Living in History

We have no intellectual right to be ignorant when information lies at our hand. We have no spiritual right to be weary when great moral issues are at stake.

When Mr. Bagehot spoke his luminous word about ‘a fatigued way of looking at great subjects,’ he gave us the key to a mental attitude which perhaps is not the modern thing it seems. There were, no doubt, Greeks and Romans in plenty to whom the ‘glory’ and the ‘grandeur’ of Greece and Rome were less exhilarating than they were to Edgar Poe -- Greeks and Romans who were spiritually palsied by the great emotions which presumably accompany great events. They may have been philosophers, or humanitarians, or academists. They may have been conscientious objectors, or conscienceless shirkers, or perhaps plain men and women with a natural gift for indecision, a natural taste for compromise and awaiting developments. In the absence of newspapers and pamphlets, these peaceful pagans were compelled to express their sense of fatigue to their neighbors at the games or in the market-place; and their neighbors -- if well chosen -- sighed with them over the intensity of life, the formidable happenings of history.

Today the turmoil of the world has accentuated every human type -- heroic, base, keen, and evasive. The strain of two terrible years has been borne with unflinching hardihood, and sympathy has kept pace with suffering. But the once clear outlines are growing strangely blurred. We forget that, if history in the making is a fluid thing, it swiftly crystallizes. Men, ‘living between two eternities, and warring against oblivion,’ make their indelible record on its pages; and other men receive these pages as their best inheritance, their avenue to understanding, their key to life.

Therefore it is unwise to jibe at history because we do not chance to know it. It pleases us to jibe at anything we do not know, but the process is not enlightening. The English Nation commented approvingly last June upon the words of an English novelist who strove to make clear that the only things which count for any of us, individually or collectively, are the unrecorded minutiae of our lives. ‘History,’ said this purveyor of fiction, ‘is concerned with the rather absurd and theatrical doings of a few people, which after all, have never altered the fact that we do all of us live on from day to day, and only want to be let alone.’

‘These words,’ says the Nation heavily, ‘have a singular truth and force at the present time. The people of Europe want to go on living, not to be destroyed. TO live is to pursue the activities proper to one’s nature, to be unhindered and unthwarted in their exercise. It is not too much o say that the life of Europe is something which has persisted in spite of the history of Europe. There is nothing happy or fruitful anywhere but witnesses to the triumph of life over history.’

Presuming that we are able to disentangle life from history, to sever the inseverable, is this a true statement, or merely the expression of mental and spiritual fatigue? Were the great historic episodes invariably fruitless, and had they no bearing upon the lives of ordinary men and women? The battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, the signing of the Magna Charta, the Triple Alliance, the Declaration of Independence, the birth of the National Assembly, the first Reform Bill, the recognition in Turin of the United Kingdom of Italy -- these things may have been theatrical, inasmuch as they were certainly dramatic, but absurd is not a wise word to apply to them. Neither is it possible to believe that the life of Europe went on in spite of these historic incidents, triumphing over them as over so many obstacles to activity.

When the Nation contrasts the beneficent companies of strolling players who ‘represented and interpreted the world of life, the one thing which matters and remains,’ with the companies of soldiers who merely destroyed life at its roots, we cannot but feel that this editorial point of view has its limitations. The strolling players of Elizabeth’s day afforded many a merry hour; but Elizabeth’s soldiers and sailors did their part in making possible this mirth. The strolling players who came to the old Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia interpreted ‘the world of life,’ as they understood it; but the soldiers who froze at Valley Forge offered a different interpretation,, and one which had considerably more stamina. The magnifying of small things, the belittling of great ones, indicate an exhaustion of spirit which would be more pardonable if were less self-assertive. ‘A great country in the hour of her conflict,’ said Lockhart, ‘should not hear the voice of despondency from her children.’

Many smart things have been written to discredit history. Mr. Arnold called it ‘the vast Mississippi of falsehood,’ which was easily said, and has been said a number of times in a number of ways since the days of Herodotus, who amply illustrated the splendors of unreality. Mr. Edward Fitzgerald was wont to sigh that only lying histories are readable, and this point of view has many secret adherents. Nevertheless, all that we know of man’s unending efforts to adjust and readjust himself to the world about him we learn from history, and the tale is an instructive one. ‘Events are wonderful things,’ said Lord Beaconsfield. Nothing, for example, can conceal, or even obscure, the event of the French Revolution. We are free to discuss it until the end of time; but we can never obliterate it, and never get rid of its consequences.

The lively contempt for history expressed by readers who would escape its weight, and the neglect of history practiced by educators who would escape its authority, stand responsible for much mental confusion. American boys and girls go to school six, eight, or ten years, as the case may be, and emerge with a misunderstanding of their own country, and a comprehensive ignorance of all others. They say, ‘I don’t know any history,’ as casually and as unconcernedly as they might say, ‘I don’t know any chemistry,’ or ‘I don’t know metaphysics.’ A smiling young freshman in the most scholarly of women’s colleges told me recently that she had been conditioned because she knew nothing about the Reformation.

‘You mean, --’ I began questioningly.

‘I mean just what I say,’ she interrupted. ‘I didn’t know what it was, or where it was, or who had anything to do with it.’

I said I didn’t wonder she had come to grief. The Reformation was something of an episode. And I asked myself wistfully how it happened she had ever managed to escape it. When I was a little schoolgirl, a pious Roman Catholic child with a distaste for polemics, it seemed to me I was never done studying about the Reformation. If I escaped briefly from Wycliffe and Cranmer and Knowx, it was only to be met by Luther and Calvin and Huss. Everywhere the great struggle confronted me, everywhere I was brought face to face with the inexorable logic of events. That more advanced and more intelligent students find pleasure in every phase of ecclesiastical strife is proved by Lord Broughton’s pleasant story about a member of Parliament named Joliffe, who was sitting in his club, reading Hume’s History of England, a book which well deserves to be called dry. Charles Fox, glancing over his shoulder, observed, ‘I see you have come to the imprisonment of the seven bishops’; whereupon Joliffe, like a man engrossed in a thrilling detective story, cried desperately, ‘For God’s sake, Fox, don’t tell me what is coming!’

This was reading for human delight, for the interest and agitation which are inseparable from every human document. Mr. Henry James once told me that the only reading of which he never retired was history. ‘The least significant footnote of history,’ he said, ‘stirs me more than the most thrilling and passionate fiction. Nothing that has ever happened to the world finds me indifferent.’ I used to think that ignorance of history meant only a lack of cultivation and a loss of pleasure. Now I am sure that much ignorance impairs our judgment by impairing our understanding, by depriving us of standards, of the power to contrast and the right to estimate. We can know nothing of a nation unless we know its history; and we can know nothing of the history of many nation unless we know something of the history of all nations. The book of the world is full of knowledge we need to acquire, of lessons we need to learn, of wisdom we need to assimilate. Consider only this brief sentence of Polybius, quoted by Plutarch: ‘In Carthage no one is blamed, however he may have gained his wealth.’ A pleasant place, no doubt, for business enterprise; a place where young men were taught how to get on, and extravagance kept place with shrewd finance. A self-satisfied, self-confident, money-getting, money-loing people, honoring success, and hugging its fancied security, while far-off Rome Cato pronounced its doom.

There are readers who can tolerate and even enjoy history, provided it is shorn of its highlights and heavy shadows, its heroic elements and strong impelling motives. They turn with relief to such calm commentators as Sir J.R. Seeley, for years professor of modern history at Cambridge, who shrank as sensitively as an eighteenth century divine from that fell word enthusiasm, and from all the turmoil it gathers in its wake. He was a firm upholder of the British Empire, hating compromise, and guiltless of pacifism; but, having a natural gift for aridity, he saw no reason why the rest of the world should not be content to know things without feeling them, should not keep its eyes turned to legal institutions, its mind fixed upon political economy and international law. The force that lay back of Parliament annoyed him by the simple primitive way in which it beat drums, fired guns, and died to uphold the legal institutions which he prized; also because by doing these things it evoked in others certain simple and primitive sensations which he strove always to keep at bay. ‘We are rather disposed to laugh,’ he said, ‘when poets and orators try to conjure us with the name of England.’ Had he lived a few years longer, he would have known that England’s salvation lies in the fact that her name is, to her sons, a thing to conjure by. We may not wisely ignore the value of emotions, nor underestimate the power of the human impulses which charge the souls of men.

The weariness endangered by the great war in the minds of lookers-on is a natural, but ignorable sentiment. Unpurged by calamity, unchastened by sorrow, unhallowed by duty, we resent the long-continued appeal to our sympathies, the severe strain upon our understandings. We want to be as comfortable in soul as we are in body, we want to go unmolested to Paris and to Switzerland, we want the world to be at peace. Above all, we are tired of heroics. A recent contributor to the Unpopular Review strikes a popular note by expressing with admirable perspicuity the resentment of one who dislikes to think about fighting, and who finds herself unable to think about anything else. War, she reminds us sharply, is not the important and heroic thing it assumes to be. We are all misled as to its qualities because we studied America history out of canary-colored schoolbooks, which laid undue stress on the ‘embattled farmers’ of the Revolution, and the volunteers of the Civil War. We were taught so much ‘false patriotism’ when we were little, that ‘more widely directed studies in maturer years have not dispelled these distorted impressions of our childhood.’ She quotes a ‘well-known educator’ who asks that, if war is to figure in history at all, ‘the truth ought to be told, and its brutalities as well as its heroisms exposed.’ She professes a languid amusement at our attempts to distinguish between aggressive and defensive warfare, dismissing the subject with a light laugh about the ‘rainbow of official documents’ which prove every nation in the right. And she is sure that her ‘Uncle John,’ who died looking after ‘tenement people’ in an epidemic, was as much of a hero as any soldier whose grave is yearly decorated with flowers.

This is the clearest possible presentment of the annoyance engendered in reluctant minds by the pressure of great events. None of us are prepared to deny that an Uncle John who served the sick and suffering was a hero, or than an Aunt Maria who nursed her neighbor’s diphtheritic children was a heroine. But Grandfather Jones who died at Antietam was also, in his humble way, heroic. After all, if none of our grandfathers had been willing to do the plain, rude, fighting, we should now be a divided, unfriendly, slave-holding people. Therefore we feel that to put a flag or a flower upon a soldier’s grave is a not too exuberant recognition of his service.

As for the brutalities of war, who can charge that history smooths them over? Certain horrors may be withheld from children, whose privilege it is be spared the knowledge of utter depravity; but to the adult no such mercy is shown. Motley, for example, describes cruelties committed three hundred and fifty years ago in the Netherlands, which equal, if they do not surpass,the cruelties committed two years ago in Belgium. Men heard such tales more calmly than now, and seldom sought the coward’s refuge -- incredulity. The Dutch, like other nations, did better things than fight. They painted glorious pictures, they bred great statesmen and good doctors. They traded with extraordinary success. They raised the most beautiful tulips in the world. But to do these things peacefully and efficiently, they had been compelled to struggle for their national existence. The East India trade and the freedom of the seas did not drop into their laps.  And because their security, and the comeliness of life which they so highly prized, had been bought by unflinching courage and great sacrifice, they added to material well-being the ‘luxury of self-respect.’

To prate about the nobility of war per se would be childish as to prate about its iniquity. Why, the invasion of Belgium was war, and so was its defense. Unless history can help us draw some line of demarcation, we may as well read Gulliver’s Travels, or the Arabian Nights. To overestimate the part played by war in a nation’s development is as crude as to ignore its alternate menace and support. It is with the help of history that we balance our mental accounts. Voltaire was disposed to think that battles and treaties were matters of small moment; and John Richard Green pleaded, not unreasonably, that more space should be given in our chronicles to the missionary, the poet, the painter, the merchant, and the philosopher. They are not, they never have been, excluded from any narrative comprehensive enough to admit them, but the scope of their authority is not always sufficiently defined. Man, as the representative of his age, and the events in which he played his vigorous part -- these are the warp and woof of history. We cannot leave John Wesley, any more than we can leave Marlborough or Pitt, out of the canvas. We know now that the philosophy of  Nietzsche is one with Bernhardi’s militarism.

As for the merchant -- Froissart was as well aware of his prestige as was Mr. Green. ‘Tradem my lord,’ said Dinde Desponde, the great Lombard banker, to the Duke of Burgundy, ‘finds its way everywhere, and rules the world.’ As for commercial honor,  -- a thing as fine as the honor of the aristocrat or of the soldier, -- what can be better for England than to know that after the great fire of 1666 not a single London shop-keeper evaded his liabilities, and that this fact was long the boast of a city proud of its shopkeeping? As for jurisprudence, Sully was infinitely more concerned with it than he was with combat or controversy It is with stern satisfaction that he recounts the statutes passed in his day for the punishment of fraudulent bankrupts, -- whom we treat so leniently; for the annulment of their gifts and assignments, -- which we guard so zealously; and for the conviction of those to whom such property had been assigned. It was almost as dangerous to steal on a large scale as on a small one under the leveling laws of Henry of Navarre.

In this vast and varied chronicle, war plays its appointed part. ‘We cannot,’ says Walter Savage Landor, ‘push valiant men out of history.’We cannot escape from the truths interpreted, and the conditions established by their valor. What has been slightingly called the ‘drum-and-trumpet narrative’ holds its own with the records of art and science. ‘It cost Europe a thousand years of barbarism,’ says Macaulay, ‘to escape the fate of China.’

The endless endeavor of states to control their own destinies, the ebb and flow of the sea of combat, the ‘recurrent liturgy of war,’ enabled the old historians to perceive with amazing distinctness the traits of nations, etched as sharply then as now on the imperishable pages of history. We read Froissart’s observations -- the observations of a keen-eyed student of the world -- are worth recording five hundred years after he set them down.

‘In England,’ he says, ‘ strangers are well received’; yet are the English ‘affable to no other nations than their own.’ Ireland, he holds to have had ‘too many kings’; and the Scotch, like the English, ‘are excellent men-at-arms, nor is there any check to their courage as long as their weapons endure.’ France is the pride of his heart, as it is the pride of the world’s heart today. ‘In France also is found good chivalry, strong of spirit, and in great abundance; for the kingdom of France has never been brought so low as to lack men reader for the combat.’ Even Germany does not escape his regard. ‘The Germans are a people without pit and without honor.’ And again: ‘The Germans are a rude, unmannered race, but active and expert where their own personal advantage is concerned.’ If history be ‘philosophy teaching by example,’ we are wise to admit the old historians into our counsel.

The past two years -- sorrowful years in which all sensitive men and women have borne their share of pain, glorious years to which all resolute men and women have paid their tribute of homage -- demand also of all intelligent men and women clear thinking based on accurate information. It has come to us to witness history in the making, to live through a world’s tragedy, to feel the crushing burden and the noble stimulus of hard heroic life; and the first duty we owe to ourselves and to our brother men is to look facts squarely in the face. No word spoken to Americans since the beginning of the war was more timely or more urgent than the appeal to our intelligence made by Professor Neilson of Harvard in his Phi Beta Kappa address at Columbia College last June. He did not bid his hearers sympathize with Germany or with England; he bade them to clear their own minds of doubt and confusion, to get at the truth by every avenue within their reach, to know what they thought, and what were their reasons for thinking it. Honesty and courage are never too much to ask, and sagacity is not always too much to hope for.

The ‘mental neutrality’ which is born of ignorance or of lassitude is unworthy of reasoning beings. We have no intellectual right to be ignorant when information lies at our hand, we have no spiritual right to be weary when great moral issues are at stake. TO jest at rainbow documents is easier than to read them, and yet such reading does not lie so far beyond our scope. Because this war is greater and more terrible than all preceding wars, and because the civilized world is presumably concerned with its causes and results, a wealth of testimony has been laid before the nations. Papers, which were formerly the exclusive property of ministers and cabinets, have been printed for all who choose to read them. They are neither too many for our patience, nor too involved for our comprehension. The Vatican Library would hardly hold the books that have been written about the war during the past two years; but the famous five foot shelf would be too roomy for the evidence in the case, for the material which will be the foundation of history.

A single volume of but five hundred and fifty pages contains the collected documents relating to the outbreak of hostilities. In it we may find the British Diplomatic Correspondence, the French Yellow Book, the Russian Orange Book (commendably clear and terse), the Belgian Grey Book, with an appendix containing the much talked of correspondence with Great Britain, defining Belgium’s attitude toward her own threatened neutrality, the Serbian Blue Book, the German White Book, and the Austro-Hungarian Red Book, which is very discursive, and drops into poetry, like Silas Wegg.

The volume also contains the final sheaf of letters and telegrams which were given officially to the press by the governments of Great Britain, Russia and Germany. These fill nine pages only, and they pulse with the swift current of approaching calamity. No reading in the world can ever equal them in sustained and aweful interest, and no one who has read them can ever again refer to the ‘obscure’ causes of the war. The telegram sent by Russia to Great Britain, August 1, 1914, is a search-light upon the troubled waters of Europe. The telegram sent by Prince Henry of Prussia to King George, July 30, 1914, is a revelation of arrogance, cloaked by suave and beautiful phrases. The telegram sent by Emperor William to King George, August 1, 1914, supplies an element of ironic humor in its politely expressed hope that France ‘will not be nervous.’ The telegram sent by Sir Edward Grey to the Imperial Government at 5:30 p.m. August 1, 1914, sweeps aside all subterfuges, and clears the ground for action. These telegrams were exchanged within three days, while the world held its breath. They lay bare national designs and determinations for every eye to see.

Besides the volume of collected documents we have the correspondence which preceded the entrance of Turkey into the war, the correspondence between Great Britain and the United States concerning the rights of belligerents, a mass of correspondence relating to the condition of prisoners, and the official reports which deal exhaustively with the treatment of civilians in conquered towns and provinces. We have copies of the papers found in the possession of Captain von Papen; and if the von Igel papers are withheld from us, it must be because a paternal government at Washington finds them too bad for an innocent public to read. Like children, we are forced to guess at things beyond our artless cognizance. These hidden documents and the mysterious journeys of Colonel House across the estranging sea are the warriddles presented to Americans. Someday we may know von Igel’s shameful secrets as well as we know von Papen’s. Someday we may be as sadly familiar with Colonel House’s mission to Europe as we are with Mr. Lind’s mission to Mexico, and Lord Haldane’s mission to Berlin. Unofficial emissaries, who are beyond the pale of accredited representation, play a puzzling and perilous part in the welter of diplomacy.

The insignificant gaps in the information proffered us from every side hardly suffice to extenuate a confused and contented ignorance. Differences of opinion must always exist in a thinking world; but the lack of any opinion means only the absence of any thought. If, after studying the ascertained facts, a man is able to say with Professor Kuno Francke that Germany is a democratic country, wholly and happily free from military autocracy, or from any autocracy, ‘save that of the intellect’; if he can say with Professor Walz that Germany has befriended Belgium, and emancipated the Flemish race; if he can say with Dr. Barthelme that Germany did not break the peace of the world; if he can echo the words of a German journalist who speaks of the conflict as ‘France’s unsuccessful war for vengeance,’ -- then, in God’s name, let him formulate his beliefs, and present his evidence. He will be listened to, and will find sympathy. He will know where he stands, and by dint of looking around him, he may come to recognize the obstacles in his path.

The disintegrating influence in our country is that which assumes that there is no evidence on which to build a conviction, and that a clean-cut point of view is not in this great crisis an intellectual and moral obligation. When Cardinal O’Connell, in an address before the Archdiocesan Federation of Catholic Societies, said that it was not possible for fair-minded men to disentangle truth from falsehood, and place the burden of blame on any nation’s shoulders, he specifically denied our intellectual obligation. When President Wilson, in an address before the League to Enforce Peace, said, ‘With the causes and objects of the war we are not concerned. The obscure fountains from which its stupendous flood has burst forth we are not interested to search for or explore’; he specifically denied our moral obligation. The Cardinal, in his address, condemned with vehemence, not only those who misrepresented the historical position of the Catholic Church, but those who accepted such misrepresentations without ascertaining their inaccuracy. If we are compelled in justice to search for the truth concerning the Church, we are compelled in justice to search for the truth concerning the war. We cannot in either case evade the duty we owe to our reason. ‘The inquiry into the truth or falsehood of a matter of history,’ said Huxley, ‘is just as much an affair of pure science as is the inquiry into the truth or falsehood of a matter of geology; and the value of the evidence in the two cases must be tested in the same way.’

That the President of the United States should have told American citizens they were not concerned with the causes and objects of the war is inconceivable. The greatest, or at least the most far-reaching, moral issue which has arisen in nineteen hundred years is offered to the judgment of the world, and we are bidden to ignore it. The rights and wrongs of uncounted millions are at stake, agonies unutterable have dimmed the light of heaven, the whole fabric of civilization rocks in the blast; and our President assures us we are not even interested in knowing where the guilt lies, that it is not our province to sever truth from falsehood! For the first time in our lives we have been offered release from the responsibilities inseparable to man’s estate.

The mental and spiritual isolation of a great neutral nation is a heavy asset for the aggressor. When Germany says plainly that she will consider no offer of mediation, and no peace negotiations which seek to take into account the blame for the outbreak of the war, she places a found but uneasy reliance upon lassitude and bewilderment. Hers is the thief’s bargain, ‘ No questions asked.’ She forgets that while she may soothe some of her contemporaries into acquiescence, she can never silence the implacable voice of history. If Darius had sad that Greece was invading Persia, and strangling her liberties; if King John had said that he forced the Magna Charta upon his reluctant subjects, history would have corrected these statements before they reached the world. The amazing assertions of Germany regarding the Lusitania’s guns, and her amazing denial that she sank the Sussex, were so speedily corrected as to have been hardly worth the venturing. The amazing depositions of the ninety-three German professors were a challenge to history, and these learned men are beginning to realize the hazardous nature of their defiance. Their attitude toward evidence was the dauntless attitude of Huxley’s milk-woman, who, when confronted with a stickleback in the milk, said compassionately, ‘Sure then, it must have been bad for the poor cow when that came through her teat.’

That an educated, if befuddled German should permit himself to speak of ‘France’s unsuccessful war for vengeance,’ staggers the reader. Fifty years ago Mr. E. S. Dallas said in that most agreeable of unpopular books, The Gay Science, that German criticism ‘begins with hypothesis, and works downward to the facts,’ But how far would a man need to burrow to reach the bed-rock of an illusion? A German cartoonist, with a different set of fantasies, depicts England as a huge spider, which, having drained Belgium of her life-blood and flung aside the carcass, is now engaged in the slaughter of France. It would be interesting to study the psychology which makes possible such a conception of the war. As well imagine a cartoon of the little princes in the tower strangling their good and kind Uncle RIchard, or of Columbia crucifying Cuba, to the distress of Spain.

The cynicism which affects unconcern when history’s greatest and saddest page is being turned is a revelation of uttermost self-indulgence. The impatience expressed for simple, primitive emotions (as childish things which the world should have long since outgrown) betrays ignorance of the human hearts upon which are built the honor and the glory of a nation. When a writer in the Survey alludes brutally to the ‘cockpit of Verdun,’ he steps outside the circle of humanity. There are men, like Coleridge, to whom ‘strong convictions give the cramp’; and they are as weary of heroism as of sorrow. They are sick of living in history, and of the obligation it involves, -- the obligation of holding an ideal of truth and justice inviolate in a warring world. The noble words of a Cardinal Mercier define this duty for his injured people, and counsel them to spiritual freedom. ‘Justice,’ he tells them, ‘formulates the essential relation of man with man, and of man with God. Patriotism is a sacred thing: and a violation of national rights is in a manner a profanation and a sacrilege.’

These are the words which history will ceaselessly echo, while she tells the story of the great war in pitiless detail, and with blinding truth. We may evade, we may ignore, we may deny; but ‘events are wonderful things,’ and they are being written on indestructible scrolls for coming ages to read. Not with sorry and shame only will they be read; but with elation, with the thrill of pride, with humble reverence of soul. There is a stately passage of Landor’s, challenging historians to reveal in their true significance the measured movements of men, the splendid and terrible story of the centuries.

‘Show me,’ he says, ‘how great projects were executed, great advantages gained, and great calamities averted. Show me the generals and the statesmen who stood foremost that I may honor them; tell me their names that I may repeat them to my children. Teach me whence laws were introduced, upon what foundation laid, by what custody guarded, in what inner keep preserved….Place History on her rightful throne, and on either side of her, eloquence and war.’