EVER SINCE the law of Copernicus was discovered and proved, the mere recognition that not the sun, but the earth moves, has destroyed the whole cosmography of the ancients. By disproving the law, it might have been possible to retain the old conception of the movements of the heavenly bodies; but without disproving it, it would seem to be impossible to continue studying the Ptolemaic worlds. But as a fact even after the discovery of the law of Copernicus, the Ptolemaic worlds long continued to be a subject of study.
Ever since the first person said and proved that the number of births or crimes is subject to mathematical laws, that certain geographical and politico-economical laws determine this or that form of government, that certain relations of the population to the soil lead to migrations of peoples—from that moment the foundations on which history was built were destroyed in their essence.
By disproving those new laws, the old view of history might have been retained. But without disproving them, it would seem impossible to continue studying historical events, merely as the arbitrary product of the free will of individual men. For if a certain type of government is established, or a certain movement of peoples takes place in consequence of certain geographical, ethnographical, or economic conditions, the free will of those persons who are described to us as setting up that type of government or leading that movement cannot be regarded as the cause.
And yet history goes on being studied as of old, side by side with laws of statistics, of geography, of political economy, of comparative philology and geology, that flatly contradict its assumptions.
The struggle between the new views and the old was long and stubborn in physical philosophy. Theology stood on guard over the old view, and accused the new view of violating revelation. But when truth gained the day, theology established itself as firmly as ever on a new basis.
As long and as obstinate is the conflict to-day between the old and the new view of history; and in the same way theology stands on guard over the old view, and accuses the new of attacking revelation.
In both cases on both sides, the struggle rouses evil passions and stifles truth. On one side there is dread and regret at demolishing the edifice that has been raised by the ages; on the other, the passion for destruction.
To the men who fought against the new truths of physical philosophy, it seemed that if they were to admit that truth, it would shatter faith in God, in the creation of the firmament, in the miracle of Joshua, the son of Nun. To the champions of the laws of Copernicus and Newton, to Voltaire, for instance, it seemed that the laws of astronomy were destructive of religion, and the latter made use of the law of gravity as a weapon against religion.
So now it seems that we have but to admit the law of necessity to shatter the conception of the soul, of good, of evil, and of the political and ecclesiastical edifices reared on the basis of those conceptions.
So too, like Voltaire in his day, the champions of the law of necessity use the law as a weapon against religion, though, like the law of Copernicus in astronomy, the law of necessity in history, far from destroying even strengthens the foundation on which political and ecclesiastical edifices are reared.
Just as then in the question of astronomy, now in the question of history, the whole difference of view rested on the recognition or non-recognition of an absolute unit as a measure of visible phenomena. For astronomy, this was the immobility of the earth; in history, the independence of personality—free will.
Just as in astronomy the difficulty of admitting the motion of the earth lay in the immediate sensation of the earth's stationariness and of the planets' motion, so in history the difficulty of recognising the subjection of the personality to the laws of space and time and causation lies in the difficulty of surmounting the direct sensation of the independence of one's personality. But just as in astronomy, the new view said, “It is true, we do not feel the movement of the earth, but, if we admit its immobility, we are reduced to absurdity, while admitting its movement, we are led to laws”; so in history, the new view says, “It is true, we do not feel our dependence, but admitting our free will, we are led to absurdity; admitting our dependence on the external world, time, and cause, we are led to laws.”
In the first case, we had to surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space, and to admit a motion we could not perceive of by sense. In the present case, it is as essential to surmount a consciousness of an unreal freedom and to recognise a dependence not perceived by our senses.