SEVEN YEARS had passed by. The storm-tossed, historic ocean of Europe was subsiding within its shores. It seemed to have grown calm; but the mysterious forces moving humanity (mysterious, because the laws controlling their action are unknown to us) were still at work.
Although the surface of the ocean of history seemed motionless, the movement of humanity was as uninterrupted as the flow of time. Various series of groups of men were joining together and separating; the causes were being prepared that would bring about the formation and the dissolution of empires and the migrations of peoples.
The ocean of history was not now, as before, tossed violently from one shore to the other; it was seething in its depths. Historical figures were not dashing abruptly from one side to the other; now they seemed to be rotating on the same spot. The historical figures, that had in the preceding years at the head of armies reflected the movement of the masses, commanding wars, and marches, and battles, now reflected that movement in political and diplomatic combinations, statutes, and treaties.
This tendency on the part of the figures of history, the historians call the reaction.
In describing the part played by these historical personages, the historians criticise them severely, supposing them to be the cause of what they call the reaction. All the celebrated persons of that period, from Alexander and Napoleon to Madame de Staël, Foty, Schelling, Fichte, Chateaubriand, and so on, receive the severest criticism at their hands, and are acquitted or condemned according as they worked for progress or for reaction.
In Russia, too, so they tell us, a reaction was taking place at that period, and the person chiefly to blame for that reaction was Alexander I.—the same Alexander who, by their own account, was chiefly responsible for the liberal movement at the beginning of his reign, and for the saving of Russia.
In modern Russian literature there is no one, from the schoolboy essay writer to the learned historian, who would not throw his stone at Alexander for the unprincipled acts of this later period of his reign.
“He should have acted in such and such a way. On that occasion he acted well, and on that other he acted ill. He behaved splendidly in the beginning of his reign and during 1812; but he did ill in giving a constitution to Poland, in making the Holy Alliance, in letting Araktcheev have power, in encouraging Golitsin and mysticism; and later on, in encouraging Shishkov, and Foty. He acted wrongly in interfering with the army on active service; he acted wrongly in cashiering the Semyonovsky regiment, and so on.”
One might cover ten pages in enumerating all the faults found in him by the historians on the assumption that they possess a knowledge of what is for the good of humanity.
What do these criticisms mean?
Do not the very actions for which the historians applaud Alexander I., such as the liberalism of the early part of his reign, the struggle with Napoleon, the firmness shown in 1812, and the campaign of 1813, proceed from those very sources—the circumstances of birth and breeding and life that made Alexander's personality what it was—from which proceed also the acts for which he is censured by the historians, such as the Holy Alliance, the restoration of Poland, the reaction from 1820 onward?
What is the substance of the charge brought in these criticisms? It is a charge brought against an historical personage standing at the highest possible pinnacle of human power, as it were, in the focus where all the rays of history concentrated their blinding light upon him; a personage subjected to the strongest influences of intrigue, deceit, flattery, and self-deception, inseparable from power; a personage who felt himself at every moment of his life responsible for all that was being done in Europe; and a personage, not an invented character, but a live creature, like any other man, with his own personal idiosyncrasies, and passions and impulses towards goodness, beauty, and truth. And the charge brought against this personage is not that he was not virtuous (the historians have no reproach to make against him on this score), but that he, living fifty years ago, had not the same views as to the good of humanity as those held to-day by a professor who has, from his youth up, been engaged in study, i.e. in reading books, listening to lectures, and making notes of those books and those lectures in a note-book.
But even if we assume that Alexander I., fifty years ago, was mistaken in his view of what was for the good of peoples, we can hardly help assuming that the historian, criticising Alexander, will, after a certain lapse of time, prove to be also incorrect in his view of what is for the good of humanity. It is the more natural and inevitable to assume this because, watching the development of history, we see that with every year, with every new writer, the view of what is for the good of humanity is somewhat shifted; so that what did seem good, after ten years, is regarded as harmful, and vice versa. That is not all. We even find in history the views of contemporaries as to what was good, and what was harmful, utterly opposed to one another. Some regard the giving of a constitution to Poland, and the Holy Alliance, as highly to the credit of Alexander; while others regard the same actions as a slur on his name.
It is impossible to say of the careers of Alexander and of Napoleon that they were beneficial or harmful, seeing that we cannot say wherein the benefit or harm of humanity lies. If any one dislikes the career of either, he only dislikes it from its incompatibility with his own limited conception of what is the good of humanity. Even though I regard as good the preservation of my father's house in Moscow in 1812, or the glory of the Russian army, or the flourishing of the Petersburg or some other university, or the independence of Poland, or the supremacy of Russia, or the balance of European power, or a special branch of European enlightenment—progress—yet I am bound to admit that the activity of any historical personage had, apart from such ends, other ends more general and beyond my grasp.
But let us suppose that so-called science has the power of conciliating all contradictions, and has an invariable standard of good and bad by which to try historical personages and events.
Let us suppose that Alexander could have acted quite differently. Let us assume that, in accordance with the prescription of those who censure him, and who profess a knowledge of the final end of the movement of humanity, he could have followed that programme of nationalism, of freedom, of equality, and of progress (there seems to be no other) which his modern critics would have selected for him. Let us suppose that programme could have been possible, and had actually been formulated at that time, and that Alexander could have acted in accordance with it. What, then, would have become of the activity of all the persons who were opposing the tendency of the government of that day—of the activity which, in the opinion of the historians, was good and beneficial? There would have been none of that activity; there would have been no life; there would have been nothing.
Once admit that human life can be guided by reason, and all possibility of life is annihilated.