Progress of Society

It has been maintained by some, that the progress of society is necessarily limited; that the bounds of civilization are distinctly marked; that they have already, in several instances, been attained, or very nearly approached. This is inferred from the fact, that many individuals and states, and many departments of the human intellect, among the nations of antiquity, have attained a degree of refinement and perfection which has never been surpassed, or even equalled, in modern times; and furthermore, from the fact that all nations, after a certain degree of culture, have uniformly declined, and a savage people and a barbarous age succeeded. The supporters of this doctrine point us to the turning crises in the history of nations; they bid us mark the ebbing tide of wealth, refinement, and social improvement, and tell us that such is the destination of society to the end of time. The error which lies at the foundation of this doctrine, consists in not accurately distinguishing between the progress of society, and the advancement of a single people, or the perfection of the individual mind. There can be no doubt that individual minds and particular provinces of genius have, in repeated instances, reached the highest degree of earthly perfection, and attained to a power and glory which will never be surpassed. It is probable that single nations have advanced to the uttermost limits of national power and glory; and it is certain, that the outward aspect of society, so far from displaying a constant and uniform increase of culture and refinement, has exhibited thus far only a constant succession of light and darkness. Alternate civilization and barbarism make up the apparent history of man. Nevertheless, society, we believe, has always been moving onward. Notwithstanding the perpetual flux and reflux which appears on the surface of things, there has been an under-current of improvement, coëxtensive with the whole course of time. There never was an age in which some element of humanity was not making progress. Even in those period of the world, which seem darkest to the superficial historian, there has ever been some process at work, in which the best interests of mankind were involved. In the dark ages, emphatically so called, more was done for society, than during the whole period of ancient history. For, what is society? It is not a single people or generation, it is not a collection of individuals as such; but it is an intimate union of individuals, voluntarily coöperating for the common good, actuated by social feelings, governed by social principles, and urged onward by social improvements. Society, in this sense, has always been advancing, not uniformly, indeed, far from it,--sometimes the motion has not been perceptible, sometimes, it may be, there has been no motion at all,--but it has never lost ground;--whenever it has moved at all, it has moved forward. The human mind, the source of this progress, has acted like the animal heart, not by a constant effort, but by successive pulsations, which pulsations, however, unlike those of the animal heart, must be reckoned, not by seconds, but by ages. Each pulsation has sent forth into the world some new sentiment or principle, some discovery or invention, which, like small portions of leaven, have successively communicated their quickening energy to the whole mass of society. It is the first duty of the philosophic historian to trace and exhibit these successive impulses. He who can do this, and he only, will be able to furnish a systematic history of Man; something very different from, and infinitely more important than the histories we now have of dynasties and tribes. . .

It is common in this country to connect the hope of man's advancement with the destinies of our own land. Nor is this connexion wholly without foundation. So far as outward circumstances are concerned, the prospect of social improvement is certainly brighter with us than in any other portion of the globe. Where can man advance if not in a country where all the elements of civilization abound? But is there no danger of carrying this notion too far? Our political destinies are written in the very features of the soil we inhabit. Its lakes, its rivers, its rich mines, its fertile valleys, utter but one prophecy. It is impossible to misinterpret such signs of these. They promise,--so long as peace shall unite these realms,--a perpetual increase of prosperity and glory. But what augury shall insure an equal increase of intellectual prosperity and moral glory? Shall we infer it from the institutions of this age? Alas! they are not, like the physical features of our country, fixed and permanent tokens. They are the creations of the day, they can vouch only for the passing generation. Not to these, but to the principles which they represent, let us look for salvation. Let these be our pledge for the fulfillment of all that the imagination has ever pictured of the destination of man. The institutions of this country have sometimes been represented as an experiment, on the issue of which the cause of universal improvement, and all the best interests of humanity, in some measure depend. If these fail, it is said, then farewell all farther hope of liberty and social progress. We love not to believe that a stake so precious is pending on a cast so doubtful. These institutions may fail, they certainly will fail, whenever, in the course of our advancement, they shall cease to be faithful expressions of the wisdom and the power of the age. Like seared foliage, at the touch of Autumn, they will wither and drop whenever their brief destination is fulfilled. It may be they are destined to a less timely end. The tempest may pluck them now in all their prime,

"And, with forced fingers, rude,
Shatter their leaves before the mellowing year."

But let us not, therefore, for a moment, cease to believe in the practicability of that which these institutions were designed to realize. Let us rest our hope of liberty and social improvement on something more decisive than the issue of a single experiment, or the fate of a single people. Let our trust have a surer foundation than the land of Washington, though there be a spell in that name above all earthly names; let it have a pledge more infallible than the seed of the pilgrims, though there be a virtue in that race which the world cannot match. Let us ground it on universal Man, on the might of the human will, and on the boundless resources of the human mind.

Frederic Henry Hedge
The Christian Examiner, March 1834