Chapter 1

THE SUBJECT of history is the life of peoples and of humanity. To catch and pin down in words—that is, to describe directly the life, not only of humanity, but even of a single people, appears to be impossible.

All the ancient historians employed the same method for describing and catching what is seemingly elusive—that is, the life of a people. They described the career of individual persons ruling peoples; and their activity was to them an expression of the activity of the whole people.

The questions, In what way individual persons made nations act in accordance with their will, and by what the will of those individuals themselves was controlled, the ancients answered, By the will of God; which in the first case made the nation subject to the will of one chosen person, and, in the second, guided the will of that chosen monarch to the ordained end.

For the ancients these questions were solved by faith in the immediate participation of the Deity in the affairs of mankind.

Modern history has theoretically rejected both those positions. One would have thought that rejecting the convictions of the ancients of men’s subjection to the Deity, and of a defined goal to which nations are led, modern history should have studied, not the manifestations of power, but the causes that go to its formation. But modern history has not done that. While in theory rejecting the views of the ancients, it follows them in practice.

Instead of men endowed with divine authority and directly led by the will of the Deity, modern history has set up either heroes, endowed with extraordinary, superhuman powers, or simply men of the most varied characteristics, from monarchs to journalists, who lead the masses. Instead of the old aim, the will of the Deity, that to the old historians seemed the end of the movements of peoples, such as the Gauls, the Greeks, and the Romans, modern history has advanced aims of its own—the welfare of the French, the German, or the English people, or its highest pitch of generalisation, the civilisation of all humanity, by which is usually meant the peoples inhabiting a small, northwestern corner of the great mother-earth.

Modern history has rejected the faiths of the ancients, without putting any new conviction in their place; and the logic of the position has forced the historians, leaving behind them the rejected, divine right of kings and fate of the ancients, to come back by a different path to the same point again: to the recognition, that is (1) that peoples are led by individual persons; and (2) that there is a certain goal towards which humanity and the peoples constituting it are moving.

In all the works of the more modern historians, from Gibbon to Buckle, in spite of their apparent differences and the apparent novelty of their views, these two old inevitable positions lie at the basis of the argument.

In the first place the historian describes the conduct of separate persons who, in his opinion, lead humanity (one regards as such only monarchs, military generals, and ministers of state; another includes besides monarchs, orators, scientific men, reformers, philosophers, and poets). Secondly, the goal towards which humanity is being led is known to the historian. To one this goal is the greatness of the Roman, or the Spanish, or the French state; for another, it is freedom, equality, a certain sort of civilisation in a little corner of the world called Europe.

In 1789 there was a ferment in Paris: it grew and spread, and found expression in the movement of peoples from west to east. Several times that movement is made to the east, and comes into collision with a counter-movement from east westwards. In the year 1812 it reaches its furthest limit, Moscow, and then, with a remarkable symmetry, the counter-movement follows from east to west; drawing with it, like the first movement, the peoples of Central Europe. The counter-movement reaches the starting-point of the first movement—Paris—and subsides.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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