I am reading "The Outline of History" by H.G. Wells.
The Outline of History by H.G. Wells, originally published in 1920, Revised by R. Postgate, republished in 1961 by Garden City Books.
I am not a big history scholar. So, I can't tell you what degree of historical accuracy this book has. I have my suspicions that it may be fairly naïve, possibly moved by cultural predilections. I do like that he covers history outside of Europe, indeed reaching across Asia, North Africa, and Europe. I'm only up to the 15th century, so I don't know what he has to say about the era of exploration just yet. But leaving aside his degree of historical scholarship.
I want to ask about a theme expressed in the book. Here are two quotes.
Pg. 587, last paragraph Chap. XXXIII Section 1
It is in the practical realization of this idea, that education is a collective function and not a private affair, that one essential distinction of the "modern state" from any precursor lies. The modern citizen, men are coming to realize, must be informed first and then consulted. Before he can vote he must hear the evidence, before he can decide he must know. It is not by setting up polling-booths, but by setting up schools and making literature and knowledge and news universally accessible, that the way is opened from servitude and confusion to that willingly co-operative state which is the modern ideal. [rest of paragraph snipped]
Pg. 595, last paragraph last paragraph Chap. XXXIII Section 3
Like its predecessor, our present civilization may be no more than one of those crops farmers sow to improve their land by the fixation of nitrogen from the air; it may have grown only that, accumulating certain traditions, it may be ploughed into the soil again for better things to follow. Such questions as these are the practical realities of history [rest of paragraph snipped]
The theme I have noted is that of an expectation of improvement of the political situation. An improvement that requires both technological and philosophical advancement. Improved technology (of education, of the printing press, of availability of literature and literacy) allowed individuals to be informed and capable of participating meaningfully and usefully in the political process. And improved ability to discuss and criticize ideas (such as examples he discuss at length of criticizing the Roman Catholic church) allow improvements in the philosophical theories used to guide the political situaiton.
He was aware that this process is by no means regular or monotonic. There are major backward steps at many places in history. A culture will build to a previously unexperienced level, only to fall back to a much less organized level. The Roman empire is an example. The Mongol empire is. The Roman Catholic church had eras of advance and decline. Various political leaders would, at times, push for advances of education, only to be followed by decline and confusion.
But he uses each of these to express the idea of humanity learning new methods of arranging the political structures of a society. And so making possible improvements. And, in particular, supposing that the current culture isn't the best possible society, but that we could learn to make things even better. And that we can and should strive to do so.
Is he unduly optimistic?
When I look around the world today, I see very few people engaged in attempts to uncover new ways of arranging cultures so as to improve society. What I see are partisans and proselytizers. I see people attempting to find new ways to get people to go along with the ideas they are pushing. I see people attempting to convert followers to their way of thinking. Both religious and political affiliations are strongly attempting to acquire followers.
But I see extremely few people attempting to find new methods of arranging a society. Or of testing existing ways to determine which ought to be deprecated. I don't see a lot of people trying to find out which ideas ought to be "ploughed into the soil" and what ideas ought to replace them.
Is Wells unduly optimistic? Or am I unduly pessimistic?