IX

HISTORY

A. METHODS AND PRINCIPLES OF HISTORY

B. THE UPSHOT OF HISTORY

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A. METHODS AND PRINCIPLES OF HISTORY

FOR those who seek to become more vividly and more precisely conscious of the spiritual adventure of man, history should be the most significant of all intellectual activities. Properly treated, it should combine the detachment of scientific research with the sympathy of dramatic art.

We cannot all undertake historical research, any more than we can all be professional scientists. But we can at least, with the help of the historians, see our own lives and our own nation and the whole contemporary world as incidents in the great theme of man. With the aid of history, we can realize that our own civilization is only one among many phases in the growth of man, that our confident knowledge is not really the final and complete knowledge, but only a stage in the age-long effort to find the truth, to discover what is most desirable, and to establish it. Some of us, when we look back at the wisdom of the Middle Ages or of the Ancient Egyptians and compare it with our own, are apt to smile at its misunderstandings and confusions, and thank heaven that we at any rate can see more clearly. But if the study of history has given us a real historical sense, we cannot help believing that to a future age our own thought will seem almost as crude, and perhaps in some ways even more fantastic.

A historian is one whose scientific curiosity is concerned to explore the past career of mankind. He undertakes to reveal past events, and if possible to explain them scientifically. He tries to discover the conditions of life in different ages, how men thought and felt in different ages, how society was organized, and how one phase of civilization gave place to another, or to barbarism. In fact he sets out to form clear ideas about the actual course of the great human adventure.

Those who are concerned with the prehistoric ages are also in a sense historians, though they work with different material, and cannot achieve the same detail. Those also whose task it is to tell the story of the whole evolution of life on earth are, in the broadest sense, historians. The true historians and 'prehistorians' and historical biologists, though they work upon different ages and with very different methods, are all co-operating in the same task, the description of the events which led up to our present human world.

The true historian, though he concentrates on the 'historical' period, and indeed on his own particular subject within it, cannot do his work properly unless he tries to see his special subject in its proper setting within the one great theme. He uses many distinct methods in his work, studying old documents and buildings, reading old books, critically examining other historical accounts of events. He may seek help from geographers, geologists, economists, psychologists, philologists. He collects as many facts as possible; and then, bearing his facts in mind, he tries to imagine the whole pattern of events which make up the period or movement that he is studying, both the pattern of external facts, such as changes in ways of living, and also the pattern of men's minds, their ways of thinking, feeling and desiring.

The historian's first aim is, or should be, to describe the course of events as accurately as possible. But also he seeks to explain. This he does by trying to show events as the expression of very general principles which, by induction, he discovers to be true of the whole career of man. For instance, he makes use of the principle that men's actions are determined very largely by the needs for food, safety and comfort. And since other activities can only be pursued when these needs are, up to a point, satisfied, he may also use the principle that civilization depends fundamentally on economic resources, such as the possibilities of agriculture in different countries, and the available supply of coal and iron. Another principle that he may use is, that to some extent the course of history is determined by ideas in men's minds, by fears, hates, admirations, beliefs, faiths. But he may go behind this principle to another, namely that these controlling ideas themselves are at bottom the expression of needs which the peoples have felt as a result of the interplay of their particular natures and their particular circumstances. For instance, in the seventeenth century a new class rose into power, namely the commercial and industrial masters; and, owing to the needs and circumstances of this class, religion and morals had to be refashioned. One result was that in puritanism, the religious movement typical of the period, special emphasis was given to the commercially desirable virtues of industriousness, abstemiousness, honesty. The. pursuit of beauty came to seem, both economically and spiritually, a shocking dissipation of resources.

The theory of 'economic determinism' in history is one which arouses in some minds violent repugnance and in others fanatical acceptance. Let us try to formulate its meaning as dispassionately as possible, so that, if possible, we may see in what sense it is true.

Like all scientific theories, its basis is inductive. It claims to be a very general description of the way in which mankind has behaved and may be expected to behave, of the way in which the free choice of individuals does in the long run direct itself. The contention is that the 'economic motive' is the sole effective influence determining behaviour and culture, that all movements of thought, taste and ideals are expressions, direct or indirect of the interaction between 'economic motives' and material conditions.

Now the phrase 'economic motives' is not at all precise. We may clarify the idea by saying that the self-regarding, family-regarding and tribe-regarding impulses of men and women, considered in the mass, have inclined, regularly but spontaneously, toward certain kinds of behaviour and thought because of the economic potentialities of the environment, such as characteristics of climate and soil, the distribution of water and minerals (especially iron and coal and oil); and also because of the economic organization of society itself. This social environment is, of course, according to the theory an expression of the material environment, present and past.

It is surely clear that the modern world-situation has in fact resulted mainly from such a process of economic determination. Beings which seek to fulfil their capacities, and cannot do so without the co-operation of the material environment, will undoubtedly determine their behaviour in relation to economic factors. Further, in the sphere of thought, those ideas which are directly or indirectly fostered by the economic environment will tend, in the long run, to be accepted in preference to those which are not thus favoured. This does not mean that the actions of each individual are one and all immediately and wholly determined by economic motives. Far from it. Strong as the economic motive must be in a community of economically constrained individuals, it is only one motive among others. A man may very often act in opposition to the economic interests of himself or his family or his tribe. But in such an economically constrained community economic factors will have an all-pervasive and, in the main, an irresistible influence on behaviour and feeling and thought. They will determine the general trend of history, which is after all largely an expression of the cumulative influence of the environment on average minds. In the economically constrained community even individuals who climb to affluence, or are born into it, are bound to be unwittingly and irrationally constrained by the general economic mental atmosphere. Like all human beings, they seek self-expression; and in such a community the readiest and most imposing kind of self-expression (apart from sheer force) is the exercise of economic power over one's fellows. For these economically fortunate beings the prize is not mere subsistence, or even comfort, but prestige, and control of the lives of other men by economic manipulation.

Up to our own day every human community has been economically constrained. Its actions have been in the main determined by economic necessity, and its thought has been subtly and unwittingly moulded by economic considerations. Individuals here and there, no doubt, have triumphantly rejected the prevailing influence. Even considerable groups of individuals, now and again, during phases of religious or tribal exaltation, have behaved in manners not explicable by economic determinism alone. But the 'tribe' itself and the 'nation' itself are fundamentally expressions of economic forces; and the same influence has much to do with the determination of the particular forms of religion.

But though economic necessity has been by far the most important influence determining human behaviour and. thought in the past, it does not follow that it must be so in the future. Only in an economically constrained community is the economic motive in the long run irresistible and all-pervasive. There is no inner necessity compelling men to be dominated by economic considerations. In a world in which every individual was assured of economic security, and in which the economic obsession left over from the past had been eradicated by sound education, economic determinism would cease to apply. Other motives, less urgent but more distinctively human, would usurp the power of the economic. The determining factor in human behaviour and culture, in the main and in the long run, might be the will for a more subtle kind of self-expression and social development. In fact the world-aim might at last come into its own as the ruling motive of the world community, the aim of developing human capacity toward true and comprehensive knowing, discriminate feeling, and appropriate willing.

Now our modern world is as strictly determined by economic factors as any earlier community. Indeed, it is perhaps more consciously and grimly so than any other. Yet in our day, for the first time in history, mechanical invention is putting man physically into a position to escape wholly and for ever from the ancient tyranny of economic determinism. Unfortunately the economic mentality, the obsessive economic motive directed on behalf of self, family and tribe, is by now so firmly established in our social tradition that we may very well fail to avail ourselves of our new freedom. Like beasts born in captivity, whose cage doors are at last flung open, we may not have the wit to walk abroad. Of course, even during the tyranny of economic determinism men have often rebelled, have sought to be more faithful to their distinctively human nature. Such a rebellion occurred perhaps most strikingly among the early Christians. Throughout history, and in every land, there have been smouldering, though vain, revolts. Yet now, when at last the opportunity occurs, we seem incapable of seizing it.

The very general revulsion against the theory of economic determinism springs from the sense that it depicts man as purely passive, mechanical, the sport of circumstances. But this is a mistake. Man need not be economically determined. Nothing compels him to will to live. But if he does will to live, he must allow himself to be economically determined, so long as the life of the individual and of the race is allowed to depend on economic toil.

In searching for the general principles behind events, the historian has to bear in mind that mankind is both passive and active in its great adventure. At any particular point of history human actions result from the interplay of two forces or causes, namely the environment and the ] active nature of mankind itself at that time.

Now human nature at a particular time is, indeed, a product of the past. But this does not mean that each movement of history can be wholly explained as a result of past environments alone. Even if we take the word 'environment' in its broadest sense, and not merely to mean 'economic environment', there must have been at every stage something for the environment to influence.

History is the record of the ways in which past human actions interacted with past environments to produce new environments and new human nature. It is no more possible to explain history simply by environment than to explain it simply by human nature. If we trace the development of human nature back to our non-human, ape-like ancestors, to our reptilian ancestors, our fish-like ancestors, even to the first living forms and the pre-vital sources of life, we see it at every stage being moulded by the environment; but at the beginning and at every stage there must have been something having a character of its own, something capable of acting spontaneously in cooperation with the environment. Without the environment, no awakening; but equally without the 'something' itself, no awakening. Even in the very first stage of the evolution of life on the earth, our pre-vital ancestors, which were probably mere clusters of very complicated molecules, must have had some nature of their own for the environment to work upon, and in which it could awaken new powers. And so at every stage, there must be a , 'something', itself the product not only of past environments but also of past 'somethings', which could respond to the environments. And at every stage the 'something', spurred by the environment, awakens into new powers.

The historian is concerned not only with general principles but with particular individuals. Some of the events of history he will describe in terms of his general principles, biological, psychological, economic, cultural, and so on; but others he will attribute partly to the influence of dominant persons, who through superior vision and understanding of the state of society, or through sheer force of character, may sometimes take very great effect on the course of events. No doubt he will try to give a scientific account of these great men and of the ways in which circumstances influenced them; but his first concern will be simply to describe them accurately, so as to give a clear idea of the ways in which they themselves took effect on history. When he is dealing with the work of some great man, he will always try to show with equal clearness both that it was in the main the outcome of his social environment and also that in certain respects it was unique, that it introduced something actually new, though determinate, into the thought or organization of mankind. Thus, to give one outstanding example, he will try to show in the case of Jesus both that the Mediterranean peoples in that age were already in need of, and vaguely groping toward, the ideal of Christian love, and also that only the genius and insight of one particular great mind could clearly conceive that ideal and imprint it upon the hearts of men.

Unfortunately in historical research it is more difficult than in physical science to interpret facts faithfully and without bias; for in the first place the evidence cannot be described with mathematical precision, and secondly, since the subject-matter of history is human behaviour, it is apt to arouse very deep emotions in those who study it. Consequently we find that historians are often in violent disagreement with one another. Some, for instance, insist that all history is to be understood as the expression of some single fundamental principle, such as the principle that historical events are determined wholly by economic necessity. Others no less confidently declare that any kind of scientific generalization is impossible in history, and that at bottom the story of man is simply the upshot of the adventures of the countless unique and incalculable personalities of all men and women. Others again say that history is an art, and that a historical work is not simply a record of facts, but a product of the creative imagination of the historian.

We must beware of all these over-simple views of history. It is very improbable that such a complex animal as man, existing in vast populations and in very diverse circumstances, is moved in the long run by one sole motive, whatever the motive. History is never to be understood in terms of one principle, save the most general principle that what men seek to do with their environment is to use it for the fulfilment of their capacities. But what capacities?

On the other hand, to say that scientific generalization is impossible in history means in the last resort that no human actions are predictable, that no human persons are ever to be relied upon to act at all as others have acted before them.

To say that history is pure art, and has no objective truth, is merely to say that history, real history, has not yet been written, that historians have never dealt faithfully with their facts. There can be no doubt that all history that has ever been written has been to a greater or less extent biased. But also there can be no doubt that the only sane aim of writing history is to give as true an account as possible of the career of man; and that, as historical research advances, we become more able to write true history. Even to-day we can give an outline of that career, which, though nowhere certain, is in the main true with a high degree of probability. I will venture to set down the controlling points of that outline.

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B. THE UPSHOT OF HISTORY

Our earliest of all ancestors were not, it seems, what we should call living things at all. They were merely specks of very complex chemical substances. Yet in these substances lay, in some sense, the potentiality of producing in a favourable environment, Jesus, Nero, and the rest of us.

The sun's rays, working upon the simpler substances, had already built up our sub-vital ancestors, as in our own laboratories, chemists to-day build up sugar and other 'organic compounds'. The conditions for this natural upbuilding have probably long since ceased. Our sub-vital ancestors came into being in the hot primeval waters. Through the sun's power, many kinds of 'organic' substances must have been produced before ever there were living organisms. These substances drifted in the water. They contained in themselves a potentiality of future life; and also they constituted together a rich food, waiting for the future living things. Before there was life, there was soup!

Under the continued influence of the sun's rays, some of these food-stuffs, these intricate molecules, themselves began to eat. Though their precarious organization was ever disintegrating, they constantly rebuilt it. They developed the power of annexing neighbouring material, breaking it up, and reforming it (with the aid of solar energy) upon their own molecular pattern. They began to hold together in intimate and complex clusters. These clusters grew. They subdivided, propagating themselves as generations of new young clusters, formed upon the parental pattern, and capable of growth. Thus, in the primeval soup, life began.

The years passed in millions and in hundreds of millions. The primitive live things throve in the rich sea. They also fed upon one another. There was already strife in the waters, and death. The weak were overcome, and the strong multiplied. Of the strong kinds a few, very few indeed, became more complex in their structure, more subtle and more alive in their ways. Sooner or later, most of them succumbed; but one kind at least survived, and multiplied, and evolved, and diversified itself into new kinds.

In time the plants were distinguished from the animals; for while some kinds of creatures continued to gather the sun's energy and store it in their bodies for use in the processes of living, others lost this power, gaining instead the power to maintain themselves by preying upon the sun-rich flesh of the plants.

The years continued to pass in millions and hundreds of millions. Many kinds of plants and animals appeared, and many kinds vanished; but a few, very few indeed, survived. And of these few, here and there one most fortunate kind continued to diversify, to evolve, to awaken into new powers. Of these again most kinds vanished; or settled into stagnation, being no longer spurred by the environment into fresh adventures. Many, fallen into easy circumstances, lost, age by age, their intricate organs and subtle prowess, and sank back once more into the ancient, clumsy and somnolent ways. Many throve by preying upon kinds more alive than themselves.

But here and there a few kinds, very few indeed, were stung by the environment into still more vital forms and powers. They learned, for instance, to be sexual. They united in pairs, and mingled their substance before dividing again into new, rejuvenated generations. Also they learned not only to touch and taste, but to smell and see and hear. They began to be somewhat more precisely aware of the complexity and horror and beauty of the world.

Emerging from the water, some developed lungs and legs. They crept and ran. Some of them climbed, some trusted themselves to the air, some flew. They preyed upon one another with ever more deadly weapons. They kept watch for one another with ever more delicate sensibility. Males and females courted and were courted, discovering to one another ever new delights. Mothers carried their young, and nursed them till they were fit for independence. And the young, basking in prolonged maternal care, grew up more slowly, remained young and pliable for many months, or even years. Thus they were able to learn more delicate and more variable adjustments to the environment, before stiffening into maturity. Mates now began to live together in service of offspring. Families hung together and became tribes. Individuals cooperated with one another, and the tribes prospered.

The years passed in millions and tens of millions. Most of the kinds of animals and plants stagnated, or degenerated, or were destroyed. But one kind of tree-dwellers developed hands, developed eyes with new delicacy of perception for shape and colour, developed brains fitted to take advantage of these instruments. The new creatures remained young longer even than others, and so they went farther in learning. Their eyes and hands and great brains made them apt at distinguishing and relating, and also apt at manipulating. More intelligently than other creatures they solved the problems of their daily life. As the years passed in thousands and in hundreds of thousands, rare geniuses of the race invented new devices, forgetting them and rediscovering them day by day, so clouded were their minds. They threw stones at their prey. They smote their enemies with rocks. They chipped flints for weapons and tools. They made shelters. They defeated the very lions and bears and mammoths. They were men, or almost men.

In thousands and hundreds of thousands the years continued to pass. The races of the brute-men kept on discovering and forgetting and rediscovering their precious inventions. Also they continually harried one another. One race, with superior cunning and finer weapons, triumphed. All the others were exterminated. The victorious kind multiplied, diversified, covered the world with many peoples, walked erect, grew ampler brains. They became true men. They made fire and used it. They hunted and trapped. They painted their cave-walls with beasts, to prosper the chase. They tamed dogs and herded cattle. They sowed seed and stored the crops for winter. They looked forward from year to year, from generation to generation. They took note of their own mental life. They became aware of themselves as persons, and of others also as persons, different from themselves. They loved and hated with new insight. Here and there they began to feel the mystery of their existence, and the terrible beauty of the world. They bowed before sun and moon, storm, thunder and fire. They conceived gods and goddesses in the likeness of their own sexual potency, their own cruelty, their own power and cunning, their own mercy. They deified their ancestors. They practised and enforced ritual worship. They sacrificed one another, singly or in hecatombs, to make their fields fertile or appease the jealous gods.

And still, in thousands and in tens of thousands, the years passed. The races of men flooded about the earth in waves and eddies, or stagnated in places apart. Great leaders led their hordes against the settled peoples. Conquering tribes slaughtered or enslaved, or were absorbed by the conquered. In the fertile river-plains men lived richly, and the war-lords throve upon them. Cities appeared, temples, palaces. Empires were founded, knit together by roads, fenced in by frontier walls. Empires changed hands or crumbled into principalities. The mighty fought over them with paid armies. The swarming common folk toiled, spawned, paid taxes, bowed before their lords, sacrificed to their gods.

The centuries passed. A certain Indian, gifted with peculiar insight into his own nature, found therein also, the reality which lies behind the world's appearances. Or seemed to himself to find it. Certain Greeks, exceptionally curious and intelligent descendants of the first curious brute, inquired into the causes of things, naively sought the fundamental nature of all things, studied their own thinking, asked what was best in the world, and what was the nature of the good life. Thus at length began science and philosophy. A certain Jew, intensely aware of his fellows and of his own self, imagined in his likeness a God of Love, and died to make men discover their own power of loving. Thus for the first time a few men and women, very few indeed, began to see dimly what mankind should live to do, namely to seek the truth, to love one another, to make a more alive world, and to keep their hearts open to the supernal beauty.

But again and again as the centuries passed, the vision was lost, rediscovered, and soon lost again. Wisdom and love were quenched, or at most they flickered hesitatingly along the centuries. Only the ritual survived. Churches flourished, and empires. Ships brought remote lands into touch with one another. Ships and trade and guns gave the West dominance. Men conceived nationality, disputed over religious doctrines, waged religious and national wars. They also invented scientific method, explored the stars and atoms and the human body, doubted the religious dogmas, and felt once more, here and there, the passion for knowledge of the natural world. They were overawed by the immensity and intricacy of the universe; yet they used their new knowledge chiefly for power, not for delighted appreciation. The fortunate increased their wealth by coal and steam, and by the labour of the unfortunate. These multiplied in the spreading slums, or toiled for landlords in the fields. Diseased, stunted, ignorant, helpless, they were easily deceived, easily led, easily stirred to fear and hate, now by their masters, now by those who schemed to become their masters. The comfortable masters were pained to see the filthy and brutish condition of the workers. To prove their own liberal mentality, they affected to speak to their inferiors as man to man, though they were secretly disgusted by the smell of them. They generously rewarded the more devoted of the workers with coppers. They wrote to the papers about social injustice. But they continued to make money out of the workers. And if ever the workers rebelled, the police restored order.

Masters and slaves alike were blind to the true goal of living. They could conceive nothing better than to display wealth or squander it, or to exercise power over their fellows.

Suddenly the nations, long terrified by one another's lust of power, blundered into the first scientific war. Millions were killed or wounded, but a greater damage was done to the minds of those who survived, and to the following generations. For now, when some had begun to see clearly the outlines of a new world, a close-knit and awakened world-society, this aim was made to seem utterly' idealistic', unrealizable. Men could no longer trust one another even so far as they had done before the War.

Meanwhile in Russia, where tyranny had been worst and disorder greatest, a devoted party had organized the revolution and founded a new society, a society blind, perhaps, to very much of the true aim of living, but controlled by the firm will to make the new world, and eager for discovery.

Alarmed by the prospect of losing their power, the economic masters in every country tightened their hold upon the minds of the workers. They propagated lies about the tyranny of Communism. Cleverly they appealed to the widespread craving for a less mechanized and less materialistic society, and condemned Communism as the extreme of mechanization and materialism. But in fact they, or the social forces which had produced them, were the true cause of mechanization and materialism. They praised the primitive and the martial. They condemned intellect as misleading, pacifism as unmanly, and the will for an orderly world community as sheer idealism. They exalted the tribe and sought tribal enemies. They financed dictators, who organized armies of deluded lads to enforce their will with exultant brutality. In country after country independent thinking and action became impossible. All who dared to protest were destroyed or driven abroad. Civilization became a mockery.

What is to come? Year by year, the old blind barbarian will, terrified by the disintegration of the old order, becomes more desperate, more impotent to construct, more determined to strangle the new world in the act of birth. But also, year by year, decade by decade, the new will spreads and grows clearer.

To be alive to-day, to be aware of the issues of to-day, is rare good fortune. For, without doubt, we live in one of the great ages of history, perhaps in the greatest of all that have yet occurred. If we succeed in our world-wide adventure, the future will look back on us not only with horror, pity, incredulous amazement, but also with generous admiration for our victorious, though faltering and blundering, crusade. Never before has such an issue faced mankind as that which is now dividing the world into two great factions. Never before has there been any effective will to devote the whole planet to the true world-aim, never before the means to do so. But never before have those who cannot conceive the new will been so well armed for mischief.

Let us be clear in our own minds beyond all hesitation as to the turn that we must now seek to give to history. We must create for the first time a world-population of well-grown and fully awakened men and women. We must change the whole tenor of man's life on this planet. We must turn him little by little from the disease-racked, ill-nourished, cowering, vindictive beast, that in the main he is, to the lover, the artist, the philosopher-king in command of his own destiny, that it is even now in him to become. By every means discoverable, by changes political, economic, educational, and some day eugenical, we must change human nature, we must begin to release the human from the brutish in man, to set his feet once and for all upon the way of the spirit. And our reward shall be that those nobler beings who shall follow us may sometimes pause in the midst of their greater endeavour and their greater joy to look back on us and say, 'Half-human creatures that they were, they yet saw unmistakably a glimmer of the light. Hampered by their own faint-heartedness and brutishness, they were made by their vision nobler than could otherwise have been. And from their dark tragic lives a world has sprung which they could not have conceived.'

Chapter 10

Chapter 8

Waking World Contents