History is the life of nations and of humanity. To seize and put into words,
to describe directly the life of humanity or even of a single nation, appear_mpossible.
The ancient historians all employed one and the same method to describe an_eize the apparently elusive—the life of a people. They described the activit_f individuals who ruled the people, and regarded the activity of those men a_epresenting the activity of the whole nation.
The question: how did individuals make nations act as they wished and by wha_as the will of these individuals themselves guided? the ancients met b_ecognizing a divinity which subjected the nations to the will of a chose_an, and guided the will of that chosen man so as to accomplish ends that wer_redestined.
For the ancients these questions were solved by a belief in the direc_articipation of the Deity in human affairs.
Modern history, in theory, rejects both these principles.
It would seem that having rejected the belief of the ancients in man'_ubjection to the Deity and in a predetermined aim toward which nations ar_ed, modern history should study not the manifestations of power but th_auses that produce it. But modern history has not done this. Having in theor_ejected the view held by the ancients, it still follows them in practice.
Instead of men endowed with divine authority and directly guided by the wil_f God, modern history has given us either heroes endowed with extraordinary,
superhuman capacities, or simply men of very various kinds, from monarchs t_ournalists, who lead the masses. Instead of the former divinely appointe_ims of the Jewish, Greek, or Roman nations, which ancient historians regarde_s representing the progress of humanity, modern history has postulated it_wn aims- the welfare of the French, German, or English people, or, in it_ighest abstraction, the welfare and civilization of humanity in general, b_hich is usually meant that of the peoples occupying a small northwesterl_ortion of a large continent.
Modern history has rejected the beliefs of the ancients without replacing the_y a new conception, and the logic of the situation has obliged th_istorians, after they had apparently rejected the divine authority of th_ings and the "fate" of the ancients, to reach the same conclusion by anothe_oad, that is, to recognize (1) nations guided by individual men, and (2) th_xistence of a known aim to which these nations and humanity at large ar_ending.
At the basis of the works of all the modern historians from Gibbon to Buckle,
despite their seeming disagreements and the apparent novelty of thei_utlooks, lie those two old, unavoidable assumptions.
In the first place the historian describes the activity of individuals who i_is opinion have directed humanity (one historian considers only monarchs,
generals, and ministers as being such men, while another includes als_rators, learned men, reformers, philosophers, and poets). Secondly, it i_ssumed that the goal toward which humanity is being led is known to th_istorians: to one of them this goal is the greatness of the Roman, Spanish,
or French realm; to another it is liberty, equality, and a certain kind o_ivilization of a small corner of the world called Europe.
In 1789 a ferment arises in Paris; it grows, spreads, and is expressed by _ovement of peoples from west to east. Several times it moves eastward an_ollides with a countermovement from the east westward. In 1812 it reaches it_xtreme limit, Moscow, and then, with remarkable symmetry, a countermovemen_ccurs from east to west, attracting to it, as the first movement had done,
the nations of middle Europe. The counter movement reaches the starting poin_f the first movement in the west—Paris—and subsides.
During that twenty-year period an immense number of fields were left untilled,
houses were burned, trade changed its direction, millions of men migrated,
were impoverished, or were enriched, and millions of Christian men professin_he law of love of their fellows slew one another.
What does all this mean? Why did it happen? What made those people burn house_nd slay their fellow men? What were the causes of these events? What forc_ade men act so? These are the instinctive, plain, and most legitimat_uestions humanity asks itself when it encounters the monuments and traditio_f that period.
For a reply to these questions the common sense of mankind turns to th_cience of history, whose aim is to enable nations and humanity to kno_hemselves.
If history had retained the conception of the ancients it would have said tha_od, to reward or punish his people, gave Napoleon power and directed his wil_o the fulfillment of the divine ends, and that reply, would have been clea_nd complete. One might believe or disbelieve in the divine significance o_apoleon, but for anyone believing in it there would have been nothin_nintelligible in the history of that period, nor would there have been an_ontradictions.
But modern history cannot give that reply. Science does not admit th_onception of the ancients as to the direct participation of the Deity i_uman affairs, and therefore history ought to give other answers.
Modern history replying to these questions says: you want to know what thi_ovement means, what caused it, and what force produced these events? The_isten:
"Louis XIV was a very proud and self-confident man; he had such and suc_istresses and such and such ministers and he ruled France badly. Hi_escendants were weak men and they too ruled France badly. And they had suc_nd such favorites and such and such mistresses. Moreover, certain men wrot_ome books at that time. At the end of the eighteenth century there were _ouple of dozen men in Paris who began to talk about all men being free an_qual. This caused people all over France to begin to slash at and drown on_nother. They killed the king and many other people. At that time there was i_rance a man of genius—Napoleon. He conquered everybody everywhere—that is, h_illed many people because he was a great genius. And for some reason he wen_o kill Africans, and killed them so well and was so cunning and wise tha_hen he returned to France he ordered everybody to obey him, and they al_beyed him. Having become an Emperor he again went out to kill people i_taly, Austria, and Prussia. And there too he killed a great many. In Russi_here was an Emperor, Alexander, who decided to restore order in Europe an_herefore fought against Napoleon. In 1807 he suddenly made friends with him,
but in 1811 they again quarreled and again began killing many people. Napoleo_ed six hundred thousand men into Russia and captured Moscow; then he suddenl_an away from Moscow, and the Emperor Alexander, helped by the advice of Stei_nd others, united Europe to arm against the disturber of its peace. Al_apoleon's allies suddenly became his enemies and their forces advance_gainst the fresh forces he raised. The Allies defeated Napoleon, entere_aris, forced Napoleon to abdicate, and sent him to the island of Elba, no_epriving him of the title of Emperor and showing him every respect, thoug_ive years before and one year later they all regarded him as an outlaw and _rigand. Then Louis XVIII, who till then had been the laughingstock both o_he French and the Allies, began to reign. And Napoleon, shedding tears befor_is Old Guards, renounced the throne and went into exile. Then the skillfu_tatesmen and diplomatists (especially Talleyrand, who managed to sit down i_ particular chair before anyone else and thereby extended the frontiers o_rance) talked in Vienna and by these conversations made the nations happy o_nhappy. Suddenly the diplomatists and monarchs nearly quarreled and were o_he point of again ordering their armies to kill one another, but just the_apoleon arrived in France with a battalion, and the French, who had bee_ating him, immediately all submitted to him. But the Allied monarchs wer_ngry at this and went to fight the French once more. And they defeated th_enius Napoleon and, suddenly recognizing him as a brigand, sent him to th_sland of St. Helena. And the exile, separated from the beloved France so dea_o his heart, died a lingering death on that rock and bequeathed his grea_eeds to posterity. But in Europe a reaction occurred and the sovereigns onc_gain all began to oppress their subjects."
It would be a mistake to think that this is ironic—a caricature of th_istorical accounts. On the contrary it is a very mild expression of th_ontradictory replies, not meeting the questions, which all the historian_ive, from the compilers of memoirs and the histories of separate states t_he writers of general histories and the new histories of the culture of tha_eriod.
The strangeness and absurdity of these replies arise from the fact that moder_istory, like a deaf man, answers questions no one has asked.
If the purpose of history be to give a description of the movement of humanit_nd of the peoples, the first question—in the absence of a reply to which al_he rest will be incomprehensible—is: what is the power that moves peoples? T_his, modern history laboriously replies either that Napoleon was a grea_enius, or that Louis XIV was very proud, or that certain writers wrot_ertain books.
All that may be so and mankind is ready to agree with it, but it is not wha_as asked. All that would be interesting if we recognized a divine power base_n itself and always consistently directing its nations through Napoleons,
Louis-es, and writers; but we do not acknowledge such a power, and therefor_efore speaking about Napoleons, Louis-es, and authors, we ought to be show_he connection existing between these men and the movement of the nations.
If instead of a divine power some other force has appeared, it should b_xplained in what this new force consists, for the whole interest of histor_ies precisely in that force.
History seems to assume that this force is self-evident and known to everyone.
But in spite of every desire to regard it as known, anyone reading man_istorical works cannot help doubting whether this new force, so variousl_nderstood by the historians themselves, is really quite well known t_verybody.