Progress Past

Paul Langford

  • The Idea of Progress in 18th-Century Britain by David Spadafora
    Yale, 464 pp, £22.50, July 1990, ISBN 0 300 04671 5
  • George III and the Satirists from Hogarth to Byron by Vincent Carretta
    Georgia, 389 pp, £38.50, June 1990, ISBN 0 8203 1146 4

It is customary to claim the idea of progress as one of the distinguishing features of Western civilisation: indeed the very success of the West is sometimes attributed to confidence in its own destiny in this respect. Its peculiar saving mission, that of liberating mankind by means of the creation of wealth, would make little sense without some underlying faith in the prospect, perhaps even the certainty, of limitless improvement. The author of The Idea of Progress in 18th-Century Britain, an interesting and carefully crafted book, evidently shares something of this faith. He ends it with a triumphalist flourish, arguing that the Industrial Revolution not only made possible the victory of the creed of progress but was itself the outcome of that creed.

Yet there is nothing naive about this work, for Spadafora is aware of the difficulties of his subject. Notions of progress in the Early Modern world had to be placed in a framework which fitted uneasily with an optimistic outlook. Christian refusal to believe that man was in principle perfectible in his mortal state joined with a pessimistically cyclical view of history to inhibit faith in human progress. Readers who have had to absorb the findings of the modern school of civic humanists will not need to be reminded that statesmanship itself might be considered a desperate form of roulette in which the skill and luck of the players could at best delay the inevitable process of corruption. For all the talk of reviving ancient vigour and reverting to first principles of republican virtue, the wheel of fortune was ultimately as detrimental to man’s belief in his own capacities as the more predictable encumbrance of his original sin.

Spadafora is at home in this world, and understands the problems of definition which its explorer must encounter. Progress, after all, is a highly ambiguous term. His own definition is workmanlike rather than elegant. It also settles, perhaps wisely, for a minimal content: ‘the movement over time of some aspect or aspects of human existence, within a social setting, toward a better condition’. He has no doubt that in this respect what he calls the ‘high 18th century’, between 1730 and 1780, achieved a decisive shift. This high 18th century seems rather artificial and not everyone will agree with his description of it. Its prime characteristic, he argues, was its stability. Yet, as he later concedes, it was the very vitality and change of the mid-18th century which made possible new perspectives on the destiny of commercial man. On the other hand, his analysis of the key developments which promoted interest in the prospects of a better world carries conviction. By the mid-18th century most referees were agreed that the Moderns had beaten the Ancients, on points at any rate. More tellingly, there was a growing sense that merely to argue the outcome of this venerable contest was rather futile. In that realm of scientific empiricism which the reading of Bacon and Locke had made fashionable the Moderns seemed particularly appealing. Much space is devoted here to the new-model enlightened man. Unburdened with innate ideas, thanks to Locke, equipped by Hartley with a psychology which permitted self-conscious development, and popularised by Priestley as a divinely ordained instrument of improvement, ‘pliable man’ stepped forward for inspection. No effort was spared to ensure his supersession of earlier, less malleable models. The dominance of nurture rather than nature in fashionable educational theory ensured a growing willingness to believe in the possibility of improving men’s minds and perhaps even their characters. Examinations of the natural world and human cultures alike suggested the necessity of evolution and advance. Studies of animal development found evidence of physiology transformed by environment and thereby anticipated Darwin by fully a century. Projects for linguistic improvement testified to man’s capacity to reshape the means by which he communicated and refined his intentions. Above all, interest in spreading the gospel of betterment, not merely through schooling but also through a plethora of learned and enlightened societies, revealed the conscious commitment of the age to its own progressive creed.

All this is plausible enough and thoroughly documented. But Spadafora is concerned to argue something more specific. He claims that the British, and more precisely the English, brought a peculiar commitment to the doctrine of progress and thereby played a unique part in installing it as the pre-eminent value of the West. Whether this is entirely fair to the French is a very moot point. Whether, in any event, it is cause for self-congratulation, as the author plainly assumes, is still more dubious; some readers might find the heartening scepticism of the Philosophes more appealing than the curious combination of millenarian enthusiasm and materialistic cynicism which is here discerned in their English critics. Nonetheless, granted the premise, the reasoning offered is certainly intriguing. This is a big book, but the essence of the thesis which it presents is to be found in two chapters comparing Scottish and English thinking. Spadafora’s Scots are well known, almost to the point of ennui: Ferguson, Millar, Hume, Smith, Robertson. But his five Englishmen (who actually include two Welshmen) are not all equally famous. Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, and perhaps Edmund Law, need no introduction. But William Worthington and John Gordon have not previously been placed in the august company of the Humes and Priestleys. Worthington figures briefly in the DNB and Williams’s Eminent Welshmen, but is not a household name even among historians of Georgian ideas. John Gordon escaped even Leslie Stephen’s eagle eye.

On this rather slender and not necessarily very representative foundation an ingenious case is constructed. Scottish pessimism, it is argued, however erratic and residual, was sufficient to form a striking contrast with English optimism. This pessimism was rooted in the sceptical mind of the Scottish Enlightenment. It reflected the mixed experience of Scots before the Union, as well as their subsequent sacrifices on the altar of imperial prosperity. The key to the English experience, by contrast, was the continuing preoccupation of English intellectuals with their theological inheritance. On this reading, faith in progress was not that secularisation of the Christian vision of history described by J.B. Bury, but a logical extension of Christian belief in the millennium. The argument needs careful handling to accommodate the tensions of contemporary thought, and Spadafora treats it in suitably balanced fashion. On the one hand, he admits, Christian apologists were quite ready to take on board the scientific and mechanistic explanations favoured by their more sceptical compatriots. On the other hand, eschatology retained its appeal, fitting naturally enough with an almost Biblical faith in the Englishman’s peculiar felicity.

Much of this carries credence. But whether it will fit all cases is somewhat doubtful, given the narrowness of the base. Perhaps the most famous statement of 18th-century complacency is that offered by Gibbon, with his ‘pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue of the human race’. Spadafora is too honest not to quote Gibbon at length, but he is wisely silent about Gibbon’s eschatology. Of course, exception might also be taken to Gibbon as a representative Englishman, but it is not at all clear why Worthington and company should be considered better guides to English thought.

What of the book’s central assumption, namely that the 18th century did see a decisive shift in the perception and evaluation of change? There is no doubt that the common meaning of the term ‘progress’ did alter in this period. For Hogarth’s rake and harlot there was no necessary irony in a progress downwards. Progress was movement, not betterment. Fifty years later Barry’s ‘Progress of Human Culture’ reflected an increasingly common acceptance that forward and upward were synonymous. On the other hand, progress was not a word which sprang naturally to the lips of late 18th-century Englishmen. Spadafora’s quotations are numerous and lengthy, but it is noticeable that in many of these quotations the word ‘progress’ itself does not occur at all. Gibbon himself avoided it and so did many of his contemporaries. When they talked of things getting better they spoke rather of ‘improvement’.

The semantic distinction is not a small one. Progress in that 19th-century sense which Spadafora seeks to trace back to the 18th century is a force, an immanent presence which presupposes something in the nature of a secular teleology. Significantly, those 18th-century authors who did happily and repeatedly talk of progress were thought eccentric in their views. Priestley, for instance, was notoriously a necessitarian whose doctrines placed him at a distance even from many of his friends and sympathisers. History, for him, displayed only ‘the hand of Providence, and the weakness and short-sightedness of men’. The progress which he envisaged was not essentially the work of individuals or groups, though of course it might be pursued and in some measure facilitated by them. (Significantly, progressives as people, let alone as political parties, belong to the late 19th century, not the 18th.) Improvement, by contrast, was the work of individuals consciously pursuing their own and society’s good. It perfectly expressed the 18th century’s search for betterment, comprehending the evangelical’s zeal for self-scrutiny as much as commercial man’s zest for material growth. Unlike progress, it could not occur at all without constant endeavour by those who saw its advantages. Improvement, in short, did not logically entail progress in Bury’s sense, and the reader of this book is left with the feeling that Spadafora has not completely convinced himself that it did in his own.

The quotations are assembled with skill and the cumulative effect is compelling enough. But they often remain what they are, index-card entries separated if not divorced from context. The author’s technique for giving them more texture and colour is to introduce them with brief characterisations of their authors. This would be welcome if the execution were not so banal. Categorising the churchmanship of minor Georgian bishops might make an interesting parlour game for students of ecclesiastical history, but it surely requires more sophistication than is offered here. Ross of Exeter was ‘moderate’, Green of Lincoln ‘a liberal’, Watson of Llandaff ‘extremely liberal’; Butler of Oxford was ‘a conservative’, Newton of Bristol ‘fairly conservative’. What liberalism and conservatism mean in this context is not explained: aside from the anachronistic nature of such terms, it is difficult to see how the diverse views held on diverse topics by such men could be so neatly summarised. As it happens, all five were proud to call themselves Whigs: but on topics political, theological and liturgical their differences defy simple classification.

Spadafora’s book is both scholarly and thought-provoking, but it would be better still if its subject had been defined with more clarity and force. Carretta’s George III and the Satirists from Hogarth to Byron has a clearly identified subject but does not completely work as a book. This is not for want of appeal and variety in the matter. George III figured prominently in the literary and visual satire of his time. The range of themes evoked and preoccupations revealed by those who assailed him remains striking, and if nothing else the illustrations profusely deployed in this book demonstrate the potential of the subject. At his best, Carretta conveys a strong sense of the richness of his material. He joins extensive study of the prints with a well-grounded expertise in the satirical literature of the period. His previous work on the early 18th century provides a valuable base for a survey of the reign of George III. The modish authorities on each of his authors and artists are suitably deferred to, and the account of the satires themselves is unexceptionable. But the treatment is heavily descriptive, and of over-arching argument there is none, unless it be the less than original contention that kings have two bodies, one corporeal, one symbolic. This not very profound perception is pursued through long quotations from Churchill to Byron via Blake, with the aid of some discursive analysis of the prints. But there is not much about developing techniques of satire, changing functions of the media, or notable novelties of treatment. The potentially problematic relationship between the mass propaganda of the prints and the more intimate verse of the poets is taken for granted. And the kind of investigative work which went into H.M. Atherton’s Political Prints in the Age of Hogarth is here not really attempted. Satires of diverse kinds are treated either as if they can be taken at face value, or alternatively as what their authors meant them to be. The complex nature of political propaganda in an age of rapidly expanding media markets is hardly discussed.

Both these authors seek to operate across disciplinary boundaries, Spadafora with due modesty, Carretta less cautiously. Inevitably the confidence with which the surveying is carried out is somewhat variable. Spadafora knows his divines but seems less happy with some of the literary giants whom he encounters. His account of linguistic theory lacks precision, and students of Swift will be startled to be told that they have neglected his interest in the improvement of the English language. Carretta knows his Churchill and his Gillray, but his touch for the politics of George Ill’s reign is rather heavy-handed. His cavalier neglect of the newspaper press leaves out the context which is arguably most relevant for the satirical concerns of the late 18th century. More oddly still, in view of the title of his book, he shows little interest in George Ill’s own character, and in the doings of his court, especially in respect of the influence of Queen Charlotte. Where he does score is in reminding political historians what a wealth of graphic polemic was considered normal by the 1790s. Whether this represented progress in Spadafora’s sense is doubtless debatable. That it represented some remarkable change and development during the ‘high 18th century’ can surely not be questioned.