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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > V THE POSITIVITY OF HISTORY
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We therefore meet the well-known saying of Fustel de Coulanges that there are certainly "history and philosophy, but not the philosophy of history," with the following: there is neither philosophy nor history, nor philosophy of history, but history which is philosophy and philosophy which is history and is intrinsic to history. For this reason, all the controversies—and foremost of all those concerned with progress—which philosophers, methodologists of history, and sociologists believe to belong to their especial province, and flaunt at the beginning and the end of their treatises, are reduced for us to simple problems of philosophy, with historical motivation, all of them connected with the problems of which philosophy treats.

In controversies relating to progress it is asked whether the work of man be fertile or sterile, whether it be lost or preserved, whether history have an end, and if so of what sort, whether this end be attainable in time or only in the infinite, whether history be progress or regress, or an interchange between progress and regress, greatness and decadence, whether good or evil prevail in it, and the like. When these questions have been considered with a little attention we shall see that they resolve themselves substantially into three points: the conception of development, that of end, and that of value. That is to say, they are concerned with the whole of reality, and with history only when it is[Pg 84] precisely the whole of reality. For this reason they do not belong to supposed particular sciences, to the philosophy of history, or to sociology, but to philosophy and to history in so far as it is philosophy. When the ordinary current terminology has been translated into philosophical terms it calls forth immediately the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis by means of which those problems have been thought and solved during the course of philosophy, to which the reader desirous of instruction must be referred. We can only mention here that the conception of reality as development is nothing but the synthesis of the two one-sided opposites, consisting of permanency without change and of change without permanency, of an identity without diversity and of a diversity without identity, for development is a perpetual surpassing, which is at the same time a perpetual conservation. From this point of view one of the conceptions that has had the greatest vogue in historical books, that of historical circles, is revealed as an equivocal attempt to issue forth from a double one-sidedness and a falling back into it, owing to an equivocation. Because either the series of circles is conceived as composed of identicals and we have only permanency, or it is conceived as of things diverse and we have only change. But if, on the contrary, we conceive it as circularity that is perpetually identical and at the same time perpetually diverse, in this sense it coincides with the conception of development itself.

In like manner, the opposite theses, as to the attainment or the impossibility of attainment of the end of history, reveal their common defect of positing the end as extrinsic to history, conceiving of it either as that which can be reached in time (progressus ad finitum),[Pg 85] or as that which can never be attained, but only infinitely approximated (progressus ad infinitum). But where the end has been correctly conceived as internal—that is to say, all one with development itself—we must conclude that it is attained at every instant, and at the same time not attained, because every attainment is the formation of a new prospect, whence we have at every moment the satisfaction of possession, and arising from this the dissatisfaction which drives us to seek a new possession.[1]

Finally, the conceptions of history as a passage from evil to good (progress), or from good to evil (decadence, regression), take their origin from the same error of entifying and making extrinsic good and evil, joy and sorrow (which are the dialectical construction of reality itself). To unite them in the eclectic conception of an alternation of good and evil, of progress and regress, is incorrect. The true solution is that of progress understood not as a passage from evil to good, as though from one state to another, but as the passage from the good to the better, in which the evil is the good itself seen in the light of the better.

These are all philosophical solutions which are at variance with the superficial theses of controversialists (dictated to them by sentimental motives or imaginative combinations, really mythological or resulting in mythologies), to the same extent that they are in accordance with profound human convictions and with the tireless toil, the trust, the courage, which constitute their ethical manifestations.

By drawing the consequences of the dialectical[Pg 86] conception of progress something more immediately effective can be achieved in respect to the practice and history of historiography. For we find in that conception the origin of a historical maxim, in the mouth of every one, yet frequently misunderstood and frequently violated—that is to say, that to history pertains not to judge, but to explain, and that it should be not subjective but objective.

Misunderstood, because the judging in question is often taken in the sense of logical judgment, of that judgment which is thinking itself, and the subjectivity, which would thus be excluded, would be neither more nor less than the subjectivity of thought. In consequence of this misunderstanding we hear historians being advised to purge themselves of theories, to refrain from the disputes arising from them, to restrict themselves to facts, collecting, arranging, and squeezing out the sap (even by the statistical method). It is impossible to follow such advice as this, as may easily be seen, for such 'abstention from thought' reveals itself as really abstention from 'seriousness of thought,' as a surreptitious attaching of value to the most vulgar and contradictory thoughts, transmitted by tradition, wandering about idly in the mind, or flashing out as the result of momentary caprice. The maxim is altogether false, understood or misunderstood in this way, and it must be taken by its opposite—namely, that history must always judge strictly, and that it must always be energetically subjective without allowing itself to be confused by the conflicts in which thought engages or by the risks that it runs. For it is thought itself, and thought alone, which gets over its own difficulties and dangers, without falling even here into that frivolous eclecticism which tries to find a middle term between[Pg 87] our judgment and that of others, and suggests various neutral and insipid forms of judgment.

But the true and legitimate meaning, the original motive for that 'judging,' that 'subjectivity,' which it condemns, is that history should not apply to the deeds and the personages that are its material the qualifications of good and evil, as though there really were good and evil facts in the world, people who are good and people who are evil. And it is certainly not to be denied that innumerable historiographers, or those who claim to be historiographers, have really striven and still strive along those lines, in the vain and presumptuous attempt to reward the good and punish the evil, to qualify historical epochs as representing progress or decadence—in a word, to settle what is good and what is evil, as though it were a question of separating one element from another in a compound, hydrogen from, oxygen.

Whoever desires to observe intrinsically the above maxim, and by doing so to set himself in accordance with the dialectic conception of progress, must in truth look upon every trace or vestige of propositions affirming evil, regression, or decadence as real facts, as a sign of imperfection—in a word, he must condemn every trace or vestige of negative judgments. If the course of history is not the passage from evil to good, or alternative good and evil, but the passage from the good to the better, if history should explain and not condemn, it will pronounce only positive judgments, and will forge chains of good, so solid and so closely linked that it will not be possible to introduce into them even a little link of evil or to interpose empty spaces, which in so far as they are empty would not represent good but evil. A fact that seems to be only evil, an epoch that appears[Pg 88] to be one of complete decadence, can be nothing but a non-historical fact—that is to say, one which has not been historically treated, not penetrated by thought, and which has remained the prey of sentiment and imagination.

Whence comes the phenomenology of good and evil, of sin and repentance, of decadence and resurrection, save from the consciousness of the agent, from the act which is in labour to produce a new form of life?[2] And in that act the adversary who opposed us is in the wrong; the state from which we wish to escape, and from which we are escaping, is unhappy; the new one toward which we are tending becomes symbolized as a dreamed-of felicity to be attained, or as a past condition to restore, which is therefore most beautiful in recollection (which here is not recollection, but imagination). Every one knows how these things present them-selves to us in the course of history, manifesting themselves in poetry, in Utopias, in stories with a moral, in detractions, in apologies, in myths of love, of hate, and the like. To the heretics of the Middle Ages and to the Protestant reformers the condition of the primitive Christians seemed to be most lovely and most holy, that of papal Christians most evil and debased. The Sparta of Lycurgus and the Rome of Cincinnatus seemed to the Jacobins to be as admirable as France under the Carlovingians and the Capetians was detestable. The humanists looked upon the lives of the ancient poets and sages as luminous and the life of the Middle Ages as dense darkness. Even in times near our own has been witnessed the glorification of the Lombard communes and the depreciation of the Holy Roman Empire, and the very opposite of this, according as the facts relating to these[Pg 89] historical events were reflected in the consciousness of an Italian longing for the independence of Italy or of a German upholding the holy German empire of Prussian hegemony. And this will always happen, because such is the phenomenology of the practical consciousness, and these practical valuations will always be present to some extent in the works of historians. As works, these are not and cannot ever be pure history, quintessential history; if in no other way, then in their phrasing and use of metaphors they will reflect the repercussion of practical needs and efforts directed toward the future. But the historical consciousness, as such, is logical and not practical consciousness, and indeed makes the other its object; history once lived has become in it thought, and the antitheses of will and feeling that formerly offered resistance have no longer a place in thought.

For if there are no good and evil facts, but facts that are always good when understood in their intimate being and concreteness, there are not opposite sides, but that wider side that embraces both the adversaries and which happens just to be historical consideration. Historical consideration, therefore, recognizes as of equal right the Church of the catacombs and that of Gregory VII, the tribunes of the Roman people and the feudal barons, the Lombard League and the Emperor Barbarossa. History never metes out justice, but always justifies; she could not carry out the former act without making herself unjust—that is to say, confounding thought with life, taking the attractions and repulsions of sentiment for the judgments of thought.

Poetry is satisfied with the expression of sentiment, and it is worthy of note that a considerable historian, Schlosser, wishing to reserve for himself the right and duty of[Pg 90] judging historical facts with Kantian austerity and abstraction, kept his eyes fixed on the Divine Comedy—that is to say, a poetical work—as his model of treatment. And since there are poetical elements in all myths, we understand why the conception of history known as dualistic—that is to say, of history as composed of two currents, which mix but never resolve in one another their waters of good and evil, truth and error, rationality and irrationality—should have formed a conspicuous part, not only of the Christian religion, but also of the mythologies (for they really are such) of humanism and of illuminism. But the detection of this problem of the duality of values and its solution in the superior unity of the conception of development is the work of the nineteenth century, which on this account and on account of other solutions of the same kind (certainly not on account of its philological and arch?ological richness, which was relatively common to the four preceding centuries) has been well called 'the century of history.'

Not only, therefore, is history unable to discriminate between facts that are good and facts that are evil, and between epochs that are progressive and those that are regressive, but it does not begin until the psychological conditions which rendered possible such antitheses have been superseded and substituted by an act of the spirit, which seeks to ascertain what function the fact or the epoch previously condemned has fulfilled—that is to say, what it has produced of its own in the course of development, and therefore what it has produced. And since all facts and epochs are productive in their own way, not only is not one of them to be condemned in the light of history, but all are to be praised and venerated. A condemned fact, a fact that is repugnant, is not yet a historical proposition, it is hardly even the[Pg 91] premiss of a historical problem to be formulated. A negative history is a non-history so long as its negative process substitutes itself for thought, which is affirmative, and does not maintain itself within its practical and moral bounds and limit itself to poetical expressions and empirical modes of representation, in respect of all of which we can certainly speak (speak and not think), as we do speak at every moment, of bad men and periods of decadence and regression.

If the vice of negative history arises from the separation, the solidification, and the opposition of the dialectical antitheses of good and evil and the transformation of the ideal moments of development into entities, that other deviation of history which may be known as elegiac history arises from the misunderstanding of another necessity of that conception—that is to say, the perpetual constancy, the perpetual conservation of what has been acquired. But this is also false by definition. What is preserved and enriched in the course of history is history itself, spirituality. The past does not live otherwise than in the present, as the force of the present, resolved and transformed in the present. Every particular form, individual, action, institution, work, thought, is destined to perish: even art, which is called eternal (and is so in a certain sense), perishes, for it does not live, save to the extent that it is reproduced, and therefore transfigured and surrounded with new light, in the spirit of posterity. Finally, truth itself perishes, particular and determined truth, because it is not rethinkable, save when included in the system of a vaster truth, and therefore at the same time transformed. But those who do not rise to the conception of pure historical consideration, those who attach themselves with their whole soul to an individual, a work, a belief, an[Pg 92] institution, and attach themselves so strongly that they cannot separate themselves from it in order to objectify it before themselves and think it, are prone to attribute the immortality which belongs to the spirit in universal to the spirit in one of its particular and determined forms; and since that form, notwithstanding their efforts, dies, and dies in their arms, the universe darkens before their gaze, and the only history that they can relate is the sad one of the agony and death of beautiful things. This too is poetry, and very lofty poetry. Who can do otherwise than weep at the loss of a beloved one, at separation from something dear to him, cannot see the sun extinguished and the earth tremble and the birds cease their flight and fall to earth, like Dante, on the loss of his beloved "who was so beautiful"? But history is never history of death, but history of life, and all know that the proper commemoration of the dead is the knowledge of what they did in life, of what they produced that is working in us, the history of their life and not of their death, which it behoves a gentle soul to veil, a soul barbarous and perverse to exhibit in its miserable nakedness and to contemplate with unhealthy persistence. For this reason all histories which narrate the death and not the life of peoples, of states, of institutions, of customs, of literary and artistic ideals, of religious conceptions, are to be considered false, or, we repeat, simply poetry, where they attain to the level of poetry. People grow sad and suffer and lament because that which was is no longer. This would resolve itself into a mere tautology (because if it was, it is evident that it is no longer), were it not conjoined to the neglect of recognizing what of that past has not perished—that is to say, that past in so far as it is not past but present, the eternal life of the past. It is in this neglect,[Pg 93] in the incorrect view arising out of it, that the falsity of such histories resides.

It sometimes happens that historians, intent upon narrating those scenes of anguish in a lugubrious manner and upon celebrating the funerals which it pleases them to call histories, remain partly astounded and partly scandalized when they hear a peal of laughter, a cry of joy, a sigh of satisfaction, or find an enthusiastic impulse springing up from the documents that they are searching. How, they ask, could men live, make love, reproduce their species, sing, paint, discuss, when the trumps were sounding east and west to announce the end of the world? But they do not see that such an end of the world exists only in their own imaginations, rich in elegiac motives, but poor in understanding. They do not perceive that such importunate trumpet-calls have never in reality existed. These are very useful, on the other hand, for reminding those who may have forgotten it that history always pursues her indefatigable work, and that her apparent agonies are the travail of a new birth, and that what are believed to be her expiring sighs are moans that announce the birth of a new world. History differs from the individual who dies because, in the words of Alcm?on of Crete, he is not able τ?ν ?ρχ?ν τ? τ?λει προσ?ψαι, to join his beginning to his end: history never dies, because she always joins her beginning to her end.

[1] For the complete development of these conceptions, see my study of The Conception of Becoming, in the Saggio sullo Hegel seguito da altri scritti di storia della filosofia, pp. 149-175 (Bari, 1913). (English translation of the work on Hegel by Douglas Ainslie. Macmillan, London.)

[2] For what relates to this section, see my treatment of Judgments of Value, in the work before cited.

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