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World History


Viscount Bryce

Fellow of the Academy


Published for the British Academy

By Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press

Amen Corner, E.C.

Price Two Shillings net




World History


Yiseount Bryce

Fellow of the Academy


Published for the British Academy

By Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press

Amen Corner. E.G.




Delivered October 29, 1919

THIS lecture, appointed to be annually delivered on an historical
subject, has received the name of Sir Walter Raleigh, having been
founded by a munificent donor on the occasion of the commemora-
tion (on October 29, 1918) of the death of the famous Elizabethan.
The name is appropriate, for Raleigh besides being a soldier, a sailor,
an explorer, a politician, and a courtier, was also an historian, one of
those few in every age who have made history as well as written
history. Belonging to the generation which was adorned by our
greatest poet and one of our greatest thinkers, he was typical of it in
being a man of imagination as well as of action, in the boldness of
his spirit, in the variety of his interests, in the energy with which he
threw himself into whatever work his hand found to do. Blameless
he was not ; but the blameless are seldom the most attractive.
Scrupulous he was not, but the word unscrupulous, like its paler sister
Opportunism, is used to cover some very different things. The man
and his career are fit to be commemorated in the centre of the British
dominions as well as in the vast region then known as Virginia, taking
its name from his sovereign mistress Elizabeth, 1 where the State of
North Carolina has given his name to its capital city, honouring
him as the first Englishman to found a settlement in that western
continent where now the majority of English-speaking men have found
their home.

The subject on which I propose to address you has been suggested
by the book which is Raleigh's chief contribution to our literature,
his History of the World, written in the Tower of London, where he
was imprisoned, and published in 1612. Of its substance and style
I need say nothing, nor of the impression it produced at the time,
for one of our Fellows, the distinguished Regius Professor of Modern

1 Virginia then meant, according to the first Royal Charter of 1609, the
whole coastal region from lat. 34 N. to 45 N., i.e. from Cape Fear to the Bay
of Fundy.

ix M 2


History at Oxford, has dealt with it in a learned and instructive
paper read to the Academy in 1916. It is of the conception of
World History, of the various lines on which it may be treated, of its
relation to the histories of particular countries and of the light it may
be made to throw upon them, that I shall speak.

The subject seems not unfitted to that strange phase, critical
beyond all precedent, through which we, with the other civilized
nations, have been passing. For the first time in the annals of our
planet its inhabitants have become one whole, a community each and
every part of which is affected by the fortunes of every other part.
In the War, the embers of which, still glowing in Eastern Europe and
Western Asia, we hope to see soon extinguished, fully nine- tenths of
the human race, the backward as well as the most advanced peoples,
were involved on one side or the other. The flame lit on the Danube
and the Rhine spread till it blazed along the coasts of the Atlantic,
the Indian, the Pacific, and the Arctic Oceans. There was fighting
in China and New Guinea, on the heights of Armenia and in the
valley of the Jordan, on the steppes of Siberia and Turkistan. Bolivia
broke off relations with Germany, though she had no means of getting
at the enemy, and the King of the Tonga Islands thought it necessary
to proclaim his neutrality. Many forces, non-political $ven more than
political, forces to which I shall presently advert, had been drawing
the nations together. But it was the outbreak of war that first made
us realize how mankind had become virtually one community, all the
members whereof were to be thereafter linked together. Except as
respects the loss of their citizens in war, and the devastation of their
territories, some of the neutral nations suffered, and some are indeed
still suffering, almost as much as the belligerents. There followed
a phenomenon rarely noted before, a formidable rise in prices with
a corresponding rise in wages, in every civilized country. The con-
tagion of excitement and of strange doctrines accepted under excitement
has spread far and wide. Thus have all men been forced to feel that
the parts of the world have grown into one, for weal or for woe : thus
comes it that now for the first time the History of the World in the
full sense of the word can begin to be written.

It is a curious coincidence that the same generation which has seen
World History change itself from a history which traced the course of
many rills into a history which sees all these streams united to flow
together in one channel, should also see the annals of mankind ex-
tended far further back into the past than had ever been dreamed of
before. As geology revealed to us the earlier stages of the process by
which the solid crust of the earth was formed and moulded, so


archaeological research, unearthing and examining the haunts and
dwellings of primaeval man, is enabling us to create a sort of prehistoric
history. We now know more than any previous age has known about
our most remote ancestors, their physical characteristics, their tools
and weapons, their burial customs, their dwellings, and even their first
attempts at art. The history of man now begins many thousands of
years before authentic records, and gives a fresh interest to the
study of those backward branches of the human family which still
remain. Something similar may be said of the study of the mytho-
logy and folklore of those surviving primitive races, the observa-
tion of whose beliefs and customs is enabling us to explain many
things that had been obscure in the religious rites and legal obser-
vances of the civilized peoples of antiquity. Nor must I forget to add
that craniology, and still more the development of comparative philo-
logy, have thrown much light on the relations of races to one another
in their earlier stages. These additions to our knowledge have, by
lengthening the period over which observation extends, enlarged our
whole view of history, and made us also feel how comparatively small
a part of it is that political history which used to arrogate to itself
the whole field.

The idea that history might be so written as to cover much more than
the chronicles of one particular country or city, and should include
much more than political events, is no new one. It is, indeed, as old
as history itself. Herodotus took for his theme the long war between
Asia and Europe, a war of which men, as he tells us, found the
beginning in the carrying off by the Phoenicians of the mythical lo from
Argos, and the carrying off from Sidon of the perhaps equally mythical
Europa by the Greeks. He brought his narrative down to the
capture of Sestos by the Athenian fleet in 479 B.C. But he did even
more than this. The first traveller who united a boundless curiosity
to wonderful literary gifts, he gave to posterity a vivid picture of the
lands and peoples that lay to the north and to the east and to the
south of the Aegean Sea, a picture not only of inestimable value as
the foundation of our knowledge of those lands, but of an imaginative
charm which none of his successors has surpassed. He is the father of
geography as well as of history, for he instinctively felt that they are
inseparable. Many followed him in attempting to present a connected
view of the main current of events which affected and brought into
political contact neighbouring nations. Polybius was one of the first
of these, and the most truly scientific in his method. Cornelius
Nepos, as we are told by Catullus in the graceful dedication of his
poems, had set forth in the form of three sheets or tables the events


of every age. 1 Three centuries later Eusebius prepared what was
a more elaborate chronology. But the most remarkable book which
surveyed rather than described the course of history as a connected
whole, was that which St. Augustine entitled The City of God.
Desiring to give the Christian people comfort in that terror with
which the capture of Rome by Alaric had filled them, he wrote from
the standpoint of theology, as had done the author of the Second
Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel in the outline given of the four great
Powers culminating in the rule of Rome, which had dominated the
Eastern World. Among the moderns who essayed the same task
Raleigh was one of the first, and one of the latest was the illustrious
Leopold Ranke who at the age of eighty-five had the courage to begin
a W eltgeschichte which he carried down to the days of the Emperor
Henry IV and nearly the whole of which he dictated, being, from
failing eyesight, no longer able to write or to consult the authorities.
Most of the books of this class have been narratives, pursuing the
course of events first in one country and then in another, without
setting forth any more connexion between them than their political
relations at some moments involved. There were other writers, how-
ever, who approached World History from a different side, treating
events as matters to be dealt with not by way of narrative but by the
discovery and exposition of general principles or laws running through
the course of human things. They used events to illustrate these
principles, and thus wove together from the infinite variety of human
experience what has been called a Philosophy of History. With
these writers the general reflections, laws, and principles were the main
substance and texture of the treatise, whereas in the narrative
histories it is events that take the foremost place, while philosophical
reflections, like those of Thucydides or Gibbon or Niebuhr, are inter-
posed only where there are lessons of special importance to be drawn
from the events.

Of those whom we call historical philosophers rather than
historians, the first was the Tunisian Arab, Ibn Khaldun, born early
in the fourteenth century, a powerful and original thinker and, like
Raleigh, a man of action as well as of literary gift, an Odysseus who
had ' seen the cities and known the minds of many men \ Of those
who have dealt with the subject in modern times the most fruitful
was the Italian Giambattista Vico, an elder contemporary of
Montesquieu, whose Esprit des Lois, like Voltaire's Essai snr les
mceurs des nations, two epoch-making books, may be referred to the

c Ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare chartis.'
8 With which compare chapters vii to xii of the same book.


same category. Still later came Hegel's short but striking Philosophy
of History, well known to you all, a book not always correct in its
estimate of facts, but rich in suggestive thought. Between Universal
History and the Philosophy of History as they have been in fact
treated, no sharp line can be drawn, but we may take the typical
form of the one to be a narrative, or group of narratives, and that of
the other a disquisition. Thus while the Philosophy of History deals
with principles as gathered from facts, a History of the World will
devote itself to narrating the facts as they happen, endeavouring to
connect those that belong to one country with those which were con-
temporaneously happening elsewhere. If World History be called the
Biography of Mankind, the Philosophy of History will be the Psycho-
logy of men as beings naturally and normally social a psychology,
however, grounded on observation not so much of the individual as
of men actually seen and studied in their associated activities.

That Unity of History whereon many historians, and in our own time
Edward Freeman most insistently, have dwelt, consists not only in the
connexion of Events in an unbroken chain of causation from the
beginning of things, but also in the permanence of man's tendencies as
a social being, so that when we know what man has done we can
conjecture what he will be likely to do. Thus can we explain the
Present by the Past and the Past by the Present ; thus and thus only
does any kind of prediction become possible. The causation or rela-
tion of events is visible chiefly in following the annals 'of any single
country, though as each country more or less affects every other, that
which counted for much in one may count for something in others also.
Tendencies inherent in man's nature are potent everywhere, irrespective
of Time as well as of Space.

There is another way of trying to present the History of Mankind
as a whole which escapes some of the difficulties incident to the plan
of a number of distinct narratives dealing with different countries. It
is to adopt what may be called a cultural instead of a geographical
scheme. Select certain main lines of human activity more or less
present in every nation, and let the description and elucidation of
what is contemporaneously accomplished by each nation follow these
lines, so that the progress made, or decline suffered, along each line
shall be treated as one whole. As these activities are developed in all,
or nearly all, civilized as well as semi-civilized peoples, their efforts
along each line have a kind of unity which tends to become a practical,
if unconscious, co-operation. Thus the progress of man may be traced
by taking not the nation but the cultural effort and achievement
of mankind, in various nations and along various paths of progress,


as the thread on which to string the record, and so we shall have
a history of commerce, of science, and man's growing mastery over
natural forces, of religion, of geographical exploration, of inventions
and the practical arts of life, of poetry, of metaphysical philosophy,
of morality in theory and practice, of music, of the fine arts, of
politics, and of law. To bring all these lines of activity together
would be to present a connected view of what mankind has done or
failed to do. The special gifts or defects of each people will be
brought into the same picture. The tendencies which draw them
together, or keep them apart, will become more manifest. While some
ambitious spirits have essayed (though with scant success) a complete
history of civilization which must include many of the lines of pro-
gress just enumerated, the most learned of modern Englishmen pre-
ferred to take the Idea of Liberty and its gradual development as the cen-
tral line. Said Lord Acton, ' We have no thread through the enormous
intricacy of modern politics except the idea of progress towards more
perfect and assured progress and the Divine right of free men. 1 Another
such main thread running through the ages might be found in economic
change and the relations of classes to one another.

It is sometimes asked why no satisfactory History of the World
has yet been written. Why should we not have within a moderate
compass something better than a string of arid and x often obscure
formulas, contributing little to the real interpretation of facts, or
than sketchy generalizations which in emphasizing one set of
phenomena mislead us by the omission of others, something which shall
present a connected view of the whole life of the race, a Biography of
Mankind in the form of a concise narrative of events with illuminative
comments upon them ? If such a thing can be done, why has it not been
done ? The answer seems to be that there have been very few persons
possessing both the requisite learning and the amplitude of vision and
the delicacy of insight sufficient to qualify them even to contemplate
so great an undertaking, and that those few have declined it because
they realized its magnitude. To set forth in their respective propor-
tions the main events and the critical turning-points in the progress
of the ages needs not only vast erudition but an exceptionally sound
judgement. Still the thing can be done. To describe the external
causes and processes by which material civilization has advanced, such
as scientific discovery, useful inventions, the growth of industry and
commerce, this also is possible for a writer of high selective skill and
the faculty of condensation. But the really interesting and essential
thing, the vital part of history, is to enter into and trace the changes
that have passed upon the human mind. Who is there that has, so


to speak, soaked himself in the literature, and the religion, and the
artistically creative quality of the ancient world, and of the mediaeval
world, and of the Renaissance world, and of the last three centuries,
till he feels that, comprehending each of these epochs, he can faith-
fully describe the phases through which the thought and the emotions
and the beliefs of mankind, or even of the great western peoples only,
have been passing ?

But instead of inviting you to saunter through a boundless field of
speculation as to how a complete History of the World may be written,
let me suggest one special and definite line which a narrative might
follow. This line, suggested by that unification of mankind of which
I have already spoken, would be an account of the Process and the Forces
whereby races, tribes, nations, and states have been, or are being, drawn
together into one common life commensurate with the earth which
they inhabit. We see the Process almost complete. We have better
materials than had our predecessors for examining the causes and forces
that had brought it to the point where, in 1914, we suddenly saw
the already commingling fluids crystallize at the passage of the electric
current of war. Let us glance at three epochs in the annals of mankind
to note the nature of the Process before we consider the Forces.

In what is called the prehistoric age, when the lamp of archaeology
sheds a glimmering light on the rude progenitors of mankind, reveal-
ing widely scattered small and weak groups painfully defending them-
selves against wild beasts and the rigours of nature, an age before the
tillage of the soil or even the domestication of animals had begun,
population was sparse and the relations of one human group to another
were slight. Though some racial stocks and groups were taller and
stronger than others, and some had a gift for art denied to their fellows,
there is reason to think that most of them stood on much the same level
of culture, using, at least in the same latitudes, like clothing, like food,
like weapons. It was not intercourse and imitation that produced
this similarity, but rather the fact that the primal needs of all were
few, and the satisfaction of those needs had to be sought by the same
simple means. As we see when to-day we examine the savage races
that still remain, a struggling life, and especially a wandering life,
does not admit of much difference in comfort between one group and
another. It would seem, therefore, that notwithstanding physical
differences, the external conditions under which men lived, their habits
and their ideas, were much the same everywhere in the early palaeo-
lithic age, and the relations of tribe to tribe chiefly those of desultory
warfare. Into the question of whether the whole human race has or
has not sprung from a single root I do not enter, since it seems to be a


matter of controversy among the anthropologists, and some at least of
those who hold that there was more than one line of passage from
the anthropoids to man believe that one of the types died out, and is
not represented in any variety of modern man.

When after descending through an interval of time, whose
length, differing in different countries, is everywhere unconjec-
turable, we approach that dawn of more or less authentic
history, which is marked by the earliest monuments and records
of China, Egypt, and Assyria, and which begins in Greece
with the Homeric poems and the legends of race migrations, the
scene has been amazingly changed. Some nations have invented
writing, have formed a mythology with personal deities, have erected
temples, raised armies, built populous cities fed by the labour of many
tillers of the soil, and have in some cases so developed language as to
make it a means of literary expression. The sea is traversed by ships :
the Odyssey shows us commerce and piracy flourishing side by side.
Meanwhile, other nations live by hunting, or are pastoral nomads,
while others in the far north and in the tropics have made no advance
from primitive savagery. Compare the Atarantes of Libya, as to
whom Herodotus l could learn nothing except that they had no indi-
vidual names and cursed the sun when he scorched them, with the
thriving cities of Crete separated from Libya by a narrow sea. A still
greater change has been the formation of permanent and well-defined
racial groups, each with a set of those distinctive emotional and mental
qualities which make up what we call a national character. The sharp-
est distinction is between the Greeks and their so-called barbarian
neighbours, but among the barbarians there are many grades of civi-
lization. How such racial groups some of them nations, some rather
what we should call nationalities were evolved out of the apparently
similar human raw material, so to speak, of those primaeval savages
whom archaeology showed us in the palaeolithic ages, is an obscure and
fascinating problem not likely to be ever solved. Physical environ-
ment goes only a certain way towards the solution, for we find striking
disparities between different race groups which were, so far as we know,
formed under like conditions of soil and climate. The Celts, the
Slavs, the Teutons seem to have all dwelt together in north temperate
regions where the conditions of life were broadly similar, yet they
had become unlike one another when still uncivilized or scarcely
semi-civilized. Such at least is what we gather from the descriptions
of ancient writers from the time of Herodotus (who, of course, does
not classify races as we should) down to Procopius. Language, it

1 Book IV, ch. 184.


must be admitted, is not always a safe guide, for there have been cases
in which a people having its own language adopts (as did the Bul-
garians) another language, yet retains its physical and mental character-
istics. In the case, however, of the three great branches aforesaid of the
Indo-European stock, well-defined intellectual qualities coincide with
the linguistic divisions. Passing by this question, let us note that the
advance from savagery to civilization has been in the main a process
of Divergence. The similarity, which archaeological research enables
us to assume seven or eight thousand years (or perhaps more) before
our era, has been replaced by a general dissimilarity which Chinese
and Egyptian records enables us to date for those countries as far back
as about 4000 B. c. For those round the Aegean Sea we may put it at
2000 to 1500 B.C., in Italy at 800 or 900 B.C., in Western Europe
at 700 A.D., in Siberia at 1600 A.D., and at 1700 A.D. in the Pacific
Islands these being, roughly speaking, the epochs at which the cur-
tain rises in each of those regions. Meanwhile, the population of the
world has been growing. Insignificant in palaeolithic times, it was, by
the fifth century B.C., in such countries as Mesopotamia, China, and the
valley of the Ganges, to be counted by millions, perhaps by many
millions. There are no data for a calculation.

Besides the process of divergence which produced definite types
there must have been a destruction or absorption of weaker and
smaller tribes by the larger and stronger. That absorption, as well
as the increased production of food, created the larger groups which
survived while the others perished. The two processes of extinction
and the formation of divergent types, coincided with a closer contact
of the larger groups due both to the growth of population and to the
development of modes of transport by land and sea. The stronger
groups traded with one another, learnt from one another, stimulated
one another, but they did not necessarily grow more like : the ten-

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Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceWorld history → online text (page 1 of 3)