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Quite the contrary, argued the Moderns, foremost among them Fontenelle and Perrault in France. Here Fontenelle's Digression on the Ancients and Moderns(1688) will nicely serve as the most eloquent brief in behalf of thesuperiority of modernity over antiquity. He makes his fundamentalpremise Descartes's principle, set forth in his Discourse on Methoda half-century earlier, of the invariability of nature's laws. We mayassume, Fontenelle argues, that in light of this invariability, thehuman mind is as good today, as rich in reason and imagination, as everit was in the past. There is no evidence whatever to support any viewof the degeneration of human reason since the time of the Greeks. Andif men today are as well constituted physically and mentally as werethe men of antiquity, then it follows that there has been and willcontinue a definite advancement of both the arts and the sciences,simply because it is possible for each age to build upon what has beenbequeathed to it by preceding ages.
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Finally, it must be emphasized that, God- and Spirit-intoxicatedthough St. Augustine was, his early pagan rearing, during which he readthe Greek and Roman thinkers omnivorously, gave him a solid sense ofthe wonders of material progress in the world. Too few students ofAugustine are aware of the striking passages which appear in The City of GodSection 24 of Book XXII: passages which rival in eloquence anythingProtagoras or Aeschylus or Sophocles wrote on the wonders accomplishedby mankind, in which Augustine refers to "the genius of man." In thissection we have an inspired cataloguing of the great inventions andscientific discoveries by which mankind, slowly, over a long period oftime, has conquered the earth; and a cataloguing too of all the sensualdelights man has made possible for himself as the result of this same"genius." His appreciation of both the physical and the mental beautiesof the human figure is utterly pagan in nature, but it is not the lessa signal part of the Augustinian contribution to the Western philosophyof progress.
Even Emerson, so often critical of American values, asked, in his"Progress of Culture": "Who would live in the stone age or the bronzeor the iron or the lacustrine? Who does not prefer the age of steel, ofgold, of coal, petroleum, cotton, steam, electricity, and of thespectroscope?" Such words no doubt strike chill into the hearts of ourenvironmentalists today, but they struck no chill in Emerson's day. Andin 1893, the midst of the worst single depression America had yetexperienced, Chicago opened the gates to its 600 acres of spectacularexhibits of technological progress, more than 27 million people wentthrough, to marvel and even worship. Much the same had happened inEngland in 1851 at the great Exhibition of London; its aim, in thewords of a writer in the Edinburgh Review, "to seize the living scroll of human progress, inscribed with every successive conquest of man's intellect."