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

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
543 of 1105



HISTORY is the great school of politics, and no man can be a statesman unless he is not only acquainted with the accounts and testimony of history, but with the history of history itself, and knows how, in the course and progress of ages, history began by being merely an art and at length became a science, the most philosophic, the most elevated and the most instructive of all sciences. Historia vero, says Cicero in his De Oratore (book ii., chap. ix.), testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriœ, magistra vitæ: history is not only the witness of ages, the judge of buried men and nations, the charm of the living spirit; it is the nurse and preceptress of generations entering the field of action. In proportion as humanity nears its appointed goal, history becomes more useful to it. We know not whether poetry in its present form will in the most distant future accompany the human race, which was and still is indebted to it for so many hours of rest and pleasure, but we are sure that history will guide it to the end; and, however beautiful the models left us by antiquity, we may hope that at no epoch will beautiful historical works be wanting. It may even be contended that antiquity did not know real history, or at least did not know all the wealth, all the resources, all the lessons of history, because it was then too early for men to measure their future destiny by the past. And does history of a lofty character exist in fact where the eternal character of man is not represented, where the feeling of solidarity (oneness) among generations and centuries is lacking?


—The ancients, then, were rather accomplished artists than historians. Herodotus told his story to rest the mind and charm the ear; Thucydides mingled more thought with his art, but he only touched an episode in the life of a people, and almost the same may be said of Polybius. Cæsar merely collected materials; Sallust gave little thought to past and still less to coming ages. The field widens before Livy, but he had not the mind of a philosopher, and he sees only Rome in the universe. Tacitus himself, the great Tacitus, was the avenger of the outraged customs and liberty of one epoch, but he did not write a book in which the soul of humanity breathes The great Christian revolution was needed to raise on the ruins of ancient religions and empires a faith in the destinies of nations yet unborn. The name of this reason or this faith is the philosophy of history; we do not find it in literature till the St. Augustines and the Salviens, in presence of transient events, preached the eternal law of God, Creator of the universe. In 410 Rome was at last violated by the barbarians of Alaric; Symmachus, in his pagan grièf, exclaimed that Rome had succumbed because Rome had become Christian. St. Augustine, to convict him of ignorance, then began his "City of God," which he finished in 426, and in which, for the first time, universal history was presented entire in the same picture, prostrate, it is true, at the feet of the God of the Bible and the Gospels. Under the same inspiration Salvien wrote his beautiful treatise De gubernatione Dei, and Orosius, his "History." Here at last is divulged the thought which connects all the acts of men each with the other True, Lu cretius had announced it, but too briefly, in the beautiful verse: Et quasi cursores vitœ lampada tradunt. In the middle ages everything was submerged; no enlightenment, no philosophy, no history An attempt has been made to find in the dawn of the renaissance the first sign of the resurrection of real history; the prolegomena, in which Francis Baudoin recommends historians to study law, which is the bond of nations, are pointed to; John Bodin is cited, whose Methode facile pour la connaissance de l'histoire in which he desires to add to the study of laws that of constitutions and customs; Bacon, in his Instauratio magna scientiarum, declared that there was no history, unless the historian had made a profound study of the sciences and literature of the people whose life he narrated. Here are marks, doubtless, of that awakening of thought, which in the fifth century seized upon St. Augustine; but where is the work succeeding his? It appeared when Bossuet published his "Discourse on Universal History," unfolding the annals of empires, from the creation to the time of Charlemagne, to bear witness that since the calling of Abraham, the word of God was intrusted to a single people, and that around the destiny of this single people, ignored by antiquity, were grouped the destinies of the ancient and modern world. Roman, barbarian, once more Roman. but whose sacred edifice is the basilica of St. Peter's, and no longer the capitol!


—Let us hear the last father of the church: "God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to chastise this people; the Persians to restore them; Alexander and his earliest successors to protect them; Antiochus the Great and his successors to exercise them; the Romans to maintain their liberties against the Syrian kings, who thought only of their destruction. The Jews continued under the power of the Romans till the time of Christ. When they disowned and crucified Him, these same Romans lent their hands unhesitatingly to divine vengeance, and exterminated the ungrateful nation. God, who had resolved to collect a new people, from every nation, first united the lands and the seas under one empire. The intercourse of so many nations, formerly strangers to each other, and then united under Roman dominion, was one of the most powerful means employed by Providence to spread the Gospel. If during three centuries the Roman empire persecuted this new people which increased on every side within its territory, this persecution strengthened the Christian church and illustrated its glory with its faith and patience. Finally the Roman empire yielded; and having met something more invincible than itself, it received quietly into its bosom the church against which it waged so long and so cruel a warfare. The emperors employed their power to enforce obedience to the church; and Rome became the head of the spiritual empire which Jesus Christ wished to extend over the whole earth."


—Perhaps so, as Voltaire said, but the greatness of the Greeks and Romans have still other causes; and Bossuet did not omit them in speaking of the spirit of nations. Indeed the majesty of the theocratic politics of Bossuet astonishes us, but it no longer satisfies our intelligence, and is more divine than human; we feel that the times have passed in which its teachings suffice to rouse public virtue. Henceforth we need citizens, and another philosophy of history is alone able to produce them. The finger of God in all the pages of our past, is a kind of fatalism, which does not give energy to our souls in times when man should no longer doubt his liberty, and when he can no longer doubt his power. What miracles has not science called up around us from all the elements of which matter is composed, since, enlightened by the Bacons, the Descartes and all the luminous minds of the eighteenth century, it has regenerated physics and created chemistry! By dominating bodies and inherent powers we know that God has left us masters to act, and to modify even his work. Even before Bossuet, a tongue as eloquent as his, a believer more ardent, a mind more severely tempered in the struggles of faith and reason, a great scholar, Pascal, said: "By a special prerogative, not only each man advances day by day in the sciences, but all men together make continual progress in proportion as the universe grows old, because the same thing happens in the succeeding generations of men as in the different periods of individual life. So that all the succession of men, during the course of so many centuries, should be considered as one man, always living and ever learning, from which we see how incorrectly we respect antiquity in its philosophers; for, as old age is the period most remote from infancy, who does not see that the old age of this universal man must not be sought in times nearest his birth, but in those which are most remote from it? Those whom we call the ancients were really new men in all things, and constituted the infancy of mankind, properly speaking; and as we have added to their knowledge the experience of the centuries which followed them, in us is found the antiquity we revere in others."


—The age of gold is before us then and not behind, with mysteries and fables, with ignorance and misery. This is a commonplace truth to-day, or at least should be, if beside the theory of St. Augustine and Bossuet is to shine one which puts not more hope but more pride into our hearts. Pascal, however, was not talking politics in this case; he simply cast into circulation one of those great ideas of which his mind was full.


—In 1725 Vico published his "Principles of a New Science relative to the Common Nature of Nations." The state has at last a place therein at the side of religion, and all history is divided into three ages the divine age, in which the priest reigns, the heroic age, in which the brute force of the soldier triumphs; and finally, the human age, the age of instructed and disarmed men, the age of morals and laws, the age of civilization. But Vico confined each people within the circle of an individual life, and whenever they rose above it, he condemned nations to fall once more into the shade and to recommence their painful ascent toward the light.


—If history will draw inspiration both from philology and philosophy, it will see that in the development of their languages, as in all the series of their social and civil acts, nations have followed a single and general law, that they have reached the same end, and that everywhere the same revolutions reappear, when crumbled nations rise from their ruins. This at least is the doctrine of Vico. The conclusion of the "New Science" is, that the social world is the work of the free development of human faculties, but that this world has nevertheless issued from an intelligence which is often opposed, and always superior to the particular designs which men propose to themselves. (See an article by Michelet in la Biographie, Michaud, 1827, in which is the first sketch of his great work on Vico.) Providence does not force us, by positive laws, but employs, in governing us, customs which we follow freely.


—This doctrine does not seem to be sufficiently clear to show man the object of the liberty which is granted him and almost immediately taken away. And besides, by confining us all in circles, from which we can not escape, from which we rise and to the bottom of which we always fall again, Vico has not lighted above our heads the beacon of a future worthy of the great intellectual and material works which humanity had then accomplished, and above all was about to accomplish. But it was much to have proclaimed the uniformity or the unity of peoples, to have accepted as first principle that man is sociable, and, while seeking for the laws of universal morality, to have removed from the field of experience the epicureans as well as the stoics, and with them all the disciples of extreme sects, to rely solely on the platonists, who recognize Providence, believe in the immortality of the soul, and hold to the necessity of being virtuous with human passions.


—Nevertheless, Pascal had cast a more commanding and a broader glance over the earth and the paths upon which people toil so painfully, and it was not without reason that Goethe appeared at the end of that same great eighteenth century to change Vico's isolated circles into a single spiral, ever ascending and ever widening. Do we not touch at last upon the threshold of the universal human age, or at least do we not foresee it? "Humanity, begin thy reign, thy age has come, denied in vain by the voice of ancient echoes," said the great poet Beranger. This is henceforth the cry of every one weary of the hecatombs and funerals of the divine and heroic age. But though Vico did not raise his view above the horizons of particular nations, he expressed, nevertheless, the general law of the development of all human society.


—Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws" (1748) added something to the elements which already composed the substance of history. Those were not vain ideas with which Montesquieu decorated the vestibule of his edifice. "Man," he says, "as a physical being is governed, in common with other bodies, by invariable laws; as an intelligent being he violates unceasingly the laws established by God, and changes the laws established by himself. He must guide himself, and yet he is a weak creature, he is subject to ignorance and error like every finite intelligence; having gained some feeble lights he loses them again. As a sentient creature he becomes subject to a thousand passions. Such a being might forget his Creator at any moment: God reminds him of this Creator by the laws of religion. Such a being might forget himself: philosophers have warned him by the laws of morality. Made to live in society, he might forget others: legislators have bound him to his duties by political and civil laws." And further, when tracing the programme of knowledge and studies necessary to the philosopher and the historian, he adds: "Law, in general, is human reason in so far as it governs all the peoples of the earth; and the political and civil laws of each nation should be merely the particular cases in which this human reason is applied. They should be so appropriate to the people for whom they are framed that it is only by a rare chance that the laws of one nation are fitted for another. They must relate to the nature and principle of the government established or sought to be established, whether they form it as do political laws, or maintain it as do civil laws. They should have reference to the physical nature of the country, a cold, torrid or temperate climate, the quality of its soil, situation, size, and the occupation of the inhabitants, whether laborers, hunters or shepherds; they should consider the degree of liberty which the constitution may allow; the religion of the inhabitants, their inclinations, their wealth, their numbers, their commerce, their habits, their manners. Finally, laws have relations with each other, with their origin, with the object of the legislator, with the order of things over which they are established. They must be considered from all these points of view."


—We are now far from the pure theocratic doctrine, and the modern spirit has at last become its own master. Montesquieu directs the historian to study the harmonies which connect man with the earth; Voltaire in his Essai sur les moeurs (1757) gave the first sketch of universal history undertaken on the plan traced by the author of l' Esprit des lois, and if the execution is too hasty, at least the intelligence is everywhere felt of a man who, in default of evident truth, admits into history only probability, and who, in a country still monarchic, and himself the author of le Siècle de Louis XIV., understands that events in the life of a nation are not merely to be named and dated with the reigns of kings. He says himself, "In modeling our work upon that of the great masters, we have to-day a more weighty burden to bear than they had. More details are required of modern historians, better authenticated facts, precise dates, authorities, more attention to usages, laws, customs, commerce, finance, agriculture, and to the population. It is with history as with mathematics and physics, the field has increased prodigiously. It is as difficult to write history to day as it is easy to make a selection from newspapers. Daniel thought himself an historian because he transcribed dates and descriptions of battles of which we can understand nothing. He should teach me the rights of the nation, the rights of the principal bodies of the nation, its laws, customs and manners, and how they have changed. The nation has the right to say to him: I ask you for my own history rather than that of Louis the Fat and Louis Hutin."


—Toward the end of the century of Voltaire and Montesquieu appeared the book which, by taking advantage of all accomplished progress, and uniting all discovered truths, was destined to become, correctly speaking, the final programme of history. Herder's "Ideas on the Philosophy of Humanity," was in fact the résumé of what St. Augustine, Bacon, Pascal, Bossuet, Vico and the great French thinkers of the eighteenth century taught in succession. All their theories meet here, are completed here, and are fused into one same whole.


—Vico first laid down the universal laws of humanity. As Edward Quinet, the eloquent translator of Herder, says, "From the representation he rose to the idea of phenomena, to their essence. Struck with the principle of the identical nature of all nations, he assembled all the phenomena which are common to them all in the different periods of their existence; and, taking from them their color and their individuality, he composed of their total an abstract history, an ideal form applicable to all times, and which is repeated among all peoples, without recalling any of them specially. What appears to us as the succession of nations, their birth, development, greatness and fall, is merely the expression of the relation of the world to that one indestructible city, which bends downward, and marks the world with its stamp; hence, an indefinite sequence of ruins, nascent empires, broken thrones, changes and fragments, all of which have their representations in the absolute. Imagine a method opposed in everything to that followed by Vico, and you will have Herder's method. If the first gives, as point of support to the series of human actions, thought in its most sublime essence, the second rises from the grossest manifestations of material being. He binds in a single idea, everywhere present and everywhere modified, the space which incloses the powers of creation, and time which perfects them, by development. From the plant that grows, and the bird that builds its nest, to the loftiest phenomenon of the social body, he beholds everything advancing to the blooming of the flower of humanity, which is still in the bud, but which sometime must bloom."


—Herder begins his history of philosophy by a description of the earth. He first sets the stage upon which the human drama is to be played. If Carl Ritter wrote his admirable geography, if even Humboldt composed his scientific poem, the "Cosmos," it is because Herder published his "Ideas on the Philosophy of Humanity." No book has exercised more influence. "It is," says Gervinus, "the ferment of a century." And Goethe, still young, while reading in Italy these pages so full of thought, found in his heart the lyric enthusiasm of ancient times, to express the joy which he felt. All these great ideas have since made their way, and have become almost common property; but Herder's work is the source from which they have flowed, and if for the philosopher, the historian, the statesman, the diplomat, there is one and the same humanity, still young, but of age to-morrow, and soon to be mistress of the terrestrial globe, we owe it to Herder, the successor and the heir of so many geniuses.


—Almost immediately came the French revolution of 1789, which itself may claim the honor of having enlightened history and elevated the thought of man. Thus historical labors rise, as it were, on all sides, at the time in which we live. What admirable works were produced in the beginning of this century, and how consoling it is when the poetic lyre seems broken, when eloquence has been forced into silence, to see, still seated at their tasks men who are to continue the glory of their predecessors, and make themselves illustrious in turn by masterpieces which will enrich the inheritance of humanity. Tacitus has left in his writings a sentence the sadness and bitterness of which we still feel: Rara temporum felicitate ubi sentire quœ velis et quœ sentias dicere licet. But at least we feel also that history will soon be entirely free, and that it will not need to wait till a century has passed before daring to paint it.


—This is a famous maxim: "We owe consideration to the living; we owe nothing to the dead but truth." This is a maxim of the past. True, we owe consideration to the living and the private life of those should not be troubled, who have nothing to settle with the justice of contemporary history; but a democratic age will authorize the historian to exercise at all times his office of accuser and public judge. Whoever rises to power, becomes that moment a man of history; and henceforth history, the avenger of the rights of all, commences its rôle, even during the lifetime of the chosen ones of destiny, of those favorites of nature who can not claim the honor and advantages of public life, if at the same time they reject its duties and its charges. It would be rather to the dead that we owe consideration, for they are no longer present to defend themselves.


—To claim these rights for the history of living men, is not to desire the revival of ancient satire; it is, as we think, to give an account of the mind of our generation which, after we have finished with the theocracy of the earliest age, and when we seek to finish with the heroic age of Vico, does not wish in the civil age to create a new fetichism and protect new heroes, and no longer understands that chiefs and statesmen are to be judged only according to the portraits and the inscriptions on medals. Saint-Simon, beginning even with the time of the monarchy, disaccustomed history from servile respect. It is to be desired that no epoch will lack a Saint Simon. Let us trust to reason to discern and honor truth.


—History sees, therefore, its task grow greater every day and the difficulties of its work multiply. In proportion especially as material interests develop, the variety of studies to be undertaken threatens to discourage timid minds; but it is in the destiny of man that these faculties increase with the obstacles which they have to overcome, and we can hold it as certain, that historians will not be wanting to history, and that history will not be wanting to future societies, who will expect such great services from it.


543 of 1105

Return to top