The Law of Human Progress

Leon Maclaren

[Chapter XI, from the book Nature of Society, 1943; published by Martlet Press, London.
Copyright reserved. Reprinted with permission]

The purpose of being born is to live, and of living, to live more abundantly. As with other creatures, the human being can only live fully in harmony with the principles of his own being. Some of these principles which arise from his very nature are general to the whole human race, while some are specific to the individual. Unlike other creatures, however, he does not live instinctively according to the principles of his being, but exercises a wide choice as to how and where he lives: so much so that he may attempt to live in defiance of the principles of his nature and condemn himself to decadence and death. Every moment of the day he is choosing what he will do, and in his choosing, his life is at stake. This power of choice is at once a challenge and an opportunity. A tree is neither good nor bad, it is just natural; only a human being can choose to he good. A tree lives because it must; only a human being can commit suicide.

Living is a process of growth and fruition in new life, a process of harmonious integrated development and creation. The individual is, subject not merely to the nature of the species to which he belongs, but to his own nature. Human, beings differ widely one from another and this difference finds expression in their differing desires and their differing qualities and talents. It is curious to observe how an individual's desires are related to his individual powers; each prefers to do that for which he is naturally suited. To conceive an idea, which is the sowing of the seed; to work it out and overcome all difficulties, which is the cultivation of it; and to see it formulated in practical achievement, which is the harvesting of it; is the perfect type of human action.

As has been seen, mankind is economic-ally dependent on three primary factors, on land, human desires, and labour. The natural resources are bestowed on mankind in general, and from them may be drawn his food, his clothing, his shelter, his knowledge, and his inspiration; in short, they are the source of nourishment for his whole being. Human desires and labour are specific to the individual. Desires are the beginning and their resolution the object of all human actions. No sooner is one of them gratified than another comes in its place. In pursuit of these ends the human being will endure boredom, exhaustion, suffering-even death. Generally his desires are related to one basic desire; to live, and to live more fully. It is not sufficient, however, for men and women to wish for full and ample lives, they must know how to achieve them; and they are fully equipped with the means of knowledge, with the power to discover the principles of their being, indeed of all being. This has been the feat of the material sciences in their realms of study. These principles of being are known as natural law; they do not disclose why things exist, nor what life is, but they do disclose how things behave, what the principles of living are.


Human beings are endowed with faculties so that they may live, so that they may grow and be fruitful; each may choose whether or not he will use his faculties, but those which he does not use will die, barren, and if he uses none at all, he will die altogether. There can be no human life without labour. Every person is, however, impelled to act by the desires which surge within him, and which know no limits.

Now, while man's desires have no limits, his energy is strictly circumscribed, though not so strictly as some would have themselves believe. Human beings are imbued by nature with a principle of action by which they seek to conserve their energy; they seek to gratify their desires with the minimum effort.

This urge to conserve his energy may operate to spur man to higher endeavour, because he will seek to discover simpler ways of gratifying his desires and to gain the knowledge necessary to achieve that end. The same urge, however, may cause a man to relax his efforts. Where a person's desires lack fire, he may set against their fulfilment the trouble of pursuing them, and in this nice account this principle of action may degenerate into inaction. Men and women naturally prefer to leave to others those tasks which they find irksome and tedious. It is one of the advantages of living in a community that each member of it should leave to the others those tasks for which he is not well suited, so that he may devote himself to his calling. This same urge to conserve his energy may, however, cause a member of the community to seek to live by the labour of others without contributing anything in return. If and in so far as he adopts this course, he will act in breach of his duties to his fellows and will be able to do so only by the exercise of force, privilege or guile. Were the community so ordered that its members were obliged to fulfil their fundamental duties to each other, circumstances would compel them to work for their living. Once they were working for their living, the urge to conserve their energy would tend constantly to make them more efficient and more productive members of the community.


As has been seen, it is not sufficient for the human being to desire, he must know how to fulfil his desires, he must know how to distinguish between the right and. the wrong way.

The means of knowledge are four: observation, which is the first way-; reasoning based on observation and checked by observation, which, within its limitations, is the surest way; learning from others, which is the usual way; and applying knowledge in practice, which is the final way.

Plainly, observation by all the modes of experience, sensual and intuitive, is the beginning of all knowledge. Reasoning is based on it, and if any one of the observations which provide the premises of an argument is false, logic is useless: indeed, the longer the train of thought, the worse the confusion becomes. Moreover, though observations may be, and often are, faulty, they can only be corrected, ultimately, by further observations, for whatever argument is brought to bear on them must itself be founded on assumptions. It is the merit of all those habits, customs, ideas; and thoughts, which are handed down from generation to generation, that they contain much deep understanding the fruit of long experience, acute observation and clear thinking. That they also contain idle superstition is due in large part to the fact that the knowledge they hold must be re-learnt by each generation, which may fall into the error of accepting the form as a rule of thought and conduct, while ignoring, and therefore losing, the formative principle which is the living substance. To profit from tradition, then, and not be enslaved by it, each generation must test it by their own observation and their own reasoning so that they may enter into the living part of it and reject the dead.

Only the individual human being can know, for only he can, observe, reason, learn, and act; and he can attain to that deep knowledge of right and wrong only by using all his native faculties, for observation without reasoning leads to no conclusions, reasoning without observation is futile, learning without understanding is the most mischievous ignorance of all, and a man cannot understand what he may think he knows, until he has put it into practice, until he has experienced it in living.

So, in each generation, knowledge may be won only by individuals using their particular talents, both to enter into and partake in the experiences of others, and to understand all that they experience: and this means work, hard work.

If a man is obliged to work in order to live, but is not hindered from following occupations for which he is naturally qualified, he will be drawn into them by the deep pleasure, contentment and delight which they will awake in him. Once absorbed in them, he will not count the labour which they entail; but finding his sensibility quickened by his pleasure from the work, he will observe his experiences more closely and will constantly sift, collate and analyse his observations, in continuing processes of thought. Thus exercised,. his talents' will grow in strength and scope and he will discover in the recorded and spoken observations of others, to whom he is attuned, new fields of experience into which he may enter as though they were his own.

There is no pleasure like that derived from creative achievement which calls for the use and development of human faculties. Indeed, no one can succeed in living fully, however hard he may try, unless he uses and develops his talents; that is the first necessary step.

At the same time an individual cannot know all that is required to maintain his life at the point of development it has reached. He will be dependent to a large extent on the experience, knowledge and skill of others and if this is lacking he must suffer as a result. It is essential to his full development that others should be free and willing to contribute their creative work. A human being cannot live in isolation without suffering severely from his loneliness. In choosing his way of life, then, each member of the community who would be true to himself must order his actions so that he does not hinder or cheat his fellows. It is always a question of live and let live.


If, in order to live, a man must be his own huntsman., farmer, cook and house-builder, and cannot rely on others for any help, then, unless he is one of those who find the highest expression of themselves in such a, rough and solitary life, he will have little time or energy for the development of his particular talents. To cultivate himself he must specialise; to specialise he, must trade; and to trade he must live in a community and as one comes finally to expect, man is gregarious by nature.

It is one of the primary functions of a community to set men free from the strictures of necessity, to give them scope to be themselves and to follow occupations of their own choice, in which they may grow to full stature in sensibility, skill, understanding, and achievement.

The man who is in love with his work will not degrade- it for his customer, but while satisfying his customer will honour himself. Thus, his desires will be ordered so that he puts working towards finding and following his calling, first, and pleasing his customers, second-. By this his customers will gain, for he will give of his best; but he. will gain more, for he will be laying the foundation of a full life.

Where -society is so conducted that many men and women are precluded from choosing an occupation suited to their particular talents, the desire to live and to live more fully, which moves so strongly in each of them, may run perverse and impel them to frustration and defeat. Fear of unemployment or of the orders of government is an inversion of the desire to live. It will drive a human being into employment in which his genius cannot grow but must be limited and confined. Thus trapped, he may seek his freedom in many ways. Not infrequently, his interest in his work will be indirect, and he will treat it only as a means of obtaining something from others. He will seek a full life not in what he contributes to life but in what he takes out of it, not through his work, but through what he receives for it. He will not be ashamed of jerry building. This sterile attitude can only lead to demoralisation. Judged by these standards most modern communities, are failures, because, no doubt, there are right ways and wrong ways of ordering a community and men have chosen wrong ways.

The first essential of human progress is that men and women should live in communities, the second that the community should be so ordered as to give full scope to the individuals who live in it. This scope can only be achieved where the individuals fulfil their fundamental duties to each other. What these duties are is to he discovered by understanding the very nature of human relationships, by ascertaining the natural laws governing life in society.


There are natural laws, principles of being, which every schoolboy knows. If the pressure on a gas is kept constant, and the gas is heated, the volume of the gas will vary directly with the temperature. Again, when the gas, expands its density will decrease so that, should it he in contact with a denser gas, the operation of gravity will cause it to be displaced and driven upward by the denser. gas, or by the same gas at a lower temperature. This has, always been, and, so far as man can tell, always will be. These are the principles on which the winds move. These are the principles of every system of ventilation.

In the same way, where land is free and any man who, so wishes may acquire a plot for himself, the rent of each plot will be determined by the amount by which the produce of labour on that plot exceeds what the same labour could produce on the best land open to use free of rent; and wages, will be determined by what the labourer could earn for himself on the best land open to use.

Change the conditions and the result is changed. If the pressure on the gas is increased, the increase in pressure will tend to reduce the volume so that the heating of it will set contrary forces in motion which may render the gas explosive. In the same way, -if land is enclosed and men cannot have access to it save by coming to terms with the owners, then rent and wages will be determined by the least which the labourer will accept in order to live. In these conditions, this natural force, the operation of which has been called the laws of rent and wages, will run counter to the fervent human desire to live, and to live more joyously. Men and women will be denied the opportunity to pursue those occupations which will give scope and expression to their native faculties, and, by neglect, these faculties will wither. Moreover, they will be denied even the share they have earned of the wealth and services available in the community. Caught between these conflicting forces, which they are powerless to control, between the law of rent and the desire to live, they will be frustrated and demoralised and the resulting situation must lead to society being torn with dissension or paralysed by decay.

Though a human being cannot control these natural forces, he can to some, and to an ever-increasing extent, control the conditions which set them in motion. By artificial means he may raise or lower the temperature of gases, may increase or decrease the pressure upon them, and may bring them into contact with, or isolate them -from, gases of different density. Similarly, he may order his actions so that any man who so wishes may have access to land or he may permit some to exclude others. In all this, he may choose what he will do; but once having chosen, once having set the natural forces in operation, the consequences of his action follow inevitably. He cannot stop them, he cannot change their direction. What he can do, all that he can do, is to change the conditions which determine their direction. Immediately upon such a change, the whole train of events will alter. It is useless for him to try and stop these forces in their course. If by artificial means he damns them up for a time, he only renders them more terrible in power. The naive reaction to obvious abuses, which passes now for political wisdom and which is so frequently expressed in the words, "It's wrong, it ought to be stopped", leads to repressive action, to prohibitions and regimentation.

These political expedients only put further obstacles in the path of men and women who are seeking to live. The result is inevitably to pervert this principle of human motion still more. Little deceits practised to overcome the prohibitions become habitual lying, lying turns into corruption, and corruption is made the pretext for further prohibitions. Thus, in ignorance, men and women deny the principles of their own being, not because they wish to deny them, but because they do not know that there are any principles. Our forefathers knew about electricity and were terrified by its natural manifestations. They believed it was the act of a wrathful and capricious god, and in this belief would long debate the meaning of such dreadful signs and omens, and go in fear of their own conclusions.

Modern men of science still do not know what electricity is, but they know something of the principles of its being. They know that it is not capricious, but that, on the contrary, it always acts in the same way when under the same conditions. They have used this knowledge to trap it in wires, to send it bounding round the surface of the globe to required destinations and to measure the movement of comets and meteors. The people of this generation regard human affairs as naturally capricious, chaotic and cruel. On the other hand, they are so impressed with the feats of their own science and skill, that they tend to believe there is nothing they cannot do. So, they set out to conquer nature, or organise life and to plan human relations. They might as well order the sea to retire, or the earth to stand still. Although this enquiry is only half completed, it is plain that there is nothing chaotic about the nature of social relationships that the human being is as much subject to the principles of his being as any other creature. It is equally plain that the human being does not live instinctively according to the principles of his being that he is free to do so or not to do so, as he chooses but that he chooses at his peril. Certainly, there is nothing good or bad about human nature, it is simply natural. It is man's choice that is good or had, and it is good when it is in harmony with his own nature and bad when it is not. Moreover, the choice needs to be in harmony not merely with those principles which are general to the human race, but also with those which are specific to the individual exercising the choice.


The desires which impel man to act would seem to be partly natural and partly artificial, or in other words, partly instinctive and partly of man's own making. Thus, broadly, the desire to live, to mate, to rear children and to create, would seem to be instinctive; on the other hand, broadly speaking, the desires which lead a man to gratify his instinctive desires in one way rather than another, would seem to belong to the realm of art. To put it another way, these secondary or artificial desires usually rise in a man because he believes they point the way by which he may live, and live most fully. These beliefs will be a reflection of his conception of life. A human being always believes in this sense; if he ceased to believe, he would cease to act. An individual may, unhappily, believe so strongly that life is purposeless that he will commit suicide. Such is the power of belief .

If the beliefs which the individual holds are at variance with the principles of his being, they will cause him to act in such a way as to frustrate his instinctive desires this condition will set a man at war with himself.

In any community, it is organised in the way the general body of its members believes it ought to be organised. As has been seen, it is necessary to the full development of human life that men and women should live in communities; but, as has also been seen, in the organization of the community its members may set -natural forces at work which will defeat the object of the community and have the effect of cramping and distorting the lives of its members, until ultimately the community itself disintegrates in civil strife.

Life is growth, and growth, development; and understanding which serves human society at one stage of its development is wholly inadequate at a later stage.

For example: primitive nomadic tribes always understand that land is essential to the life of every member of -the community. Each time they settle in any area, they divide the land between the members of the community, according to strict and well established customs. With the development of society into a settled agricultural state, the periodic re-division of the land defeats its original object. Intended to assure the independence of each of the families, it now deprives the farmers of security of tenure and robs them of their wages. Resistance grows to the re-division of the land, and, in some communities, absolute private property is established. Other communities, however, do not fall into this trap, but work out a new way of applying the old principle. Each adult member of the community is given rights, in common with all the other members, to the land occupied by the community, and in return, renders service and pays taxes to the community. To assure as equitable a distribution of these rights as possible, the land is divided into strips and each member is given a number of strips, one from the best land, one from the next best, and so on. Again, strict rules are established governing the rotation of crops and the periods during which the land will lie fallow. The lands become known as common land, and the people who work them, as commoners. With the development of industries and towns, however, this system of land tenure becomes wholly inadequate to the needs of the time. Even in agriculture, it becomes necessary to have large fields enclosed by hedges and ditches and new methods of cropping. In our civilisation, this was the point of development at which land finally became absolute private property.

It is not sufficient for human beings to be content to act as their fathers acted before them. New needs demand a deeper understanding of life. These new needs present themselves as difficulties demanding solution. If the understanding is lacking, the remedies adopted may set a chain of events in motion which will be far worse than the difficulties which had to be overcome.

In short, human beings not merely have the power to choose, they must choose. They are given the means of knowledge by which they may attain to that understanding adequate to the time in which they live and necessary to make a good choice.


To sum up, the first requirements of human progress are that human beings should live in a community, and that the community should be ordered so as to conform to the principles of being, to the natural laws governing life in society. To the extent that the social organization is at variance with these natural laws, the community will fail in its purpose. Instead of freeing men and women from the strictures of necessity, it will erect artificial necessities, forcing them to squander energy in fruitless effort.

When the dynamic principles of human life are wholly denied in any fundamental particular, as, for example, when man's utter dependence on the natural resources is not recognised but some are allowed to exclude others, then human lives will he wholly frustrated. The struggle for existence which must ensue upon such a denial of human nature will warp and poison human relations. The natural yearning to live together in peace and fruitfulness will be overcome by fear. Men will seek protection in numbers by sinking their identity in hostile groups. Fear of unemployment and exploitation will drive people into trade unions, and fear of trade unions will drive employers into federations; fear of industrial depressions will drive traders into monopolies, and fear of monopolies will drive governments into industry.

Instead of equality, men will seek domination; instead of self-discipline, mastery over others, and, in the end, might is preferred to right. Fear is the mark of ignorance. Though a society is at war with itself, the retrogression may be arrested and the conditions of progress restored if the members of the community will use their natural powers to understand their predicament, to discover in what elemental respects they are denying their own nature. There has been of late a welcome flowering of philosophical thought, drawing its inspiration largely from those old eastern civilisations which gained such deep understanding in the subjective mode, and, if this prospers, it may enrich and balance the intensely objective knowledge of the material sciences. East and west have both failed, however, in their economic arrangements, and this failure has defeated the first principles of human progress.

Men and women live in communities so that they may be free to grow and create. They rarely go to war because they want to fight, but are driven into it by the denial of their fundamental duties to each other. Ultimately, it is an individual choice : only the individual can desire, only the individual can labour, only the individual can know, and only the individual can choose.