enlight- enment, Kames, Hume, Adam Smith, Millar, Robertson, Dunbar and Ferguson, are yet to come, bringing with them an order of their own.

Mr Spadafora is, as you might expect or fear, a great aficionado of forgotten Geor- gian divines and preachers, whose favour-

Yale, £22.50, pp. 464

able ruminations on progress are some- times tediously deployed. Misgivings arise. The progress hymned by these men of God is often progress towards the millennium, towards the Second Coming, towards the conflagration and transformation fore- shadowed in the Book of Revelation and towards the moral and material paradise, the utopia of peace, righteousness and perfection which will ensue. The progress they prophesy is more prophetic than progressive. It is not based on experiment, on trial and error or on any resultant advances in scientific method — unless all these developments are hailed (as they often were) as part of God's continuing 'progressive' reyelation to man.

Wesley, for instance, foresaw a millen- nial era, better than Eden, in which fire will revivify but no longer destroy, beasts will be tame and there will be no more death. His confidence was certainly not based on science. It would not have im- pressed les philosophes, though it might have struck a chord in the French socialist Fourier who predicted, unless I err, tame 'Ahem, waiter. . . whales drawing ships through seas of lemo- nade.

Most of these millennial progressives believed in perfection, attainable in the foreseeable future, if not already attained.

Both Burney and Hawkins held that music had reached perfection by 1789. Some now would agree with them; Beethoven and his successors presumably would not. Either way, such a belief in perfection attained is obviously not compatible with a belief in progress, except in relation to Dark Ages past. Nor, perhaps, and more interestingly, is a belief in attainable perfection.

Any such belief must have an actual state of perfection in mind, as Marx doubtless had, though, so far as I know, he cautiously never described it. As marriage concludes many Victorian novels, so the expropriation of the expropriators con- cludes Marx, and all live happily ever after. To have any allure, a belief in perfection must prescribe the steps or step by which this state is to be achieved, at which point progress must cease. For it could only be a slipping away from perfection, a regression disguised. In October 1917 perfection in Russia was presumably achieved, or soon after, or surely by now? Must we not indeed recognise there a grim sort of perfection in what can no longer easily move or react or adopt or reform or even feed itself.

In this book some of Marx's British forebears can be discerned. Is it not a mistake to call either him or them progres- sive? Would not 'eschatological' or 'mil- lennarian' fit better? One stupendous con- vulsion followed by total immobility: is this progress? Is being laid waste by an atomic bomb progress?

A progressive divine quoted by Mr Spadafora lays it down as a natural law that 'everything has a tendency to its own perfection'. The cynical may apply this law alike to the carnivore and its prey, to warring states and, most ominously, to tyrants and their subjects or slaves, all tending towards conflicting perfections, not all attainable save in very perverse senses — the perfect slave, for instance, or the perfect meal.

Nearly all Mr Spadafora's progressives believed in the progressive improvement of government. But what most had trustfully in mind were more regular laws, more liberty, not less, and greater security for property. These boons were certainly what the great Scots, who dominate the latter part of the book, had in mind. The idea never occurred to them of a govenment so 'improved' as to give not a fig for law and liberty and to constitute an enemy of all property save its own. In consequence, even Lord Kames and Adam Smith cheer- fully allotted to the government active ameliorative roles, especially in public education. They gave an inch; govern- ments as is their wont have taken ells, with results disastrous to British education and much else. Man, said Locke, is nine-tenths education. If so, our plight now must be grave indeed.

Adam Smith was warmly in favour of the division of labour, but also very aware of the damage it would do to the masses, to those in the lower tier who would, so to speak, be divided against. They would thus lose their intellectual, social and martial virtues and decline into something less than full men and citizens. Smith's remedy was public education and military training and service for all. Reservations about these panaceas at once arise: does know- ledge make manual labour more tolerable? What of the exemplary fortitude of our slum soldiers in two world wars? Is any state really fit to educate all its subjects and to clap a knapsack on every back? And so on.

Still, only the other day I heard Mr Alan Clark of the defence department scoffing at the very idea of Smith saying anything relevant about martial matters. He should recall Smith's reflections, quoted here, on the role of fire-arms in preserving and extending civilisation. They enable the opulent and refined to repel and dominate the poor and barbarous — one might say that they did so enable, until the poor and barbarous acquired fire-arms of their own, coupled with a most unrefined readiness to use them, and until the refined became over-refined.

Adam Smith was in no sense an over- refined or pacific wealth-worshipper. I am sure that he would have agreed with his friend Ferguson that political havoc will follow wherever wealth is more respected than 'personal qualities and family back- ground' — a warning perhaps timely to- day. It is salutary also to be reminded here that even John Stuart Mill was not always the gentle Jesus adored by men of good will. He was unrefined enough to think despotism quite legitimate 'in dealing with barbarians'. Nearer home, he warned grimly against 'the tyranny of the major- ity', which could cause stagnation or even retrogression.

Why should it cause any such thing? Here we stumble on a (to me) very surprising omission from Mr Spadafora's book. It is envy, not a sin ever I think mentioned. All progress springs from someone being or becoming cleverer or richer, more powerful or creative or enter- prising than others, from his being in a word unequal. He thus is or becomes a natural object of spiteful envy.

The relationship between Christianity and progress has been often discussed, not least by the great J. B. Bury, quoted here. He contended that progress was incompat- ible with two basic Christian tenets — providentialism and the doctrine of origin- al sin. I don't quite see why, and Mr Spadafora's millennialists would presum- ably disagree. Bury too ignored, so far as I know, the vital role played in progress by the Christian suppression of envy, a role to which Professor Schoeck has drawn atten- tion in his memorable book Envy. This suppression enabled creative minorities to flourish and prosper without undue fears of being laid waste or expropriated or mas- sacred. Pace Bury, providentialism may also have helped, holding that human affairs are largely out of human control. Why hate the wicked banker if God Himself has put him in his place? Why hate him anyway if, as Marx contended, it was not God Who created the banker but impersonal economic forces? But Marx's materialist providentialism is another story.

A constant fascination in Mr Spadafora's pages is that we are ourselves, or live in, the future his progressives foresaw. They pre- dicted for instance that through more powerful telescopes we would see towns on the moon. As it is, we have seen and even been there, and found not even a village! How wrong they were! Before we laugh our heads off, we should reflect on how wrong we too are. We should realise also how foolish and presumptuous it is, despite Labour's current 'long term' hysteria, to plan too far ahead, vainly fancying that we can foresee, and prevent or foster, unfore- seeable splendours and miseries yet to come.