Chapter 2

IF ONE ADMITS, as historians do, that great men lead humanity to the attainment of certain ends, such as the aggrandisement of Russia or of France, or the balance of power, or the diffusion of the ideas of the revolution, or of general progress, or anything else you like, it becomes impossible to explain the phenomena of history apart from the conceptions of chance and genius.

If the object of the European wars of the beginning of this century had been the aggrandisement of Russia, that object might have been attained without any of the preceding wars, and without invasion of foreign territory.

If the object were the aggrandisement of France, that aim might have been attained apart from the revolution and the empire. If the object were the diffusion of ideas, the printing of books would have attained that object much more effectually than soldiers. If the object were the progress of civilisation, one may very readily assume that there are other more effectual means of diffusing civilisation than the slaughter of men and the destruction of their property.

Why did it come to pass in this way and no other? Because it happened so. ‘‘Chance created the position; genius took advantage of it,’’ says history.

But what is chance? What is genius?

The words chance and genius mean nothing actually existing, and so cannot be defined. These words merely denote a certain stage in the comprehension of phenomena. I do not know how some phenomenon is brought about; I believe that I cannot know; consequently I do not want to know and talk of chance. I see a force producing an effect out of proportion with the average effect of human powers; I do not understand how this is brought about, and I talk about genius.

To a flock of sheep the sheep who is every evening driven by the shepherd into a special pen to feed, and becomes twice as fat as the rest, must seem to be a genius. And the circumstance that every evening that sheep does not come into the common fold, but into a special pen full of oats, and that that same sheep grows fat and is killed for mutton, must present itself to the minds of the other sheep as a singular conjunction of genius with a whole series of exceptional chances.

But the sheep need only cease to assume that all that is done to them is with a view to the attainment of their sheepish ends; they need only admit that the events that occur to them may have ends beyond their ken, and they will at once see a unity and a coherence in what happens with the fatted sheep. Even though they will not know for what end he is fattened, at least they will know that all what happens to him does not happen by chance, and they will have no need to resort to the conception of chance, nor to the conception of genius.

It is only by renouncing all claims to knowledge of an immediate comprehensible aim, and acknowledging the final aim to be beyond our ken, that we see a consistent whole in the life of historical persons. The cause is then revealed to us of that effect produced by them out of proportion with the common powers of humanity; and we have no need of the words chance and genius.

We have only to admit that the object of the convulsions of the European nations is beyond our knowledge, and that we know only the facts, consisting mainly of murders committed at first in France, then in Italy, then in Africa, in Prussia, in Austria, in Spain, and in Russia, and that the movements from west to east and from east to west constitute the essence and end of those events, and we shall not need to see something exceptional—genius—in the characters of Napoleon and of Alexander, and shall indeed be unable to conceive of those persons as being in any way different from everybody else. And far from having to explain as chance those petty events, which made those men what they were, it will be clear to us that all those petty details were inevitable.

When we give up all claim to a knowledge of the final end, we shall clearly perceive that just as we cannot invent any flower or seed more truly appropriate to a plant than those it produces, so we cannot

  By PanEris using Melati.

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