Editor’s note: The following is extracted from On Anything, by Hilaire Belloc (published 1910).
Whenever one studies, even superficially, any generation of men who have acted in the past and of whose actions there is some considerable record, that, I think, which most strikes the curious student is the nature of the things which were taken for granted during the period.
Very much might be written — whole books — upon the effects which this has upon history. Innumerable points arise as one considers it. For instance, there is no case I can remember of the things which were taken for granted existing in the same plenitude of record as the other things of history. The men of the Ninth Century did not sit down formally and tell us that they looked at the world in such and such a fashion. We have to glean and to pick out their standpoint by working parallel, noting unconscious expressions and side effects. It is like watching a man speaking on some matter of minor interest and trying to define through his tone and gesture the standpoint from which not only that minor interest, but every other, is regarded by his mind.
Perhaps nothing is more subject to close scrutiny today, is more suspected, and has more difficulty in establishing itself than an unusual physical experience, especially if there be about it a suspicion of connection with the nature and destiny of the human soul. There are certain periods in human history — the end of the Roman Empire is one of them; the beginning, or at least the very early dawn, of the Middle Ages was another — when marvels of this kind were sought after and met, as it were, half way by the mind of the time. The marvellous ran through the spirit of those generations very much as the accumulation of the ascertained, common and often unimportant, fact runs through the spirit of our time. They accumulated legend and what must, in the vast majority of cases, have been even falsehood with the same readiness with which we accumulate columns of statistics. They believed certain types of things to be true, and that belief led them to accept very much of the same nature on which they had no proof.
A very excellent example of the changes which take place from one generation to another in this respect may be discovered by any one who will set himself out to answer this question: “What did Englishmen in the middle and end of the Twelfth Century think about property in land?” Note the conditions of the problem. Land was the all-important thing of the time. It was the one thing on which men left records which they were determined should be minute, accurate and permanent. Yet there is no scholar at once so learned and so wise that he can with any exactitude answer the question. And it is evident that the fascination of the subject chiefly lies in the limitless field which it opens for discussion. There are those — excellent scholars — who will have it that the Englishmen of that time thought of land fundamentally as something common to the community. There are others — scholars of perhaps equal standing — who will have it that the Roman conception of absolute ownership had survived in nearly all its original simplicity. Between these two extremes scholarship may range at will; and however certain one may be individually that one’s own point of view is right, one will never be able to marshal proof which shall certainly convince, and finally convince, the whole of the learned world. The men of that time believed something about land. They never set it down, they took it for granted; and we can only judge of what that belief was by its secondary effects. It sounds amazing, but it is true.
Another character of this unseizable spirit of the time is the distortion it appears to produce in morals when one is looking at it through the medium of another spirit belonging to another time — our own.
No one can read the history of the French Revolution without perceiving that certain doctrines of comparatively little effect upon the material circumstance of men so entirely filled the whole mental atmosphere of the great bulk of the French people, and certainly of a very large proportion of Western Europe in general, as to mould the whole of thought. We can name those doctrines, we can talk of “equality” — a dogma which may be true or false, but is certainly transcendental; we may talk as they talked about “liberty,” but that does not give us any conception of the colour, smell, atmosphere, of the thing that drove them. And unless the reader is in touch with that evasive and central thing in the period it becomes an inexplicable welter: the inexplicable welter which so many of our school and university text-books make of it. A man (apparently a poor orator) moves men to frenzy — Robespierre. Another, a somewhat over-refined scientist of good birth and excellent balance of mind, is the first to propose the total dissolution of all the most ancient organs of the State and the destruction of the Monarchy. A third, an honest little lawyer, anxious to keep his little family, appears like a tiger ravening for blood. A fourth, a linendraper in Limoges, is put at the head of an army of 85,000 men and wins one victory after another. It is an amazing dance of impossible results following upon incredible causes — unless one has the spirit; and if one has it, as Michelet had it, the whole thing can be presented, not only in proportion and in orders, but actually with splendour.
You have something of the same kind in the contemplation of what are to us the atrocious cruelties of the Fifteenth Century. You do not find those cruelties striking the imagination of the time. You find injustice denounced, approaching chastisement prophesied, all the symptoms of a diseased society in the rulers and great vitality that perceived that disease among the oppressed, but what you do not get specifically mentioned, or at any rate not mentioned with reiteration, is the cruelty which to us as we read of it seems something quite remote from human habit or experience. Men and women are burnt alive in numbers which steadily increase from that time to the first generation of the Seventeenth Century. They are not thus tortured by the ferocity of the mob. The thing is done quite quietly by process of law, exactly as one might distrain for debt. You will perpetually hear vigorous protests against the justice of some particular sentence, but you will very rarely (but for the fear of such a negative, I should say never) find men saying “just or unjust, the cruelty of the execution is so revolting that I protest against it.” Men believed something with regard to the whole doctrine of expiation, of penal arrangements which they have not described to us and which we cannot understand save through glimpses, side-lights, and careful deductions from or guesses through what they imagine to be their plainest statements. Thus in the particular case of burning alive — a thing we can scarcely bear to contemplate even in words — the framers of the statutes seem to have thought not of the thing as a horror but as a particular type of execution symbolic of the total destruction of the culprit. It is quite easy to prove, from numerous instances — Savonarola is one in point — that the judges often appeared indifferent whether the body consumed were alive or dead. The chance pity of spectators in some cases, the sentence of the court in others, is permitted to release the sufferer long before the flames. To us it is amazing that such an attitude towards such a pain could have existed, but it did exist.
Now the moral of such suggestions (and they crop up innumerable all over the surface of historical study) is that our own time lives in such an atmosphere and cannot define it. One would imagine in the torrent of printing and of record that everything concerning our time would be fixed and known. The most fundamental thing of all will not be fixed and known: it will have to be imperfectly guessed at. Some chance student in some particular era of posterity will say: “These people were more concerned with questions of property, apparently, than with religion. That is madness — but let us see what kind of madness it was and work out its nature, since they never clearly set down how they got into such a frame of mind nor even what that frame of mind was.” Or another student will say in another epoch: “These people hesitated before personal combat — the most rational and commonplace of daily happenings. It is amazing, but it is true. Let me ferret out the state of mind which can have produced such an abnormal result.” And so forth. Our time, like all those past times, will be watched curiously, and this mysterious thing will be sought and hardly found. The irony lies in this: that the spirit posterity will so seek is in us, here, today — and we cannot express it.