SINCE HISTORY has abandoned the views of the ancients as to the divine subjection of the will of a people to one chosen vessel, and the subjection of the will of that chosen vessel to the Deity, it cannot take a single step without encountering contradictions. It must choose one of two alternatives: either to return to its old faith in the direct intervention of the Deity in the affairs of humanity; or to find a definite explanation of that force producing historical events that is called power.
To return to the old way is out of the question: the old faith is shattered, and so an explanation must be found of the meaning of power.
Napoleon commanded an army to be raised, and to march out to war. This conception is so familiar to us, we are so accustomed to this idea that the question why six hundred thousand men go out to fight when Napoleon utters certain words seems meaningless to us. He had the power, and so the commands he gave were carried out.
This answer is completely satisfactory if we believe that power has been given him from God. But as soon as we do not accept that, it is essential to define what this power is of one man over others.
This power cannot be that direct power of the physical ascendency of a strong creature over a weak one, that ascendency based on the application or the threat of the application of physical force—like the power of Hercules. Nor can it be based on the ascendency of moral force, as in the simplicity of their hearts several historians suppose, maintaining that the leading historical figures are heroes—that is, men endowed with a special force of soul and mind called genius. This power cannot be based on the ascendency of moral force; for, to say nothing of historical heroes, like Napoleon, concerning whose moral qualities opinions greatly differ, history proves to us that neither Louis XI. nor Metternich, who governed millions of men, had any marked characteristics of moral force, but that they were, on the contrary, in most respects morally weaker than any one of the millions of men they governed.
If the source of power lies not in the physical and not in the moral characteristics of the person possessing it, it is evident that the source of this power must be found outside the person—in those relations in which the person possessing the power stands to the masses.
That is precisely how power is interpreted by the science of law, that cash bank of history, that undertakes to change the historical token money of power for sterling gold.
Power is the combined wills of the masses, transferred by their expressed or tacit consent to the rulers chosen by the masses.
In the domain of the science of law, made up of arguments on how a state and power ought to be constructed, if it were possible to construct it, all this is very clear; but in its application to history this definition of power calls for elucidation.
The science of law regards the state and power, as the ancients regarded fire, as something positively existing. But for history the state and power are merely phenomena, just as for the physical science of today fire is not an element, but a phenomenon.
From this fundamental difference in the point of view of history and of the science of law, it comes to pass that the science of law can discuss in detail how in the scientific writer's opinion power should be organised, and what is power, existing immovable outside the conditions of time; but to historical questions as to the significance of power, undergoing visible transformation in time, it can give no answer.
If power is the combined will of the masses transferred to their rulers, is Pugatchov a representative of the will of the masses? If he is not, how then is Napoleon I. such a representative? Why is it that Napoleon III., when he was seized at Boulogne, was a criminal, and afterwards those who had been seized by him were criminals?
In palace revolutions—in which sometimes two or three persons only take part—is the will of the masses transferred to a new person? In international relations, is the will of the masses of the people transferred to their conqueror? In 1808 was the will of the Rhine Alliance league transferred to Napoleon? Was the will of the mass of the Russian people transferred to Napoleon in 1809, when our army in alliance with the French made war upon Austria?
These questions may be answered in three ways: (1) By maintaining that the will of the masses is always unconditionally delegated over to that ruler or those rulers whom they have chosen, and that consequently every rising up of new power, every struggle against the power once delegated, must be regarded as a contravention of the real power.
Or (2) by maintaining that the will of the masses is delegated to the rulers, under certain definite conditions, and by showing that all restrictions on, conflicts with, and even abolition of power are due to non-observance of the rulers of those conditions upon which power was delegated to them.
Or (3) by maintaining that the will of the masses is delegated to the rulers conditionally, but that the conditions are uncertain and undefined, and that the rising up of several authorities, and their conflict and fall, are due only to the more or less complete fulfilment of the rulers of the uncertain conditions upon which the will of the masses is transferred from one set of persons to another.
In these three ways do historians explain the relation of the masses to their rulers.
Some historians—those most distinctively biographers and writers of memoirs, of whom we have spoken above—failing in the simplicity of their hearts to understand the question as to the meaning of power, seem to believe that the combined will of the masses is delegated to historical leaders unconditionally, and therefore, describing any such authority, these historians assume that that authority is the one absolute and real one, and that every other force, opposing that real authority, is not authority, but a violation of authority, and unlawful violence.
Their theory fits in well with primitive and peaceful periods of history; but in its application to complicated and stormy periods in the life of nations, when several different authorities rise up simultaneously and struggle together, the inconvenience arises that the legitimist historian will assert that the National Assembly, the Directorate, and Bonaparte were only violations of real authority; while the Republican and the Bonapartist will maintain, one that the Republic, and the other that the Empire were the real authority, and that all the rest was a violation of authority. It is evident that the explanations given by these historians being mutually contradictory, can satisfy none but children of the tenderest age.
Recognising the deceptiveness of this view of history, another class of historians assert that authority rests on the conditional delegation of the combined will of the masses to their rulers, and that historical leaders possess power only on condition of carrying out the programme which the will of the people has by tacit consent dictated to them. But what this programme consists of, those historians do not tell us, or if they do, they continually contradict one another.
In accordance with his view of what constitutes the goal of the movements of a people, each historian conceives of this programme, as, for instance, the greatness, the wealth, the freedom, or the enlightenment of the citizens of France or some other kingdom. But putting aside the contradictions between historians as to the nature of such a programme, and even supposing that one general programme to exist for all, the facts of history almost always contradict this theory.
If the conditions on which power is vested in rulers are to be found in the wealth, freedom, and enlightenment of the people, how is it that kings like Louis XIV. and John IV. lived out their reigns in peace, while kings like Louis XVI. and Charles I. were put to death by their peoples? To this question these historians reply, that the effect of the actions of Louis XIV. contrary to the programme were reacted upon Louis XVI. But why not reflected on Louis XIV. and Louis XV.? Why precisely on Louis XVI.? And what limit is there to such reflection? To these questions there is and can be no reply. Nor does this view explain the reason that the combined will of a people remains for several centuries vested in its rulers and their heirs, and then all at once during a period of fifty years is transferred to a Convention, a Directory, to Napoleon, to Alexander, to Louis XVIII., again to Napoleon, to Charles X., to Louis Philippe, to a republican government, and to Napoleon III. To explain these rapid transferences of the people's will from one person to another, especially when complicated by international relations, wars, and alliances, these historians are unwillingly obliged to allow that a proportion of these phenomena are not normal transferences of the will of the people, but casual incidents, depending on the cunning, or the blundering, or the craft, or the weakness of a diplomatist or a monarch, or the leader of a party. So that the greater number of the phenomena of history—civil wars, revolutions, wars—are regarded by these historians as not being produced by the delegation of the free-will of the people, but as being produced by the wrongly directed will of one or several persons, that is, again by a violation of authority. And so by this class of historians, too, historical events are conceived of as exceptions to their theory.
These historians are like a botanist who, observing that several plants grow by their seed parting into two cotyledons, or seed-leaves, should insist that everything that grows only grows by parting into two leaves; and that the palm-tree and the mushroom, and even the oak, when it spreads its branches in all directions in its mature growth, and has lost all semblance to its two seed-leaves, are departures from their theory of the true law of growth. A third class of historians admit that the will of the masses is vested in historical leaders conditionally, but say that those conditions are not known to us. They maintain that historical leaders have power only because they are carrying out the will of the masses delegated to them.
But in that case, if the force moving the peoples lies not in their historical leaders, but in the peoples themselves, where is the significance of those historical leaders?
Historical leaders are, so those historians tell us, the self-expression of the will of the masses; the activity of the historical leaders serves as a type of the activity of the masses.
But in that case the question arises, Does all the activity of historical leaders serve as an expression of the will of the masses, or only a certain side of it? If all the life-activity of historical leaders serves as an expression of the will of the masses, as some indeed believe, then the biographies of Napoleons and Catherines, with all the details of court scandal, serve as the expression of the life of their peoples, which is an obvious absurdity. If only one side of the activity of an historical leader serves as the expression of the life of a people, as other supposed philosophical historians believe, then to define what side of the activity of an historical leader does express the life of a people, one must know first what the life of the people consists of.
Being confronted with this difficulty, historians of this class invent the most obscure, intangible, and general abstraction, under which to class the greatest possible number of events, and declare that in this abstraction is to be found the aim of the movements of humanity. The most usual abstractions accepted by almost all historians are: freedom, equality, enlightenment, progress, civilisation, culture. Postulating some such abstraction as the goal of the movements of humanity, the historians study those persons who have left the greatest number of memorials behind them—kings, ministers, generals, writers, reformers, popes, and journalists—from the point of view of the effect those persons in their opinion had in promoting or hindering that abstraction. But as it is nowhere proven that the goal of humanity really is freedom, equality, enlightenment, or civilisation, and as the connection of the masses with their rulers and with the leaders of humanity only rests on the arbitrary assumption that the combined will of the masses is always vested in these figures which attract our attention—the fact remains that the activity of the millions of men who move from place to place, burn houses, abandon tilling the soil, and butcher one another, never does find expression in descriptions of the activity of some dozen persons, who do not burn houses, never have tilled the soil, and do not kill their fellow-creatures.
History proves this at every turn. Is the ferment of the peoples of the west towards the end of last century, and their rush to the east, explained by the activity of Louis XIV., Louis XV., and Louis XVI., or their mistresses and ministers, or by the life of Napoleon, of Rousseau, of Diderot, of Beaumarchais, and others?
The movement of the Russian people to the east, to Kazan and Siberia, is that expressed in the details of the morbid life of John IV. and his correspondence with Kurbsky?
Is the movement of the peoples at the time of the Crusades explained by the life and activity of certain Godfreys and Louis' and their ladies?
It has remained beyond our comprehension, that movement of the peoples from west to east, without an object, without leadership, with a crowd of tramps following Peter the Hermit. And even more incomprehensible is the cessation of that movement, when a rational and holy object for the expeditions had been clearly set up by historical leaders—that is, the deliverance of Jerusalem.
Popes, kings, and knights urged the people to set free the Holy Land. But the people did not move, because that unknown cause, which had impelled them before to movement, existed no longer. The history of the Godfreys and the Minnesingers evidently cannot be regarded as an epitome of the life of the peoples. And the history of the Godfreys and the Minnesingers has remained the history of those knights and those Minnesingers, while the history of the life of the peoples and their impulses has remained unknown.
Even less explanatory of the life of the peoples is the history of the lives of writers and reformers.
The history of culture offers us as the impelling motives of the life of the people the circumstances of the lives or the ideas of a writer or a reformer. We learn that Luther had a hasty temper and uttered certain speeches; we learn that Rousseau was distrustful and wrote certain books; but we do not learn what made the nations cut each other to pieces after the Reformation, or why men guillotined each other during the French Revolution.
If we unite both these kinds of history together, as do the most modern historians, then we shall get histories of monarchs and of writers, but not a history of the life of nations.