[The following passage comes from “The Explosive Forces,” a lecture Kingsley delivered at the Royal Institution, London. I have excerpted it from the Project Gutenberg online version of The Ancien Régime (1867).

In the following paragraphs Kingsley advances several arguments, the first of which is that many of the advances in science and technology on which the Victorian age most prided itself actually came from the eighteenth century. Second, that “no outward and material thing is progress; no machinery causes progress; it merely spreads and makes popular the results of progress. Progress is inward, of the soul.” Third, like gunpowder and printing, railways and telegraphy may prove as much negative as positive. Finally, “railroads and telegraphs, instead of inaugurating an era of progress, may possibly only retard it,” and a “Byzantine and stationary age is possible yet.” — George P. Landow]

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ut see for yourselves, whether it is not at least more true than false; whether the ideas, the discoveries, of which we boast most in the nineteenth century, are not really due to the end of the eighteenth. Whether other men did not labour, and we have only entered into their labours. Whether our positivist spirit, our content with the collecting of facts, our dread of vast theories, is not a symptom — wholesome, prudent, modest, but still a symptom — of our consciousness that we are not as our grandfathers were; that we can no longer conceive great ideas, which illumine, for good or evil, the whole mind and heart of man, and drive him on to dare and suffer desperately.

Railroads? Electric telegraphs? All honour to them in their place: but they are not progress; they are only the fruits of past progress. No outward and material thing is progress; no machinery causes progress; it merely spreads and makes popular the results of progress. Progress is inward, of the soul. And, therefore, improved constitutions, and improved book instruction — now miscalled education — are not progress: they are at best only fruits and signs thereof. For they are outward, material; and progress, I say, is inward. The self-help and self-determination of the independent soul — that is the root of progress; and the more human beings who have that, the more progress there is in the world. Give me a man who, though he can neither read nor write, yet dares think for himself, and do the thing he believes: that man will help forward the human race more than any thousand men who have read, or written either, a thousand books apiece, but have not dared to think for themselves. And better for his race, and better, I believe, in the sight of God, the confusions and mistakes of that one sincere brave man, than the second-hand and cowardly correctness of all the thousand.

As for the “triumphs of science,” let us honour, with astonishment and awe, the genius of those who invented them; but let us remember that the things themselves are as a gun or a sword, with which we can kill our enemy, but with which also our enemy can kill us. Like all outward and material things, they are equally fit for good and for evil. In England here — they have been as yet, as far as I can see, nothing but blessings: but I have my very serious doubts whether they are likely to be blessings to the whole human race, for many an age to come. I can conceive them — may God avert the omen! — the instruments of a more crushing executive centralisation, of a more utter oppression of the bodies and souls of men, than the world has yet seen. I can conceive — may God avert the omen! — centuries hence, some future world-ruler sitting at the junction of all railroads, at the centre of all telegraph-wires — a world-spider in the omphalos of his world-wide web; and smiting from thence everything that dared to lift its head, or utter a cry of pain, with a swiftness and surety to which the craft of a Justinian or a Philip II. were but clumsy and impotent.

All, all outward things, be sure of it, are good or evil, exactly as far as they are in the hands of good men or of bad.

Moreover, paradoxical as it may seem, railroads and telegraphs, instead of inaugurating an era of progress, may possibly only retard it. “Rester sur un grand succès,” which was Rossini’s advice to a young singer who had achieved a triumph, is a maxim which the world often follows, not only from prudence, but from necessity. They have done so much that it seems neither prudent nor possible to do more. They will rest and be thankful.

Thus, gunpowder and printing made rapid changes enough; but those changes had no farther development. The new art of war, the new art of literature, remained stationary, or rather receded and degenerated, till the end of the eighteenth century.

And so it may be with our means of locomotion and intercommunion, and what depends on them. The vast and unprecedented amount of capital, of social interest, of actual human intellect invested — I may say locked up — in these railroads, and telegraphs, and other triumphs of industry and science, will not enter into competition against themselves. They will not set themselves free to seek new discoveries in directions which are often actually opposed to their own, always foreign to it. If the money of thousands are locked up in these great works, the brains of hundreds of thousands, and of the very shrewdest too, are equally locked up therein likewise; and are to be subtracted from the gross material of social development, and added (without personal fault of their owners, who may be very good men) to the dead weight of vested selfishness, ignorance, and dislike of change.

Yes. A Byzantine and stationary age is possible yet. Perhaps we are now entering upon it; an age in which mankind shall be satisfied with the “triumphs of science,” and shall look merely to the greatest comfort (call it not happiness) of the greatest number; and like the debased Jews of old, “having found the life of their hand, be therewith content,” no matter in what mud-hole of slavery and superstition. . . . And yet science may scale Olympus after all. Without intending it, almost without knowing it, she may find herself hereafter upon a summit of which she never dreamed; surveying the universe of God in the light of Him who made it and her, and remakes them both for ever and ever. On that summit she may stand hereafter, if only she goes on, as she goes now, in humility and in patience; doing the duty which lies nearest her; lured along the upward road, not by ambition, vanity, or greed, but by reverent curiosity for every new pebble, and flower, and child, and savage, around her feet.


Kingsley, Charles. The Ancien Régime. London: Macmillan and Co., 1902 Project Gutenberg [eBook #1335] Produced by David Price. Web. 22 June 2018.

Last modified 23 June 2018