Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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of existence delightful. Therefore, in the south we find
men lazy and indolent.

True, there are difficulties in these views; the home of
the languid Italian was the home also of the sternest race
of whom the story of mankind retains a record. And
again, when we are told that the Spaniards are supersti-
tious because Spain is a country of earthquakes, we re-
member Japan, the spot in all the world where earth-
quakes are most frequent, and where at the same time
there is the most serene disbelief in any supernatural
agency whatsoever.

Moreover, if men grow into what they are by natural
laws, they cannot help being what they are ; and, if they
cannot help being what they are, a good deal will have to
be altered in our general view of human obligations and

That, however, in these theories there is a great deal of
truth, is quite certain, were there but a hope that those
who maintain them would be contented with that admis-
sion. A man born in a Mahometan country grows up a
Mahometan ; in a Catholic country, a Catholic ; in a Prot-
estant country, a Protestant. His opinions are like his
language : he learns to think as he learns to speak ; and it
is absurd to suppose him responsible for being what na-
ture makes him. We take pains to educate children.
There is a good education and a bad education ; there are
rules well ascertained by which characters are influenced ;
and, clearly enough, it is no mere matter for a boy's
free will whether he turns out well or ill. We try to train
him into good habits; we keep him out of the way of
temptations ; we see that he is well taught ; we mix kind-
ness and strictness ; we surround him with every good in-
fluence we can command. These are what are termed
the advantages of a good education ; and, if we fail to pro-
vide those under our care with it, and if they go wrong,
the responsibility we feel is as much ours as theirs. This


is at once an admission of the power over us of outward

In the same way, we allow for the strength of tempta-
tions, and the like.

In general, it is perfectly obvious that men do neces-
sarily absorb, out of the influences in which they grow up,
something which gives a complexion to their whole after

When historians have to relate great social or specula-
tive changes, the overthrow of a monarchy or the estab-
lishment of a creed, they do but half their duty if they
merely relate the events. In an account, for instance, of
the rise of Mahometanism, it is not enough to describe the
character of the Prophet, the ends which he set before
him, the means which he made use of, and the effect
which he produced; the historian must show what there
was in the condition of the Eastern races which enabled
Mahomet to act upon them so powerfully ; their existing
beliefs, their existing moral and political condition.

In our estimate of the past, and in our calculations of
the future, in the judgments which we pass upon one an-
other, we measure responsibility, not by the thing done,
but by the opportunities which people have had of know-
ing better or worse. In the efforts which we make to
keep our children from bad associations or friends, we
admit that external circumstances have a powerful effect
in making men what they are.

But are circumstances everything? That is the whole
question. A science of history, if it is more than a mis-
leading name, implies that the relation between cause and
effect holds in human things as completely as in all others ;
that the origin of human actions is not to be looked for in
mysterious properties of the mind, but in influences which
are palpable and ponderable.

When natural causes are liable to be set aside and neu-
tralized by what is called volition, the word Science is out
of place. If it is free to man to choose what he will do or
not do, there is no adequate science of him. If there is a
science of him, there is no free choice, and the praise or
blame with which we regard one another are impertinent
and out of place.

I am trespassing upon these ethical grounds because,



unless I do, the subject cannot be made intelligible. Man-
kind are but an aggregate of individuals ; History is but
the record of individual action.; and what is true of the
part is true of the whole.

We feel keenly about such things, and, when the logic
becomes perplexing, we are apt to grow rhetorical about
them. But rhetoric is only misleading. Whatever the
truth may be, it is best that we should know it; and for
truth of any kind we should keep our heads and hearts as
cool as we can.

I will say at once, that, if we had the whole case before
us; if we were taken, like Leibnitz's Tarquin, into the
council chamber of Nature, and were shown what we
really were, where we came from, and where we were go-
ing, however unpleasant it might be for some of us to find
ourselves, like Tarquin, made into villains, from the subtle
necessities of "the best of all possible worlds," never-
theless, some such theory as Mr. Buckle's might possibly
turn out to be true. Likely enough, there is some great
" equation of the universe " where the value of the un-
known quantities can be determined. But we must treat
things in relation to our own powers and position; and
the question is, whether the sweep of those vast curves
can be measured by the intellect of creatures of a day like

The " Faust " of Goethe, tired of the barren round of
earthly knowledge, calls magic to his aid. He desires,
first, to see the spirit of the Macrocosmos, but his heart
fails him before he ventures that tremendous experiment,
and he summons before him, instead, the spirit of his own
race. There he feels himself at home. The stream of
life and the storm of action, the everlasting ocean of ex-
istence, the web and the woof, and the roaring loom of
Time, he gazes upon them all, and in passionate exulta-
tion claims fellowship with the awful thing before him.
But the majestic vision fades, and a voice comes to him,
"Thou art fellow with the spirits which thy mind can
grasp, not with me."

Had Mr. Buckle tried to follow his principles into de-
tail, it might have fared no better with him than with
" Faust."

What are the conditions of a science? and when may



any subject be said to enter the scientific stage ? I sup-
pose when the facts of it begin to resolve themselves into
groups; when phenomena are no longer isolated experi-
ences, but appear in connection and order; when, after
certain antecedents, certain consequences are uniformly
seen to follow ; when facts enough have been collected to
furnish a basis for conjectural explanation ; and when con-
jectures have so far ceased to be utterly vague that it is
possible in some degree to foresee the future by the help
of them.

Till a subject has advanced as far as this, to speak of a
science of it is an abuse of language. It is not enough to
say that there must be a science of human things because
there is a science of all other things. This is like saying
the planets must be inhabited because the only planet of
which we have any experience is inhabited. It may or
may not be true, but it is not a practical question ; it does
not affect the practical treatment of the matter in hand.

Let us look at the history of Astronomy.

So long as sun, moon, and planets were supposed to be
gods or angels ; so long as the sword of Orion was not a
metaphor, but a fact, and the groups of stars which inlaid
the floor of heaven were the glittering trophies of the
loves and wars of the Pantheon, so long there was no
science of Astronomy. There was fancy, imagination,
poetry, perhaps reverence, but no science. As soon, how-
ever, as it was observed that the stars retained their rela-
tive places ; that the times of their rising and setting
varied with the seasons; that sun, moon, and planets
moved among them in a plane, and the belt of the Zodiac
was marked out and divided, then a new order of things
began. Traces of the earlier stage remained in the names
of the signs and constellations, just as the Scandinavian
mythology survives now in the names of the days of the
week: but, for all that, the understanding was now at
work on the thing; Science had begun, and the first tri-
umph of it was the power of foretelling the future.
Eclipses were perceived to recur in cycles of nineteen
years, and philosophers were able to say when an eclipse
was to be looked for. The periods of the planets were de-
termined. Theories were invented to account for their



eccentricities ; and, false as those theories might be, the
position of the planets could be calculated with moderate
certainty by them. The very first result of the science, in
its most i'mperfect stage, was a power of foresight; and
this was possible before any one true astronomical law
had been discovered.

We should not therefore question the possibility of a
science of history because the explanations of its phenom-
ena were rudimentary or imperfect: that they might be,
and might long continue to be, and yet enough might be
done to show that there was such a thing, and that it was
not entirely without use. But how was it that in those
rude days, with small knowledge of mathematics, and with
no better instruments than flat walls and dial-plates, those
first astronomers made progress so considerable? Be-
cause, I suppose, the phenomena which they were observ-
ing recurred, for the most part, within moderate inter-
vals; so that they could collect large experience within
the compass of their natural lives : because days and
months and years were measurable periods, and within
them the more simple phenomena perpetually repeated

But how would it have been if, instead of turning on its
axis once in twenty-four hours, the earth had taken a year
about it; if the year had been nearly four hundred years;
if man's life had been no longer than it is, and for the
initial steps of astronomy there had been nothing to de-
pend upon except observations recorded in history? How
many ages would have passed, had this been our condi-
tion, before it would have occurred to any one, that, in
what they saw night after night, there was any kind of
order at all?

We can see to some extent how it would have been, by
the present state of those parts of the science which in
fact depend on remote recorded observations. The move-
ments of the comets are still extremely uncertain. The
times of their return can be calculated only with the
greatest vagueness.

And yet such a hypothesis as I have suggested would
but inadequately express the position in which we are in
fact placed towards history. There the phenomena never
repeat themselves. There we are dependent wholly on the


record of things said to have happened once, but which
never happen or can happen a second time. There no ex-
periment is possible ; we can watch for no recurring fact
to test the worth of our conjectures. It has been sug-
gested fancifully, that, if we consider the universe to be
infinite, time is the same as eternity, and the past is per-
petually present. Light takes nine years to come to us
from Sirius : those rays which we may see to-night, when
we leave this place, left Sirius nine years ago ; and, could
the inhabitants of Sirius see the earth at this moment,
they would see the English army in the trenches before
Sebastopol, Florence Nightingale watching at Scutari
over the wounded at Inkermann, and the peace of Eng-
land undisturbed by " Essays and Reviews."

As the stars recede into distance, so time recedes with
them; and there may be and probably are, stars from
which Noah might be seen stepping into the ark, Eve lis-
tening to the temptation of the serpent, ot that older
race, eating the oysters and leaving the shell-heaps behind
them, when the Baltic was an open sea.

Could we but compare noses something might be done ;
but of this there is no present hope, and without it there
will be no science of history. Eclipses, recorded in an-
cient books, can be verified by calculations, and lost dates
can be recovered by them ; and we can foresee, by the laws
which they follow, when there will be eclipses again. Will
a time ever be when the lost secret of the foundation of
Rome can be recovered by historic laws? If not, where
is our science? It may be said that this is a particular
fact, that we can deal satisfactorily with general phenom-
ena affecting eras and cycles. Well, then, let us take
some general phenomenon ; Mahometanism, for instance,
or Buddhism. Those are large enough. Can you imag-
ine a science which would have foretold such movements
as those? The state of things out of which they rose is
obscure; but, suppose it not obscure, can you conceive
that with any amount of historical insight into the old
Oriental beliefs, you could have seen that they were about
to transform themselves into those particular forms and
no other?

It is not enough to say, that, after the fact, you can
understand partially how Mohametanism came to be. All



historians worth the name have told us something about
that. But when we talk of science, we mean something
with more ambitious pretences, we mean something which
can foresee as well as explain; and, thus looked at, to
state the problem is to show its absurdity. As little could
the wisest man have foreseen this mighty revolution, as
thirty years ago such a thing as Mormonism could have
been anticipated in America ; as little as it could have been
foreseen that table-turning and spirit-rapping would have
been an outcome of the scientific culture of England in
the Nineteenth century.

The greatest of Roman thinkers, gazing mournfully at
the seething mass of moral putrefaction round him, de-
tected and deigned to notice among its elements a certain
detestable superstition, so he called it, rising up amidst
the offscouring of the Jews, which was named Christian-
ity. Could Tacitus have looked forward nine centuries to
the Rome of Gregory VII, could he have beheld the rep-
resentative of the majesty of the Caesars holding the stir-
rup of the Pontiff of that vile and execrated sect, the spec-
tacle would scarcely have appeared to him the fulfillment
of a national expectation, or an intelligible result of the
causes in operation round him. Tacitus, indeed, was born
before the science of history; but would M. Comte have
seen any more clearly ?

Nor is the case much better if we are less hard upon
our philosophy ; if we content ourselves with the past, and
require only a scientific explanation of that.

First, for the facts themselves. They come to us
through the minds of those who recorded them, neither
machines nor angels, but fallible creatures, with human
passions and prejudices. Tacitus and Thucydides were
perhaps the ablest men who ever gave themselves to writ-
ing history ; the ablest, and also the most incapable of
conscious falsehood. Yet even now, after all these centu-
ries, the truth of what they relate is called in question.
Good reasons can be given to show that neither of them
can be confidently trusted. If we doubt with these, whom
are we to believe ?

Or, again, let the facts be granted. To revert to my
simile of the box of letters, you have but to select such
facts as suit you, you have but to leave alone those which


do not suit you, and, let your theory of history be what it
will, you can find no difficulty in providing facts to
prove it.

You may have your Hegel's philosophy of history, or
you may have your Schlegel's philosophy of history ; you
may prove from history that the world is governed in
detail by a special Providence ; you may prove that there
is no sign of any moral agent in the universe, except man ;
you may believe, if you like it, in the old theory of the
wisdom of antiquity; you may speak, as was the fashion
in the Fifteenth century, of " our fathers, who had more
wit and wisdom than we " ; or you may talk of " our bar-
barian ancestors," and describe their wars as the scuffling
of kites and crows.

You may maintain that the evolution of humanity has
been an unbroken progress toward perfection; you may
maintain that there has been no progress at all, and that
man remains the same poor creature that he ever was;
or, lastly, you may say, with the author of "The Social
Contract," that men were purest and best in primeval

" When wild in woods the noble savage ran."

In all or any of these views, history will stand your
friend. History, in its passive irony, will make no objec-
tion. Like Jarno, in Goethe's novel, it will not conde-
scend to argue with you, and will provide you with abund-
ant illustrations of anything which you may wish to

" What is history," said Napoleon, " but a fiction
agreed upon ? " " My friend," said Faust to the student,
who was growing enthusiastic about the spirit of past
ages " my friend, the times which are gone are a book
with seven seals ; and what you call the spirit of past ages
is but the spirit of this or that worthy gentleman in whose
mind those ages are reflected."

One lesson, and only one, history may be said to repeat
with distinctness: that the world is built somehow on
moral foundations; that, in the long run, it is well with
the good ; in the long run, it is ill with the wicked. But
this is no science; it is no more than the old doctrine



taught long ago by the Hebrew prophets. The theories
of M. Comte and his disciples advance us, after all, not a
step beyond the trodden and familiar ground. If men
are not entirely animals, they are at least half animals,
and are subject in this aspect of them to the conditions of
animals. So far as those parts of man's doings are con-
cerned, which neither have, nor need have, anything
moral about them, so far the laws of him are calculable.
There are laws for his digestion, and laws of the means
by which his digestive organs are supplied with matter.
But pass beyond them, and where are we? In a world
where it would be as easy to calculate men's actions by
laws like those of positive philosophy as to measure the
orbit of Neptune with a foot rule, or weigh Sirius in a
grocer's scale.

And it is not difficult to see why this should be. The
first principle, on which the theory of a science of history
can be plausibly argued, is that all actions whatsoever
arise from self-interest. It may be enlightened self-inter-
est, it may be unenlightened; but it is assumed as an
axiom, that every man, in whatever he does, is aiming at
something which he considers will promote his happiness.
His conduct is not determined by his will; it is deter-
mined by the object of his desire. Adam Smith, in laying
the foundation of political economy, expressly eliminates
every other motive. He does not say that men never act
on other motives ; still less, that they never ought to act
on other motives. He asserts merely that, as far as the
arts of production are concerned, and of buying and sell-
ing, the action of self-interest may be counted upon as
uniform. What Adam Smith says of political economy,
Mr. Buckle would extend over the whole circle of human

Now, that which especially distinguishes a high order of
man from a low order of man that which constitutes
human goodness, human greatness, human nobleness is
surely not the degree of enlightenment with which men
pursue their own advantage: but it is self-forgetfulness ;
it is self-sacrifice ; it is the disregard of personal pleasure,
personal indulgence, personal advantages remote or pres-
ent, because some other line of conduct is more right.

We are sometimes told that this is but another way of


expressing the same thing ; that, when a man prefers do-
ing what is right, it is only because to do right gives him
a higher satisfaction. It appears to me, on the contrary,
to be a difference in the very heart and nature of things.
The martyr goes to the stake, the patriot to the scaffold,
not with a view to any future reward to themselves, but
because it is a glory to fling away their lives for truth and
freedom. And so through all phases of existence, to the
smallest details of common life, the beautiful character is
the unselfish character. Those whom we most love and
admire are those to whom the thought of self seems never
to occur; who do simply and with no ulterior aim with
no thought whether it will be pleasant to themselves or
unpleasant that which is good and right and generous.

Is this still selfishness, only more enlightened? I do
not think so. The essence of true nobility is neglect of
self. Let the thought of self pass in, and the beauty of a
great action is gone, like the bloom from a soiled flower.
Surely it is a paradox to speak of the self-interest of a
martyr who dies for a cause, the triumph of which he will
never enjoy; and the greatest of that great company in
all ages would have done what they did, had their per-
sonal prospects closed with the grave. Nay, there have
been those so zealous for some glorious principle as to
wish themselves blotted out of the book of Heaven if the
cause of Heaven could succeed.

And out of this mysterious quality, whatever it be, arise
the higher relations of human life, the higher modes of
human obligation. Kant, the philosopher, used to say
that there were two things which overwhelmed him with
awe as he thought of them. One was the star-sown deep
of space, without limit and without end; the other was,
right and wrong. Right, the sacrifice of self to good;
wrong, the sacrifice of good to self, not graduated ob-
jects of desire, to which we are determined by the degrees
of our knowledge, but wide asunder as pole and pole, as
light and darkness: one the object of infinite love; the
other, the object of infinite detestation and scorn. It is in
this marvelous power in men to do wrong (it is an old
story, but none the less true for that), it is in this power
to do wrong wrong or right, as it lies somehow with
ourselves to choose that the impossibility stands of



forming scientific calculations of what men will do before
the fact, or scientific explanations of what they have done
after the fact. If men were consistently selfish, you might
analyze their motives; if they were consistently noble,
they would express in their conduct the laws of the high-
est perfection. But so long as two natures are mixed to-
gether, and the strange creature which results from the
combination is now under one influence and now under
another, so long you will make nothing of him except
from the old-fashioned moral or, if you please, imagin-
ative point of view.

Even the laws of political economy itself cease to guide
us when they touch moral government. So long as labor
is a chattel to be bought and sold, so long, like other com-
modities, it follows the condition of supply and demand.
But if, for his misfortune, an employer considers that he
stands in human relations towards his workmen ; if he be-
lieves, rightly or wrongly, that he is responsible for them ;
that in return for their labor he is bound to see that their
children are decently taught, and they and their fam-
ilies decently fed and clothed and lodged; that he ought
to care for them in sickness and old age, then political
economy will no longer direct him, and the relations be-
tween himself and his dependents will have to be arranged
on quite other principles.

So long as he considers only his own material profit, so
long supply and demand will settle every difficulty; but
the introduction of a new factor spoils the equation.

And it is precisely in thi's debatable ground of low mo-
tives and noble emotions ; in the struggle, ever failing yet
ever renewed, to carry truth and justice into the admin-
istration of human society ; in the establishment of states
and in the overthrow of tyrannies ; in the rise and fall of
creeds ; in the world of ideas ; in the character and deeds
of the great actors in the drama of life, where good and
evil fight out their everlasting battle, now ranged in oppo-
site camps, now and more often in the heart, both of them,
of each living man, that the true human interest of his-
tory resides. The progress of industries, the growth of
material and mechanical civilization, are interesting; but
they are not the most interesting. They have their reward

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 6 of 38)