A STEAM-ENGINE moves. The question is asked, How is it moved? A peasant answers, It is the devil moving it. Another man says, The steam-engine moves because the wheels are going round. A third maintains that the cause of the motion is to be found in the smoke floated from it by the wind.
The peasant's contention is irrefutable. To refute him some one must prove to him that there is no devil, or another peasant must explain that it is not a devil, but a German who moves the steamer. Then from their contradictory views they see that both are wrong. But the man who says the cause is the movement of the wheels refutes himself, seeing that having once entered on the path of analysis, he ought to proceed further and further along it; he ought to explain the cause of the wheels moving. And he has not to stop in his search for a cause till he finds the ultimate cause of the movement of the steam-engine in the steam compressed in the boiler. As for the man who explained the movement of the steam-engine as due to the smoke being blown back from it, he has simply noticed that the wheel explanation was insufficient, and pitching on the first accompanying symptom, gave that out as his cause.
The only conception which can explain the movement of the steamer is the conception of a force equal to the movement that is seen.
The only conception by means of which the movements of nations can be explained is a conception of a force equal to the whole movement of the nations.
Yet under this conception there are included by various historians forces of the most various kinds, and all unequal to the movement that is seen. Some see in it a force directly pertaining to heroes, as the peasant sees the devil in the steam-engine. Others, a force resulting from several other forces, like the movement of the wheels; a third class, intellectual influence, like the smoke.
So long as histories are written of individual persons—whether they are Cæsars and Alexanders, or Luthers and Voltaires—and not the history of all, without one exception, all the people taking part in an event, there is no possibility of describing the movement of humanity without a conception of a force impelling men to direct their activity to one end. And the only conception of this kind familiar to historians is power.
This conception is the sole handle by means of which the material of history, as at present expounded, can be dealt with; and the historian who should, like Buckle, break off this handle, without discovering any other means of dealing with historical material, would only be depriving himself of the last chance of dealing with it. The necessity of the conception of the exercise of power to explain the phenomena of history is most strikingly shown by the very writers of universal history and the history of culture, who, after professedly rejecting the conception of power, inevitably resort to it at every step.
Historical science in relation to the questions of humanity has hitherto been like money in circulation—paper notes and metal coins. The historical memoirs and histories of separate peoples are like paper money. They may pass and be accepted, doing their part without mischief to any one, and even being useful, so long as no question arises as to their value. One has only to forget the question how the will of heroes produces events, and Thiers's histories will be interesting, instructive, and will, moreover, not be devoid of a certain poetry. But just as a doubt of the stability of paper money arises, either because from the ease of making it, too much is put into circulation, or because of a desire to replace it by gold, so a doubt of the real value of history of this kind arises either because too many such histories appear, or because some one in the simplicity of his heart asks: By what force did Napoleon do that?—that is, wishes to change the current paper for the pure gold of a true conception.
The writers of general history and the history of culture are like men who, recognising the inconvenience of paper money, should decide to make instead of paper notes, jingling coin of metal not of the density of gold. And such coin would be jingling coin, and only jingling coin. A paper note might deceive the ignorant; but coin not of precious metal could deceive no one. Just as gold is only gold when it is of value, not only for exchange, but also for use, so the writers of universal history will only prove themselves of real value when they are able to answer the essential question of history: What is power? These historians give contradictory answers to this question, while the historians of culture altogether evade it, answering something quite different. And as counters in imitation of gold can only be used in a community of persons who agree to accept them for gold, or who are ignorant of the true character of gold, so do the historians who do not answer the essential questions of humanity serve for some objects of their own as current coin at the universities and with that crowd of readers—fond of serious reading, as they call it.