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Thoughts Suggested By Mr. Froude’s "Progress"
by [?]

To revisit this earth, some ages after their departure from it, is a common wish among men. We frequently hear men say that they would give so many months or years of their lives in exchange for a less number on the globe one or two or three centuries from now. Merely to see the world from some remote sphere, like the distant spectator of a play which passes in dumb show, would not suffice. They would like to be of the world again, and enter into its feelings, passions, hopes; to feel the sweep of its current, and so to comprehend what it has become.

I suppose that we all who are thoroughly interested in this world have this desire. There are some select souls who sit apart in calm endurance, waiting to be translated out of a world they are almost tired of patronizing, to whom the whole thing seems, doubtless, like a cheap performance. They sit on the fence of criticism, and cannot for the life of them see what the vulgar crowd make such a toil and sweat about. The prizes are the same dreary, old, fading bay wreaths. As for the soldiers marching past, their uniforms are torn, their hats are shocking, their shoes are dusty, they do not appear (to a man sitting on the fence) to march with any kind of spirit, their flags are old and tattered, the drums they beat are barbarous; and, besides, it is not probable that they are going anywhere; they will merely come round again, the same people, like the marching chorus in the “Beggar’s Opera.” Such critics, of course, would not care to see the vulgar show over again; it is enough for them to put on record their protest against it in the weekly “Judgment Days” which they edit, and by-and-by withdraw out of their private boxes, with pity for a world in the creation of which they were not consulted.

The desire to revisit this earth is, I think, based upon a belief, well-nigh universal, that the world is to make some progress, and that it will be more interesting in the future than it is now. I believe that the human mind, whenever it is developed enough to comprehend its own action, rests, and has always rested, in this expectation. I do not know any period of time in which the civilized mind has not had expectation of something better for the race in the future. This expectation is sometimes stronger than it is at others; and, again, there are always those who say that the Golden Age is behind them. It is always behind or before us; the poor present alone has no friends; the present, in the minds of many, is only the car that is carrying us away from an age of virtue and of happiness, or that is perhaps bearing us on to a time of ease and comfort and security.

Perhaps it is worth while, in view of certain recent discussions, and especially of some free criticisms of this country, to consider whether there is any intention of progress in this world, and whether that intention is discoverable in the age in which we live.

If it is an old question, it is not a settled one; the practical disbelief in any such progress is widely entertained. Not long ago Mr. James Anthony Froude published an essay on Progress, in which he examined some of the evidences upon which we rely to prove that we live in an “era of progress.” It is a melancholy essay, for its tone is that of profound skepticism as to certain influences and means of progress upon which we in this country most rely. With the illustrative arguments of Mr. Froude’s essay I do not purpose specially to meddle; I recall it to the attention of the reader as a representative type of skepticism regarding progress which is somewhat common among intellectual men, and is not confined to England. It is not exactly an acceptance of Rousseau’s notion that civilization is a mistake, and that it would be better for us all to return to a state of nature–though in John Ruskin’s case it nearly amounts to this; but it is a hostility in its last analysis to what we understand by the education of the people, and to the government of the people by themselves. If Mr. Froude’s essay is anything but an exhibition of the scholarly weapons of criticism, it is the expression of a profound disbelief in the intellectual education of the masses of the people. Mr. Ruskin goes further. He makes his open proclamation against any emancipation from hand-toil. Steam is the devil himself let loose from the pit, and all labor-saving machinery is his own invention. Mr. Ruskin is the bull that stands upon the track and threatens with annihilation the on-coming locomotive; and I think that any spectator who sees his menacing attitude and hears his roaring cannot but have fears for the locomotive.