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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Inevitable March of Improvement
By Edward Everett (1794–1865)
 
From the Essay compiled from Discourses in Boston, Concord, and Washington, 1827. 1829–1830

A DISCOVERY results in an art; an art produces a comfort; a comfort made cheaply accessible adds family on family to the population; and a family is a new creation of thinking, reasoning, inventing, and discovering beings. Thus, instead of arriving at the end, we are at the beginning of the series, and ready to start with recruited numbers on the great and beneficent career of useful knowledge….  1
  And are the properties of matter all discovered? its laws all found out? the uses to which they may be applied all detected? I cannot believe it. We cannot doubt that truths now unknown are in reserve, to reward the patience and the labors of future lovers of truth, which will go as far beyond the brilliant discoveries of the last generation as these do beyond all that was known to the ancient world. The pages are infinite in that great volume which was written by the hand Divine, and they are to be gradually turned, perused, and announced, to benefited and grateful generations, by genius and patience; and especially by patience—by untiring, enthusiastic, self-devoting patience. The progress which has been made in art and science is indeed vast. We are ready to think a pause must follow; that the goal must be at hand. But there is no goal; and there can be no pause; for art and science are in themselves progressive and infinite. They are moving powers, animated principles: they are instinct with life; they are themselves the intellectual life of man. Nothing can arrest them which does not plunge the entire order of society into barbarism. There is no end to truth, no bound to its discovery and application; and a man might as well think to build a tower from the top of which he could grasp Sirius in his hand, as prescribe a limit to discovery and invention. Never do we more evince our arrogant ignorance than when we boast our knowledge. True Science is modest; for her keen, sagacious eye discerns that there are deep undeveloped mysteries where the vain sciolist sees all plain. We call this an age of improvement, as it is. But the Italians in the age of Leo X., and with great reason, said the same of their age; the Romans in the time of Cicero, the same of theirs; the Greeks in the time of Pericles, the same of theirs; and the Assyrians and Egyptians, in the flourishing periods of their ancient monarchies, the same of theirs. In passing from one of these periods to another, prodigious strides are often made; and the vanity of the present age is apt to flatter itself that it has climbed to the very summit of invention and skill. A wiser posterity at length finds out that the discovery of one truth, the investigation of one law of nature, the contrivance of one machine, the perfection of one art, instead of narrowing has widened the field of knowledge still to be acquired, and given to those who came after an ampler space, more numerous data, better instruments, a higher point of observation, and the encouragement of living and acting in the presence of a more intelligent age. It is not a century since the number of fixed stars was estimated at about three thousand. Newton had counted no more. When Dr. Herschel had completed his great telescope and turned it to the heavens, he calculated that two hundred and fifty thousand stars passed through its field in a quarter of an hour!  2
  It may not irreverently be conjectured to be the harmonious plan of the universe, that its two grand elements of mind and matter should be accurately adjusted to each other; that there should be full occupation in the physical world, in its laws and properties, and in the moral and social relations connected with it, for the contemplative and active powers of every created intellect. The imperfection of human institutions has, as far as man is concerned, disturbed the pure harmony of this great system. On the one hand, much truth, discoverable even at the present stage of human improvement, as we have every reason to think, remains undiscovered. On the other hand, thousands and millions of rational minds, for want of education, opportunity, and encouragement, have remained dormant and inactive, though surrounded on every side by those qualities of things whose action and combination, no doubt, still conceal the sublimest and most beneficial mysteries.  3
  But a portion of the intellect which has been placed on this goodly theatre is wisely, intently, and successfully active; ripening, even on earth, into no mean similitude of higher natures. From time to time a chosen hand, sometimes directed by chance, but more commonly guided by reflection, experiment, and research, touches as it were a spring until then unperceived; and through what seemed a blank and impenetrable wall,—the barrier to all farther progress,—a door is thrown open into some before unexplored hall in the sacred temple of truth. The multitude rushes in, and wonders that the portals could have remained concealed so long. When a brilliant discovery or invention is proclaimed, men are astonished to think how long they have lived on its confines without penetrating its nature.  4
 
 
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