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NOTHING is more difficult than to determine whether society is advancing or retrograding: in another view, whether there is more good or evil in the world; which of them is increasing the most rapidly, and which is predominating. Perhaps this is a question which it is beyond the province of sound wisdom to endeavour to decide. It may be wiser to leave all comparisons, and to combat evil and promote good simply, wherever the opportunity may be found. It is also most difficult to compare past time with the present, and to resolve, upon the whole balance sheet of failings and improvements, whether the present times are worse or better than those which have last, or long before, preceded them. Say not, Why were the former days better than these ? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.”
Nevertheless in particulars we may praise or blame,
and hold up the mirror to society, and show to it its features in all their beauty and deformity, actual and comparative; and if our own opinions should creep out, of all or each of them, why, we need not much care to disguise or qualify them, when we see that a good purpose may be served by the disclosure.
Let us first review in outline the broad and prominent features to which those men would refer who contend that the world is advancing, and on which they rest their case, that it is tending to perfection. Let us then place before us some of the most obvious circumstances which make it doubtful, whether we be indeed advancing so rapidly and successfully as many sanguine theorists delight to hope, and venture to be assured of.
One thing that we are most certain of, is the great advance in civilization; the morals and manners of the world are year by year much refined and softened. I have especially the testimony of an officer who has been thirty years in India, and he assures me that the manners of the people are very greatly improved since he left England. Among the rich there is less swearing, drinking, indecency of habits and conversation. At table, or in the club-room, not an improper word is uttered, and religious topics may be discussed freely. In the streets the common people are wellbehaved and orderly, and both in language and manners are becoming and decent. This is confirmed by other septuagenarians.
Look at the order with which the business, and the vast concerns and trade of this mighty empire, and its metropolis, are conducted; the ten thousands of vehi
cles, and the hundreds of thousands of persons who daily crowd each other in our streets and offices, almost without inconvenience or impediment; uninterrupted by the pressure and importunity of thronging mendicants, and the sight of squalid misery,—and say, is not this the triumph of civilization ! Look at the increased width of our main streets, the magnificence of the shopfronts (2000 pounds for the front of a gin-palace, and 120 guineas for a single pane of glass), the splendour and taste and beauty of the articles exposed in them,the sewers, the water companies, the gas lights, the wood pavements,--and say, are not these the triumph of civilization! Look at the general diffusion of comforts and luxuries,--the lowest orders well clothed, and making common use of the productions of the East and West Indies; the increased length of life, and great improvements in surgery and medicine, the accumulation of wealth, the extension of empire, the steamengines, the rail-roads, the new sciences, the rapid discoveries, the progress of the fine arts, the power of machines, the triumph of mind over matter, the exaltation of the human mind, the triumph of intellect,--and say, is not all this perfect civilization !
But there are other points which philosophic and thinking men will approve even more highly than these. The progress in legislation and legislative wisdom stamps the era with a still higher character. The broad base which is being given to political government, by the extension of rights to the people; the elevation of the people to a fitness for those rights by political knowledge and education; the greater cheap