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Aesthetic, Scientific, And Philosophic Evolutions

( Originally Published 1913 )

IT remains now to estimate the triple intellectual movement, "Esthetic, Scientific, and Philosophical, which simultaneously prepared a spiritual reorganization capable of furnishing a rational basis for the temporal reorganization, the preparation for which we have just been examining.

The "Esthetic evolution manifested itself in the middle ages as soon as society could allow of its doing so; that is to say, as soon as the Catholic and feudal organization had sufficiently developed its proper constitution. The universal adoption of Chivalry naturally marks the initial epoch, by the new excitement which resulted therefrom ; but it is to the Crusades that we must trace its principal development, directly nourished during two centuries by this noble collective impulse of European energy.

The "Esthetic development was for a long time retarded by a slow and difficult preliminary operation, the indispensable accomplishment of which necessarily preceded any direct flight of poetical genius. We allude to the elaboration of modern languages, in which we may see a primary universal intervention of the esthetic faculty. Essentially destined to the universal and energetic representation of thoughts and feelings inherent in real and ordinary life, the aesthetic genius could never properly express itself in a dead or even in a foreign language, whatever exceptional facility it might have acquired by artificial habits.

We can readily comprehend how this special activity must have been employed during so long a time in the Middle Ages in accelerating and regulating the spontaneous formation of the modern languages. This spontaneity is not less marked in the originality of its productions, and in their artless conformity with the corresponding social situation, than in the independence of its ethics and freedom from servile imitation. We may particularly remark at this period the rough draught of a species of composition essentially unknown to the ancients, because it has a special reference to private life, so little developed among them. This sort of domestic epic, destined in later times to make such extraordinary progress, and which constitutes certainly the kind of production best suited to the true nature of modern civilization, took its rise evidently in this initial evolution.

The intimate mutual affinity shown by modern his-tory to have existed between Aesthetic and Industrial progress, has its principle in the twofold tendency of the industrial evolution to develope spontaneously, even in the lowest classes, habits of mental activity, without which the action of the fine arts cannot be understood, and at the same time to afford the ease and security which alone can dispose to the enjoyment of such pleasures. As long as slavery and war were the characteristics of social economy, the fine arts could never acquire any great popularity, nor indeed be generally relished even among free men, except by those of the higher classes.

It is clear, on the contrary, that the industrial evolution peculiar to the end of the Middle Ages consolidated the salutary influence of the Catholic and feudal manners, by its tendency to pervade all classes, even the most humble, with the elementary dispositions most favourable to the action of the fine arts, whose productions would henceforward address them-selves to a public at once more numerous and better prepared for their reception.

Could the Catholic and feudal system have continued, there is no doubt that the Aesthetic spirit of the 12th and 13th centuries would have acquired by its homogeneity an importance and a depth very superior to any that could have existed since, especially with regard to its popular efficiency, the true criterion of art. During the rapid and often violent transitions which were to be accomplished in the course of the great revolutionary period, and to which the industrial progression so greatly contributed, the v esthetic genius was deprived of any general direction or social destination.

The march of the Aesthetic as well as of the Industrial element was by turns spontaneous during this first-mentioned phase ; stimulated during the second as a means of influence by systematic encouragement; and lastly erected, under the third, into a partial object of modern policy. Although fatal to the proper development of Art, this last phase was nevertheless necessary to finish, in the social point of view, the preparatory evolution of the new element thus directly incorporated, for the future, in the great political movement of modern society, with which it could not have been otherwise associated.

The equivocal class of " men of letters," produced by this transformation, and unhappily from that time invested with the supreme mental direction of social changes, tends spontaneously to postpone the final regeneration of society by its natural inclination to pro-long the reign of the critical spirit, which can alone maintain the social preponderance of the class. The (Esthetic evolution has then arrived gradually at a point at which it can receive no new developments, but by the universal reorganization, as we have already recognized to be the case with the industrial evolution, the principal basis of our actual social state.

We must now proceed to an equivalent demonstration of the strictly Scientific, and afterwards to the purely Philosophical evolution, in as far as they can be distinguished provisionally, one from the other. In this transient separation of the two progressions which by their common nature must certainly be at last irrevocably merged in one, we must first examine the scientific movement, without which the philosophical movement would be unintelligible.

We have already seen how favourable the passage from Polytheism to Monotheism must have been both to the development of the scientific spirit, and to its habitual influence over the common system of human opinions. Such was the transitory nature of the monotheistic philosophy, the extreme phase of theological philosophy, that far from interdicting, like Polytheism, the special study of Nature, it began by patronizing the universal contemplation of its marvels in order to the more perfect appreciation of providential optimism.

Accordingly, in the second phase of the Middle Ages, as soon as the new social state began to acquire some consistency, the memorable efforts of Charlemagne and afterwards of Alfred to revivify and diffuse the culture of the sciences bear witness to the constant solicitude of the Popes for the preservation of the knowledge already existing, accompanied with some secondary ameliorations.

At the same time we must admit, that, owing to the deep political pre-occupations, both spiritual and temporal, belonging to the second period of the middle ages, the principal advances in science could not be directed by Catholic monotheism, at that time absorbed by far more important cares, but by the Arabian monotheism, which was eminently fitted for the work during these three centuries, under whose ascendancy so many useful ameliorations in ancient mathematical and astronomical science were introduced.

The universal accession of Scholasticism established very soon the decisive ascendancy of the metaphysical over the strictly theological spirit. The sanctity attached from that time to the authority of Aristotle is a sign of this memorable transformation.

The harmony of this new intellectual development with the general situation of active minds is characterized in the most decisive manner by the continued avidity with which thousands of hearers flocked to the teachers in the great European Universities during the last phase of the middle ages.

Let us now make a rapid examination of this important progress during the three successive phases which we have marked out. Under the first of these the march of science is, like that of art and that of in dustry, essentially spontaneous, without any important interference of the special encouragement afterwards organized. In scientific as in esthetic progress the second phase constitutes certainly the most decisive period of its modern evolution, especially on account of the movements which, from Copernicus to Newton, laid the definitive foundations of the true system of astronomical science, now become the fundamental type of Natural Philosophy.

During the third phase the scientific element receives an important increase of social power, exactly analogous to that which we have pointed out with regard to the ęsthetic element, and perhaps even yet more strongly characterized on account of its more evidently progressive nature. The increasing relations of natural and organic philosophy both with military affairs and with the industrial movement, as the principal objects of European policy, determine at this epoch a great extension in the social influence of the sciences.

We will now consider the philosophical evolution, as distinguished provisionally from the purely scientific. Scholasticism had realized to its utmost the social triumph of the metaphysical spirit, the profound impotence of which was unrecognized during several ages, from its incorporation with the Catholic constitution. By accepting thus the dangerous appeal to Reason, the monotheistic faith departed in an irrevocable manner from its original nature. This strange combination, by which an attempt was made to con ciliate the theological with the positive spirit, bears the characteristic impress of the metaphysical spirit which had conceived it, and which had evidently reserved for itself the best share, by making Nature an object of daily contemplation and even adoration, leaving only a sterile veneration for the majestic inertness of the supreme Divinity, solemnly reduced to a vague initial intervention ! This scholastic compromise constituted, in fact, a profoundly contradictory situation, the stability of which was impossible.

Under the second phase the metaphysical philosophy was in possession of the spiritual authority it had always coveted, even among the nations which had nominally remained Catholic ; and at the same time the scientific spirit began to display itself in its true character by the gradual convergence of its spontaneous elaboration towards decisive discoveries; a character entirely incompatible with the ancient philosophy, meta-physical as well as theological.

Germany had already, in the preceding century, reached this decisive crisis, both by the movement of religious reformation, and still more by the grand astronomical discoveries of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and hastly of the great Kepler. But absorbed in religious contests it could give no active concurrence. England, Italy, and France, on the contrary, furnished each an eminent cooperator in this noble elaboration three philosophers, whose genius though very different was equally indispensable, Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes, who will be acknowledged by all posterity as the first founders of the Positive Philosophy.

The third phase could be nothing but a simple extension of the one preceding. The only conception which we can regard as really belonging to it consists in the grand idea of human progress, which even under the ascendancy of the negative elaboration prepared the principle of mental reorganization. The illustrious economist, Turgot, was led to his celebrated theory of indefinite perfectibility, which in spite of its metaphysical character served afterwards as the basis of the grand historical project conceived by Condorcet, under the inspiration of the revolutionary crisis.

It is impossible not to remark that the entire evolution of modern philosophy constitutes merely a preliminary elaboration, the essence of which resides in a plan for human regeneration. Hence in this work I have made a distinct separation between the Preliminary Sciences, and the one Final Science which is to form the basis of social reorganization.

Such is the general result of our historical survey in the great European republic, the impulse of new social elements constituted an universal movement of partial recomposition, destined to concur with the simultaneous movement of political - decomposition, in order to evolve from their inevitable combination the final regeneration of mankind.

These two simultaneous movements of political decomposition and social reorganization, whose convergence gave its characteristic to modern society from the 14th century, could not, in spite of their intimate connection, be accomplished with the same rapidity; so that towards the end of our third phase the negative progression was already sufficiently advanced to prove distinctly the imminent need of a final reorganization, whilst the imperfection of the positive progression hindered the true nature of such a regeneration from being adequately conceived. This unavoidable disparity is the real cause of the vicious direction pursued by the revolutionary crisis in which this two-fold universal movement was to end.

But if it had not been for this salutary explosion of the French Revolution, unveiling at last to all eyes the chronic decomposition of which it was the result, the powerless caducity of the ancient system would have remained profoundly hidden, so as radically to fetter the political march of the select few, by concealing all ideas of any real reorganization, which would have appeared superfluous to the vulgar : so disposed is our feeble intelligence to content itself with the slightest organic outward appearances, to exempt itself from the troublesome efforts necessary to the conception of a new order of things. This decisive crisis was indispensable to indicate to all the advanced nations the advent of the final regeneration gradually prepared by the great movement of the five preceding centuries.

This great outbreak, clearly presaged by the general state of things, had been specially announced about the end of the third phase by three events of different natures and unequal importance, but all, in this respect, equally significant. The first and most decisive was assuredly the abolition of the Jesuits. Nothing could more strongly mark the irrevocable caducity of the ancient social system than this blind destruction of the only power capable to a certain extent of retarding its imminent decline. The second precursory symptom resulted, shortly after the first, from the great attempt at reform vainly made under the celebrated administration of Turgot, the inevitable failure of which brought into view the absolute necessity of more extensive and radical innovations, especially that of an energetic popular protest against the abuses inherent in a retrograde policy. Lastly, the famous American Revolution furnished an occasion for the spontaneous expression of the universal disposition of the French for a decisive change.

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