By DONALD NICHOLL
PROGRESS IN THE AGE OF REASON, by R. V. Sampson (Heinemann, 21s. 6d.).
IT is hard luck upon any young Jiauthor when some work of his automatically provokes comparison with a similar work of unquestionable stature.
I was made aware of this when a reviewer said of a book of mine that it did not quite measure up to one by Etienne Gilson. Not for a moment had I imagined that it would; but there is room in the world for writers of less than genius. Therefore I feel a good deal of sympathy for Dr. Sampson, whose present study will inevitably invite comparison with Christopher Dawson's "Progress and Religion"; just as inevitably the comparison will he unfavourable to his work.
Why should this he so? He has obviously worked over eighteenthcentury thinkers most conscientiously and has clarified the assumptions and hopes about progress in Condorcet, Priestly, Hartley, Voltaire, etc.; yet he never attains the depth of insight or breadth of vision that seem to come so easily to Dawson. Why not ?
F I say it is because his writing shows little trace of a classical education I hope this will not be taken as classicist's prejudice-which it can hardly be, since my own classical education was sadly skimped.
But comparing the two books it is quite remarkable to see how the long vistas open to Dawson prevent him from falling into shortsighted judgements, whereas Dr. Sampson's concentration upon his chosen thinkers often leads him into parochial a n d somewhat narrow pronouncements. The abiding concerns of humanity permeate the whole thought of the former wheras they seem to have evaporated by the time one reaches Dr. Sampson. who is earnestly trying to find them again. Let me give two illustrations of how such parochialism can twist one's vision of history.
To begin with, he has a chapter on Natural Law which made my few remaining Thomist hairs stand on end. As a result of having failed to appreciate medieval teaching on that subject he has written a halting yet sincere Conclusion which could only become coherent and intelligible with the aid of St. Thomas' De Lege.
Then he has an uneven section on medieval science in which he strives desperately to be just but quite simply does not know enough to manage it. After quoting Fr. Copleston's opinion that the medieval background of theology was not in principle a threat to empirical science. he sceptically comments, "On purely a priori grounds it would seem odd that Bacon should have wasted so much powder and shot on a purely illusory threat."
On "purely a priori grounds" the whole universe is distinctly odd, even leaving Bacon out of it. But then we must not rely upon a priori grounds in approaching history. We must discover what happened. And that is where the Dawsons have the advantage: they have usually done their discovering in the course of their education. whereas so many of us nowadays rely upon a priori guesses to fill in the gaps opened by our education.