THE QUESTION of free will and necessity holds a position in history different from its place in other branches of knowledge, because in history, the question relates, not to the essential nature of the will of man, but to the representation of the manifestations of that will in the past and under certain conditions.
History, in regard to the solution of this question, stands to the other sciences in the position of an experimental science to speculative sciences.
The subject of history is not the will of man, but our representation of its action.
And so the insoluble mystery of the union of the two antinomies of freedom and necessity does not exist for history as it does for theology, ethics, and philosophy. History deals with the representation of the life of man, in which the union of those two antinomies is accomplished.
In actual life every historical event, every human action, is quite clearly and definitely understood, without a sense of the slightest contradiction in it, although every event is conceived of partly as free, and partly as necessary.
To solve the problem of combining freedom and necessity and the question what constitutes the essence of those two conceptions, the philosophy of history can and ought to go to work in a direction opposite to that taken by the other sciences. Instead of first defining the ideas of freedom and necessity in themselves, and then ranging the phenomena of life under those definitions, history must form the definition of the ideas of free will and necessity from the immense multitude of phenomena in her domain that are always dependent on those two elements.
Whatever presentation of the activity of one man or of several persons we examine, we always regard it as the product partly of that man or men's free will, partly of the laws of necessity.
Whether we are discussing the migrations of peoples and the inroads of barbarians, or the government of Napoleon III., or the action of some man an hour ago in selecting one direction for his walk out of several, we see nothing contradictory in it. The proportion of freedom and necessity guiding the actions of those men is clearly defined for us.
Very often our conception of a greater or less degree of freedom differs according to the different points of view from which we regard the phenomenon.
But every human action is always alike conceived by us as a certain combination of free will and necessity.
In every action we investigate, we see a certain proportion of freedom and a certain proportion of necessity. And whatever action we investigate, the more necessity we see, the less freedom, and the more freedom, the less necessity.
The proportion of freedom to necessity is decreased or increased, according to the point of view from which the act is regarded; but there always remains an inverse ratio between them.
A drowning man clutching at another and drowning him, or a hungry mother starved by suckling her baby and stealing food, or a man trained to discipline who at the word of command kills a defenceless man, all seem less guilty—that is, less free and more subject to the law of necessity to one who knows the circumstances in which they are placed, and more free to one who did not know that the man was himself drowning, that the mother was starving, that the soldier was on duty, and so on. In the same way a man who has twenty years ago committed a murder and afterwards has gone on living calmly and innocently in society seems less guilty, and his acts seem more subject to the law of necessity, to one who looks at his act after the lapse of twenty years than to one looking at the same act the day after it was perpetrated. And just in the same way the act of a madman, a drunkard, or a man labouring under violent excitement seems less free and more inevitable to one who knows the mental condition of the man who performed the action, and more free and less inevitable to one who does not know it. In all such cases the conception of freedom is increased or diminished, and that of necessity correspondingly diminished or increased, according to the point of view from which the action is regarded. So that the more necessity is seen in it the less freedom. And vice versa.
Religion, the common-sense of humanity, the science of law, and history itself understand this relation between necessity and free will.
All cases, without exception, in which our conception of free will and necessity varies depend on three considerations:
1. The relation of the man committing the act to the external world.
2. His relation to time.
3. His relation to the causes leading to the act.
In the first case the variation depends on the degree to which we see the man's relation to the external world, on the more or less clear idea we form of the definite position occupied by the man in relation to everything co-existing with him. It is this class of considerations that makes it obvious to us that the drowning man is less free and more subject to necessity than a man standing on dry ground; and that makes the actions of a man living in close connection with other people in a thickly populated district, bound by ties of family, official duties, or business undertaking, seem undoubtedly less free than those of a man living in solitude and seclusion.
If we examine a man alone, apart from his relations to everything around him, every action of his seems free to us. But if we see any relation of his to anything surrounding, if we perceive any connection between him and anything else, a man speaking to him, a book read by him, the work he is employed in, even the air he breathes, or the light that falls on the objects around him, we perceive that every one of those circumstances has its influence on him, and controls at least one side of his activity. And the more we perceive of those influences, the smaller the idea we form of his freedom, and the greater our conception of the necessity to which he is subject.
2. The second cause of variation is due to the degree of distinctness with which the man's position in time is perceived, the clearness of the notion formed by us of the place the man's action fills in time. It is owing to this class of considerations that the fall of the first man, leading to the origin of the human race, seems to us obviously less free than the marriage of any one of our contemporaries. It is owing to this class of considerations that the life and acts of men who lived years ago cannot seem to me as free as the life of my contemporaries, the consequences of whose acts are still unknown to me.
The variation in our conception of free will in this connection depends on the interval of time that has elapsed between the action and our criticism of it.
If I examine an act I have committed a moment ago in approximately the same circumstances as I am placed in now, my act appears to me indubitably free. But if I examine an act I have committed a month ago, then being placed in other circumstances, I cannot help recognising that had not that act been committed, much that is good and agreeable, and even inevitable, resulting from that act, could not have taken place. If I reflect on a still more remote action, performed ten years or more ago, the consequences of my act are even plainer to me, and it will be difficult for me to conceive what would have happened if that action had not taken place. The further back I go in my reminiscences, or what is the same thing, the further forward in my criticism of them, the more doubtful becomes my view of the freedom of my action.
We find precisely the same ratio of variation in our views of the element of free will in the general affairs of men in history. A contemporary event we conceive of as undoubtedly the doing of all the men we know of concerned in it. But with a more remote event, we see its inevitable consequences, which prevent our conceiving of anything else as possible. And the further back we go in the examination of events, the less arbitrary they seem to us.
The Austro-Prussian war appears to us to be undoubtedly the result of the crafty acts of Bismarck and so on.
The Napoleonic wars, though more doubtful, appear to us the effect of the free will of the leading heroes of those wars. But in the Crusades we see an event, filling its definite place in history, without which the modern history of Europe is inconceivable, although to the chroniclers of the Crusades, those events appeared simply due to the will of a few persons. In the migrations of peoples it never occurs to any one now that the renewal of the European world depended on a caprice of Attila's. The more remote in history the subject of our observations, the more doubtful we feel of the free will of the persons concerned in the event, and the more obvious is the law of necessity in it.
3. The third element influencing our judgment is the degree to which we can apprehend that endless chain of causation demanded by the reason, in which every phenomenon comprehended, and so every act of man, must have its definite place, as a result of past and a cause of future acts.
This is the element that causes our acts and those of others to appear to us on one side more free the less we know of the physiological, psychological, and historical laws deduced from observation, and the less thoroughly the physiological, psychological, or historical cause of the act has been investigated by us, and on the other hand the less simple the act observed and the less complex the character and mind of the man whose action we are examining.
When we have absolutely no understanding of the causes of an action—whether vicious or virtuous or simply non-moral—we ascribe a greater element of free will to it. In the case of a crime, we are more urgent in demanding punishment for the act; in the case of a virtuous act, we are warmer in our appreciation of its merits. In cases of no moral bearing, we recognise more individuality, originality, and independence in it. But if only one of the innumerable causes of the act is known to us, we recognise a certain element of necessity, and are less ready to exact punishment for the crime, to acknowledge merit in the virtuous act, or freedom in the apparent originality. The fact that the criminal was reared in vicious surroundings softens his fault in our eyes. The self-sacrifice of a father, of a mother, or self-sacrifice with the possibility of reward is more comprehensible than gratuitous self-sacrifice, and so is regarded by us as less deserving of sympathy and less the work of free will. The founder of a sect, of a party, or the inventor impresses us less when we understand how and by what the way was paved for his activity. If we have a large range of experiments, if our observation is continually directed to seeking correlations in men's actions between causes and effects, their actions will seem to us more necessary and less free, the more accurately we connect causes and effects. If the actions investigated are simple, and we have had a vast number of such actions under observation, our conception of their inevitability will be even more complete. The dishonest conduct of the son of a dishonest father, the misbehaviour of women, who have been led into certain surroundings, the relapse of the reformed drunkard into drunkenness, and so on, are instances of conduct which seem to us to be less free the better we understand their cause. If the man himself whose conduct we are examining is on the lowest stage of mental development, like a child, a mad-man, or a simpleton, then when we know the causes of the act and the simplicity of the character and intelligence, we see so great an element of necessity, and so little free will, that we can foretell the act that will follow, as soon as we know the cause bound to bring it forth.
In all legislative codes the exoneration of crime or admission of mitigating circumstances rests only on those three classes of consideration. The guilt is conceived as greater or less according to the greater or lesser knowledge of the conditions in which the man judged is placed, the greater or less interval of time between the perpetration of the crime and the judgment of it, and the greater or less comprehension of the causes that led to the act.