To the moderns, the notion of a continual improvement in the human race is both an axiom of thought and a dogma of faith. An axiom of thought, for if you question it they suspect you of joking. A dogma of faith, for it is what they live by; the glaring tragedy of life would be too much for them, if they had no outlook beyond the present, and its indefinite continuance. It is a moral which they deduce, with some hesitations of method, from the developments of history. It is a corollary which they infer, with no very good title, from the scientific hypothesis of Evolution. Economic history, even, is subpoenaed to prove the case; Capitalism itself is treated as a stage in the development towards higher things. The expression of such confidence in the future is out of date, Victorian; but the confidence itself is none the less deep in men’s hearts, because unuttered.
I sometimes fancy that even if the Catholic Church had no doctrine bearing on the point, she would still smile, in the wisdom she has garnered from experience, at the pathetic optimism of our modern visionaries. Who has not known some old, perfectly mellowed schoolmaster, trained by long experience to adopt a double attitude towards youth–infinite patience with the individual, and a profound distrust of the type? So many short-lived generations have passed through his hands, and he has watched them make the same mistakes, cultivate the same poses, suffer from the same conviction of their own originality; no, the type does not alter, it is for him to do the best he can with the material that is given him. And the Catholic Church, since the day when she was sent to teach all nations, is much in the schoolmaster’s position; there is no trend of philosophy, no movement in politics, no nation, even, in Europe, which does not seem young to her. And should she not be tempted to doubt, even on experimental grounds, the perfectibility of the human character? She has seen that magnificent creature of man, the Roman Empire, grow to its full strength and then crumble into a dust-heap of nationalities; she has watched chieftaincy grow into kingship, and kingship fade into constitutional monarchy; she has witnessed the epic tragedy of the Crusades; she has seen the rise and the decadence of Bible Protestantism, and Ridley’s candle guttering in its socket; she has seen the French Revolution spring up, and blossom into a tyranny; slavery die, and industrialism replace it; aristocracy fail, and plutocracy rise on its ruins; she has stood by while three great empires vanished in two years, while men beat their swords into ploughshares, and then smelted their ploughshares into high explosive; commercial world- hegemony has passed from Spain to France, from France to England, from England to the United States; and, to her longer memory, every experiment seems by the fashion of a time, every rebirth of ours abortive. We do not repeat the same mistakes precisely; here and there the failure of our ancestors has blazed the trail for us. But is the world really reaching a Promised Land? Or is it wandering, like Israel, forty years in the wilderness?
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