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III HISTORY AS HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSAL CRITICISM OF 'UNIVERSAL HISTORY
I

Returning from this dialectical round to the concept of history as 'contemporary history,' a new doubt assails and torments us. For if the proof given has freed that concept from one of the most insistent forms of historical scepticism (the scepticism that arises from the lack of reliability of 'testimony'), it does not seem that it has been freed or ever can be freed from that other form of scepticism, more properly termed 'agnosticism,' which does not absolutely deny the truth of history, but denies to it complete truth. But in ultimate analysis this is to deny to it real knowledge, because unsound knowledge, half knowledge, also reduces the vigour of the part that it asserts to be known. It is, however, commonly asserted that only a part of history, a very small part, is known to us: a faint glimmer which renders yet more sensible the vast gloom that surrounds our knowledge on all sides.

In truth, what do we know of the origins of Rome or of the Greek states, and of the people who preceded the Greek and Roman civilizations in those countries, notwithstanding all the researches of the learned? And if a fragment of the life of these people does remain to us, how uncertain is its interpretation! If some tradition has been handed down to us, how poor, confused, and contradictory it is! And we know still less of the people[Pg 52] who preceded those people, of the immigrations from Asia and Africa into Europe or inversely, and of relations with other countries beyond the ocean, even with the Atlantis of the myths. And the monogenesis or polygenesis of the human race is a desperate head-splitter, open to all conjectures. The appearance upon the earth of the genus homo is open to vain conjectures, as is his affinity or relationship to the animals. The history of the earth, of the solar system, of the whole cosmos, is lost in the obscurity of its origin. But obscurity does not dwell alone among the 'origins'; the whole of history, even that of modern Europe which is nearest to us, is obscure. Who can really say what motives determined a Danton or a Robespierre, a Napoleon or an Alexander of Russia? And how numerous are the obscurities and the lacun? that relate to the acts themselves—that is to say, to their externalization! Mountains of books have been written upon the days of September, upon the eighteenth of Brumaire, upon the burning of Moscow; but who can tell how these things really happened? Even those who were direct witnesses are not able to say, for they have handed down to us diverse and conflicting narratives. But let us leave great history. Will it not at least be possible for us to know a little history completely, we will not say that of our country, of our town, or of our family, but the least little history of any one of ourselves: what he really wanted when (many years ago or yesterday) he abandoned himself to this or that motive of passion, and uttered this or that word; how he reached this or that particular conclusion or decided upon some particular course of action; whether the motives that urged him in a particular direction were lofty or base, moral or egoistic, inspired by duty or by vanity, pure or impure?

[Pg 53]

It is enough to make one lose one's head, as those scrupulous people are aware, who the more they attempt to perfect their examination of conscience the more they are confused. No other counsel can be offered to them than that of examining themselves certainly, but not overmuch, of looking rather ahead than behind, or only looking behind to the extent that it is necessary to look. We certainly know our own history and that of the world that surrounds us, but how little and how meagrely in comparison with our infinite desire for knowledge!

The best way of ending this vexation of spirit is that which I have followed, that of pushing it to its extreme limit, and then of imagining for a moment that all the interrogations mentioned, together with the infinite others that could be mentioned, have been satisfied; satisfied as interrogations that continued to the infinite can be satisfied—that is to say, by affording an immediate answer to them, one after the other, and by causing the spirit to enter the path of a vertiginous process of satisfactions, always obtained to the infinite. Now, were all those interrogations satisfactorily answered, were we in possession of all the answers to them, what should we do? The road of progress to the infinite is as wide as that to hell, and if it does not lead to hell it certainly leads to the madhouse. And that infinite, which grows bigger the moment we first touch it, does not avail us; indeed it fills us with fear. Only the poor finite assists us, the determined, the concrete, which is grasped by thought and which lends itself as base for our existence and as point of departure for our action. Thus even were all the particular infinities of infinite history offered for the gratification of our desire, there would be nothing else left for us to do but to clear our minds of them, to forget them, and to[Pg 54] concentrate upon that particular point alone which corresponds to a problem and constitutes living, active history, contemporary history.

And this is what the spirit in its development accomplishes, because there is no fact that is not known at the moment of its being done, by means of the consciousness that germinates perpetually upon action; and there is no fact that is not forgotten sooner or later, but may be recalled, as we remarked when speaking of dead history revived at the touch of life, of the past that by means of the contemporaneous becomes again contemporaneous. Tolstoi got this thought fixed in his mind: not only is no one, not even a Napoleon, able to predetermine with exactitude the happenings of a battle, but no one can know how it really did happen, because on the very evening of its ending an artificial, legendary history appears, which only a credulous spirit could mistake for real history; yet it is upon this that professional historians work, integrating or tempering imagination with imagination. But the battle is known as it gradually develops, and then as the turmoil that it causes is dissipated, so too is dissipated the turmoil of that consciousness, and the only thing of importance is the actuality of the new situation and the 'new disposition of soul that has been produced, expressed in poetical legends or availing itself of artificial fictions. And each one of us at every moment knows and forgets the majority of his thoughts and acts (what a misfortune it would be if he did not do so, for his life would be a tiresome computation of his smallest movements!); but he does not forget, and preserves for a greater or less time, those thoughts and sentiments which represent memorable crises and problems relating to his future. Sometimes we assist with astonishment at the awakening[Pg 55] in us of sentiments and thoughts that we had believed to be irrevocable. Thus it must be said that we know at every moment all the history that we need to know; and since what remains over does not matter to us, we do not possess the means of knowing it, or we shall possess it when the need arises. That 'remaining' history is the eternal phantom of the 'thing in itself,' which is neither 'thing' nor 'in itself,' but only the imaginative projection of the infinity of our action and of our knowledge.

The imaginative projection of the thing in itself, with the agnosticism that is its result, is caused in philosophy by the natural sciences, which posit a reality made extrinsic and material and therefore unintelligible. Chroniclism also occasions historical agnosticism in an analogous manner at the naturalistic moment of history, for it posits a dead and unintelligible history. Allowing itself to be seduced by this allurement it strays from the path of concrete truth, while the soul feels itself suddenly filled with infinite questions, most vain and desperate. In like manner, he who strays from or has not yet entered the fruitful path of a diligent life, feels his soul full to overflowing of infinite desires, of actions that cannot be realized, of pleasures out of reach, and consequently suffers the pains of a Tantalus. But the wisdom of life warns us not to lose ourselves in absurd desires, as the wisdom of thought warns us not to lose ourselves in problems that are vain.
II

But if we cannot know anything but the finite and the particular, always indeed only this particular and this finite, must we then renounce (a dolorous renunciation 1)[Pg 56] knowledge of universal history? Without doubt, but with the double corollary that we are renouncing what we have never possessed, because we could not possess it, and that in consequence such renunciation is not at all painful.

'Universal history,' too, is not a concrete act or tact, but a 'claim,' and a claim due to chroniclism and to its 'thing in itself,' and to the strange proposal of closing the infinite progression, which had been improperly opened, by means of progress to the infinite. Universal history really tries to form a picture of all the things that have happened to the human race, from its origins upon the earth to the present moment. Indeed, it claims to do this from the origin of things, or the creation, to the end of the world, since it would not otherwise be truly universal. Hence its tendency to fill the abysses of prehistory and of the origins with theological or naturalistic fictions and to trace somehow the future, either with revelations and prophecies, as in Christian universal history (which went as far as Antichrist and the Last Judgment), or with previsions, as in the universal histories of positivism, democratism, and socialism.

Such was its claim, but the result turns out to be different from the intention, and it gets what it can—that is to say, a chronicle that is always more or less of a mixture, or a poetical history expressing some aspiration of the heart of man, or a true and proper history, which is not universal, but particular, although it embraces the lives of many peoples and of many times. Most frequently these different elements are to be discerned side by side in the same literary composition. Omitting chronicles more or less wide in scope (though always narrow), poetical histories, and the[Pg 57] various contaminations of several different forms, we immediately perceive, not as a result of logical deduction alone, but with a simple glance at any one of the 'universal histories,' that 'universal histories,' in so far as they are histories, or in that part of them in which they are histories, resolve themselves into nothing else but particular histories'—that is to say, they are due to a particular interest centred in a particular problem, and comprehend only those facts that form part of that interest and afford an answer to that particular problem. For antiquity the example of the work of Polybius should suffice for all, since it was he who most vigorously insisted upon the need for a 'universal history' (καθολικ? ιστορ?α, ? των καθ?λου πραγμ?των σ?νταξι?). For the Christian period we may cite the Civitas Dei of Augustine, and for modern times the Philosophy of History of Hegel (he also called it universal history, or philosophische Weltgeschichte). But we observe here that the universal history which Polybius desired and created was that more vast, more complex, more political, and graver history which Roman hegemony and the formation of the Roman world required, and therefore that it embraced only those peoples which came into relation and conflict with Rome, and limited itself almost altogether to the history of political institutions and of military dispositions, according to the spiritual tendencies of the author. Augustine, in his turn, attempted to render intelligible the penetration of Paganism by Christianity, and with this object in view he made use of the idea of two enemy cities, the terrestrial and the celestial, of which the first was sometimes the adversary of and sometimes preparatory to the second. Finally, Hegel treated the same problem in his universal history as in his particular history of philosophy—that is[Pg 58] to say, the manner in which the spirit of a philosophy of servitude to nature, or to the transcendental God, has elevated itself to the consciousness of liberty. He cut out prehistory from the philosophy of history, as he had cut it out from the history of philosophy, and considered Oriental history very summarily, since it did not offer much of interest to the prosecution of his design.

Naturalistic or cosmological romances will always be composed by those who feel inspired to write them, and they will always find eager and appreciative readers, especially among the lazy, who are pleased to possess the 'secret of the world' in a few pages. And more or less vast compilations will always be made of the histories of the East and the West, of the Americas and Africa and Oceania. The strength of a single individual does not suffice for these, even as regards their compilation, so we now find groups of learned men or compilers associated in that object (as though to give ocular evidence of the absence of all intimate connexion). We have even seen recently certain attempts at universal histories arranged on geographical principles, like so many histories set side by side—European, Asiatic, African, and so on—which insensibly assume the form of a historical dictionary. And this or that particular history can always usefully take the name of a 'universal history,' in the old sense of Polybius—that is to say, as opposed to books that are less actual, less serious, and less satisfactory, the books of those 'writers of particular things' (ο? τ?? ?π? μ?ρου? γρ?φοντε? πρ?ξει?) who are led to make little things great (τ? μικρ? μεγ?λα ποιε?ν) and to indulge in lengthy anecdotes unworthy of being recorded (περ? τ?ν μηδ? μν?μη? ?ξιων), and that owing to the lack of a criterion (δ?'[Pg 59] ?κρισ?αν). In this sense, those times and peoples whose politico-social development had produced, as it were, a narrowing of the historical circle would be well advised to break away from minute details and to envisage 'universal history'—that is to say, a vaster history, which lies beyond particular histories. This applies in particular to our Italy, which, since it had a universalistic function at the time of the Renaissance, had universal vision, and told the history of all the peoples in its own way, and then limited itself to local history, then again elevated itself to national history, and should now, even more than in the past, extend itself over the vast fields of the history of all times past and present. But the word 'universal,' which has value for the ends above mentioned, will never designate the possession of a 'universal history,' in the sense that we have refused to it. Such a history disappears in the world of illusions, together with similar Utopias, such, for instance, as the art that should serve as model for all times, or universal justice valid for all time.
III

But in the same way that by the dissipation of the illusion of universal art and of universal justice the intrinsically universal character of particular art and of particular justice is not cancelled (of the Iliad or of the constitution of the Roman family), to negate universal history does not mean to negate the universal in history. Here, too, must be repeated what was said of the vain search for God throughout the infinite series of the finite and found at every point of it: Und du bist ganz vor mir! That particular and that finite is determined, in its particularity and finitude, by thought, and therefore[Pg 60] known together with the universal, the universal in that particular form. The merely finite and particular does not exist save as an abstraction. There is no abstract finite in poetry and in art itself, which is the reign of the individual; but there is the ingenuous finite, which is the undistinguished unity of finite and infinite, which will be distinguished in the sphere of thought and will in that way attain to a more lofty form of unity. And history is thought, and, as such, thought of the universal, of the universal in its concreteness, and therefore always determined in a particular manner. There is no fact, however small it be, that can be otherwise conceived (realized and qualified) than as universal. In its most simple form—that is to say, in its essential form—history expresses itself with judgments, inseparable syntheses of individual and universal. And the individual is called the subject of the judgment, the universal the predicate, by old terminological tradition, which it will perhaps be convenient to preserve. But for him who dominates words with thought, the true subject of history is just the predicate, and the true predicate the subject—that is to say, the universal is determined in the judgment by individualizing it. If this argument seems too abstruse and amounts to a philosophical subtlety, it may be rendered obvious and altogether different from a private possession of those known as philosophers by means of the simple observation that everyone who reflects, upon being asked what is the subject of the history of poetry, will certainly not reply Dante or Shakespeare, or Italian or English poetry, or the series of poems that are known to us, but poetry—that is to say, a universal; and again, when asked what is the subject of social and political history, the answer will not be Greece or Rome, France or Germany, or even all these and others such combined,[Pg 61] but culture, civilization, progress, liberty, or any other similar word—that is to say, a universal.

And here we can remove a great stumbling-block to the recognition of the identity of philosophy with history. I have attempted to renovate, modify, and establish this doctrine with many analyses and with many arguments in another volume of my works.[1] It is, however, frequently very difficult, being rather an object of irresistible argument than of complete persuasion and adhesion. Seeking for the various causes of this difficulty, I have come upon one which seems to me to be the principal and fundamental. This is precisely the conception of history not as living contemporary history, but as history that is dead and belongs to the past, as chronicle (or philological history, which, as we know, can be reduced to chronicle). It is undeniable that when history is taken as chronicle its identity with philosophy cannot be made clear to the mind, because it does not exist. But when chronicle has been reduced to its proper practical and mnemonical function, and history has been raised to the knowledge of the eternal present, it reveals itself as all one with philosophy, which for its part is never anything but the thought of the eternal present. This, be it well understood, provided always that the dualism of ideas and facts has been superseded, of vérités de raison and vérités de fait, the concept of philosophy as contemplation of vérités de raison, and that of history as the amassing of brute facts, of coarse vérités de fait. We have recently found this tenacious dualism in the act of renewing itself, disguised beneath the axiom that le propre de l'histoire est de savoir, le propre de la philosophie est de comprendre. This amounts to the absurd distinction of[Pg 62] knowing without understanding and of understanding without knowing, which would thus be the doubly dis-heartening theoretical fate of man. But such a dualism and the conception of the world which accompanies it, far from being true philosophy, are the perpetual source whence springs that imperfect attempt at philosophizing which is called religion when one is within its magic circle, mythology when one has left it. Will it be useful to attack transcendency, and to claim the character of immanence for reality and for philosophy? It will certainly be of use; but I do not feel the necessity of doing so, at any rate here and now.

And since history, properly understood, abolishes the idea of a universal history, so philosophy, immanent and identical with history, abolishes the idea of a universal philosophy—that is to say, of the closed system. The two negations correspond and are indeed fundamentally one (because closed systems, like universal histories, are cosmological romances), and both receive empirical confirmation from the tendency of the best spirits of our day to refrain from 'universal histories' and from 'definitive systems,' leaving both to compilers, to believers, and to the credulous of every sort. This tendency was implicit in the last great philosophy, that of Hegel, but it was opposed in its own self by old survivals and altogether betrayed in execution, so that this philosophy also converts itself into a cosmological romance. Thus it may be said that what at the beginning of the nineteenth century was merely a simple presentiment becomes changed into firm consciousness at the beginning of the twentieth. This defies the fears of the timid lest the knowledge of the universal should be thus compromised, and indeed maintains that only in this way can such knowledge be truly and perpetually acquired, because[Pg 63] dynamically obtained. Thus history becoming actual history and philosophy becoming historical philosophy have freed themselves, the one from the anxiety of not being able to know that which is not known, only because it was or will be known, and the other from the despair of never being able to attain to definite truth—that is to say, both are freed from the phantom of the 'thing in itself.'

[1] In the Logic, especially in Part II, Chapter IV.
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