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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > VI THE HUMANITY OF HISTORY
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Enfranchising itself from servitude to extra-mundane caprice and to blind natural necessity, freeing itself from transcendency and from false immanence (which is in its turn transcendency), thought conceives history as the work of man, as the product of human will and intellect, and in this manner enters that form of history which we shall call humanistic. This humanism first appears as in simple contrast to nature or to extra-mundane powers, and posits dualism. On the one side is man, with his strength, his intelligence, his reason, his prudence, his will for the good; on the other there is something that resists him, strives against him, upsets his wisest plans, breaks the web that he has been weaving and obliges him to weave it all over again. History, envisaged from the view-point of this conception, is developed entirely from the first of these two sides, because the other does not afford a dialectical element which can be continually met and superseded by the first, giving rise to a sort of interior collaboration, but represents the absolutely extraneous, the capricious, the accidental, the meddler, the ghost at the feast. Only in the former do we find rationality combined with human endeavour, and thus the possibility of a rational explication of history. What comes from the other side is announced, but not explained: it is not material for history, but at the most for chronicle. This first form of humanistic history is known under the various names of rationalistic, intellectualistic,[Pg 95] abstractistic, individualistic, psychological history, and especially under that of pragmatic history. It is a form generally condemned by the consciousness of our times, which has employed these designations, especially rationalism and pragmatism, to represent a particular sort of historiographical insufficiency and inferiority, and has made proverbial the most characteristic pragmatic explanations of institutions and events, as types of misrepresentation into which one must beware of falling if one wish to think history seriously. But as happens in the progress of culture and science, even if the condemnation be cordially accepted and no hesitation entertained as to drawing practical consequences from it in the field of actuality, there is not an equally clear consciousness of the reasons for this, or of the thought process by means of which it has been attained. This process we may briefly describe as follows.

Pragmatic finds the reasons for historical facts in man, but in man in so far as he is an individual made abstract, and thus opposed as such not only to the universe, but to other men, who have also been made abstract. History thus appears to consist of the mechanical action and reaction of beings, each one of whom is shut up in himself. Now no historical process is intelligible under such an arrangement, for the sum of the addition is always superior to the numbers added. To such an extent is this true that, not knowing which way to turn in order to make the sum come out right, it became necessary to excogitate the doctrine of 'little causes,' which were supposed to produce 'great effects.' This doctrine is absurd, for it is clear that great effects can only have real causes (if the illegitimate conceptions of great and small, of cause and effect, be applicable here). Such a formula, then, far from expressing the law of historical[Pg 96] facts, unconsciously expresses the defects of the doctrine, which is inadequate for its purpose. And since the rational explanation fails, there arise crowds of fancies to take its place, which are all conceived upon the fundamental motive of the abstract individual. The pragmatic explanation of religions is characteristic of this; these are supposed to have been produced and maintained in the world by the economic cunning of the priests, taking advantage of the ignorance and credulity of the masses. But historical pragmatic does not always present itself in the guise of this egoistic and pessimistic inspiration. It is not fair to accuse it of egoism and utilitarianism, when the true accusation should, as we have already said, be levelled at its abstract individualism. This abstract individualism could be and sometimes was conceived even as highly moral, for we certainly find among the pragmatics sage legislators, good kings, and great men, who benefit humanity by means of science, inventions, and well-organized institutions. And if the greedy priest arranged the deceit of religions, if the cruel despot oppressed weak and innocent people, and if error was prolific and engendered the strangest and most foolish customs, yet the goodness of the enlightened monarch and legislator created the happy epochs, caused the arts to flourish, encouraged poets, aided discoveries, encouraged industries. From these pragmatic conceptions is derived the verbal usage whereby we speak of the age of Pericles, of that of Augustus, of that of Leo X, or of that of Louis XIV. And since fanciful explanations do not limit themselves merely to individuals physically existing, but also employ facts and small details, which are also made abstract and shut up in themselves, being thus also turned into what Vico describes as 'imaginative universals,' in like manner[Pg 97] all these modes of explanation known as 'catastrophic' and making hinge the salvation or the ruin of a whole society upon the virtue of some single fact are also derived from pragmatic. Examples of this, which have also become proverbial, because they refer to concepts that have been persistently criticized by the historians of our time, are the fall of the Roman Empire, explained as the result of barbarian invasions, European civilization of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as the result of the Crusades, the renascence of classical literatures, as the result of the Turkish conquest of Constantinople and of the immigration of the learned Byzantines into Italy—and the like. And in just the same way as when the conception of the single individual did not furnish a sufficient explanation recourse was for that reason had to a multiplicity of individuals, to their co-operation and conflicting action, so here, when the sole cause adduced soon proved itself too narrow, an attempt was made to make up for the insufficiency of the method by the search for and enumeration of multiple historical causes. This enumeration threatened to proceed to the infinite, but, finite or infinite as it might be, it never explained the process to be explained, for the obvious reason that the continuous is never made out of the discontinuous, however much the latter may be multiplied and solidified. The so-called theory of the causes or factors of history, which survives in modern consciousness, together with several other mental habits of pragmatic, although generally inclined to follow other paths, is rather a confession of powerlessness to dominate history by means of individual causes, or causes individually conceived, than a theory; far from being a solution, it is but a reopening of the problem.

[Pg 98]

Pragmatic therefore fails to remain human—that is to say, to develop itself as rationality; even in the human side to which it clings and in which it wishes to maintain and oppose itself to the natural or extra-natural; and having already made individuals irrational and unhuman by making them abstract, it gradually has recourse to other historical factors, and arrives finally at natural causes, which do not differ at all in their abstractness from other individual causes. This means that pragmatic, which had previously asserted itself as humanism, falls back into naturalism, from which it had distinctly separated itself. And it falls into it all the more, seeing that, as has been noted, human individuals have been made abstract, not only among themselves, but toward the rest of the universe, which remains facing them, as though it were an enemy. What is it that really rules history according to this conception? Is it man, or extra-human powers, natural or divine? The claim that history exists only as an individual experience is not maintainable; and in the pragmatic conception another agent in history is always presumed, an extra-human being which, at different times and to different thinkers, is known as fate, chance, fortune, nature, God, or by some other name. During the period at which pragmatic history flourished, and there was much talk of reason and wisdom, an expression of a monarchical or courtly tinge is to be found upon the lips of a monarch and of a philosopher who was his friend: homage was paid to sa Majesté le Hasard! Here too there is an attempt to patch up the difficulty and to seek eclectic solutions; in order to get out of it, we find pragmatic affirming that human affairs are conducted half by prudence and half by fortune, that intelligence[Pg 99] contributes one part, fortune another, and so on. But who will assign the just share to the two competitors? Will not he who does assign it be the true and only maker of history? And since he who does assign it cannot be man, we see once again how pragmatic leads directly to transcendency and irrationality through its naturalism. It leads to irrationality, accompanied by all its following of inconveniences and by all the other dualisms that it brings with it and which are particular aspects of itself, such as the impossibility of development, regressions, the triumph of evil. The individual, engaged with external forces however conceived, sometimes wins, at other times loses; his victory itself is precarious, and the enemy is always victorious, inflicting losses upon him and making his victories precarious. Individuals are ants crushed by a piece of rock, and if some ant escapes from the mass that falls upon it and reproduces the species, which begins again the labour from the beginning, the rock will fall, or always may fall, upon the new generation and may crush all of its members, so that it is the arbiter of the lives of the industrious ants, to which it does much injury and no good. This is as pessimistic a view as can be conceived.

These difficulties and vain-tentatives of pragmatic historiography have caused it to be looked upon with disfavour and to be rejected in favour of a superior conception, which preserves the initial humanistic motive and, removing from it the abstractness of the atomicized individual, assures it against any falling back into agnosticism, transcendency, or the despair caused by pessimism. The conception that has completed the criticism of pragmatic and the redemption of humanism has been variously and more or less well[Pg 100] formulated in the course of the history of thought as mind or reason that constructs history, as the 'providence' of mind or the 'astuteness' of reason.

The great value of this conception is that it changes humanism from abstract to concrete, from monadistic or atomistic to idealistic, from something barely human into something cosmic, from unhuman humanism, such as that of man shut up in himself and opposed to man, into humanism that is really human, the humanity common to men, indeed to the whole universe, which is all humanity, even in its most hidden recesses—that is to say, spirituality. And history, according to this conception, as it is no longer the work of nature or of an extra-mundane God, so it is not the impotent work of the empirical and unreal individual, interrupted at every moment, but the work of that individual which is truly real and is the eternal spirit individualizing itself. For this reason it has no adversary at all opposed to it, but every adversary is at the same time its subject —that is to say, is one of the aspects of that dialecticism which constitutes its inner being. Again, it does not seek its principle of explanation in a particular act of thought or will, or in a single individual or in a multitude of individuals, or in an event given as the cause of other events, or in a collection of events that form the cause of a single event, but seeks and places it in the process itself, which is born of thought and returns to thought, and is intelligible through the auto-intelligibility of thought, which never has need of appealing to anything external to itself in order to understand itself. The explanation of history becomes so truly, because it coincid............
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