Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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ZEITGEIST. Its Nature and Power. The Zeitgeist is a German word, meaning the spirit of the times, or the spirit of the age. In the following article it will be frequently rendered literally by the English compound Times-Spirit.


—Every one feels the power of the times-spirit, but no one explains to us on what that power depends. All speak of the times-spirit, or of the spirit of the age; most men pay homage to it; yet nobody tells us what the times-spirit which they worship and which they sometimes unwillingly obey, is. The idea of the times-spirit did not originate in our day. It was given expression to, even by the brahmans of ancient India. The old Romans were acquainted with the "spirit of the century" (the sœculum). (Tac. Germ., 19.) But our age has grown more attentive than any former one to the drift of the spirit of the times. Hence the question, What is the times-spirit? imperatively demands an answer.


—I. Let us first see by what external signs men think they can recognize the times-spirit, and what qualities they ascribe to it.


—1. The times-spirit manifests itself chiefly in the definite character and the special intellectual direction by which the different ages and the different phases of the times are distinguished from one another. The contrast noticeable between the great periods of the world's history, marks also the changes or transformations of the times-spirit, in a general way. Even the spirit of the middle ages was once present in the world as the spirit of the times, as the times-spirit; and in its time it crushed out the spirit of the ancient world, just as it had itself to yield subsequently to the spirit of modern times. Again, in these great periods of the world's history the spirits of the centuries, and even of the half-centuries composing them, are surprisingly different. Only, the century must not be reckoned according to our Christian system of chronology, for the experience of history everywhere shows, that the spirit of the new century becomes observable in all its youthful impetuosity even in the last decade (according to Christian chronology) of the previous century. Christ was not born at the beginning of a century, and hence our Christian chronology does not correspond with the chronology of the periods of the world's history (weltperioden, world-periods).


—With the ages, new ideas, like stars, rise above, and again sink below, the horizon of humanity. In one century, an idea has a powerful attraction for men; in another, that same idea exercises no influence whatever. In one age, men wax enthusiastic over it, in the next they pass it by coldly and indifferently. In the twelfth century (including the last decade of the eleventh) all Christian Europe was stirred to its very center by the desire to rescue the sacred sepulchre of Jesus from the infidel. To effect that end, millions of men with fiery ardor rush into the arms of unknown danger, privation and death. But this fanatical impulse loses its power over minds in the thirteenth century, and, later, dies out entirely. The second half of the fifteenth and the first of the sixteenth century, favor the renaissance of ancient ideas, and the reformation of the church, which had previously been attempted, without success, by individuals; while, from 1540 onward, the spirit of reaction and torpidity rose up and was just as victorious. In the seventeenth century, princely absolutism everywhere celebrated its triumph over the estates system; and in the eighteenth, beginning with 1740, the craving for enlightenment and the freedom of the middle class of citizens raged with the violence of revolution. The nineteenth century corresponds with the growth of representative constitutional government and the national (see NATIONALITIES, PRINCIPLE OF) current in politics. In one age, the fundamental feature of the times-spirit is liberal; in another, conservative; while in a third it is either radical or absolutist.


—The same changes or transformations of the times-spirit are, besides, visible in miniature, in any one age. Here, too, there is an upward and a downward movement to be distinguished. The spokes of the great wheel of the world's history consist of smaller wheels which have a rotation of their own. The very same men grow enthusiastic, in one phase of the times, over popular freedom, and in another call for a dictatorial power; but, in both instances, they appeal to the spirit of the age with which the direction they follow is in harmony. When Napoleon I. undertook to re-establish Cæsarian authority, he tried to discover, by means of pamphlets which he caused to be scattered widespread, whether the time for it had come, just as Noah, according to the Jewish record, once tried to find out whether the waters of the deluge had subsided; and Napoleon repeatedly postponed carrying his design into execution, because the time had not yet come for it. At last the signs of the times seemed favorable to him; he then cast aside the veil of the consulate, and founded the new empire. Such an undertaking would have been as impossible later, at the time of the restoration after 1815, as it would have been earlier, in the turbulent time of the revolution.


—This changing of the times-spirit seems to protect mankind from the lasting, all-crushing despotism of a single, one-sided tendency or direction, and of one sole power. Time causes one force to set again, which it had previously called on to rise, and summons other sleeping forces into life and operation. With time the wheel of destiny turns round, and now new hopes and cares awaken, and now again old sorrows and old joys approach their end. In the change of human things the change of the times-spirit has a great share. Not our globe alone is round and must turn on its axis; the times-spirit too revolves, and, by its revolution, exercises a changing influence on the opinions and doings of men.


—2. A second noteworthy observation is the propagation of the times-spirit. Were it limited to a single country, or to a definite nation, we would suppose we discovered it in the peculiar spirit of that country or that nation. But it is evidently not confined within the boundaries of a country; it moves, in the same current and direction, over different nations. Like the currents of the wind, in the atmosphere, it now moves from the east to the west, and now from the north to the south, and vice versa. The religious, believing, and, in a political sense, feudal, fundamental feature of the mediæval times-spirit, spread not only over Christian Europe, but, simultaneously, over the Mohammedan east.


—It is often thought that the changes in the spirit of the times can be explained by certain definite experiences of a people, or by certain measures taken by its government. The explanation is a wrong one; for the spirit of the times changes among other peoples also, with different experiences and different governments. We must not think that the change in the spirit of the times was caused for the reason that this thing or that thing happened, or for the reason that this thing or that was left undone. It may be that such happening or leaving undone of a thing may, as a secondary cause, have helped the efficiency of the change of the times-spirit, or put obstacles in its way. The change itself, however, is not dependent on such happening or leaving undone, and has another and chief cause. The best liberal government can not prevent the return of the time of a conservative tendency. And when, even an absolutistic government makes no gross mistakes, the times-spirit does not always persist in the same direction, but from time to time ventures a leap in the way of radicalism.


—But the spirit of the times does not propagate itself in entirely the same measure among different peoples. It changes, too, the principal representatives of its character for the time being. At one time one nation, and at another time another, appears as the especial organ of the times-spirit, according as the peculiar nature of such a nation harmonizes with the most prominent quality of the spirit of the times. The spirit of the times in this way lifts up the nations, and lets them fall again.


—The principal seat of the times-spirit in Europe, in antiquity, was first Greece, and, later, Rome. During the middle ages the Germans, although unconscious of the fact, were the representatives of the spirit of the times. In the age of the reformation of the church the German nation was the chief organ of the times-spirit, just as the French nation was in the age of the revolution. In the former instance, the times-spirit swept from Germany over northern and western Europe; in the latter, like a storm, from Paris over the European world. The full power of the moving times-spirit, like the crest of a wave, becomes perceptible only in the land or among the nation which is its principal seat or principal representative; and its force in other lands and among other peoples decreases in intensity, until the wave reaches its trough.


—3. The great power of the times-spirit shows itself mainly in the multitude. It comes over the masses, they know not how themselves, and gives them the direction which they follow. The greater number of them surrender themselves up to its impressions, and allow themselves to be filled by it. As plants, at certain seasons of the year, shoot forth and blossom, then stand still and fade, nations are now stirred to action by the current of the times-spirit, and again are relegated by it to rest. The times-spirit wakes up and slumbers according as these qualities or those appear in it. Its course is mysterious. It forces itself in like the wind; it communicates itself from one man to another just as heat does from one body to another. At times, it spreads like an epidemic, and, in a moment almost, transforms the hopes and moods of men.


—But there is a great difference between the times-spirit and the cosmic influences of the seasons and the changes of the wind. There was a time when men sought to explain the strangest effects of the times-spirit by cosmic causes. Astrologers calculated the destiny of men from the constellations of the heavens. They thought that by the position or movement of the planets especially they might discover men's plans and acts, and measure the change of the times-spirit. Fruitless and foolish endeavor! Were the cause of the change of the times-spirit to be found in the external nature of our globe, that same cause, like the seasons of the year, like the changes of heat and cold, like the currents of the wind, would necessarily exercise an influence on men and on all other creatures, at the same time on plants and on animals. But of this there is no trace. No matter how the times-spirit changes, the growth of plants and the life of animals do not follow the change. They do not feel it.


—The power of the times-spirit manifests itself only in the life of man; it is connected with human nature, and is scarcely explainable except by the facts of human nature.


—As the times-spirit is confined to the world of men, its power is enhanced by the intercourse of men with one another, and in many ways weakened and checked by the isolation of men from one another. Nowhere is the times-spirit stronger than in great cities, in which men live closely packed together in constant and active intercourse with one another. It rules much less in the country, with its small villages and scattered farm-houses. The seclusion of a monastery can not withdraw itself entirely from it, but it only slightly feels the transforming power of the times-spirit.


—4. Its power over men is not an absolute one. Some, especially individuals of energetic character and determined mind, resist its influences, and sometimes endeavor, with success, to swim against its stream. Many combat the times-spirit which they hate. Many more, vexed and defiant, repel its rule. The world's history is determined only in part by the times-spirit. The individual freedom of men, as well as the times-spirit, leaves its impress on the history of the world, and in it another spirit besides that of the times reveals itself to us. The latter we recognize only where the spirit of the masses moves. Hence the times-spirit does not fill the whole of human nature, and is not identical with the mind or spirit of man in general.


—5. But neither can the changes of the times-spirit be explained by the play of caprice. That change is not like the varying pictures of a revolving kaleidoscope. Rather is there an intrinsic connection between the character of a preceding and of a succeeding section of time; we may perceive an organic succession of ages, and again an organic succession of phases of the times within the same age, which strongly reminds us of the succession of the age-stages in the life of man. The transformation of the times-spirit, too, begins with childhood, and rises to the height of youthful consciousness, to subsequently, after wise work and careful preservation, sink again into aging routine and prudent calculation, and to prepare for a new revolution. In all this there is regularity and law, not chance and caprice.


—A great many modern philosophers have endeavored to discover this law. Hegel's endeavor to find it in the dialectic movement of the faculty of thought necessarily failed, because human faculties are manifold, and because the self-conscious mind of thinkers does not at all always determine the direction of the masses. The presentiments of Fourier and the speculation of Krause which pointed to the succession of the age-stages of human life, and sought by them to explain the changes of the times-spirit, were happier. But Frederick Rohmer investigated the law of the times-spirit more deeply and more comprehensively than any other writer, and explained it by psychology. His own nature, which was very sensitive to, and had a fine feeling for, all the changes of the times-spirit, constantly spurred him on to observe its course, and follow it, like the minute-hand of a clock, with strained attention. In this way he at last found an accurate measure for the movement of the times-spirit.


—This prevalence of law in its movement distinguishes the spirit of the times from the change able fashion. The times-spirit, indeed, exercises its power on the fashion too. It manifests itself by way of preference in the art style of different ages, from which even the fashion can not free itself, and most clearly in the architectonic style, but in music and in literature also. Thus the fashion only followed the times-spirit when, in the seventeenth, and to some extent in the eighteenth century, it gave its preference to rococo forms, and delighted in queues and hair-bags. Again, it was led by the spirit of the times when the French revolution revived antique fashions, corresponding to the republican models of Grecian and Roman antiquity, which then had great influence on the renovation of public life; and when it afterward, in the Napoleonic period, turned to the aristocratic and severer forms of Cæsarian Rome. To the extent that the fashion follows the times-spirit, it, too, is determined by law. But side by side with this law, the individual inclinations, whims and moods of persons and social centres, operate very powerfully on the fashion—persons and centres which are looked upon by the rest of society as authorities, and in whose footsteps the rest of society is accustomed to follow. The lions and lionesses of fashion in Paris and London are not always led to their resolutions and choices by the general movement of the times-spirit, but are determined in great part by their own freedom. We know, for instance, what kind of a personal cause it was that brought crinoline into fashion; and, in men's adhesion to the dress coat and silk hat, we perceive not so much the changeableness of the times-spirit as the supremacy of French style.


—II. What, then, is the times-spirit, the qualities of which we have been considering? Is it really, as many suppose, the sum of individual human minds existing at a given time? When Goethe once wished to ridicule the false times-spirit, he wrote the well known lines:

"Was ihr den Geist der Zeiten nennt,
Das ist der Herren eigner Geist."

[What the gentlemen call the spirit of the times, is their own spirit.]—And, indeed, men frequently palm off their own spirit for the times-spirit; sometimes they deceive themselves about it, and sometimes they wish to deceive others about it. But the true times-spirit is something different from the sum of separate spirits. If it were only the sum of separate spirits, the fact that the same individuals follow this current of the times-spirit to-day, and to-morrow perhaps an entirely opposite current, would remain entirely unexplained. Their individual inclinations and opinions remain sometimes the same, notwithstanding they allow themselves to be carried away by the new current. Under the cover of their own roof, they do not hesitate to give expression to their opposition to, and heartfelt dislike of, the course which they publicly pay homage to and obey. With these, therefore, their change of attitude is not arbitrary. It is not these gentlemen's own spirit that calls forth the spirit of the times.


—Moreover, if the times-spirit were only the sum of individual spirits, it would not be possible to explain why the spirit of the times is so widely propagated, and yet seems specially powerful now in one country, and now in another.


—So, too, would remain unexplained the intrinsic connection of the movements of the times-spirit with one another, and the succession of its changes in great periods of time from age to age, a connection and succession which extend far beyond the brief lives of individual men, and which, therefore, can not be measured by the standard of individual men, nor be dependent on individual men.


—Lastly, if the times-spirit were nothing but the sum of individual minds or spirits, the many-sided struggle of the individual with the spirit of the times would be inconceivable; and yet that struggle is fought out frequently by individual men with themselves and within themselves, and not merely with other men.


—But if the times-spirit be not the sum of individual minds or spirits; if, rather, there be unity in its nature and development, its cause must be looked for only in humanity as a whole. Only on the supposition that humanity as a unit has a psychic aggregate bent or aggregate disposition of its own, an aggregate destiny of its own, and therefore an aggregate development of its own, can the times-spirit be explained; and then it is explainable as the orderly development of the soul-life of humanity.


—And so it is indeed. The world's history is the documentary proof that there is such a thing as a development of humanity, a development which progresses through great life-periods in organic sequences. The world's history and the times-spirit are nearly related and closely connected phenomena. The times-spirit accompanies the world's history in the paths of its development, and exercises its unceasing influence on the shaping of that history. The general character and spirit which, in the different periods and ages of the world's history, assumed a definite form, were once, when events were still, so to speak, in their fluid state, to a great extent, the spirit of the times. The world's history is development behind us, development in the past, succession that is past. The times-spirit is the development of the human mind in the present. But the times-spirit is certainly not the only thing that determines the world's history. If it alone ruled as a power superordinated over individual men and binding individual men, the world's history would be like the growth of a plant; individual freedom would be oppressed by its weight; there would be no deeds, no works of men peculiar, but only joint works of the general human mind. But the times-spirit is only one of the moving forces; in the struggle with that force, the spirit of tradition and of traditional authority asserts itself; side by side with it works the special spirit of the nationality of a definite people, of dynasties and families, but above all, of remarkable individual men. From the reciprocal struggle and strife, action and interaction, of all human forces, proceed all world-historical results.


—But the times-spirit is one of the most important and efficient of the forces which determine the world's history. By the psychologic law of ordered change, which is innate, as a common faculty, in the human race, the human race is spurred on to gradual development and perfection, and guided to its destiny. By the times-spirit, to which God has borne testimony, before the mind of man, God, with far-stretching rein, guides the course of the world's history, and carries humanity unceasingly forward. Once the great significance of the times-spirit is recognized, men will revere it as something sublime, as something divinely human, and look upon those who, ever turned toward the eternal and unchangeable, put a low estimate on the changes of the times-spirit, as short-sighted and unwise. The manifoldness of human life in common and the freedom of human development, are instigated and led by the changes of the times-spirit.


—III. What, we may now ask, should be the attitude of the statesman toward this great intellectual power? 1. First, he is obliged carefully to notice the signs of the times, and to study the spirit of the times in which he is called to work. The question, What time is it? is always eminently important; for not at every hour you wish, can what you wish be done. Everything has its time, and the man who at the wrong time, whether too early or too late, undertakes great things, will generally succumb under difficulties, and his endeavors will remain without result.


—Then, again, the present world must first answer the question, In what world-period do we live? What is the fundamental character of our age? The world of our day is not clear on this point. But this much, I think, can be confidently asserted: The so-called modern world-period, in which a new revolution of the great wheel of the world's history is going on, has still an aspiring youthful character. Humanity has not yet reached the height of its aggregate life. The immeasurable results of the modern sciences and the whole political movement of the time bear testimony to the masculine spirit of modern humanity, with its will to become conscious of itself, and to shape itself in freedom. Ours is a great creative age, more conscious and more free than any former world-period. Hence, in the spirit of this our world-period, a liberal fundamental trait appears, one which recalls the still younger genius of the great period in the history of the world which brought forth the blossoms and splendor of Hellenic and Roman antiquity, and one which presents a surprising contrast to the stormy and oppressive, the intellectually less gladsome and less clear, nature of the middle ages. Even in the new and most glorious world-period on which humanity entered in the year 1740, the first beginnings and first essays of the new spirit were still childishly naïve or boyishly boisterous. In the first age of the aufklärung (enlightenment), from 1740 to 1789, a cosmopolitan, philanthropic philosophy prevailed. The educated world, the first moved by the times-spirit, now not only turned away with contempt from the middle ages, but also from the great traditions of the past, and raised its eyes with enthusiasm to the new ideals which philosophy held up to it, and from which it expected a new order of things. Then it undertook in the following and second age of the new world-period, in the age of the revolution, to realize the pictures of its phantasy, and to transform the world in reality. But it was more successful in tearing down and destroying the old order of the world than in establishing the new one. The speculative school in which it was educated could not make up for its lack of experience and of practical understanding. The world indeed moved forward, but not without occasionally falling back again. At last it gave up its naïve confidence in the abstract ideas of equality and liberty; in consequence of the experiments it had made, it learned how to understand history better, and to appreciate the power of tradition. The principle which, in this our third age, since 1840, chiefly moves minds, especially in Europe, the principle of nationalities (see NATIONALITIES, PRINCIPLE OF) is, indeed, narrower than the ideas of the earlier revolutionary age of the universal rights of man, but it has more historical intrinsic value, and more formative power in it. We have not yet reached the height of genuinely liberal development. Even our grandchildren will not attain it. Our entire movement is not yet free from violent radical currents and precipitation; it occasionally turns about in the direction of the contrary extreme of absolutist reaction. But we may assert with joyful certainty that mankind has for a century past been making extraordinary progress, and is still making steady, manly progress toward the great goal: fully developed humanity.


—2. The statesman should never put a low estimate upon or undervalue the times-spirit, not even when the current of the times is unfavorable to him and to his plans, and not even when it brings to the surface, not the highest forces of human nature, but human nature's lower impulses; for the power of the times-spirit is always great, and its movements are necessary to the development of humanity. Remarkable men, indeed, go their own way, and do not, like the multitude, follow every change of the wind. But the statesman who despises the spirit of the times would be like the fool who despises the winter because it calls forth no blossoms, and ridicules the might because it invites to repose. The monk or the hermit may shut himself up from the spirit of the times, by withdrawing himself from life in common with other men; but the statesman who cares to work and live among men, can not. As the cautious gardener carefully watches the heat and cold, dryness and moisture, and endeavors to guard his plants from the injurious effects of the extreme forces of nature; and as the sailor takes the winds and the waves into consideration, the statesman must notice the movements and qualities of the times-spirit, and work against its disfavor. But if he will resist the current of the times, he must neither rest from labor nor sleep. Every place he lays open to assault will be overflooded by the hostile current of the times-spirit; every gap that he leaves open will be filled by it. Before he is aware of it, he is closed in, betrayed, overthrown.


—3. If the times-spirit is favorable, the statesman whose direction is greatly promoted by the blowing of the times-spirit, may risk much, for he will succeed in much. The time goes forward in the same direction, and the boat; with a favorable wind, moves quickly and happily. If he meets with obstacles which he can not for the moment overcome, he can wait. Time comes to his assistance, removes the obstacles in his course, or wears them out and opens the way for him. Napoleon III., even when he was a prince, understood the great political truth, that the man who moves with the current of his time meets with success, while the statesman who swims against it, perishes.


—4. The ideas of the times and the forms of the times correspond to the spirit of the times. Ideas are never first conceived and expressed by races, but always by single individuals; yet ideas become ideas of the times only when they are taken up and propagated by the receptive masses. Sages and philosophers announce the ideas of the future, in advance. From their intellectual height they discover many ideas which operate only on future generations, earlier than do the multitude who live in the valleys below them. But the practical statesman can try to realize only the ideas which suit the times in which he lives. It is only for these ideas of the times that he will find understanding and support among men. He must guard against defending obsolete ideas of the times after the manner of the romantic school. For even if the spirit of tradition lends him some assistance, he will at most meet with only momentary success. The hostile age marches over him, and tramples his work under foot. His policy becomes ridiculous quixotism. But it is almost more dangerous, if more laudable, for the statesman to undertake to carry out the ideas of the future before the time to carry them out is ripe. He will then make shipwreck on the rocks of stern reality, and be scoffed at as an idealistic visionary. The true task of the statesman is the realization of the actual ideas of the times. On this depends, in large measure, the popularity of statesmen. When they go with the ideas of the time, they are, for the most part, popular; when they go against the time, they become unpopular. The reason of the frightful unpopularity of the order of Jesuits for a century past, is to be found not solely in the dangerous intrigues of the order, but principally in the fact, that the whole tendency of the order is in deadly enmity with the modern spirit of the times and with the intellectual consciousness and cravings of the humanity of to-day. The great success of Napoleonic, English, Italian and Prussian politics, was certainly determined to a great extent by this: that their main tendency was in harmony with the liberal and national tone of the spirit of the times in the present age.


—5. But every age has also a love for definite forms of its life. It is not sufficient for the statesman to recognize the ideas of the time, and to enter the lists for them; he will do well also to use the forms of the time. A century ago, enlightened absolutism was acceptable to the age. Great things could then be accomplished without great struggles, under that form. In our age, which demands, as its right, the representative form, and especially the assent and co-operation, of popular representation, enlightened absolutism meets with powerful, opposition even when it advocates the real ideas of the time. Count Cavour for this very reason received earlier and more easily the recognition and cheerful support of his nation than did Prince Bismarck, because Cavour used the forms of the time for the ideas of the time, while Bismarck seemed at first to despise the forms of the time, and undertook to realize new ideas by the means of an earlier time. Hence the labor of Prince Bismarck was harder and slower; but in proportion as he showed himself more favorable to the forms of modern political life, he won for himself the furthering support of the many.


—6. Yet the greatest statesman can not singly, not even with the forms of the time, realize the ideas of the time. The new ideas, indeed, exercise their influence; but so do the old historical powers of authority and custom. The savant may carry out the thought of the time, in theory, with logical acumen, and a consistency regardless of consequences. Real life does not square with the straight lines and sharp angles of doctrines; it bends them and changes them in the application of them. Practical politics is an art which has a great many complicated problems to solve, an art which has to deal with many joint and personal forces. The result of political struggles necessitates treaties of peace, attempts at settlement or adjustment and compromises. The man who, out of blind zeal for the spirit of the times, scorns all compromise, may, indeed, be an honorable doctrinarian, but he must not expect the success or laurels of the statesman.


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