WHAT is the force that moves nations?
Biographical historians, and historians writing of separate nations, understand this force as a power residing in heroes and sovereigns. According to their narratives, the events were entirely due to the wills of Napoleons, of Alexanders, or, generally speaking, of those persons who form the subject of historical memoirs. The answers given by historians of this class to the question as to the force which brings about events are satisfactory, but only so long as there is only one historian for any event. But as soon as historians of different views and different nationalities begin describing the same event, the answers given by them immediately lose all their value, as this force is understood by them, not only differently, but often in absolutely opposite ways. One historian asserts that an event is due to the power of Napoleon; another maintains that it is produced by the power of Alexander; a third ascribes it to the influence of some third person. Moreover, historians of this class contradict one another even in their explanation of the force on which the influence of the same person is based. Thiers, a Bonapartist, says that Napoleon's power rested on his virtue and his genius; Lanfrey, a Republican, declares that it rested on his duplicity and deception of the people. So that historians of this class, mutually destroying each other's position, at the same time destroy the conception of the force producing events, and give no answer to the essential question of history.
Writers of universal history, who have to deal with all the nations at once, appear to recognise the incorrectness of the views of historians of separate countries as to the force that produces events. They do not recognise this force as a power pertaining to heroes and sovereigns, but regard it as the resultant of many forces working in different directions. In describing a war on the subjugation of a people, the writer of general history seeks the cause of the event, not in the power of one person, but in the mutual action on one another of many persons connected with the event.
The power of historical personages conceived as the product of several forces, according to this view, can hardly, one would have supposed, be regarded as a self-sufficient force independently producing events. Yet writers of general history do in the great majority of cases employ the conception of power again as a self-sufficient force producing events and standing in the relation of cause to them. According to their exposition now the historical personage is the product of his time, and his power is only the product of various forces, now his power is the force producing events. Gervinus, Schlosser, for instance, and others, in one place, explain that Napoleon is the product of the Revolution, of the ideas of 1789, and so on; and in another plainly state that the campaign of 1812 and other events not to their liking are simply the work of Napoleon's wrongly directed will, and that the very ideas of 1789 were arrested in their development by Napoleon's arbitrary rule. The ideas of the Revolution, the general temper of the age produced Napoleon's power. The power of Napoleon suppressed the ideas of the Revolution and the general temper of the age.
This strange inconsistency is not an accidental one. It confronts us at every turn, and, in fact, whole works upon universal history are made up of consecutive series of such inconsistencies. This inconsistency is due to the fact that after taking a few steps along the road of analysis, these historians have stopped short halfway.
To find the component forces that make up the composite or resultant force, it is essential that the sum of the component parts should equal the resultant. This condition is never observed by historical writers, and consequently, to explain the resultant force, they must inevitably admit, in addition to those insufficient contributory forces, some further unexplained force that affects also the resultant action.
The historian describing the campaign of 1813, or the restoration of the Bourbons, says bluntly that these events were produced by the will of Alexander. But the philosophic historian Gervinus, controverting the view of the special historian of those events, seeks to prove that the campaign of 1813 and the restoration of the Bourbons was due not only to Alexander, but also to the work of Stein, Metternich, Madame de Staël, Talleyrand, Fichte, Chateaubriand, and others. The historian obviously analyses the power of Alexander into component forces. Talleyrand, Chateaubriand, and so on, and the sum of these component forces, that is, the effect on one another of Chateaubriand, Talleyrand, Madame de Staël, and others is obviously not equal to the resultant effect, that is, the phenomenon of millions of Frenchmen submitting to the Bourbons. Such and such words being said to one another by Chateaubriand, Madame de Staël, and others, only affects their relation to one another, and does not account for the submission of millions. And therefore to explain how the submission of millions followed from their relation to one another, that is, how from component forces equal to a given quantity A, there followed a resultant equal to a thousand times A, the historian is inevitably bound to admit that force of power, which he has renounced, accepting it in the resultant force, that is, he is obliged to admit an unexplained force that acts on the resultant of those components. And this is just what the philosophic historians do. And consequently they not only contradict the writers of historical memoirs, but also contradict themselves.
Country people who have no clear idea of the cause of rain say: The wind has blown away the rain, or the wind is blowing up for rain, according as they are in want of rain or of fair weather. In the same way, philosophic historians at times, when they wish it to be so, when it fits in with their theory, say that power is the result of events; and at times, when they want to prove something else, they say power produces the events.
A third class of historians, the writers of the so-called history of culture, following on the lines laid down by the writers of universal history who sometimes accept writers and ladies as forces producing events, yet understand that force quite differently. They see that force in so-called culture, in intellectual activity. The historians of culture are quite consistent as regards their prototypes—the writers of universal history—for if historical events can be explained by certain persons having said certain things to one another, why not explain them by certain persons having written certain books? Out of all the immense number of tokens that accompany every living phenomenon, these historians select the symptom of intellectual activity, and assert that this symptom is the cause. But in spite of all their endeavours to prove that the cause of events lies in intellectual activity, it is only by a great stretch that one can agree that there is anything in common between intellectual activity and the movement of peoples. And it is altogether impossible to admit that intellectual activity has guided the actions of men, for such phenomena as the cruel murders of the French Revolution, resulting from the doctrine of the equality of man, and the most wicked wars and massacres arising from the Gospel of love, do not confirm this hypothesis.
But even admitting that all the cunningly woven arguments with which these histories abound are correct, admitting that nations are governed by some indefinite force called an idea—the essential question of history still remains unanswered; or to the power of monarchs and the influence of counsellors and other persons, introduced by the philosophic historian, another new force is now joined—the idea, the connection of which with the masses demands explanation. One can understand that Napoleon had power and so an event came to pass; with some effort one can even conceive that Napoleon together with other influences was the cause of an event. But in what fashion a book, Le Contrat Social, led the French to hack each other to pieces cannot be understood without an explanation of the causal connection of this new force with the event.
There undoubtedly exists a connection between all the people living at one time, and so it is possible to find some sort of connection between the intellectual activity of men and their historical movements, just as one may find a connection between the movements of humanity and commerce, handicrafts, gardening, and anything you like. But why intellectual activity should be conceived of by the historians of culture as the cause or the expression of a whole historical movement, it is hard to understand. Historians can only be led to such a conclusion by the following considerations: (1) That history is written by learned men; and so it is natural and agreeable to them to believe that the pursuit of their calling is the basis of the movement of the whole of humanity, just as a similar belief would be natural and agreeable to merchants, agriculturists, or soldiers (such a belief on their part does not find expression simply because merchants and soldiers don't write history); and (2) that spiritual activity, enlightenment, civilisation, culture, ideas are all vague, indefinite conceptions, under cover of which they can conveniently use phrases having less definite signification, and so easily brought under any theory.
But to say nothing of the inner dignity of histories of this kind (possibly they are of use for some one or for something), the histories of culture, towards which all general histories tend more and more to approximate, are noteworthy from the fact that though they give a serious and detailed analysis of various religious, philosophic, and political doctrines as causes of events, every time they have to describe an actual historical event, as, for instance, the campaign of 1812, they unconsciously describe it as the effect of the exercise of power, frankly saying that that campaign was the work of Napoleon's will. In saying this, the historians of culture unconsciously contradict themselves, to prove that the new force they have invented is not the expression of historical events, and that the sole means of explaining history is by that power which they had apparently rejected.