Editor’s note: The following lecture, delivered before the University of Cambridge, is extracted from The Roman and the Teuton, by Charles Kingsley (published 1889).
It is with a feeling of awe, I had almost said of fear, that I find myself in this place, upon this errand. The responsibility of a teacher of History in Cambridge is in itself very heavy: but doubly heavy in the case of one who sees among his audience many men as fit, it may be some more fit, to fill this Chair: and again, more heavy still, when one succeeds to a man whose learning, like his virtues, one can never hope to equal.
But a Professor, I trust, is like other men, capable of improvement; and the great law, ‘docendo disces,’ may be fulfilled in him, as in other men. Meanwhile, I can only promise that such small powers as I possess will be honestly devoted to this Professorate; and that I shall endeavour to teach Modern History after a method which shall give satisfaction to the Rulers of this University.
I shall do that best, I believe, by keeping in mind the lessons which I, in common with thousands more, have learnt from my wise and good predecessor. I do not mean merely patience in research, and accuracy in fact. They are required of all men: and they may be learnt from many men. But what Sir James Stephen’s life and writings should especially teach us, is the beauty and the value of charity; of that large-hearted humanity, which sympathizes with all noble, generous, earnest thought and endeavour, in whatsoever shape they may have appeared; a charity which, without weakly or lazily confounding the eternal laws of right and wrong, can make allowances for human frailty; can separate the good from the evil in men and in theories; can understand, and can forgive, because it loves. Who can read Sir James Stephen’s works without feeling more kindly toward many a man, and many a form of thought, against which he has been more or less prejudiced; without a more genial view of human nature, a more hopeful view of human destiny, a more full belief in the great saying, that ‘Wisdom is justified of all her children’? Who, too, can read those works without seeing how charity enlightens the intellect, just as bigotry darkens it; how events, which to the theorist and the pedant are merely monstrous and unmeaning, may explain themselves easily enough to the man who will put himself in his fellow-creatures’ place; who will give them credit for being men of like passions with himself; who will see with their eyes, feel with their hearts, and take for his motto, ‘Homo sum, nil humani a me alienum puto’?
I entreat gentlemen who may hereafter attend my lectures to bear in mind this last saying. If they wish to understand History, they must first try to understand men and women. For History is the history of men and women, and of nothing else; and he who knows men and women thoroughly will best understand the past work of the world, and be best able to carry on its work now. The men who, in the long run, have governed the world, have been those who understood the human heart; and therefore it is to this day the statesman who keeps the reins in his hand, and not the mere student. He is a man of the world; he knows how to manage his fellow-men; and therefore he can get work done which the mere student (it may be) has taught him ought to be done; but which the mere student, much less the mere trader or economist, could not get done; simply because his fellow-men would probably not listen to him, and certainly outwit him. Of course, in proportion to the depth, width, soundness, of his conception of human nature, will be the greatness and wholesomeness of his power. He may appeal to the meanest, or to the loftiest motives. He may be a fox or an eagle; a Borgia, or a Hildebrand; a Talleyrand, or a Napoleon; a Mary Stuart, or an Elizabeth: but however base, however noble, the power which he exercises is the same in essence. He makes History, because he understands men. And you, if you would understand History, must understand men.
If, therefore, any of you should ask me how to study history, I should answer—Take by all means biographies: wheresoever possible, autobiographies; and study them. Fill your minds with live human figures; men of like passions with yourselves; see how each lived and worked in the time and place in which God put him. Believe me, that when you have thus made a friend of the dead, and brought him to life again, and let him teach you to see with his eyes, and feel with his heart, you will begin to understand more of his generation and his circumstances, than all the mere history-books of the period would teach you. In proportion as you understand the man, and only so, will you begin to understand the elements in which he worked. And not only to understand, but to remember. Names, dates, genealogies, geographical details, costumes, fashions, manners, crabbed scraps of old law, which you used, perhaps, to read up and forget again, because they were not rooted, but stuck into your brain, as pins are into a pincushion, to fall out at the first shake—all these you will remember; because they will arrange and organize themselves around the central human figure: just as, if you have studied a portrait by some great artist, you cannot think of the face in it, without recollecting also the light and shadow, the tone of colouring, the dress, the very details of the background, and all the accessories which the painter’s art has grouped around; each with a purpose, and therefore each fixing itself duly in your mind. Who, for instance, has not found that he can learn more French history from French memoirs, than even from all the truly learned and admirable histories of France which have been written of late years? There are those, too, who will say of good old Plutarch’s lives (now-a-days, I think, too much neglected), what some great man used to say of Shaksepeare and English history—that all the ancient history which they really knew, they had got from Plutarch. I am free to confess that I have learnt what little I know of the middle-ages, what they were like, how they came to be what they were, and how they issued in the Reformation, not so much from the study of the books about them (many and wise though they are), as from the thumbing over, for years, the semi-mythical saints’ lives of Surius and the Bollandists.
Without doubt History obeys, and always has obeyed, in the long run, certain laws. But those laws assert themselves, and are to be discovered, not in things, but in persons; in the actions of human beings; and just in proportion as we understand human beings, shall we understand the laws which they have obeyed, or which have avenged themselves on their disobedience. This may seem a truism: if it be such, it is one which we cannot too often repeat to ourselves just now, when the rapid progress of science is tempting us to look at human beings rather as things than as persons, and at abstractions (under the name of laws) rather as persons than as things. Discovering, to our just delight, order and law all around us, in a thousand events which seemed to our fathers fortuitous and arbitrary, we are dazzled just now by the magnificent prospect opening before us, and fall, too often, into more than one serious mistake.
First; students try to explain too often all the facts which they meet by the very few laws which they know; and especially moral phænomena by physical, or at least economic laws. There is an excuse for this last error. Much which was thought, a few centuries since, to belong to the spiritual world, is now found to belong to the material; and the physician is consulted, where the exorcist used to be called in. But it is a somewhat hasty corollary therefrom, and one not likely to find favour in this University, that moral laws and spiritual agencies have nothing at all to do with the history of the human race. We shall not be inclined here, I trust, to explain (as some one tried to do lately) the Crusades by a hypothesis of over-stocked labour-markets on the Continent.
Neither, again, shall we be inclined to class those same Crusades among ‘popular delusions,’ and mere outbursts of folly and madness. This is a very easy, and I am sorry to say, a very common method of disposing of facts which will not fit into the theory, too common of late, that need and greed have been always, and always ought to be, the chief motives of mankind. Need and greed, heaven knows, are powerful enough: but I think that he who has something nobler in himself than need and greed, will have eyes to discern something nobler than them, in the most fantastic superstitions, in the most ferocious outbursts, of the most untutored masses. Thank God, that those who preach the opposite doctrine belie it so often by a happy inconsistency; that he who declares self-interest to be the mainspring of the world, can live a life of virtuous self-sacrifice; that he who denies, with Spinoza, the existence of free-will, can disprove his own theory, by willing, like Spinoza, amid all the temptations of the world, to live a life worthy of a Roman Stoic; and that he who represents men as the puppets of material circumstance, and who therefore has no logical right either to praise virtue, or to blame vice, can shew, by a healthy admiration of the former, a healthy scorn of the latter, how little his heart has been corrupted by the eidola specus, the phantoms of the study, which have oppressed his brain. But though men are often, thank heaven, better than their doctrines, yet the goodness of the man does not make his doctrine good; and it is immoral as well as unphilosophical to call a thing hard names simply because it cannot be fitted into our theory of the universe. Immoral, because all harsh and hasty wholesale judgments are immoral; unphilosophical, because the only philosophical method of looking at the strangest of phænomena is to believe that it too is the result of law, perhaps a healthy result; that it is not to be condemned as a product of disease before it is proven to be such; and that if it be a product of disease, disease has its laws, as much as health; and is a subject, not for cursing, but for induction; so that (to return to my example) if every man who ever took part in the Crusades were proved to have been simply mad, our sole business would be to discover why he went mad upon that special matter, and at that special time. And to do that, we must begin by recollecting that in every man who went forth to the Crusades, or to any other strange adventure of humanity, was a whole human heart and brain, of like strength and weakness, like hopes, like temptations, with our own; and find out what may have driven him mad, by considering what would have driven us mad in his place.
May I be permitted to enlarge somewhat on this topic? There is, as you are aware, a demand just now for philosophies of History. The general spread of Inductive Science has awakened this appetite; the admirable contemporary French historians have quickened it by feeding it; till, the more order and sequence we find in the facts of the past, the more we wish to find. So it should be (or why was man created a rational being?) and so it is; and the requirements of the more educated are becoming so peremptory, that many thinking men would be ready to say (I should be sorry to endorse their opinion), that if History is not studied according to exact scientific method, it need not be studied at all.
A very able anonymous writer has lately expressed this general tendency of modern thought in language so clear and forcible that I must beg leave to quote it:—
‘Step by step,’ he says, ‘the notion of evolution by law is transforming the whole field of our knowledge and opinion. It is not one order of conception which comes under its influence: but it is the whole sphere of our ideas, and with them the whole system of our action and conduct. Not the physical world alone is now the domain of inductive science, but the moral, the intellectual, and the spiritual are being added to its empire. Two co-ordinate ideas pervade the vision of every thinker, physicist or moralist, philosopher or priest. In the physical and the moral world, in the natural and the human, are ever seen two forces—invariable rule, and continual advance; law and action; order and progress; these two powers working harmoniously together, and the result, inevitable sequence, orderly movement, irresistible growth. In the physical world indeed, order is most prominent to our eyes; in the moral world it is progress, but both exist as truly in the one as in the other. In the scale of nature, as we rise from the inorganic to the organic, the idea of change becomes even more distinct; just as when we rise through the gradations of the moral world, the idea of order becomes more difficult to grasp. It was the last task of the astronomer to show eternal change even in the grand order of our Solar System. It is the crown of philosophy to see immutable law even in the complex action of human life. In the latter, indeed, it is but the first germs which are clear. No rational thinker hopes to discover more than some few primary actions of law, and some approximative theory of growth. Much is dark and contradictory. Numerous theories differing in method and degree are offered; nor do we decide between them. We insist now only upon this, that the principle of development in the moral, as in the physical, has been definitely admitted; and something like a conception of one grand analogy through the whole sphere of knowledge, has almost become a part of popular opinion. Most men shrink from any broad statement of the principle, though all in some special instances adopt it. It surrounds every idea of our life, and is diffused in every branch of study. The press, the platform, the lecture-room, and the pulpit ring with it in every variety of form. Unconscious pedants are proving it. It flashes on the statistician through his registers; it guides the hand of simple philanthropy; it is obeyed by the instinct of the statesman. There is not an act of our public life which does not acknowledge it. No man denies that there are certain, and even practical laws of political economy. They are nothing but laws of society. The conferences of social reformers, the congresses for international statistics and for social science bear witness of its force. Everywhere we hear of the development of the constitution, of public law, of public opinion, of institutions, of forms of society, of theories of history. In a word, whatever views of history may be inculcated on the Universities by novelists or epigrammatists, it is certain that the best intellects and spirits of our day are labouring to see more of that invariable order, and of that principle of growth in the life of human societies and of the great society of mankind which nearly all men, more or less, acknowledge, and partially and unconsciously confirm.’
This passage expresses admirably, I think, the tendencies of modern thought for good and evil.
For good. For surely it is good, and a thing to thank God for, that men should be more and more expecting order, searching for order, welcoming order. But for evil also. For young sciences, like young men, have their time of wonder, hope, imagination, and of passion too, and haste, and bigotry. Dazzled, and that pardonably, by the beauty of the few laws they may have discovered, they are too apt to erect them into gods, and to explain by them all matters in heaven and earth; and apt, too, as I think this author does, to patch them where they are weakest, by that most dangerous succedaneum of vague and grand epithets, which very often contain, each of them, an assumption far more important than the law to which they are tacked.
Such surely are the words which so often occur in this passage—‘Invariable, continual, immutable, inevitable, irresistible.’ There is an ambiguity in these words, which may lead—which I believe does lead—to most unphilosophical conclusions. They are used very much as synonyms; not merely in this passage, but in the mouths of men. Are you aware that those who carelessly do so, blink the whole of the world-old arguments between necessity and free-will? Whatever may be the rights of that quarrel, they are certainly not to be assumed in a passing epithet. But what else does the writer do, who tells us that an inevitable sequence, an irresistible growth, exists in the moral as well as in the physical world; and then says, as a seemingly identical statement, that it is the crown of philosophy to see immutable law, even in the complex action of human life?
The crown of philosophy? Doubtless it is so. But not a crown, I should have thought, which has been reserved as the special glory of these latter days. Very early, at least in the known history of mankind, did Philosophy (under the humble names of Religion and Common Sense) see most immutable, and even eternal, laws, in the complex action of human life, even the laws of right and wrong; and called them The Everlasting Judgments of God, to which a confused and hard-worked man was to look; and take comfort, for all would be well at last. By fair induction (as I believe) did man discover, more or less clearly, those eternal laws: by repeated verifications of them in every age, man has been rising, and will yet rise, to clearer insight into their essence, their limits, their practical results. And if it be these, the old laws of right and wrong, which this author and his school call invariable and immutable, we shall, I trust, most heartily agree with them; only wondering why a moral government of the world seems to them so very recent a discovery.
But we shall not agree with them, I trust, when they represent these invariable and immutable laws as resulting in any inevitable sequence, or irresistible growth. We shall not deny a sequence—Reason forbids that; or again, a growth—Experience forbids that: but we shall be puzzled to see why a law, because it is immutable itself, should produce inevitable results; and if they quote the facts of material nature against us, we shall be ready to meet them on that very ground, and ask:—You say that as the laws of matter are inevitable, so probably are the laws of human life? Be it so: but in what sense are the laws of matter inevitable? Potentially, or actually? Even in the seemingly most uniform and universal law, where do we find the inevitable or the irresistible? Is there not in nature a perpetual competition of law against law, force against force, producing the most endless and unexpected variety of results? Cannot each law be interfered with at any moment by some other law, so that the first law, though it may struggle for the mastery, shall be for an indefinite time utterly defeated? The law of gravity is immutable enough: but do all stones inevitably fall to the ground? Certainly not, if I choose to catch one, and keep it in my hand. It remains there by laws; and the law of gravity is there too, making it feel heavy in my hand: but it has not fallen to the ground, and will not, till I let it. So much for the inevitable action of the laws of gravity, as of others. Potentially, it is immutable; but actually it can be conquered by other laws.
I really beg your pardon for occupying you here with such truisms: but I must put the students of this University in mind of them, as long as too many modern thinkers shall choose to ignore them.
Even if then, as it seems to me, the history of mankind depended merely on physical laws, analogous to those which govern the rest of nature, it would be a hopeless task for us to discover an inevitable sequence in History, even though we might suppose that such existed. But as long as man has the mysterious power of breaking the laws of his own being, such a sequence not only cannot be discovered, but it cannot exist. For man can break the laws of his own being, whether physical, intellectual, or moral. He breaks them every day, and has always been breaking them.
The greater number of them he cannot obey till he knows them. And too many of them he cannot know, alas, till he has broken them; and paid the penalty of his ignorance. He does not, like the brute or the vegetable, thrive by laws of which he is not conscious: but by laws of which he becomes gradually conscious; and which he can disobey after all. And therefore it seems to me very like a juggle of words to draw analogies from the physical and irrational world, and apply them to the moral and rational world; and most unwise to bridge over the gulf between the two by such adjectives as ‘irresistible’ or ‘inevitable,’ such nouns as ‘order, sequence, law’—which must bear an utterly different meaning, according as they are applied to physical beings or to moral ones.
Indeed, so patent is the ambiguity, that I cannot fancy that it has escaped the author and his school; and am driven, by mere respect for their logical powers, to suppose that they mean no ambiguity at all; that they do not conceive of irrational beings as differing from rational beings, or the physical from the moral, or the body of man from his spirit, in kind and property; and that the immutable laws which they represent as governing human life and history have nothing at all to do with those laws of right and wrong, which I intend to set forth to you, as the ‘everlasting judgments of God.’
In which case, I fear, they must go their way; while we go ours; confessing that there is an order, and there is a law, for man; and that if he disturb that order, or break that law in anywise, they will prove themselves too strong for him, and reassert themselves, and go forward, grinding him to powder if he stubbornly try to stop their way. But we must assert too, that his disobedience to them, even for a moment, has disturbed the natural course of events, and broken that inevitable sequence, which we may find indeed, in our own imaginations, as long as we sit with a book in our studies: but which vanishes the moment that we step outside into practical contact with life; and, instead of talking cheerfully of a necessary and orderly progress, find ourselves more inclined to cry with the cynical man of the world:
‘All the windy ways of men,
Are but dust that rises up;
And is lightly laid again.’
The usual rejoinder to this argument is to fall back upon man’s weakness and ignorance, and to take refuge in the infinite unknown. Man, it is said, may of course interfere a little with some of the less important laws of his being: but who is he, to grapple with the more vast and remote ones? Because he can prevent a pebble from falling, is he to suppose that he can alter the destiny of nations, and grapple forsooth with ‘the eternities and the immensities,’ and so forth? The argument is very powerful: but addrest rather to the imagination than the reason. It is, after all, another form of the old omne ignotum pro magnifico; and we may answer, I think fairly—About the eternities and immensities we know nothing, not having been there as yet; but it is a mere assumption to suppose, without proof, that the more remote and impalpable laws are more vast, in the sense of being more powerful (the only sense which really bears upon the argument), than the laws which are palpably at work around us all day long; and if we are capable of interfering with almost every law of human life which we know of already, it is more philosophical to believe (till disproved by actual failure) that we can interfere with those laws of our life which we may know hereafter. Whether it will pay us to interfere with them, is a different question. It is not prudent to interfere with the laws of health, and it may not be with other laws, hereafter to be discovered. I am only pleading that man can disobey the laws of his being; that such power has always been a disturbing force in the progress of the human race, which modern theories too hastily overlook; and that the science of history (unless the existence of the human will be denied) must belong rather to the moral sciences, than to that ‘positive science’ which seems to me inclined to reduce all human phænomena under physical laws, hastily assumed, by the old fallacy of εις αλλο yένος, to apply where there is no proof whatsoever that they do or even can apply.
As for the question of the existence of the human will—I am not here, I hope, to argue that. I shall only beg leave to assume its existence, for practical purposes. I may be told (though I trust not in this University), that it is, like the undulatory theory of light, an unphilosophical ‘hypothesis.’ Be that as it may, it is very convenient (and may be for a few centuries to come) to retain the said ‘hypothesis,’ as one retains the undulatory theory; and for the simple reason, that with it one can explain the phænomena tolerably; and without it cannot explain them at all.
A dread (half-unconscious, it may be) of this last practical result, seems to have crossed the mind of the author on whom I have been commenting; for he confesses, honestly enough (and he writes throughout like an honest man) that in human life ‘no rational thinker hopes to discover more than some few primary actions of law, and some approximative theory of growth.’ I have higher hopes of a possible science of history; because I fall back on those old moral laws, which I think he wishes to ignore: but I can conceive that he will not; because he cannot, on his own definitions of law and growth. They are (if I understand him aright) to be irresistible and inevitable. I say that they are not so, even in the case of trees and stones; much more in the world of man. Facts, when he goes on to verify his theories, will leave him with a very few primary actions of law, a very faint approximative theory; because his theories, in plain English, will not work. At the first step, at every step, they are stopped short by those disturbing forces, or at least disturbed phænomena, which have been as yet, and probably will be hereafter, attributed (as the only explanation of them) to the existence, for good and evil, of a human will.
Let us look in detail at a few of these disturbances of anything like inevitable or irresistible movement. Shall we not, at the very first glance, confess—I am afraid only too soon—that there always have been fools therein; fools of whom no man could guess, or can yet, what they were going to do next or why they were going to do it? And how, pray, can we talk of the inevitable, in the face of that one miserable fact of human folly, whether of ignorance or of passion, folly still? There may be laws of folly, as there are laws of disease; and whether there are or not, we may learn much wisdom from folly; we may see what the true laws of humanity are, by seeing the penalties which come from breaking them: but as for laws which work of themselves, by an irresistible movement,—how can we discover such in a past in which every law which we know has been outraged again and again? Take one of the highest instances—the progress of the human intellect—I do not mean just now the spread of conscious science, but of that unconscious science which we call common sense. What hope have we of laying down exact laws for its growth, in a world wherein it has been ignored, insulted, crushed, a thousand times, sometimes in whole nations and for whole generations, by the stupidity, tyranny, greed, caprice of a single ruler; or if not so, yet by the mere superstition, laziness, sensuality, anarchy of the mob? How, again, are we to arrive at any exact laws of the increase of population, in a race which has had, from the beginning, the abnormal and truly monstrous habit of slaughtering each other, not for food—for in a race of normal cannibals, the ratio of increase or decrease might easily be calculated—but uselessly, from rage, hate, fanaticism, or even mere wantonness? No man is less inclined than I to undervalue vital statistics, and their already admirable results: but how can they help us, and how can we help them, in looking at such a past as that of three-fourths of the nations of the world? Look—as a single instance among too many—at that most noble nation of Germany, swept and stunned, by peasant wars, thirty years’ wars, French wars, and after each hurricane, blossoming up again into brave industry and brave thought, to be in its turn cut off by a fresh storm ere it could bear full fruit: doing nevertheless such work, against such fearful disadvantages, as nation never did before; and proving thereby what she might have done for humanity, had not she, the mother of all European life, been devoured, generation after generation, by her own unnatural children. Nevertheless, she is their mother still; and her history, as I believe, the root-history of Europe: but it is hard to read—the sibylline leaves are so fantastically torn, the characters so blotted out by tears and blood.
And if such be the history of not one nation only, but of the average, how, I ask, are we to make calculations about such a species as man? Many modern men of science wish to draw the normal laws of human life from the average of humanity: I question whether they can do so; because I do not believe the average man to be the normal man, exhibiting the normal laws: but a very abnormal man, diseased and crippled, but even if their method were correct, it could work in practice, only if the destinies of men were always decided by majorities: and granting that the majority of men have common sense, are the minority of fools to count for nothing? Are they powerless? Have they had no influence on History? Have they even been always a minority, and not at times a terrible majority, doing each that which was right in the sight of his own eyes? You can surely answer that question for yourselves. As far as my small knowledge of History goes, I think it may be proved from facts, that any given people, down to the lowest savages, has, at any period of its life, known far more than it has done; known quite enough to have enabled it to have got on comfortably, thriven, and developed; if it had only done, what no man does, all that it knew it ought to do, and could do. St. Paul’s experience of himself is true of all mankind—‘The good which I would, I do not; and the evil which I would not, that I do.’ The discrepancy between the amount of knowledge and the amount of work, is one of the most patent and most painful facts which strikes us in the history of man; and one not certainly to be explained on any theory of man’s progress being the effect of inevitable laws, or one which gives us much hope of ascertaining fixed laws for that progress.
And bear in mind, that fools are not always merely imbecile and obstructive; they are at times ferocious, dangerous, mad. There is in human nature what Goethe used to call a demoniac element, defying all law, and all induction; and we can, I fear, from that one cause, as easily calculate the progress of the human race, as we can calculate that of the vines upon the slopes of Ætna, with the lava ready to boil up and overwhelm them at any and every moment. Let us learn, in God’s name, all we can, from the short intervals of average peace and common sense: let us, or rather our grandchildren, get precious lessons from them for the next period of sanity. But let us not be surprised, much less disheartened, if after learning a very little, some unexpected and truly demoniac factor, Anabaptist war, French revolution, or other, should toss all our calculations to the winds, and set us to begin afresh, sadder and wiser men. We may learn, doubtless, even more of the real facts of human nature, the real laws of human history, from these critical periods, when the root-fibres of the human heart are laid bare, for good and evil, than from any smooth and respectable periods of peace and plenty: nevertheless their lessons are not statistical, but moral.
But if human folly has been a disturbing force for evil, surely human reason has been a disturbing force for good. Man can not only disobey the laws of his being, he can also choose between them, to an extent which science widens every day, and so become, what he was meant to be, an artificial being; artificial in his manufactures, habits, society, polity—what not? All day long he has a free choice between even physical laws, which mere things have not, and which make the laws of mere things inapplicable to him. Take the simplest case. If he falls into the water, he has his choice whether he will obey the laws of gravity and sink, or by other laws perform the (to him) artificial process of swimming, and get ashore. True, both would happen by law: but he has his choice which law shall conquer, sink or swim. We have yet to learn why whole nations, why all mankind may not use the same prudential power as to which law they shall obey,—which, without breaking it, they shall conquer and repress, as long as seems good to them.
It is true, nature must be obeyed in order that she may he conquered: but then she is to be conquered. It has been too much the fashion of late to travestie that great dictum of Bacon’s into a very different one, and say, Nature must be obeyed because she cannot be conquered; thus proclaiming the impotence of science to discover anything save her own impotence—a result as contrary to fact, as to Bacon’s own hopes of what science would do for the welfare of the human race. For what is all human invention, but the transcending and conquering one natural law by another? What is the practical answer which all mankind has been making to nature and her pretensions, whenever it has progressed one step since the foundation of the world: by which all discoverers have discovered, all teachers taught: by which all polities, kingdoms, civilizations, arts, manufactures, have established themselves; all who have raised themselves above the mob have faced the mob, and conquered the mob, crucified by them first and worshipped by them afterwards: by which the first savage conquered the natural law which put wild beasts in the forest, by killing them; conquered the natural law which makes raw meat wholesome, by cooking it; conquered the natural law which made weeds grow at his hut door, by rooting them up, and planting corn instead; and won his first spurs in the great battle of man against nature, proving thereby that he was a man, and not an ape? What but this?—‘Nature is strong, but I am stronger. I know her worth, but I know my own. I trust her and her laws, but my trusty servant she shall be, and not my tyrant; and if she interfere with my ideal, even with my personal comfort, then Nature and I will fight it out to the last gasp, and Heaven defend the right!’
In forgetting this, in my humble opinion, lay the error of the early, or laissez faire School of Political Economy. It was too much inclined to say to men: ‘You are the puppets of certain natural laws. Your own freewill and choice, if they really exist, exist merely as a dangerous disease. All you can do is to submit to the laws, and drift whithersoever they may carry you, for good or evil.’ But not less certainly was the same blame to be attached to the French Socialist School. It, though based on a revolt from the Philosophie du neant, philosophie de la misère, as it used to term the laissez faire School, yet retained the worst fallacy of its foe, namely, that man was the creature of circumstances; and denied him just as much as its antagonist the possession of freewill, or at least the right to use freewill on any large scale.
The laissez faire School was certainly the more logical of the two. With them, if man was the creature of circumstances, those circumstances were at least defined for him by external laws which he had not created: while the Socialists, with Fourier at their head (as it has always seemed to me), fell into the extraordinary paradox of supposing that though man was the creature of circumstances, he was to become happy by creating the very circumstances which were afterwards to create him. But both of them erred, surely, in ignoring that self-arbitrating power of man, by which he can, for good or for evil, rebel against and conquer circumstance.
I am not, surely, overstepping my province as Professor of History, in alluding to this subject. Just notions of Political Economy are absolutely necessary to just notions of History; and I should wish those young gentlemen who may attend my Lectures, to go first, were it possible, to my more learned brother, the Professor of Political Economy, and get from him not merely exact habits of thought, but a knowledge which I cannot give, and yet which they ought to possess. For to take the very lowest ground, the first fact of history is, Bouche va toujours; whatever men have or have not done, they have always eaten, or tried to eat; and the laws which regulate the supply of the first necessaries of life are, after all, the first which should be learnt, and the last which should be ignored.
The more modern school, however, of Political Economy while giving due weight to circumstance, has refused to acknowledge it as the force which ought to determine all human life; and our greatest living political economist has, in his Essay on Liberty, put in a plea unequalled since the Areopagitica of Milton, for the self-determining power of the individual, and for his right to use that power.
But my business is not with rights, so much as with facts; and as a fact, surely, one may say, that this inventive reason of man has been, in all ages, interfering with any thing like an inevitable sequence or orderly progress of humanity. Some of those writers, indeed, who are most anxious to discover an exact order, are most loud in their complaints that it has been interfered with by over-legislation; and rejoice that mankind is returning to a healthier frame of mind, and leaving nature alone to her own work in her own way. I do not altogether agree with their complaints; but of that I hope to speak in subsequent lectures. Meanwhile, I must ask, if (as is said) most good legislation now-a-days consists in repealing old laws which ought never to have been passed; if (as is said) the great fault of our forefathers was that they were continually setting things wrong, by intermeddling in matters political, economic, religious, which should have been let alone, to develop themselves in their own way, what becomes of the inevitable laws, and the continuous progress, of the human mind?
Look again at the disturbing power, not merely of the general reason of the many, but of the genius of the few. I am not sure, but that the one fact, that genius is occasionally present in the world, is not enough to prevent our ever discovering any regular sequence in human progress, past or future.
Let me explain myself. In addition to the infinite variety of individual characters continually born (in itself a cause of perpetual disturbance), man alone of all species has the faculty of producing, from time to time, individuals immeasurably superior to the average in some point or other, whom we call men of genius. Like Mr. Babbage’s calculating machine, human nature gives millions of orderly respectable common-place results, which any statistician can classify, and enables hasty philosophers to say—It always has gone on thus; it must go on thus always; when behold, after many millions of orderly results, there turns up a seemingly disorderly, a certainly unexpected, result, and the law seems broken (being really superseded by some deeper law) for that once, and perhaps never again for centuries. Even so it is with man, and the physiological laws which determine the earthly appearance of men. Laws there are, doubt it not; but they are beyond us: and let our induction be as wide as it may, they will baffle it; and great nature, just as we fancy we have found out her secret, will smile in our faces as she brings into the world a man, the like of whom we have never seen, and cannot explain, define, classify—in one word, a genius. Such do, as a fact, become leaders of men into quite new and unexpected paths, and, for good or evil, leave their stamp upon whole generations and races. Notorious as this may be, it is just, I think, what most modern theories of human progress ignore. They take the actions and the tendencies of the average many, and from them construct their scheme: a method not perhaps quite safe were they dealing with plants or animals; but what if it be the very peculiarity of this fantastic and altogether unique creature called man, not only that he develops, from time to time, these exceptional individuals, but that they are the most important individuals of all? that his course is decided for him not by the average many, but by the extraordinary few; that one Mahommed, one Luther, one Bacon, one Napoleon, shall change the thoughts and habits of millions?—So that instead of saying that the history of mankind is the history of the masses, it would be much more true to say, that the history of mankind is the history of its great men; and that a true philosophy of history ought to declare the laws—call them physical, spiritual, biological, or what we choose—by which great minds have been produced into the world, as necessary results, each in his place and time.
That would be a science indeed; how far we are as yet from any such, you know as well as I. As yet, the appearance of great minds is as inexplicable to us as if they had dropped among us from another planet. Who will tell us why they have arisen when they did, and why they did what they did, and nothing else? I do not deny that such a science is conceivable; because each mind, however great or strange, may be the result of fixed and unerring laws of life: and it is conceivable, too, that such a science may so perfectly explain the past, as to be able to predict the future; and tell men when a fresh genius is likely to arise and of what form his intellect will be. Conceivable: but I fear only conceivable; if for no other reason, at least for this one. We may grant safely that the mind of Luther was the necessary result of a combination of natural laws. We may go further, and grant, but by no means safely, that Luther, was the creature of circumstances, that there was no self-moving originality in him, but that his age made him what he was. To some modern minds these concessions remove all difficulty and mystery: but not, I trust, to our minds. For does not the very puzzle de quo agitur remain equally real; namely, why the average of Augustine monks, the average of German men, did not, by being exposed to the same average circumstances as Luther, become what Luther was? But whether we allow Luther to have been a person with an originally different character from all others, or whether we hold him to have been the mere puppet of outside influences, the first step towards discovering how he became what he was, will be to find out what he was. It will be more easy, and, I am sorry to say, more common to settle beforehand our theory, and explain by it such parts of Luther as will fit it; and call those which will not fit it hard names. History is often so taught, and the method is popular and lucrative. But we here shall be of opinion, I am sure, that we only can learn causes through their effects; we can only learn the laws which produced Luther, by learning Luther himself; by analyzing his whole character; by gauging all his powers; and that—unless the less can comprehend the greater—we cannot do till we are more than Luther himself. I repeat it. None can comprehend a man, unless he be greater than that man. He must be not merely equal to him, because none can see in another elements of character which he has not already seen in himself: he must be greater; because to comprehend him thoroughly, he must be able to judge the man’s failings as well as his excellencies; to see not only why he did what he did, but why he did not do more: in a word, he must be nearer than his object is to the ideal man.
And if it be assumed that I am quibbling on the words ‘comprehend’ and ‘greater,’ that the observer need be greater only potentially, and not in act; that all the comprehension required of him, is to have in himself the germs of other men’s faculties, without having developed those germs in life; I must still stand to my assertion. For such a rejoinder ignores the most mysterious element of all character, which we call strength: by virtue of which, of two seemingly similar characters, while one does nothing, the other shall do great things; while in one the germs of intellect and virtue remain comparatively embryonic, passive, and weak, in the other these same germs shall develop into manhood, action, success. And in what that same strength consists, not even the dramatic imagination of a Shakespeare could discover. What are those heart-rending sonnets of his, but the confession that over and above all his powers he lacked one thing, and knew not what it was, or where to find it—and that was—to be strong?
And yet he who will give us a science of great men, must begin by having a larger heart, a keener insight, a more varying human experience, than Shakespeare’s own; while those who offer us a science of little men, and attempt to explain history and progress by laws drawn from the average of mankind, are utterly at sea the moment they come in contact with the very men whose actions make the history, to whose thought the progress is due. And why? Because (so at least I think) the new science of little men can be no science at all: because the average man is not the normal man, and never yet has been; because the great man is rather the normal man, as approaching more nearly than his fellows to the true ‘norma’ and standard of a complete human character; and therefore to pass him by as a mere irregular sport of nature, an accidental giant with six fingers and six toes, and to turn to the mob for your theory of humanity, is (I think) about as wise as to ignore the Apollo and the Theseus, and to determine the proportions of the human figure from a crowd of dwarfs and cripples.
No, let us not weary ourselves with narrow theories, with hasty inductions, which will, a century hence, furnish mere matter for a smile. Let us confine ourselves, at least in the present infantile state of the anthropologic sciences, to facts; to ascertaining honestly and patiently the thing which has been done; trusting that if we make ourselves masters of them, some rays of inductive light will be vouchsafed to us from Him who truly comprehends mankind, and knows what is in man, because He is the Son of Man; who has His own true theory of human progress, His own sound method of educating the human race, perfectly good, and perfectly wise, and at last, perfectly victorious; which nevertheless, were it revealed to us to-morrow, we could not understand; for if he who would comprehend Luther must be more than Luther, what must he be, who would comprehend God?
Look again, as a result of the disturbing force of genius, at the effects of great inventions—how unexpected, complex, subtle, all but miraculous—throwing out alike the path of human history, and the calculations of the student. If physical discoveries produced only physical or economic results—if the invention of printing had only produced more books, and more knowledge—if the invention of gunpowder had only caused more or less men to be killed—if the invention of the spinning-jenny had only produced more cotton-stuffs, more employment, and therefore more human beings,—then their effects would have been, however complex, more or less subjects of exact computation.
But so strangely interwoven is the physical and spiritual history of man, that material inventions produce continually the most unexpected spiritual results. Printing becomes a religious agent, causes not merely more books, but a Protestant Reformation; then again, through the Jesuit literature, helps to a Romanist counter-reformation; and by the clashing of the two, is one of the great causes of the Thirty Years’ War, one of the most disastrous checks which European progress ever suffered. Gunpowder, again, not content with killing men, becomes unexpectedly a political agent; ‘the villanous saltpetre,’ as Ariosto and Shakespeare’s fop complain, ‘does to death many a goodly gentleman,’ and enables the masses to cope, for the first time, with knights in armour; thus forming a most important agent in the rise of the middle classes; while the spinning-jenny, not content with furnishing facts for the political economist, and employment for millions, helps to extend slavery in the United States, and gives rise to moral and political questions, which may have, ere they be solved, the most painful consequences to one of the greatest nations on earth.
So far removed is the sequence of human history from any thing which we can call irresistible or inevitable. Did one dare to deal in epithets, crooked, wayward, mysterious, incalculable, would be those which would rather suggest themselves to a man looking steadily not at a few facts here and there, and not again at some hasty bird’s-eye sketch, which he chooses to call a whole, but at the actual whole, fact by fact, step by step, and alas! failure by failure, and crime by crime.
Understand me, I beg. I do not wish (Heaven forbid!) to discourage inductive thought; I do not wish to undervalue exact science. I only ask that the moral world, which is just as much the domain of inductive science as the physical one, be not ignored; that the tremendous difficulties of analyzing its phenomena be fairly faced; and the hope given up, at least for the present, of forming any exact science of history; and I wish to warn you off from the too common mistake of trying to explain the mysteries of the spiritual world by a few roughly defined physical laws (for too much of our modern thought does little more than that); and of ignoring as old fashioned, or even superstitious, those great moral laws of history, which are sanctioned by the experience of ages.
Foremost among them stands a law which I must insist on, boldly and perpetually, if I wish (as I do wish) to follow in the footsteps of Sir James Stephen: a law which man has been trying in all ages, as now, to deny, or at least to ignore; though he might have seen it if he had willed, working steadily in all times and nations. And that is—that as the fruit of righteousness is wealth and peace, strength and honour; the fruit of unrighteousness is poverty and anarchy, weakness and shame. It is an ancient doctrine, and yet one ever young. The Hebrew prophets preached it long ago, in words which are fulfilling themselves around us every day, and which no new discoveries of science will abrogate, because they express the great root-law, which disobeyed, science itself cannot get a hearing.
For not upon mind, gentlemen, not upon mind, but upon morals, is human welfare founded. The true subjective history of man is the history not of his thought, but of his conscience; the true objective history of man is not that of his inventions, but of his vices and his virtues. So far from morals depending upon thought, thought, I believe, depends on morals. In proportion as a nation is righteous,—in proportion as common justice is done between man and man, will thought grow rapidly, securely, triumphantly; will its discoveries be cheerfully accepted, and faithfully obeyed, to the welfare of the whole commonweal. But where a nation is corrupt, that is, where the majority of individuals in it are bad, and justice is not done between man and man, there thought will wither, and science will be either crushed by frivolity and sensuality, or abused to the ends of tyranny, ambition, profligacy, till she herself perishes, amid the general ruin of all good things; as she had done in Greece, in Rome, in Spain, in China, and many other lands. Laws of economy, of polity, of health, of all which makes human life endurable, may be ignored and trampled under foot, and are too often, every day, for the sake of present greed, of present passion; self-interest may become, and will become, more and more blinded, just in proportion as it is not enlightened by virtue; till a nation may arrive, though, thank God, but seldom, at that state of frantic recklessness which Salvian describes among his Roman countrymen in Gaul, when, while the Franks were thundering at their gates, and starved and half-burnt corpses lay about the unguarded streets, the remnant, like that in doomed Jerusalem of old, were drinking, dicing, ravishing, robbing the orphan and the widow, swindling the poor man out of his plot of ground, and sending meanwhile to the tottering Cæsar at Rome, to ask, not for armies, but for Circensian games.
We cannot see how science could have bettered those poor Gauls. And we can conceive, surely, a nation falling into the same madness, and crying ‘Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,’ in the midst of railroads, spinning-jennies, electric telegraphs, and crystal palaces, with infinite blue-books and scientific treatises ready to prove to them, what they knew perfectly well already, that they were making a very unprofitable investment, both of money and of time.
For science indeed is great: but she is not the greatest. She is an instrument, and not a power; beneficent or deadly, according as she is wielded by the hand of virtue or of vice. But her lawful mistress, the only one which can use her aright, the only one under whom she can truly grow, and prosper, and prove her divine descent, is Virtue, the likeness of Almighty God. This, indeed, the Hebrew Prophets, who knew no science in one sense of the word, do not expressly say: but it is a corollary from their doctrine, which we may discover for ourselves, if we will look at the nations round us now, if we will look at all the nations which have been. Even Voltaire himself acknowledged that; and when he pointed to the Chinese as the most prosperous nation upon earth, ascribed their prosperity uniformly to their virtue. We now know that he was wrong in fact: for we have discovered that Chinese civilization is one not of peace and plenty, but of anarchy and wretchedness. But that fact only goes to corroborate the belief, which (strange juxtaposition!) was common to Voltaire and the old Hebrew Prophets at whom he scoffed, namely, that virtue is wealth, and vice is ruin. For we have found that these Chinese, the ruling classes of them at least, are an especially unrighteous people; rotting upon the rotting remnants of the wisdom and virtue of their forefathers, which now live only on their lips in flowery maxims about justice and mercy and truth, as a cloak for practical hypocrisy and villany; and we have discovered also, as a patent fact, just what the Hebrew Prophets would have foretold us—that the miseries and horrors which are now destroying the Chinese Empire, are the direct and organic results of the moral profligacy of its inhabitants.
I know no modern nation, moreover, which illustrates so forcibly as China the great historic law which the Hebrew Prophets proclaim; and that is this:—That as the prosperity of a nation is the correlative of their morals, so are their morals the correlative of their theology. As a people behaves, so it thrives; as it believes, so it behaves. Such as his Gods are, such will the man be; down to that lowest point which too many of the Chinese seem to have reached, where, having no Gods, he himself becomes no man; but (as I hear you see him at the Australian diggings) abhorred for his foul crimes even by the scum of Europe.
I do not say that the theology always produces the morals, any more than that the morals always produce the theology. Each is, I think, alternately cause and effect. Men make the Gods in their own likeness; then they copy the likeness they have set up. But whichever be cause, and whichever effect, the law, I believe, stands true, that on the two together depends the physical welfare of a people. History gives us many examples, in which superstition, many again in which profligacy, have been the patent cause of a nation’s deoradation. It does not, as far as I am aware, give us a single case of a nation’s thriving and developing when deeply infected with either of those two vices.
These, the broad and simple laws of moral retribution, we may see in history; and (I hope) something more than them; something of a general method, something of an upward progress, though any thing but an irresistible or inevitable one. For I have not argued that there is no order, no progress—God forbid. Were there no order to be found, what could the student with a man’s reason in him do, but in due time go mad?—Were there no progress, what could the student with a man’s heart within him do, but in due time break his heart, over the sight of a chaos of folly and misery irredeemable?—I only argue that the order and the progress of human history cannot be similar to those which govern irrational beings, and cannot (without extreme danger) be described by metaphors (for they are nothing stronger) drawn from physical science. If there be an order, a progress, they must be moral; fit for the guidance of moral beings; limited by the obedience which those moral beings pay to what they know.
And such an order, such a progress as that, I have good hope that we shall find in history.
We shall find, as I believe, in all the ages, God educating man; protecting him till he can go alone, furnishing him with the primary necessaries, teaching him, guiding him, inspiring him, as we should do to our children; bearing with him, and forgiving him too, again and again, as we should do: but teaching him withal (as we shall do if we be wise) in great part by his own experience, making him test for himself, even by failure and pain, the truth of the laws which have been given him; discover for himself, as much as possible, fresh laws, or fresh applications of laws; and exercising his will and faculties, by trusting him to himself wherever he can be trusted without his final destruction. This is my conception of history, especially of Modern History—of history since the Revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. I express myself feebly enough, I know. And even could I express what I mean perfectly, it would still be but a partial analogy, not to be pushed into details. As I said just now, were the true law of human progress revealed to us to-morrow, we could not understand it.
For suppose that the theory were true, which Dr. Temple of Rugby has lately put into such noble words: suppose that, as he says, ‘The power whereby the present ever gathers into itself the results of the past, transforms the human race into a colossal man, whose life reaches from the creation to the day of judgment. The successive generations of men, are days in this man’s life. The discoveries and inventions which characterize the different epochs of the world, are this man’s works. The creeds and doctrines, the opinions and principles of the successive ages, are his thoughts. The state of society at different times, are his manners. He grows in knowledge, in self-control, in visible size, just as we do.’ Suppose all this; and suppose too, that God is educating this his colossal child, as we educate our own children; it will hardly follow from thence that his education would be, as Dr. Temple says it is, precisely similar to ours.
Analogous it may be, but not precisely similar; and for this reason: That the collective man, in the theory, must be infinitely more complex in his organization than the individuals of which he is composed. While between the educator of the one and of the other, there is simply the difference between a man and God. How much more complex then must his education be! how all-inscrutable to human minds much in it!—often as inscrutable as would our training of our children seem to the bird brooding over her young ones in the nest. The parental relations in all three cases may be—the Scriptures say that they are—expansions of the same great law; the key to all history may be contained in those great words—‘How often would I have gathered thy children as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings.’ Yet even there the analogy stops short—‘but thou wouldest not’ expresses a new element, which has no place in the training of the nestling by the dam, though it has place in our training of our children; even that self-will, that power of disobedience, which is the dark side of man’s prerogative as a rational and self-cultivating being. Here that analogy fails, as we should have expected it to do; and in a hundred other points it fails, or rather transcends so utterly its original type, that mankind seems, at moments, the mere puppet of those laws of natural selection, and competition of species, of which we have heard so much of late; and, to give a single instance, the seeming waste, of human thought, of human agony, of human power, seems but another instance of that inscrutable prodigality of nature, by which, of a thousand acorns dropping to the ground, but one shall become the thing it can become, and grow into a builder oak, the rest be craunched up by the nearest swine.
Yet these dark passages of human life may be only necessary elements of the complex education of our race; and as much mercy under a fearful shape, as ours when we put the child we love under the surgeon’s knife. At least we may believe so; believe that they have a moral end, though that end be unseen by us; and without any rash or narrow prying into final causes (a trick as fatal to historic research as Bacon said it was to science), we may justify God by faith, where we cannot justify Him by experience.
Surely this will be the philosophic method. If we seem to ourselves to have discovered a law, we do not throw it away the moment we find phænomena which will not be explained by it. We use those phænomena to correct and to expand our law. And this belief that History is ‘God educating man,’ is no mere hypothesis; it results from the observation of thousands of minds, throughout thousands of years. It has long seemed—I trust it will seem still—the best explanation of the strange deeds of that strange being, man: and where we find in history facts which seem to contradict it, we shall not cast away rashly or angrily either it or them: but if we be Bacon’s true disciples, we shall use them patiently and reverently to correct and expand our notions of the law itself, and rise thereby to more deep and just conceptions of education, of man, and—it may be—of God Himself.
In proportion as we look at history thus; searching for effective, rather than final causes, and content to see God working everywhere, without impertinently demanding of Him a reason for His deeds, we shall study in a frame of mind equally removed from superstition on the one hand, and necessitarianism on the other. We shall not be afraid to confess natural agencies: but neither shall we be afraid to confess those supernatural causes which underlie all existence, save God’s alone.
We shall talk of more than of an over-ruling Providence. That such exists, will seem to us a patent fact. But it will seem to us somewhat Manichæan to believe that the world is ill made, mankind a failure, and that all God has to do with them, is to set them right here and there, when they go intolerably wrong. We shall believe not merely in an over-ruling Providence, but (if I may dare to coin a word) in an under-ruling one, which has fixed for mankind eternal laws of life, health, growth, both physical and spiritual; in an around-ruling Providence, likewise, by which circumstances, that which stands around a man, are perpetually arranged, it may be, are fore-ordained, so that each law shall have at least an opportunity of taking effect on the right person, in the right time and place; and in an in-ruling Providence. too, from whose inspiration comes all true thought, all right feeling; from whom, we must believe, man alone of all living things known to us inherits that mysterious faculty of perceiving the law beneath the phænomena, by virtue of which he is a man.
But we can hold all this, surely, and equally hold all which natural science may teach us. Hold what natural science teaches? We shall not dare not to hold it. It will be sacred in our eyes. All light which science, political, economic, physiological, or other, can throw upon the past, will be welcomed by us, as coming from the Author of all light. To ignore it, even to receive it suspiciously and grudgingly, we shall feel to be a sin against Him. We shall dread no ‘inroads of materialism;’ because we shall be standing upon that spiritual ground which underlies—ay, causes—the material. All discoveries of science, whether political or economic, whether laws of health or laws of climate, will be accepted trustfully and cheerfully. And when we meet with such startling speculations as those on the influence of climate, soil, scenery on national character, which have lately excited so much controversy, we shall welcome them at first sight, just because they give us hope of order where we had seen only disorder, law where we fancied chance: we shall verify them patiently; correct them if they need correction; and if proven, believe that they have worked, and still work, ουκ ανευ Θεου, as factors in the great method of Him who has appointed to all nations their times, and the bounds of their habitation, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him: though He be not far from any one of them; for in Him we live, and move, and have our being, and are the offspring of God Himself. I thus end what it seemed to me proper to say in this, my Inaugural Lecture; thanking you much for the patience with which you have heard me: and if I have in it too often spoken of myself, and my own opinions, I can only answer that it is a fault which has been forced on me by my position, and which will not occur again. It seemed to me that some sort of statement of my belief was necessary, if only from respect to a University from which I have been long separated, and to return to which is to me a high honour and a deep pleasure; and I cannot but be aware (it is best to be honest) that there exists a prejudice against me in the minds of better men than I am, on account of certain early writings of mine. That prejudice, I trust, with God’s help, I shall be able to dissipate. At least whatever I shall fail in doing, this University will find that I shall do one thing; and that is, obey the Apostolic precept, ‘Study to be quiet, and to do your own business.’