Daniel Garrison Brinton.

An ethnologist's view of history. An address before the annual meeting of the New Jersey Historical Society, at Trenton, New Jersey, January 28, 1896 online

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Online LibraryDaniel Garrison BrintonAn ethnologist's view of history. An address before the annual meeting of the New Jersey Historical Society, at Trenton, New Jersey, January 28, 1896 → online text (page 1 of 2)
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lEtbnoIogist's lt)iew of Ibietor^.


. Brtnton*



Ethnologists View of History.



Annual Meeting of the New Jersey Historical Society,


Trenton, New Jersey, January 28, 1896.



Professor of American Archeology in the University of

Pennsylvania and of General Ethnology' at the

Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.






An Ethnologist's View of History.

Mr. President :

The intelligent thought of the world is ever advancing
to a fuller appreciation of the worth of the past to the
present and the future. Never before have associations,
societies and journals devoted to historical studies been so
numerous. All times and tribes are searched for memo-
rials ; the remote corners of modern, medieval and an-
cient periods are brought under scrutiny ; and going beyond
these again, the semi-historic eras of tradition and the
nebulous gleams from pre-historic milleniums are diligently
scanned, that their uncertain story may be prefaced to that
registered in "the syllables of recorded time."

In this manner a vast mass of material is accumulating
with which the historian has to deal. What now is the
real nature of the task he sets before himself? What is
the mission with which he is entrusted ?

To understand this task, to appreciate that mission, he
must ask himself the broad questions : What is the aim of
history? What are the purposes for which it should be
studied and written?

He will find no lack of answers to these inquiries, all
offered with equal confidence, but singularly discrepant
among themselves. His embarrassment will be that of




selection between widely divergent views, each ably sup-
ported by distinguished advocates.

As I am going to add still another, not exactly like any
already on the list, it may well be asked of me to show
why one or other of those already current is not as good
or better than my own. This requires me to pass in brief
review the theories of historic methods, or, as it is properly
termed, of the Philosophy of History, which are most pop-
ular to-day.

They may be classified under three leading opinions, as
follows :

I. History should be an accurate record of events, and
nothing more ; an exact and disinterested statement of what
has taken place, concealing nothing and coloring nothing,
reciting incidents in their natural connections, without bias,
prejudice, or didactic application of any kind.

This is certainly a high ideal and an excellent model.
For many, yes, for the majority of historical works, none
better can be suggested. I place it first and name it as
worthiest of all current theories of historical composition.
But, I would submit to you, is a literary production answer-
ing to this precept, really History? Is it anything more
than a well-prepared annal or chronicle? Is it, in fact
anything else than a compilation containing the materials
of which real history should be composed ?

I consider that the mission of the historian, taken in its
completest sense, is something much more, much higher,
than the collection and narration of events, no matter how
well this is done. The historian should be like the man
of science, and group his facts under inductive systems so
as to reach the general laws which connect and explain
them. He should, still further, be like the artist, and en-
deavor so to exhibit these connections under literary forms
that they present to the reader the impression of a sym-
metrical and organic unity, in which each part or event

bears definite relations to all others. Collection and colla-
tion are not enough. The historian must "work up his
field notes," as the geologists say, so as to extract from his
data all the useful results which they are capable of yield-

I am quite certain that in these objections I can count on
the suffrages of most. For the majority of authors write
history in a style widely different from that which I have
been describing. They are distinctly teachers, though
not at all in accord as to what they teach. They are gen-
erally advocates, and with more or less openness maintain
what I call the second theory of the aim of history, to wit :

2. Histor}' should be a collection of evidence in favor of
certain opinions.

In this category are to be included all religious and poli-
tical histories. Their pages are intended to show the deal-
ings of God with man ; or the evidences of Christianity, or
of one of its sects, Catholicism or Protestantism ; or the
sure growth of republican or of monarchial institutions ; or
the proof of a divine government of the world ; or the
counter-proof that there is no such government ; and the

You will find that most general histories may be placed
in this class. Probably a man cannot himself have very
strong convictions about politics or religion, and not let
them be seen in his narrative of events where such ques-
tions are prominently present. A few familiar instances
will illustrate this. No one can take either Lingard's or
Macauley's History of England as anything more than a
plea for either wTiter's personal views. Gibbon's anti-
Christian feeling is as perceptibly disabling to him in many
passages as in the church historians is their search for
*' acts of Providence," and the hand of God in human af-

All such histories suffer from fatal flaws. They are de-

ductive instead of inductive ; they are a defensio sententi-
arum instead of an investigatio vert; they assume the final
truth as known, and go not forth to seek it. They are
therefore " teleologic," that is, they study the record of
man as the demonstration of a problem the solution of
which is already known. In this they are essentially
" divinatory," claiming foreknowledge of the future ; and,
as every ethnologist knows, divination belongs to a stad-
ium of incomplete intellectual culture, one considerably
short of the highest. As has been well said by Wilhelm
von Humboldt, any teleologic thjeory "disturbs and falsi-
fies the facts of histor}^ ; "^ and it has been acutely pointed
out by the philosopher Hegel, that it contradicts the notion
of progress and is no advance over the ancient tenet of a
recurrent cycle. ^

I need not dilate upon these errors. They must be pat-
ent to you. No matter how noble the conviction, how
pure the purpose, there is something nobler and purer than
it, and that is, unswerving devotion to rendering in history
the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I now turn to another opinion, that which teaches that —

3. History should be a portraiture, more or less ex-
tended, of the evolution of the human species.

This is claimed to be the "scientific" view of history.
It was tersely expressed by Alexander von Humboldt in
1-he phrase: "The history of the world is the mere ex-
pression of a predetermined, that is, fixed, evolution."*

It is that advocated by Auguste Comte, Draper and

1 In his epochal essay "Die Aufgabe des Geschichtschreibers." Ges-
ammelie Wcrke, Bd. I., s. 13. It was republished with a discriminating
introduction by Professor Steinthal in Die Sprachphilosophischcn Werke
WiUiclm von Jlitmboldes (Berlin, 1883).

2"Der Zweck-Begriff bewirkt nur sich selbst, und ist am Ende was er
im Anfange, in der Unspriinglichkeit, war." Eticyclopadie dcr philoso-
phischen Wissensc/iaffcn. Theil, I., § 204.

3 "Die Weltgeschichte ist der blosse Ausdruck einer vorbestimmten
Entwicklung." (Qiioted bj Lord Acton.)

Spencer, and a few years ago Prof. Gerland, of Strasburg,
formulated its basic maxim in these words: "Man has
developed from the brute through the action of purely me-
chanical, therefore fixed, laws."^

The scientist of to-day who hesitates to subscribe to
these maxims is liable to be regarded as of doubtful learn-
ing or of debilitated intellect. I acknowledge that I am
one such, and believe that I can show sound reasons for
denying the assumption on which this view is based.

It appears to me just as teleologic and divinatory as those
I have previously named. It assumes Evolution as a law
of the universe, whereas in natural science it is only a
limited generalization, inapplicable to most series of natu-
ral events, and therefore of uncertain continuance in any
series. The optimism which it inculcates is insecure and
belongs to deductive, not inductive, reasoning. The me-
chanical theory on which it is based lacks proof, and is, I
maintain, insufficient to explain motive, and, therefore, his-
toric occurrences. The assumption that history is the
record of a necessary and uninterrupted evolution, progres-
sing under ironclad mechanical laws, is a preconceived
theory as detrimental to clear vision as are the preoccupa-
tions of the theologian or the political partisan.

Any definition of evolution which carries with it the
justification of optimism is as erroneous in history, as it
would be in biology to assert that all variations are bene-
ficial. There is no more certainty that the human species
will improve under the operation of physical laws than
that any individual will ; there is far more evidence that
it will not, as every species of the older geologic ages has
succumbed to those laws, usually without leaving a repre-

I am aware that I am here in opposition to the popular

1 "Die Menschheit hat sich aus natiirlicher, tierischer Grundlage auf
rein natiirliche mechanische Weise entwickelt." Anthropolgische Bci-
trdge, s. 21.


as well as the scientific view. No commonplace is better
received than that, "Eternal progress is the law of na-
ture ;" though by what process eternal laws are discovered
is imperfectly explained.

Applied to history, a favorite dream of some of the most
recent teachers is that the life of the species runs the same
course as that of one of its members. Lord Acton, of Ox-
ford, in a late lecture states that: "The development of
society is like that of individual;"^ and Prof. Fellows, of
the University of Chicago, advances the same opinion in
the words, " Humanity as a whole developes like a

The error of this view was clearly pointed out some years
ago by Dr. Tobler.^ There has been no growth of hu-
manity at large at all comparable to that of the individual.
There are tribes to-day in the full stone age, and others
in all stages of culture above it. The horizons of progress
have been as local as those of geography. No solidarity
of advancement exists in the species as a whole. Epochs
and stadia of culture vary with race and climate. The
much talked of "law of continuity" does not hold good
either in national or intellectual growth.

Such are the criticisms which may be urged against the
historical methods now in vogue. What, you will ask, is
offered in their stead? That which I offer is the view of
the ethnologist. It is not so ambitious as some I have
named. It does not deal in eternal laws, nor divine the
distant future. The ethnologist does not profess to have
been admitted into the counsels of the Almighty, nor to
have caught in his grasp the secret purposes of the Uni-
verse. He seeks the sufficient reason for known facts, and

'yl Lecture on the Study of History, p. i (London, 1895).

2 See his article "The Relation of Anthropology to the Study of His-
tory," in The Aiiiericau Jouruiil of Soci'o/ofiy, J"Lv» 1895.

^Ludwig Tobler, in his article " Zur Philosophic der Geschichte," in
the Zeitschrift fiir Volkerpsychologic^ Bd. XII., s. 195.

is content with applying the knowledge he gains to present

Before stating the view of the ethnologist, I must briefly
describe what the science of Ethnology is. You will see
at once how closely it is allied to history, and that the ex-
planation of the one almost carries with it the prescription
for the other.

It begins with the acknowledged maxim that man is by
nature a gregarious animal, a zoon ^olitikon^ as Aristotle
called him, living in society, and owing to society all those
traits which it is the business of history, as distinguished
from biology, to study.

From this standpoint, all that the man is he owes to others ;
and what the others are, they owe, in part, to him. To-
gether, they make up the social unit, at first the family or
clan, itself becoming part of a larger unit, a tribe, nation or
people. The typical folk, or cthnos, is a social unit, the
members of which are bound together by certain traits com-
mon to all or most, which impart to them a prevailing char-
acter, an organic unity, specific peculiarities and general

You may inquire what these traits are to which I refer
as making up ethnic character. The answer cannot be so
precise as you would like. We are dealing with a natural
phenomenon, and Nature, as Goethe once remarked, never
makes groups, but only individuals. The group is a subjec-
tive category of our own minds. It is, nevertheless, psy-
chologically real, and capable of definition.

The EtJmos must be defined, like a species of natural
history, by a rehearsal of a series of its characteristics, not
by one alone. The members of this series are numerous,
and by no means of equal importance ; I shall mention the
most prominent of them, and in the order in which I be-
lieve they should be ranked for influence on national


First, I should rank Language. Not only is it the me-
dium of intelligible intercourse, of thought-tranference, but
thought itself is powerfully aided or impeded by the modes
of its expression in sound. As "spoken language," in
poetry and oratory, its might is recognized on all hands ;
while in " written language," as literature, it works silently
but with incalculable effect on the character of a people.^

Next to this I should place Government, understanding
this word in its widest sense, as embracing the terms on
which man agrees to live with his fellow man and with
woman, family, therefore, as well as society ties. This
includes the legal standards of duty, the rules of relation-
ship and descent, the rights of property and the customs
of commerce, the institutions of castes, classes and rulers,
and those international relations on which depend war and
peace. I need not enlarge on the profound impress which
these exert on the traits of the people. -

After these I should name Religion, though some bril-
liant scholars, such as Sclielli ng^ and Max Miiller,^ have
claimed for it the first place as a formative influence on
ethnic character. No one will deny the prominent rank it
holds in the earlier stages of human culture. It is scarcely
too much to say that most of the waking hours of the
males of some tribes are taken up with religious ceremo-

' One of the most lucid of modern German philosophical writers savs,
"Without language, there could be no unity of mental life, no national
life at all." Friedrich Paulsen, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 193.
(English translation, New York, 1895.) I need scarcely recall to the
student that this was the cardinal principle of the ethnological writings
of Wilhelm von Humboldt, and that his most celebrated essay is entitled
" Ueber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren
Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts." The
thought is well and tersely put by Prof. Frank Granger — "Language is
the instinctive expression of national spirit." (^The Worship of the Ro-
mans^ p. 19, London, 1896.)

^"Law, in its positive forms, may be viewed as an instrument used to
produce a certain kind of character." Frank Granger, ubi supra, p. 19.

^ Lectures on the Science of Religion, p. 55.


nies. Religion is, however, essentially " divinatory," that
is, its chief end and aim is toward the future, not the pres-
ent, and therefore the impress it leaves on national charac-
ter is far less permanent, much more ephemeral, than either
government or language. This is constantly seen in daily
life. Persons change their religion with facility, but ad-
here resolutely to the laws which protect their property.
The mighty empire of Rome secured ethnic unity to a de-
gree never since equalled in parallel circumstances, and its
plan was to tolerate all religions — as, indeed, do all enlight-
ened states to-day — but to insist on the adoption of the
Roman law, and, in official intercourse, the Latin language.
I have not forgotten the converse example of the Jews,
which some attribute to their religion ; but the Romany,
who have no religion worth mentioning, have been just as
tenacious of their traits under similar adverse circumstances.

The Arts, those of Utility, such as pottery, building,
agriculture and the domestication of animals, and those of
Pleasure, such as music, painting and sculpture, must come
in for a full share of the ethnologist's attention. They
represent, however, stadia of culture rather than national
character. They influence the latter materially and are
influenced by it, and different peoples have toward them
widely different endowments ; but their action is generally
indirect and unequally distributed throughout the social

These four fields. Language, Government, Religion
and the Arts, are those which the ethnologist explores
when he would render himself acquainted with a nation's
character ; and now a few words about the methods of
study he adopts, and the aims, near or remote, which he
keeps in view.

He first gathers his facts, from the best sources at his
command, with the closest sifting he can give them, so as
to exclude errors of observation or intentional bias. From


the facts he aims to discover on the above lines what are or
were the regular characteristics of the people or peoples he
is studying. The ethnic differences so revealed are to him
what organic variations are to the biologist and morpholo-
gist ; they indicate evolution or retrogression, and show an
advance toward higher forms and wider powers, or toward
increasing feebleness and decay.

To understand them they must be studied in connection
and causation. Hence, the method of the ethnologist be-
comes that which in the natural sciences is called the " de-
velopmental " method. It may be defined as the historic
method where history is lacking. The biologist explains
the present structure of an organ by tracing it back to
simpler forms in lower animals until he reaches the germ
from which it began. The ethnologist pursues the same
course. He selects, let us say, a peculiar institution, such
as caste, and when he loses the traces of its origin through
failure of written records, he seeks for them in the survivals
of unwritten folk-lore, or in similar forms in primitive con-
ditions of culture.

Here is where Archaeology renders him most efficient
aid. By means of it he has been able to follow the trail
of most of the arts and institutions of life back to a period
when they were so simple and uncomplicated that they are
quite transparent and intelligible. Later changes are to
be analyzed and explained by the same procedure.^

This is the whole of the ethnologic method. It is open
and easy when the facts are in our possession. There are
no secret springs, no occult forces, in the historic develop-
( ment of culture. Whatever seems hidden or mysterious,
is so only because our knowledge of the facts is imperfect.
No magic and no miracle has aided man in his long con-

^ How different from the position of Voltaire, who, expressing, the
general sentiment of his times, wrote, — "The history of barbarous na-
tions has no more interest than that of bears and wolves !"


flict with the material forces around him. No ghost has
come from the grave, no God from on high, to help
him in the bitter struggle. What he has won is his own
by the right of conquest, and he can apply to himself the
words of the poet :

" Hast du nicht alles selbst vollendet,
Ileilig gliihend Herz?" ( Goethe).

Freed from fear we can now breathe easily, for we know
that no Dcus ex machina meddles with those serene and
mighty forces whose adamantine grasp encloses all the
phenomena of nature and of life.

The ethnologist, however, has not completed his task
when he has defined an ethnos, and explained its traits by
following them to their sources. He has merely prepared
himself for a more delicate and difficult part of his under-

It has been well said by one of the ablest ethnologists of
this generation, the late Dr. Post, of Bremen, that "The
facts of ethnology must ever be regarded as the expres-
sions of the general consciousness of Humanity."^ The
time has passed when real thinkers can be satisfied with
the doctrines of the positive philosophers, who insisted
that events and institudons must be explained solely from
the phenomenal or objective world, that is, by other

Sounder views prevail, both in ethnology and its history.
" The history of man," says a German writer, " is neither
a divine revelation, nor a process of nature ; it is first and
above all, the work of man ;"- an opinion reiterated by Prof.
Flint in his work on the philosophy of history in these

1 GrHtidt'ifsdcr etJniologischen Jiirispruch'HZ, Bd. I., s. 5. (Leipzig, 1894.)

2 "Das Geschichte ist weder eine Offenbarung Gottes, noch ein Natur-
process, sondernebenMenschenwerk." Tobler in ih.& Zeitsc/irifi fiir Vol-
Jterpsychologie, Bd. XII., s. 201.


words : " History is essentially the record of the work and
manifestation of human nature."^ In both sciences it is
the essentially human which alone occupies us ; it is the
life of vian.

Now men do not live in material things, but in mental
states ; and solely as they affect these are the material
things valuable or valueless. Religions, arts, laws, his-
toric events, all have but one standard of appraisement, to
wit, the degree to which they produce permanently benefi-
cial mental states in the individuals influenced by them.
All must agree to this, though they may differ widely as
to what such a mental state may be ; whether one of plea-
surable activity, or that of the Buddhist hermit who sinks
into a trance by staring at his navel, or that of the Trappist
monk whose occupations are the meditation of death and dig-
ging his own grave.

The ethnologist must make up his own mind about this,
and with utmost care, for if his standard of merit and de-
merit is erroneous, his results, however much he labors on
them, will have no permanent value. There are means,
if he chooses to use them, which will aid him here.

He must endeavor to picture vividly to himself the men-
tal condition which gave rise to special arts and institu-
tions, or which these evolved in the people. He must as-
certain whether they increased or diminished the joy of
living, or stimulated the thirst for knowledge and the love of
the true and the beautiful. He must cultivate the liveliness
of imagination which will enable him to transport himself
into the epoch and surroundings he is studying, and feel
on himself, as it were, their peculiar influences. More
than all, chief of all, he must have a broad, many-sided,
tender sympathy with all things human, enabling him to
appreciate the emotions and arguments of all parties and
all peoples.

'^History of the Philosophy of IIisio>y, p. 579.


Such complete comprehension and spiritual accord
will not weaken, but will strengthen his clear perception
of those standards by which all actions and institutions
must ultimately be weighed and measured. There are
such standards, and the really learned ethnologist will be
the last to deny or overlook them.

The saying of Goethe that " The most unnatural action
is yet natural," is a noble suggestion of tolerance ; but
human judgment can scarcely go to the length of Madame
de Stael's opinion, when she claims that "To understand
all actions is to pardon all." We must brush away the
sophisms which insist that all standards are merely rela-
tive, and that time and place alone decide on right and
wrong. Were that so, not only all morality, but all sci-
ence and all knowledge were fluctuating as sand. But it
is not so. The principles of Reason, Truth, Justice and
Love have been, are, and ever will be the same. Time
and place, race and culture, make no difference. When-
ever a country is engaged in the diffusion of these immor-


Online LibraryDaniel Garrison BrintonAn ethnologist's view of history. An address before the annual meeting of the New Jersey Historical Society, at Trenton, New Jersey, January 28, 1896 → online text (page 1 of 2)