Detachment and the Writing of History

THE witty remark of Dumas, that Lamartine had raised history to the dignity of romance, would have appealed to Thomas Buckle, who was much occupied with reducing it to the level of a science. Critics have told us that the attempt of the latter was a flat failure. But the attitude of the critics toward Buckle is less reassuring than the attitude of the scientists toward history; for while the former maintain that Buckle pursued a good end by a false method, the latter to this day reproach history with being entertaining and useless.

The remarks of Herbert Spencer in this connection are well known to every one. But perhaps there are some who have not heard the complaint of Professor Minot, who recently took occasion, in some public addresses, to lament the quite obvious futility of present historical methods. Whereas, in all other departments of knowledge great and useful advances were being made, historians alone were industriously engaged in aimless endeavor. In this opinion he had been confirmed only the summer before, when he had carried with him to the mountains, or wherever it was that he spent his vacation, a work which he supposed represented the best that modern historical scholarship could offer — the first volume of the Cambridge Modern History! A part of his summer had been pleasantly spent in perusing this work. In it he found much of interest: events related in great detail; facts, curious and suggestive, presented, the truth of which could doubtless not be questioned. But of fruitful generalization, there was little indeed, no effort having been made, apparently, to reduce the immense mass of facts to principles of universal validity.

I do not suppose there are many historians who carry the Cambridge Modern History with them to the mountains. It is not a book to be read in the greenwood. Certainly, the vision of the eminent professor dropping the ponderous tome into a vacation trunk, and pressing the lid deliberately down without a qualm, is pathetic enough. And yet the Cambridge Modern History is a serious work. If it is not the best that modern historical scholarship can do, it should be. Until Professor Minot found it interesting, no one, I imagine, ever thought it in danger of being classed as literature. If it is not science, it is nothing.

Professor Minot, who is perfectly clear about its not being science, in spite of its being entertaining, would doubtless find the lively remarks of Bagehot, in his essay on Gibbon, even more entertaining. ‘Whatever may be the uses of this sort of composition in itself and abstractedly, it is certainly of great use relatively and to literary men. Consider the position of a man of that species. He sits beside a library fire, with nice white paper, a good pen, a capital style, every means of saying everything, but nothing to say; of course he is an able man, — but still one cannot always have original ideas. Every day cannot be an era, — and how dull it is to make it your business to write, to stay by yourself in a room to write, and then to have nothing to say! What a gain if something would happen! Then one could describe it. Something has happened, and that something is history. Perhaps when a Visigoth broke a head, he thought that that was all. Not so: he was making history; Gibbon has written it down.’

Humorous sallies like this are to be enjoyed, but happily need not be answered. At least it is so in this case, for most historians will readily agree with Professor Minot that the Cambridge Modern History contains a great mass of facts the truth of which cannot be questioned. But they will think that in saying so he has given the book a very good character indeed. You cannot disconcert the orthodox historian of our day by saying that he has got a mass of facts together without knowing what to do with them: if the truth of them cannot indeed be questioned, he will know very well what to do with them: he will put them in a book. But imagine the sentiments of the authors if Professor Minot had said that ‘the beautifully coördinated generalizations, with which the Cambridge Modern History is packed, are most stimulating and suggestive.’ Their chagrin would have been immense! No, the modern historian is not given to generalization. It is not his business to generalize,—so, at least, he thinks; it is his business to find out and to record ‘exactly what happened.’ So far, Bagehot is quite right after all. History is what happened; the historian must write it down, if not like Gibbon, at least wie es ist eigentlick gewesen.

If historians take this attitude somewhat uncompromisingly, it is not because they do not care for scientific history. Quite the contrary! They care for nothing so much; and to contribute a little to such history — to make ‘a permanent contribution to knowledge’ — is their chiefest ambition. Yet the thoughtful man knows well, in spite of what the reviewers say every month, that it is not easy to make a permanent contribution to knowledge. In nearly every age, able men have written histories; of them all, a few have proved permanent contributions to literature; as history, not one but must be edited. Even the great masters, whom we loyally advised every one to read without reading them ourselves, do not escape. Of course Tacitus was a great writer, but he was not at all scientific: he had ideas, and they were, unfortunately, the ideas of a Roman republican. Even Gibbon, with all his fine lack of enthusiasm, gave expression to the eighteenth-century dream of a golden age. Finding nothing in the Middle Ages but the ‘triumph of barbarism and Christianity,’ he too, in his ponderous fashion, voiced the demand écraser l’infâme!

As for the favorite historians of the nineteenth century, a decade or a generation has sufficed in most cases to shelve their works behind glass doors now rarely opened. Ceasing to be read, they are advertised as standard by publishers, and fall at last to be objects of glib criticism by the young professor who has himself written a monograph and three book-reviews. Not a life of drudgery, or genius itself, shall avoid disaster. Faith in democracy discredits a history of Greece; lack of it inspires the apotheosis of Cæsar. Hatred of tractarianism guides a facile pen through twelve volumes. The Reform Bill is read back into the Revolution of 1688. The memory of Sedan becomes a misleading gloss in all Merovingian manuscripts. Little wonder if the modern historian, stumbling over the wreckage that strews his path, has no desire to add anything of his own to the débris. Much better, he thinks, to be employed quarrying out of the bedrock of historical fact even one stone, so it be chiseled four-square, that may find its niche in the permanent structure of some future master-builder.

This attitude of mind is not peculiar to historians. In every field of intellectual activity, men of science are reconstructing the cosmos in terms of the evolutionary hypothesis. We are most of us quite proud of having reduced the universe to unstable equilibrium, and yet there is one thing that seems to be exempt from the operation of this law of change and adaptation which incessantly transforms everything else — truth itself: everything is unstable except the idea of instability. It is true, the Pragmatists are asking whether, if everything is subject to the law of change, truth be not subject to the law of change, and reality as well — the very facts themselves. But whatever scientists may think of this notion, historians have not yet been disturbed by it. For them, certainly, truth is a fixed quality: the historical reality, the ‘fact,’ is a thing purely objective, that does not change; a thing, therefore, that can be established once for all beyond any peradventure. So well established is this idea, that it has been formulated in a law of history.

‘Il y a toujours un correspondance entre les faits intellectuels, et l’état général des esprits; unc loi qui a comme corollaire la suivante: le changement du milieu intellectuel entraine toujours un changement dans les faits de l’esprit qu’il entoure. La vérité seule n’est pas soumise à Finfluence du milieu; elle ne change pas avec le dernier.'1

The truth, which alone changes not, is what must be got at. The objective reality must be caught, as it were, and mounted like a specimen for the instruction of future ages. But this is exceedingly difficult , precisely because ‘le changement du milieu intellectuel entraine toujours un changement dans les faits de l’esprit qu’il entoure.’ This difficulty must therefore be the rock on which all previous historians have split. Not sufficiently aware of the disastrous influence of the milieu, they have unconsciously read the objective facts of the past in the light of their own purposes, or the preoccupations of their own age.

But, after all, how is it possible to avoid the influence of one’s milieu? No one has given any very precise answer to this question, but there is a favorite phrase, familiar to every seminary fledgeling, that is supposed to point the way: one must cultivate complete mental detachment. Those who seek truth, says Renan, must have ‘ no mental reservations referring to human affairs,’must ‘beware of every formula which may one day become an obstacle to the free development of their minds’; as for histories, they should be written ‘with as much supreme indifference as if they were written in another planet.’ But it is Nietzsche who has sketched for us, in his inimitable manner, the portrait of the detached man: —

‘The objective man is in truth a mirror: accustomed to prostration before something that wants to be known, with such desires only as knowing or “reflecting” implies — he waits until something comes, and then expands himself sensitively, so that even the light footsteps and gliding past of spiritual beings may not be lost in his surface and film. Whatever “ personality” he still possesses seems to him — disturbing; so much has he come to regard himself as the passage and reflection of outside forms and events. Should one wish love or hatred from him — he will do what he can, and furnish what hecan. But one must not be surprised if it should not be much. His mirroring and eternally self-polishing soul no longer knows how to affirm, no longer how to deny; he does not command, neither does he destroy. Neither is he a model man; he does not go in advance of any one, nor after either; he places himself generally too far off to have any reason for espousing the cause of either good or evil. He is an instrument — but nothing in himself — presque rien! ’2

This is surely M. Renan’s man of ‘supreme indifference.’ If you like, you may believe there never was such a man: the wonderful creature is doubtless only an ideal. The ideal, nevertheless, is clear enough. It is an ideal based upon the familiar conception of the ‘pure reason’ — reason cut loose from will and emotion, from purpose and passion and desire, all these left behind, or non-existent, burned away perhaps with some methodological purifying flame. Intelligence, thus reduced to a kind of delicate mechanical instrument, set carefully in a sealed case to protect it from the deflecting influences of environment, we are to suppose capable of acting automatically when brought in contact with objective phenomena. These phenomena — the ‘ facts ’ of history, for example — come before it, ‘wanting to be known’; it expands itself sensitively, and truth is registered upon its polished surface, as objects are upon a photographic plate. Only in this manner can we know the thing wie es ist eigentlich gewesen; but in this manner, if at all, we shall surely be able to record exactly what happened.

Certainly there is something impressive in the assertion that it is the business of the historian to ‘get the facts.’ In our generation, the mere word ‘fact’ is something to conjure with. Your practical friend, in some discussion or other, ends by saying roundly, ‘But it is not a question of theory; it is a question of fact.’

Of course you give it up. A fact is something substantial, something material, something you can perhaps take up in your hand, or stand upon: it will always bear your weight. And so, with much talk about ‘cold facts,’ and ‘ hard facts,’ and not being able to ‘get around the facts,’ it has come to a pass where the historical fact seems almost material too, something that can be handed about and pressed with the thumb to test its solidity. But, in truth, the historical fact is a thing wonderfully elusive after all, very difficult to fix, almost impossible to distinguish from ‘theory,’ to which it is commonly supposed to be so completely antithetical.

It is said to be a fact that Cæsar was stabbed by the senators, in the senate-house at Rome; and this is, I suppose, as simple a fact as one will ordinarily deal with: as hard as any, and quite as difficult to get around, if one should wish, for some sinister purpose, to get around it. But it is really simple only in the sense that it is a simple statement easily comprehended. It is itself made up of many simpler facts: the senators standing round, the words that were said, the scuffle, the three and twenty dagger-strokes, —numberless facts, indeed, make the single fact that Cæsar was stabbed in the senate-house.

With equal facility, this single fact may be combined with others to form a more complex, but still relatively simple fact, — the fact that Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus replaced Cæsar in the government of Rome. Thus, while we speak of historical facts as if they were pebbles to be gathered in a cup, there is in truth no unit fact in history. The historical reality is continuous, and infinitely complex; and the cold hard facts into which it is said to be analyzed are not concrete portions of the reality, but only aspects of it. The reality of history has forever disappeared, and the ’facts’ of history, whatever they once were, are only mental images or pictures which the historian makes in order to comprehend it.

How, then, are these images formed? Not from the reality directly, for the reality has ceased to exist. But the reality has left certain traces, and these help us to construct the image. Some one saw Caesar stabbed, and afterwards wrote down, let us suppose, this: —

‘On the Ides of March, Cæsar was stabbed by the senators in the senatehouse at the base of Pompey’s statue, which all the while ran blood.’

I suppose myself an historian, reading this statement. As I read, a mental picture is at once formed: several men in a room, at the base of a statue, driving daggers into one of their number. But it is not the statement alone that enables me to form the picture: my own experience enters in. I have seen men and rooms and daggers, and my experience of these things furnishes the elements of which the picture is composed. Suppose me to know nothing of the ancient Roman world: my picture would doubtless be composed of the senate-chamber at Washington, of men in frock coats, and of bowieknives, perhaps. It is true, the picture changes as I read more of the Roman world. Yet at each step in this transformation, it is still my own experience that furnishes the new elements for the new picture. New sources enable me to combine the elements of experience more correctly, but experience must furnish the elements to select from. The ‘ facts’ of history do not exist for any historian until he creates them, and into every fact that he creates some part of his individual experience must enter.

But experience not only furnishes the elements for the image which the sources guide us in forming: it is also the final court of appeal in evaluating the sources themselves. History rests on testimony, but the qualitative value of testimony is determined in the last analysis by tested and accepted experience. The historian, no less than the scientist, smiles at the naïveté of Joseph De Maistre, who imagined that the negations of science could be destroyed by the assertions of history. With a single perfectly proved historical fact, he courageously proposed to defy the whole tribe of geometers,— ‘ J’ai à vous répondre qu’Archimède brûle la flotte romaine avec un miroir ardent,’ — if it were once perfectly proved.

But the historian knows well that no amount of testimony is ever permitted to establish as past reality a thing that cannot be found in present reality. And it is not enough to be able to find in present experience the elements fora picture of the alleged past fact. One can, for example, readily picture the dostruction of the Roman fleet by means of a burning-glass, or the bleeding of Pompey’s statue; the elements for such pictures are familiar. But the sources ask us to make a combination of the elements which the registered experience of our age does not warrant. In every other case the witness may have a perfect character — all that goes for nothing. Tacitus is a good witness, and when he says the Germans do not inhabit cities, we believe him, though we do not know precisely what he means by cities. But when he says that Tiberius, having lived for fifty years a sane and well-ordered life, became quite suddenly a monster of lust and cruelty, we do not believe him so readily. If he had said a thousand times over that the Germans had wings, we should still say that the Germans had no wings.

The classic expression of this truth is of course Hume’s famous argument against miracle. That argument does not really prove that miracles never occurred in history; it proves only that there is no use having a past through which the intellect cannot freely range with a certain sense of Security. If we cannot be on familiar terms with our past, it is no good. We must have a past that is the product of all the present. With sources that say it was not so, we will have nothing to do; better still, we will make them say it was so. The sources say — and it is a commonplace now that they say nothing more persistently, or with greater particularization of detail — that during the Middle Ages miracles were as common as lies. The modern historian admits that there were lies, but denies that there were miracles. He not only rejects the miracle, — the explanation of the fact, — he rejects the facts as well; he says that such facts are not proved; for him, there were no such facts. And he rejects these facts, not because they are contrary to every possible law of nature, to every possible experience, but simply because they are contrary to the comparatively few laws of nature which his generation is willing to regard as established. But as rapidly as scientists can find a place for such facts in experience, historians will create them in history, — a truth which the progress of psychical research promises to illustrate in a striking manner. Even now, indeed, Anatole France and Andrew Lang cannot agree about certain facts of the fifteenth century, because one of them takes psychical research seriously, while the other thinks it is all moonshine.

If the reality of history can be reached only through the door of present experience, one may well ask how our objective man, so detached and indifferent, with no mental reservations referring to human affairs, will proceed in determining the facts. There he sits in Mars, — or, better still, the British Museum,—ready to expand sensitively when something comes, wanting to be known. Unfortunately, nothing comes. Our perfectly detached man is mildly distressed, perhaps, to find that the thing first of all absolutely required is an act of will: a painful thing, and, strictly speaking, impossible for him. Suppose this difficult step once taken, still there is nothing before him but paper with writing on it; and I think he may expand himself sensitively for an endless term with no great result. The trouble is that the dead manuscripts do not ‘want to be known’; about that, they are as detached as can be. Our objective man must himself want to know, and wanting to know implies a purpose in knowing. Even the will, to be purely objective is itself a purpose, becoming not infrequently a passion, creating the facts in its own image.

But we are not told that the business of the historian is limited to finding out exactly what happened; he must also record exactly what happened. It is the fashion to call this the problem of synthesis, as distinguished from investigation, criticism, or analysis. The distinction is doubtless a convenient one, but it will not bear too close inspection. If there is no unit fact in history, if the facts are only mental images, why, then, it must be very difficult to assert a fact without thereby making a synthesis. ‘Cæsar was stabbed in the senate-house ’ is a fact, but it is also a synthesis of other facts. Strictly speaking, analysis and synthesis cannot be rigidly distinguished. And the reason is not far to seek: it is because there is no real analysis and no real synthesis. When the historian is engaged in what the methodologists call analysis, it is not the reality that he takes apart, but only the sources, — a very different matter.

Perfect analysis is achieved when each source is transformed into as many statements as it explicitly or implicitly contains. These statements are then set down on separate cards or slips of paper; and with these cards the historian must be content, for the simple reason that nothing better is possible. Even this analysis is, indeed, not always possible. For some periods of history it is possible, but for most of modern history, at least, it remains only an ideal: a wilderness of slips would not suffice for even a few years; so that, if scientific history is inseparable from complete analysis of the sources, we are confronted with the disquieting paradox that the less knowledge we have of history the more scientific that knowledge becomes.

Without attempting to resolve this difficulty, let us suppose the work of analysis already finished: all the sources critically edited, separated into their simplest statements, recorded on separate cards ticketed with date and reference, arranged chronologically. There are the ‘facts’; it remains to construct the synthesis. The chronological arrangement would, sure enough, be no mean synthesis in itself. One may ask what, after all, remains to be done by our objective man, sitting there before his card-cases, intent to record exactly what happened. Everything that happened, so far as any trace of it is left, is already recorded, it seems. But the truth is, no one is satisfied with that, unless it be our objective man. For most of us, afflicted with mere human purposes, a case full of cards may be magnificent, but it is not history. Out of these cards we will get some useful, intelligible meaning. The problem of synthesis is, indeed, not to record exactly what, happened, but by simplification to convey an intelligible meaning of what happened. With that problem every constructive historian is engaged from the first step to the last.

This necessary simplification may be achieved, I suppose, in one of two ways: by classification in terms of common qualities, or by grouping in terms of concrete relations. Comparing what is related of all kings (assuming that the term king is precisely understood), the historian may find that all kings have been crowned. This quality common to all kings is then reduced to a single statement, ‘all kings are crowned.' This is the method of the natural sciences, and of sociology as well. Certainly, it is a method well worth while; but, as we are all agreed that history is not sociology, it cannot be the method of the historian. The historian, therefore, proceeds by the other method. Concerned with a particular king, he will group the facts related of this particular king, according to their concrete relations, thus: —

‘George III, having succeeded to the throne of England October 25, 1760, was immediately proclaimed in the customary manner, and formally crowned at Westminster, September 22, 1761.’

The historian, like the sociologist, has simplified the facts for the purpose of conveying an intelligible meaning. But the difference between the two methods is profound. The statement that all kings are crowned is an abstraction, a generalization of qualities common to all kings. From this generalization, it can be inferred of any actual king that he was crowned, and that inference every one must make, because the statement implies just that and nothing else. But the statement about George III is not an abstraction. It is just as concrete as any of the numberless particular statements upon which it is based. From it no particular fact can be deduced: it cannot be inferred that the Privy Council met, or that mounted heralds went forth reading a solemn document on the London streets to crowds of gaping people. The historian knows that these things were done, and he has crowded them all into the term “proclaimed.’ But for the reader, unless he already knows that kings in England were customarily proclaimed in that way, the term will have only a vague significance: something was done, he does not know what.

The sociologist has simplified by combining particular facts in a generalization, from which any one can deduce again file particular fact, and no other. The historian has simplified by selecting, from a number of particular facts, certain facts which he considers most important to be known.

It seems, then, that the great point in historical synthesis is selection: which of the numberless particular facts shall the historian select? One wishes to know at once, therefore, if there is some objective standard for determining the relative value of facts; a standard which, being applied by any number of trained historians, will give the same result in each case. Well, yes, we are told there is such a standard, and one residing in the facts themselves, and therefore purely objective. The facts to be selected for constructing what is called the “historical concept ’ have four chief characteristics which, for the initiated, distinguish them as clearly as if they were labeled ‘for historians only.'

Professor Fling, in his admirable summary of the elaborate work of Rickert,3 tells us what these characteristics are: the historian selects facts that are unique, facts that have value on account of their uniqueness, facts that are casually connected, facts that reveal unique change or evolution. Historians who proceed thus, proceed scientifically; and while it is doubtless true that no two historians will use identical terms in phrasing their ‘ concepts,’yet ‘the progress of historical synthesis means a growing agreement among scientific historians touching the important facts of this or that period.’ ‘If they proceed scientifically,’ the same facts will be selected ‘by the opponents of the French Revolution . .. as have been selected by the supporters of it.’ It seems, therefore, if this is indeed a practical standard for evaluating the facts of history, and one truly objective, that we have at last a kind of philosophical recipe for making our contributions permanent; a guide sufficient even for one who has attained complete detachment, or for our disinterested objective man. One has only to examine the facts, select such as bear the mark, and put them together: the result is sure.

Nevertheless, the use of the word value in this formula is disquieting. The difficulties which it is sure to raise have been recognized, but not altogether disposed of. ’The use of the word value,’ says Professor Fling, ‘seems to introduce an uncertain and arbitrary element into the problem. But the question of value is not a question of partisanship, nor of approval or disapproval; it is a question of importance. Is this fact important for the Reformation? Is an account of the Reformation intelligible without it? The Protestant may love Luther, the Catholic may hate him, but they would agree that Luther is important for the Reformation.’

To say that the question of value is a question of importance, does little to resolve the difficulty. We still ask, Important for what? The answer is, Important for the Reformation. But I suppose the Reformation is one of those very ‘concepts’ which Professor Fling is telling us how to construct in a scientific manner. All that we yet know, therefore, is that the concept is formed by selecting the facts that are important for the concept. If Protestant and Catholic have a concept of the Reformation to begin with, the concept is not determined by the facts; if they have no concept to begin with, why is Luther more important than Tetzel? Indeed, the historian may be neither Protestant nor Catholic, and to him I should think the Reformation might be perfectly intelligible if Luther’s part in it were reduced to very slight proportions; to him, it might be intelligible on that ground only. Have we not already been told that the Reformation was primarily an illustration, on a grand scale, of the law of diminishing returns? That concept, if it is intelligible at all, is intelligible without Luther.

After all, do the facts come first and determine the concept, or does the concept come first and determine the facts ? The heart of the question is there. It seems that Professor Fling virtually admits that the concept conies first.

‘The historical method is thus teleological in a certain sense. The subject of an historical investigation is a unique thing. . . . It has beginning and end. We know what the end was, and we wish to know what the chain of events was that led up to the final event. We seek such facts, to be wrought up into a synthesis, as may be necessary to show how the end was attained.’

We know what the end was. But in what sense do we know what the end was, of the French Revolution, for example? Of the French Revolution, surely the end is not yet. Lord Morley tells us that it is still some way from being fully accomplished.

‘The process is still going on, and a man of M. Taine’s lively intellectual sensibility can no more escape its influence than he can escape the ingredients of the air he breathes.’

And if we hold to the doctrine of the continuity of history, how far back must we go to find a period that is fully accomplished? In truth, we know the end only in part. The historian may choose to consider the Restoration of 1815 as the end of the French Revolution; but his concept of that end, which must determine the facts he selects, will be born of the age in which he lives. One can scarcely imagine any historian living in 1825, even the most scientific in the world, having the same concept of the Restoration that Professor Fling has. Unfortunately, the historian and his concepts are a part of the very process he would interpret; the end of that process is ever changing, and the historian Mill scarcely avoid changing with it, whether he have t he lively intellectual sensibility of M. Taine, or be as placid as Nietzsche’s objective man.

If the historian could indeed separate himself from the process which he describes, if he were outside of history as the chemist is outside of chemistry, his greatest success should be with those periods that differ most from the one in which he lives. But he has, in fact, most success with those periods in which men’s habitual modes of thought and action most resemble his own. Strange and remote events, to be synthesized intelligibly at all, must be interpreted in terms of motives that are familiar. It is true, the actions of men in all past ages have been such as to justify us in assuming a fundamental similarity in human motives. Yet familiar motives are much more intensely felt in some ages than in others.

The religious motive is still active in the twentieth century, but the exaggerated asceticism of the Middle Ages already partakes of the unreal. The historian finds that for some centuries men entered monasteries and lived impossible lives of self-stultification, and they did this, so the documents tell him, for the love of God and the salvation of souls. But the love of God, expressing itself in that fashion, is remote from us of the twentieth century. It no longer satisfies us to label monasteries with the words ‘salvation of souls,’and so we are writing over their portals the words ‘economic institutions’ instead. Did they not serve as inns, and recover much marsh land? Of this exaggerated asceticism, St. Simeon Stylites is the classic example. In explaining him, the modern historian, whether M. Taine or another, has some difficulty. Not that he finds it impossible to form an image of the poor monk standing there; he can form the image perfectly. Nor can he reject the fact because contrary to observed experience; he has seen men standing at the top of a pillar, has done it himself, or could do it, perhaps. To find a motive that would induce him to do what Stylites is said to have done, — the difficulty is there. He can’t just explain him by the lack of inns. So he says, ‘interesting pathological case,’ and passes quickly on. Stylites is really too remote.

For the normal child, St. Simeon would be perhaps one of the least remote objects of the whole Middle Age, because the child, even the twentiethcentury child, lives in a world which we do not know, and which we are therefore pleased to call the world of fancy. The child is, in fact, perfectly detached from all those dull practical interests with which mature men are so preoccupied. He is as indifferent to them as if he did indeed live in another planet; and yet he makes a synthesis of the historical reality that would fail to satisfy, I suppose, even M. Renan. A fairly obedient child, it is true, will make any synthesis you require of him; but he regards it, for the most part, as a meaningless and vexatious business. For him, the reality is whatever relates itself to his interests, whatever coördinates readily with his dream world. He is unpatriotic enough to prefer the winged gods of Greece to John Smith or Daniel Boone. Sevenleague boots and one-eyed men, impossible ladies and knights-errant without purpose, St. Simeon Stylites standing, solemn and useless, at the top of a pillar, — from these he is not detached. He, too, has a concept of the end, and will, if left to himself, select the facts that are important for that concept, thereby constructing a synthesis quite true and valuable for his purposes.

The method of the trained historian is not essentially different, I suspect, from that of the child. He achieves a different result, it is true; but that is because he has a different ‘concept’ round which to group the facts—a concept derived from the practical or intellectual interests that concern him. If there is a ‘growing agreement among scientific historians touching the important facts of this or that period,’ it is because there is, in every age, a certain response in the world of thought to dominant social forces. But the agreement is only for the particular age; the next age, or the next generation, will think very differently. In an age of political revolution there is perhaps a growing agreement that ‘history is past politics.' In an age when industrial problems are pressing for solution the ‘economic interpretation of history’ is the thing. The advent of the social state will doubtless give us some new formula. Whatever it may be, the historian of the future will select the facts that are important for that concept. The historian, as Professor Fling has said, does indeed have a concept of the end, and he selects the facts that will explain how that end came about. But it is the concept that determines the facts, not the facts the concept.

From beginning to end, the historian is outside the subject of his investigation,— ’the life of an historical personage, a battle, an economic crisis, a period in the life of a people,’ or what - ever it is that he professes to confine himself to. Instead of‘sticking to the facts,’the facts stick to him, if he has any ideas to attract them; and they will stick to him to some purpose only if his ideas are many, vivid, and fruitful. Complete detachment would produce few histories, and none worth while; for the really detached mind is a dead mind, lying among the facts of history like unmagnetized steel among iron-filings, no synthesis ever resulting, in one case or the other, to the end of time.

Consider the trained historian, intent on studying the sixteenth century. Before him are the analyzed sources — the ‘facts’ — neatly arranged in cases. He begins thumbing the cards, reading the statements, taking in the facts. Doubtless he says to himself: —

‘This fact is unique, important because unique, casually connected; I will therefore set it aside to be wrought up into my final synthsies.’

No such thing. As he goes over and over his cards, some aspects of the reality recorded there interest him more, others less; some are retained, others forgotten; some have power to start a new train of thought; some appear to be casually connected; some logically connected; some are without perceptible connection of any sort. And the reason is simple: some facts strike the mind as interesting or suggestive, have a meaning of some sort, lead to some desirable end, because they associate themselves with ideas already in the mind; they fit in somehow to the ordered experience of the historian. This original synthesis — not to be confused with the making of a book for the printer, a very different matter — is only half deliberate. It is accomplished almost automatically. The mind will select and discriminate from the very beginning. It is the whole ’apperceiving mass’ that does the business, seizing upon this or that new impression and building it into its own growing content. As new facts are taken in, the old ideas or concepts, it is true, are modified,distinguished, destroyed even; but the modified ideas become new centres of attraction. And so the process is continued, for years it may be. The final synthesis is doubtless composed of facts unique, casually connected, revealing unique change; but the unique fact, selected because of its importance, was in every case selected because of its importance for some idea already in possession of the field. The original concepts, which give character to the entire synthesis, were contributed, not by the facts of the sixteenth century, but by the facts of the twentieth century.

If the modern historian exhibits detachment, certainly it is not from the dominant ideas of his own age. The very purpose of the age is to comprehend without purpose, to judge of the event by the event itself, to register a fact and call it a law. The effort to be purely objective, the aversion from stereotyped religious and political formulæ, the solemn determination to see the thing as it really is, — these are fixed concepts, round which the historian constructs his synthesis. It is not because he is detached from his environment, but because he is preoccupied with a certain phase of it, that his history becomes ‘ scientific’ — something more than a chronicle, something less than literature. The modern historian, for example, is detached from any fixed idea in religion, placing himself ‘too far off—for espousing the cause of either good or evil.' But he knows well that he must espouse, with fine enthusiasm, the cause of not espousing any cause. His synthesis must vindicate, not Luther or Leo X, but his own ideal of detachment. Was Catholicism or Protestantism true, or good, or useful ? Why, both and neither, cries the modern historian, and he can answer you that without ever having expanded himself sensitively before the one or the other. In so far as either existed, it was necessary, adapted to the conditions, and therefore doubtless good and true. Whatever happens, the historian will be detached; he will not take sides.

But it is difficult not to take sides if sharp contrasts and impassable gulfs are permitted to appear. If one could serve neither God nor Mammon, it is necessary to dispense with both. The modern historian has therefore a concept, a preconcept, of continuity and evolution, with ‘natural law’ at the back of things. The historical reality must be conceived as all of a piece, like a woven garment. In things evil must be perceived an element of things good, and in things good an element of things evil. Facts which do not contribute to establish these concepts will not be selected; they may be unique, but they are judged not important. No man is a hero to his valet. Doubtless valets have a definite concept of what masters are, and select only the facts that are important for that concept. Nowadays, certainly, no man is a hero to his biographer, much less a villain. The historical mind is detached from all concepts of that sort, and thus Napoleon becomes a necessary process instead of a scoundrel. Do you ask the modern historian whether he loves Luther or hates him? What a question! It is not to Luther, but to the Law of Diminishing Returns, that we owe religious liberty. There is profound truth in the biting remark of Voltaire, that, after all, history is only a pack of tricks we play on the dead. If useful social ends are served, it does not harm the dead, who had in any case tricks of their own. The trick of every past age — of St. Augustine, of Bossuet, of Gibbon and Rousseau and Voltaire himself, all the brilliant legerdemain of the eighteenth century —has long since been exposed. Yet it is the theory of the detached historian himself that these syntheses served, like every vital institution, a certain social purpose. If the mediæval Church was necessary to preserve Europe from anarchy, a synthesis like St. Augustine’s, creating history in the image of the Church, was surely necessary and useful. If ‘enlightenment’ was all that could save Europe from obscurantism in the eighteenth century, a synthesis of history proving the Church indispensable to human welfare, as the modern synthesis does, would have been beside the mark, quite useless, and impossible. And so the synthesis constructed by modern historians may very likely have its uses. When old landmarks are being washed away, and old foundations are crumbling to dust, it is doubtless useful and necessary to conceive the historical reality as continuous, casually connected, and changing only in response to forces largely remote from purposive human will.

Some future Lord Morley will tell the world how the histories of the nineteenth century served a useful social purpose, and did ‘a certain amount of good in a bad way.’ And if useful and necessary, then true — true in the only way that historical synthesis is ever likely to be true, true relatively to the needs of the age which fashioned it. At least, it is difficult to understand how the modern man, so wedded to the doctrine of evolution, can conceive of historical synthesis as true in any absolute sense. Institutions, he would agree, are true or false only as they are adapted for survival. But there is, is there not, an evolution of ideas too, only the fittest surviving? One can readily imagine the doctrine of survival of the fittest proving socially disintegrating in the end, in which case some other hypothesis will doubtless prove itself fittest to survive by surviving in fact.

Certainly, the evolutionary hypothesis gives us no assurance that detachment. will forever be in fashion among historians. The state of mind best calculated to find out exactly what happened is perhaps incompatible with a disposition to care greatly what it is that happened; and whatever value the notion of detachment may have just now, the time may come — there have been such times in the past — when it is most important, that every one should care greatly what happens. In that case, one can hardly think of the ‘objective man’ as possessing qualities exceptionally well adapted for survival. Then we may perhaps have histories as interesting as Professor Minot imagines the Cambridge Modern History is now. One scarcely ventures to hope they will be as scientific as he thinks they ought to be.

  1. Xenopol, Les Principes Fondamentaux de l’Histoire, p. 197.
  2. Beyond Good and Evil, p. 140.
  3. American Historical Review, vol. ix, p. 1. I am aware, of course, that the views I am criticising are not necessarily those of Professor Fling, since he has done no more than to present, for American readers, the theories of Rickert.