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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?

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  • Perhaps he could be said to be 'optimistic' in 1920, but later on, not so much. Here's a quote from Encyclopedia Britannica: "... his last essay, “Mind at the End of Its Tether” (1945), darkly prophesied extinction for the human race, which, in his later opinion, lacked the creative flexibility to control its own affairs." I sometimes wish I saw more optimists, as you say.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 24, 2023 at 1:16

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Let me start by saying that I am not sure your analysis of H.G. Wells is correct. I am more familiar with his fiction than non-fiction, but it seems very strange to me that the author of The Time Machine would have such a positive view of progress. But for the sake of argument, let's say that what you describe was his position.

I see two ways he could respond to your observations. The first is that you need a broader historical view. For example, the state of race relations in the USA right now is not great. However, think about how they were 100 years ago, when segregation was legal, interracial marriage was illegal, and political action of black people was suppressed with police-approved lynch mobs. Wells could argue that the present is better than the past, even if the present is not perfect.

Even if you reject this argument and assert that society is worse now than it used to be, he could counter by arguing that the present is experiencing a temporary decline, a "major backwards step". I can't think of an elegant way to refute that argument without whole-handedly rejecting the idea of progress as a measurable quality. It is worth noting that many modern philosophers do exactly that.

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  • So do we take the Wells who seemed to be utterly pessimistic of the future, or the one who seemed to be saying that even backwards movement would eventually yield something better? Does Wells think humans will fail to make improvements, or eventually succeed? Maybe he thinks (thought) both.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25, 2023 at 0:00
  • Personally, I find the question 'Did this particular historical figure hold this particular position?' to be less interesting than 'Is this particular position defendable given modern knowledge?' This seems to be the same view taken by the OP. Their problem is not that Wells contradicts himself between books, but that the position expressed by Wells in a given book may not withstand scrutiny. That is why I only glanced over the issue of if the OP has a accurate interpretation of Wells' position.
    – E Tam
    Apr 25, 2023 at 11:54
  • Right, it seems that the high-profile books and people catch attention in every new generation of people coming along, so the particulars aren't crucial. The question of "temporary declines" is how deep and how temporary. In a world depleted of oil, it is hard to see how humanity could re-industrialize after a complete failure of society. We blew the free lunch on breakfast, before we knew where dinner would be coming from (e.g. fusion). Wells was probably more concerned with people just not being evil than with peak oil.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 26, 2023 at 10:07
  • Not to pile on, but I am reminded of the famous quote: "Neither the optimists nor the pessimists survived." Perhaps this is why we should ignore famous people who swing from one extreme to the other.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 26, 2023 at 10:16

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