Fontenelle’s Theory Of Progress


The first Western thinker to come up with a comprehensive theory of “progress” was Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757).  His importance today rests on the fact that he was a promoter and popularizer of the ideas of Rene Descartes in the face of the sustained attacks that Cartesian ideas came under from established religious and academic circles.  Descartes was one of the true visionaries of the Western tradition, and is rightly considered to be one of the fathers of modern philosophy and science.

Fontenelle came from a wealthy and established family, and was satisfied to attain a government position as the ultimate goal of his career ambitions.  This may have been a blessing in disguise, for it game him the time and inclination to explore his real interests in philosophy and literature.  The Cartesian way of thinking was still somewhat novel to European minds, and his tireless promotion of the new philosophy did much to help it win acceptance in the circles that mattered.  He also had the virtue of not making powerful enemies, which then, as now, was a significant advantage.

In 1688 he published a pamphlet called Digression on the Ancients and Moderns.  The question debated in this publication was whether modern scientists, writers, and artists were as good as ancient ones.  This question does not particularly trouble us today; we tend to give each age, and each epoch, its due, and recognize that meaningful comparisons are problematic, if not impossible.  But things were different in Fontenelle’s day.  For many centuries, to be “educated” meant being well-versed in the ancient classics.  There were strong prejudices even against using the vernacular languages (French, Italian, English, etc.) in literary prose or poetry.


Fontenelle recognized that this attitude of excessive veneration of the past could prevent forward progress.  To address the arguments of the traditionalists, he first sought to show that man had not “degenerated” from what he was in classical times.  This idea was a common one at the time.  There was a perception–endlessly harped on by the Italian Renaissance humanists–that the Middle Ages had been an age of decadence and ignorance.  And while this picture had some truth to it, it was of course taken too far.

The forces of nature, Fontenelle argued, were the same in ancient times as they are now.  Our brains are acted on by these same forces, and our minds are composed of material substances.  Even if climate and geography are different from place to place and time to time, ideas have a universality that can transcend these factors.  We can say, then, that ancients and moderns inhabit approximately the same general reference frames.

So if these climate and geographic factors are similar, how can we account for the obvious differences in men of different eras?  The answers are found in the particular social and political institutions of the day.  Every age and era has its own mood.  Progress does not proceed along a straight line, or even an upward sloping one.  Great men can find their voices unwanted and unheard in some eras, simply because the social and political conditions do not favor their promotion.  Long periods of ignorance and superstition can break the forward momentum of progress.  This can come about through wars, revolutions, chaos, or popular rejection of intellectual achievement.

Nevertheless, Fontenelle argues, “progress” using the Cartesian methods of reasoning and deduction will go on.  We have no reason to think that there is some upward limit on it.  It is apparently infinite.  In fact, he says, our remote descendants will likely view us and the ancients actually as contemporaries; two thousand years is nothing when spread out over a great expanse of time.


Interestingly, there is one area of human thought in which it might be said that the “ancients” did exceed or equal us.  And this was in the fields of literature and art.  Everything we have noted so far applies to the sciences.  Art and literature are different in some ways.  Things like poetry and literary brilliance do not really depend on scientific reasoning.  They are the products of the creative imagination, and he notes that

Vivacity of imagination does not require a long course of experiments, or a great multitude of rules, to attain all the perfection of which it is capable.

This sort of creative brilliance does not seem to depend on technological progress.  No one can reasonably argue that modern writers have exceeded ancient ones in creative brilliance, turn of phrase, loftiness of language, or sensitivity of understanding.

We may be able to equal the ancients, of course, but we cannot say that we can surpass them.

Fontenelle’s ideas on progress are important in that they point the way (apparently) to a future marked by permanent upward progress.  The social and physical condition of man has certainly improved immensely since his day.  But like many thinkers of his era, he overestimated the capacity of science and reason to eradicate ignorance and superstition.  Having been raised, like Descartes, in an environment of intellectual control (by the Church), he wanted nothing more than to free men’s minds from its suffocating influence.

One wonders what Fontenelle would have made of the modern era.  Would he have been as confident as he once was that the forward movement of science would necessarily produce good results?  I suspect that he might have learned to have a bit more respect for the old classics.  While blind veneration of the past is a pitfall, it is also a pitfall to disrespect it.  A healthy society needs both a deep respect for tradition, and a forward-looking vision.  While man has made huge strides in technological advancement, he has made, one could argue, no comparable strides in the moral or ethical spheres.

No one today reads Fontenelle and Descartes except scholars and specialists.  But when we moderns look for vehicles to help us discipline our young, provide solace in our anguish, and give us ethical, moral, spiritual guidance, we look to the ancients.  They are still read, and read with passionate intensity.  Perhaps we are only now waking up to the fact that, by neglecting these classics for many generations, we have helped lay the groundwork for social disorder and ignorance.

Seneca, Cicero, Augustine, Homer, Lucretius, Plato, and all the rest have a strangely “modern” feel, even though we call them “ancients.”  They concerned themselves with man’s emotions, real problems, and his spiritual searches; and when we moderns concern ourselves with these same themes, we can be said to be the equals of the ancients.


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