WHEN SOME EVENT takes place, men express their opinions and desires in regard to the event, and as the event proceeds from the combined action of many men, some one of the opinions or desires expressed is certain to be at least approximately fulfilled. When one of the opinions expressed is fulfilled, that opinion is connected with the event as the command preceding it.
Men are dragging a log. Every man expresses his opinion as to how and where to drag it. The men drag the log off; and it turns out that it has been done just as one of them advised. He gave the command then. This is commanding and power in its primitive aspect.
The man who did most work with his arms could think least what he was doing, reflect least what might come of the common action, and so command least. The man who commanded most could obviously, from his greater verbal activity, act less vigorously with his arms. In a larger assembly of men, combining their energies to one end, the class of those persons who take the less direct share in the common work the more their energy is turned to command, is still more sharply defined.
When a man acts alone, he always carries within him a certain series of considerations, that have, as he supposes, directed his past conduct, and that serve to justify to him his present action, and to lead him to make projects for his future activity.
Assemblies of men act in the same way, only leaving to those who do not take direct part in the action to invent considerations, justifications, and projects concerning their combined activity.
For causes, known or unknown to us, the French begin to chop and hack at each other. And to match the event, it is accompanied by its justification in the expressed wills of certain men, who declare it essential for the good of France, for the cause of freedom, of equality. Men cease slaughtering one another, and that event is accompanied by the justification of the necessity of centralisation of power, of resistance to Europe, and so on. Men march from west to east, killing their fellow-creatures, and this event is accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History teaches us that those justifications for the event are devoid of all common-sense, that they are inconsistent with one another, as, for instance, the murder of a man as a result of the declaration of his rights, and the murder of millions in Russia for the abasement of England. But those justifications have an incontestable value in their own day.
They remove moral responsibility from those men who produce the events. At the time they do the work of brooms, that go in front to clear the rails for the train: they clear the path of men's moral responsibility. Apart from those justifications, no solution could be found for the most obvious question that occurs to one at once on examining any historical event; that is, How did millions of men come to combine to commit crimes, murders, wars, and so on?
Under the existing complex forms of political social life in Europe, can any event be imagined which would not have been prescribed, decreed, commanded by some sovereigns, ministers, parliaments, or newspapers? Is there any sort of combined action which could not find justification in political unity, or in patriotism, or in the balance of power, or in civilisation? So that every event that occurs inevitably coincides with some expressed desire, and receiving justification, is regarded as the result of the will of one or more persons.
Whichever way the ship steers its course, there will always be seen ahead of it the flow of the waves it cleaves. To the men in the ship the movement of those waves will be the only motion perceptible.
It is only by watching closely, moment by moment, the movement of that flow, and comparing it with the movement of the ship, that we are convinced that every moment that flowing by of the waves is due to the forward movement of the ship, and that we have been led into error by the fact that we are ourselves moving too.
We see the same thing, watching moment by moment the movement of historical personages (that is, restoring the inevitable condition under which all action takes place—the condition of the continuity of motion in time), and not losing sight of the necessary connection of historical figures with the masses.
Whatever happens, it always appears that that was foreseen and decreed. Whichever way the ship turns, the waves gurgle in front of it, and neither guiding nor accelerating its movement, will seem to us at a distance to be moving arbitrarily and guiding the course of the ship.
Examining only those expressions of the will of historical characters which related to events as commands, historians have assumed that the events were dependent on the commands. Examining the events themselves, and that connection in which the historical characters stand with the masses, we have found that historical characters and their commands are dependent on the events. An incontestable proof of this deduction is to be found in the fact that, however many commands may be given, the event does not take place if there is no other cause to produce it. But as soon as an event does take place—whatever it may be—out of the number of all the expressions of the will of different persons, there are always some which, from their meaning and time of utterance, are related to the events as commands.
Having reached this conclusion, we can directly and positively answer these two essential questions of history:—
In its moral aspect the cause of the event is conceived of as power; in its physical aspect as those who were subject to that power. But since moral activity is inconceivable apart from physical, the cause of the event is found in neither the one nor the other, but in the conjunction of the two.
Or, in other words, the conception of cause is not applicable to the phenomenon we are examining.
In our final analysis we are brought to the circle of infinity, to that utmost limit, to which the human intellect is brought in every department of thought, if it is not merely playing with its subject. Electricity produces heat; heat produces electricity. Atoms are attracted; atoms are repelled.
Speaking of the mutual relations of heat and of electricity and of atoms, we cannot say why it is so, and we say it is so because it is unthinkable otherwise; because it must be so; because it is a law. The same thing applies also to historical phenomena. Why does a war or a revolution come to pass? We do not know. We only know that to bring either result to pass, men form themselves into a certain combination in which all take part; and we say that this is so because it is unthinkable otherwise; because it is a law.