Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 42.djvu/361

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EVOLUTION OF CIVILIZATION AND THE ARTS.

ple to be, its faculty for absorbing a new element of civilization is always very restricted. Even the Greeks, the most intelligent people of antiquity, in the evolution of their arts needed centuries to advance beyond gross copies of Assyrian and Egyptian models and arrive by successive stages at the achievement of the masterpieces that have immortalized their name.

Yet the peoples which have succeeded one another in history—excepting a few primitive nations like the Egyptians and the Chaldeans—have had little else to do than to assimilate, by transforming them according to their mental peculiarities, the elements of civilization that constituted the heritage of their past. The development of civilization would have been infinitely slower, and the history of nations would have been only an eternal new beginning, if they had not been able to profit by previously elaborated materials. The civilizations created by the inhabitants of Egypt and Chaldea seven or eight thousand years ago have constituted a source whence all peoples have drawn in their turn. Greek arts were derived from the arts created on the banks of the Tigris and the Nile; the Roman style from the Greek; and the Roman style, admixed with Oriental influences, gave birth in succession to the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic styles, according to the genius and the age of the peoples among whom they were developed. What we have said of the arts is applicable to all the elements of a civilization—institutions, languages, and creeds. The languages of Europe are derived from a mother-language formerly spoken on the central plateau of Asia; its laws from the Roman law, which was in its turn derived from anterior laws; its religion from the Jewish religion, associated with Aryan creeds; and its sciences would not be what they are but for the slow labor of ages. We can discern, despite the great gaps of which there are many in the history of civilization, a slow evolution of our knowledge that leads us across ages and empires to the dawn of those ancient civilizations which the modern science of the day is trying to connect with the primitive times when mankind had no history. But, while the source is common, the transformations—whether progressive or retrogressive—which each people, according to its mental constitution, has imposed on the borrowed elements, are very diverse; and the history of these transformations constitutes the history of civilization.

Before considering the transformations which arts, like other elements of a civilization, have suffered in passing from one people to another, let us ask to what extent they are the expression of a civilization. Writers on art are accustomed to say that they faithfully reflect the thought of the people, and are the best expression of their civilization. This is doubtless often the case,