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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/August 1906/The Measure of Progress

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 69‎ | August 1906



NO words are more common in the mouths of orators than the phrases: The march of Progress—the growth of Civilization. When we say that the twentieth century is in advance of the sixteenth, do we mean that it is so in each and every respect? Do we mean that men in general have now a keener feeling for art than in the age of Michel Angelo; a finer knowledge of justice than in the century of Socrates; deeper religious feelings than in the days of Wesley, or of St. Thomas Aquinas?

It is not easy to answer such questions offhand in any large way. The modern feeling for art is perhaps more wide-spread, but certainly far less keen, than in the Italy of the sixteenth century. If we say that our sense of justice is finer than that of the Greeks who condemned Socrates to death, and of all the centuries before our own, how is it that successive generations of men have preserved the narrative of his last day with sacred care? What are we to say of the religious feelings of the day of Wesley compared with the ethical efforts of the day of Felix Adler? It is clearly not easy to give answers of real import to questions of the sort. We need a better insight into the meaning to be attached to words like progress, civilization and the like. Definitions taken out of dictionaries will not answer.

It has been my fortune, lately, to make a fairly thorough study of that wonderful renaissance of science which began in the days of Roger Bacon, in the thirteenth century, and to endeavor to connect it with its origins in Alexandria, its precursor in Mohammedan Spain and its successor in the century of Galileo. There is no space here to present even a summary of such a study,[1] but it may not be out of place to give a few paragraphs which bear on the general and important question: how are we to measure progress?

In comparing the view-points of different ages with our own we continually meet with surprises. The uncritical attitude of the men of the thirteenth century towards miracles and wonders is little less than astounding to us. Our thought seems to be ages in advance of theirs. On the other hand, we often meet with an insight that has what we call the distinctly modern note. An instance from literature will illustrate:


A man's character is his fate

is a sentence that one would assign to Taine or to Stendahl in the nineteenth century if one did not know it to have been written by Heraclitus in the fifth century before Christ. In like manner, some of the scientific processes of Hipparchus, Archimedes and Boger Bacon are so 'modern' as to bring a glow of delighted wonder when they are met with. Their failure to draw certain conclusions that seem almost obvious to us is equally astonishing. A formal explanation of the differences and of the resemblances of ancient ages with our own might be somewhat as follows. We may suppose that a completely developed man of our day has educated his sympathies and intelligence to have outlets in a certain large number of directions—let us say, in the directions A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z. It is possible, however, that some few of these outlets are absent, or nearly closed, E and 0, for instance. The men of the eighteenth century may be supposed to have had fewer outlets, and those of the thirteenth still fewer; but the intensity and refinement of their sympathies in certain directions may not have been less, but far greater, than ours. The feeling of the thirteenth century for religion, and of the sixteenth for art, for example, were not only different in intensity, but very different in quality, from our own.

When we make a formal comparison of our age with that of St. Thomas Aquinas and of Newton, the table might stand thus:

A, B, C, D,-F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N,- P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z, XX century.
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i,-,-,-, m, n, XIII century.
a, b,--,-,-g, h, i, j, k, 1, m, n, o, p, q, r, XVIII century.

If in a comparison of the thirteenth century with the twentieth our discourse is upon the matters A, B, C and D we may find their insights, a, b, c, d, singularly like our own. The case may be the same for the matters G, H, I compared with g, h, i. But if, by chance, we are comparing their insight e with our absence of insight, or our X, Y, Z, with the blanks in their experience, we are astonished at the difference of outlook.

This formal and unimaginative illustration may not be quite useless in clarifying one's thought upon a matter easy to express in words and exceedingly difficult to realize. It is essential to admit the presence of blanks in the experience of past centuries; and also the presence of insights upon fundamental matters which are astonishingly different in intensity and in quality from our own. The experience of the thirteenth century was handed onwards to succeeding ages; it could be understood by the ages near to it; words continued to mean in the fourteenth very nearly what they meant in the preceding century. But as ideas changed, the signs for ideas changed with them; and we must be constantly on our guard lest we unthinkingly admit an old form as if it had the new meaning. Consider, for example, what astrology meant to Roger Bacon and what it means to us. He had no difficulty in reconciling the fateful influence of the stars with a scheme of salvation for men possessed of free-will. Words had different meanings to him and to us. His mind was conscious of no conflict between his religion and his science. His religion—that of the thirteenth century—is in absolute conflict with our science—that of the twentieth. This one example may stand as a type of many that might be brought forward.

The Greek architects long ago discovered that a cylindrical column looked at from a distance would not appear to have its two sides parallel, but that on the contrary these two sides would be hollowed in, convex towards each other. A long colonnade of cylindrical columns would exaggerate the unbeautiful effect. The Greeks felt the lack of beauty and afterwards proceeded to discover a rule for making the outer surface of a column convex, so that a colonnade of convex columns would appear to the spectator to be comprised of cylindrical, or conical, surfaces, beautiful to the eye. This increase of the middle diameter of columns was called entasis.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, an English architect, Mr. Penrose, visited the Parthenon, for the purpose of making accurate measurements of its principal dimensions. What was his astonishment to find that something of the nature of entasis had been given by the Greeks to the architraves, cornices and other members of the building. The long horizontal lines of the friezes were convexed outwards in order that they should not appear hollow to the eye. Other horizontal members were also convexed in order that they should not appear to tilt upwards. Similar measurements made on the Maison Carrée, at Nîmes, demonstrated that like rules were employed by the subtle architect for similar purposes. Measurements made on the temples of Egypt have shown that their floors are convexed in order that they may appear flat.

The Egyptians, the Greeks and even the Romans were possessed of eyes and senses so subtle that certain architectural devices were demanded by them in all edifices designed to give high pleasure. The entire western world was ignorant of these devices until a couple of generations ago. With the destruction of Rome, even the traditions of these changes were lost, so that all the Gothic cathedrals of Europe and every great building erected between the end of the fifth century and the middle of the nineteenth were constructed on geometrical lines, so to say, and not to satisfy the eye.

Mr. Penrose's discoveries were made with a foot-rule, not by a sensitive eye. They have borne fruit in our own time and in our own great city. The beautiful library of Columbia University is built on Greek principles. Let any one glance along the edge of one of the steps of the main approach and determine for himself how far it departs from a horizontal line. Our eyes will soon come to demand such curved lines. Straight lines will soon seem hollow to us as they did to the Greeks. But, note the difference. We have come to our comprehension of such forms by literary, by archeological, by mensurational, steps, while it was a matter of feeling to the Greeks, or to their predecessors. Certain insights and sympathies of theirs have been atrophied in our ancestors. Can we say, then, that the appreciation of beauty is as keen with us as it once was to other peoples less 'progressive,' less 'advanced'?

Instantaneous photography has familiarized us with the various motions of the horse. The horses on the frieze of the Parthenon and in the paintings of the Renaissance are depicted in attitudes which are impossible. Because the horses of Mr. Frederick Remington's pictures are recognized by us to be true to life, does this show a greater sense of the beautiful? We have gained our new knowledge by photographic and scientific methods, but can we say that our aesthetic sense in this regard has become more refined? Is our analysis more subtle than the Greek synthesis?

We are all so used to the admission of the high sense of beauty of the Greeks that we consciously form our standards by what we suppose to have been theirs. We praise the classic purity of the Parthenon, not only the purity of its lines, but of its unbroken color—the native color of its marble. But in doing this we forget that the Greeks covered almost the entire surface of this pure marble with thick coats of color—parts with vivid blues and reds. A model of the Parthenon painted in its ancient colors seems crude to modern eyes. But are we to conclude that our sense of beauty of color is more keen and refined than that of the Greeks, our acknowledged masters? Is it true that the rains of centuries were needed to wash off colors carefully laid on by the builders so that it is only now, and to us, that the Parthenon finally emerges the one perfect building of the world?

As with Greek buildings so with Greek statuary. We are used to praise the classic purity of their white marble gods and goddesses, forgetting that the most famous statues were made of gold and ivory, enameled with images of animals and flowers, with metal bracelets and ornaments fixed to marble, or again painted in parts like the Hermes of Praxiteles or the Athene at Elis. The ears of the grave, serene and august Venus of Melos are pierced for metal ear-rings. To us she seems all-sufficing and stands alone. It is more than likely that the original statue formed a part of a group—Venus placating the wrath of Mars. Do we, in fact, at all comprehend what the Greeks meant to depict by their images of divinities? Would a Greek, returning to earth, in the least understand the interpretations of the æstheticians? Have we then progressed beyond the comprehension of the men who made these marvels? Is it permissible to take refuge in that fatuous phrase—they builded better than they knew—when, in fact, 'they' knew exactly what they were about, and possessed a consummate technique to express precisely what they chose?

There is nothing more certain than that the Gothic cathedrals of Europe were built by architects who knew their business and whose plans were definite and precise. The architects' drawings for some of these cathedrals are extant and even the builders' model for one of them. It was intended that the towers of Notre Dame, for example, should be crowned with spires like those of the cathedral of Lichfield, for instance. But circumstances of various sorts worked to prevent the completion of the spires on most of the great cathedrals, and they were left as towers, as at Notre Dame and on the front of York. Our own standard of beauty has been fixed by what we actually have seen, and if Notre Dame were now to receive lofty spires as a crown to its towers, most of us would find its beauty marred. Are we then to conclude that we, and not the architects of old time, are the possessors of the truest standards? Shall we say that we comprehend the beauty of a Gothic cathedral better than the builder who designed it?

It would be easy to extend comparisons from the material objects of art to the immaterial institutions of society, to contrast our notions of justice and of government with those of the ancients, for example. We are just as sure that all our social institutions are better than those of old time as we are that the towers of Notre Dame are more beautiful in their present unfinished state. But should we not pause before unthinkingly accepting either conclusion?

There is no member of a ladies' culture club in the northwest who is not ready to declare that the very essence of classic purity is to be found in the unpainted Parthenon or in an uncolored Venus, and equally sure that the constitution of the state of South Dakota contains the quintessence of political wisdom. History throws a doubt on the first conclusion and suggests that it may not be amiss to reexamine the last from time to time. 'Progress' is something more than the difference between the state of affairs on a Tuesday, compared with that of any preceding Monday. The measure of progress is not the discrepancy between the inventories—moral or material—of one epoch and of a later one. There is no space here to attempt to say what a true measure of progress might be, but it should not have been quite useless to suggest that the measure in question is not so simple as we commonly assume; that the differences between races and epochs show retrogressions in many fields as well as progressions in many others. The lesson is simple—so simple that it may even be resented. Yet it is so difficult that there is no day that passes without a proof that it is not yet learned.

  1. See Popular Science Monthly, Vol. LXIV., pp. 316-342, and elsewhere.