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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > V THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT
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Meanwhile the historiography which immediately followed pushed the double aporia of antiquity and of the Middle Ages to the extreme; and it was owing to this radical unprejudiced procedure that it acquired its definite physiognomy and the right of being considered a particular historiographical period. The symbolical vesture, woven of memories of the Gr?co-Roman world, with which the modern spirit had first clothed itself, is now torn and thrown away. The thought that the ancients had not been the oldest and wisest among the peoples, but the youngest and the least expert, and that the true ancients, that is to say, the most expert and mature in mind, are co be found in the men of the modern world, had little by little made its way and become universally accepted. Reason in its nudity, henceforth saluted by its proper name, succeeds the example and the authority of the Gr?co-Romans, which represented reason opposed to barbaric culture and customs. Humanitarianism, the cult of humanity, also idolized by the name of 'nature,' that is to say, ingenuous general human nature, succeeds to humanism, with its one-sided admirations for certain peoples and for certain forms of life. Histories written in Latin become scarce or are confined to the learned, and those written in national languages are multiplied; criticism is exercised not only upon medieval falsifications and fables, upon the writings[Pg 244] of credulous and ignorant monks in monasteries, but upon the pages of ancient historians, and the first doubts appear as to the truth of the historical Roman tradition. A feeling of sympathy, however, toward the ancients still persists, whereas repugnance and abhorrence for the Middle Ages continue to increase. All feel and say that they have emerged, not only from darkness, but from the twilight before dawn, that the sun of reason is high on the horizon, illuminating the intellect and irradiating it with most vivid light. 'Light,' 'illumination,' and the like are words pronounced on every occasion and with ever increasing conviction and energy; hence the title 'age of light,' of 'enlightenment' or of 'illumination,' given to the period extending from Descartes to Kant. Another term began to circulate, at first used rarely and in a restricted sense—'progress.' It gradually becomes more insistent and familiar, and finally succeeds in supplying a criterion for the judgment of facts, for the conduct of life, for the construction of history, becomes the subject of special investigations, and of a new kind of history, the history of the progresses of the human spirit.

But here we observe the persistence and the potency of Christian and theological thought. The progress so much discussed was, so to speak, a progress without development, manifesting itself chiefly in a sigh of satisfaction and security, as of one, favoured by fortune, who has successfully encountered many obstacles and now looks serenely upon the present, secure as to the future, with mind averted from the past, or returning to it now and then for a brief moment only, in order to lament its ugliness, to despise and to smile at it. Take as an example of all the most intelligent and[Pg 245] at the same time the best of the historical representatives of enlightenment M. de Voltaire, who wrote his Essai sur les m?urs in order to aid his friend the Marquise du Chatelet to surmonter le dégo?t caused her by l'histoire moderne depuis la décadence de l'Empire romain, treating the subject in a satirical vein. Or take Condorcet's work, l'Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain, which appears at its end like a last will and testament (and also as the testament of the man who wrote it), and where we find the whole century in compendium. It is as happy in the present, even in the midst of the slaughters of the Revolution, as rosy in its views as to the future, as it is full of contempt and sarcasm for the past, which had generated that present. The felicity of the period upon which they were entering was clearly stated. Voltaire says that at this time les hommes ont acquis plus de lumières d'un bout de l'Europe à l'autre que dans tous les ages précédents. Man now brandishes the arm which none can resist: la seule arme contre le monstre, c'est la Raison: la seule manière d'empêcher les hommes d'être absurdes et méchants, c'est de les éclairer; pour rendre le fanatisme exécrable, il ne faut que le peindre. Certainly it was not denied that there had been something of good and beautiful in the past. They must have existed, if they suffered from superstition and oppression. On voit dans l'histoire les erreurs et les préjugés se succéder tour à tour, et chasser la vérité et la raison: on voit les habiles et les heureux encha?ner les imbéciles et écraser les infortunés; et encore ces habiles et ces heureux sont eux-mêmes les jouets de la fortune, ainsi quelles esclaves qu'ils gouvernent. And not only had the good existed, though oppressed, but it had also been efficient in a certain measure: au milieu de ces saccagements et de ces destructions nous voyons un[Pg 246] amour de l'ordre qui anime en secret le genre humain et qui a prévenu sa ruine totale: c'est un des ressorts de la nature, qui reprend toujours sa force.... And then the 'great epochs' must not be forgotten, the 'centuries' in which the arts nourished as the result of the work of wise men and monarchs, les quatre ages heureux of history. But between this sporadic good, weak or acting covertly, or appearing only for a time and then disappearing, and that of the new era, the quantitative and energetic difference is such that it is turned into a qualitative difference: a moment comes when men learn to think, to rectify their ideas, and past history seems like a tempestuous sea to one who has landed upon solid earth. Certainly everything is not to be praised in the new times; indeed, there is much to blame: les abus servent de lois dans presque toute la terre; et si les plus sages des hommes s'assemblaient pour faire des lois, où est l'état dont la forme subsistat entière? The distance from the ideal of reason was still great and the new century had still to consider itself as a simple step toward complete rationality and felicity. We find the fancy of a social form limit even in Kant, who dragged after him so much old intellectualistic and scholastic philosophy. Sometimes indeed its final form was not discovered, and its place was taken by a vertiginous succession of more and more radiant social forms. But the series of these radiant forms, the progress toward the final form and the destruction of abuses, really began in the age of enlightenment, after some episodic attempts in that direction during previous ages, for this age alone had entered upon the just, the wide, the sure path, the path illumined with the light of reason. It sometimes even happened in the course of that period that a doctrine leading to Rousseau's inverted the[Pg 247] usual view and placed reason, not in modern times or in the near or distant future, but in the past, and not in the medieval, Gr?co-Roman, or Oriental past, but in the prehistoric past, in the 'state of nature,' from which history represented the deviation. But this theory, though differing in its mode of expression, was altogether identical in substance with that generally accepted, because a prehistoric 'state of nature' never had any existence in the reality, which is history, but expressed an ideal to be attained in a near or distant future, which had first been perceived in modern times and was therefore really capable of moving in that direction, whether in the sense of realization or return. The religious character of all this new conception of the world cannot be obscure to anyone, for it repeats the Christian conceptions of God as truth and justice (the lay God), of the earthly paradise, the redemption, the millennium, and so on, in laical terms, and in like manner with! Christianity sets the whole of previous history in opposition to itself, to condemn it, while hardly admiring here and there some consoling ray of itself. What does it matter that religion, and especially Christianity, was then the target for fiercest blows and shame and mockery, that all reticence was abandoned, and people were no longer satisfied with the discreet smile that had once blossomed on the lips of the Italian humanists, but broke out into open and fanatical warfare? Even lay fanaticism is the result of dogmatism. What does it matter that pious folk were shocked and saw the ancient Satan in the lay God, as the enlightened discovered the capricious, domineering, cruel tribal deity in the old God represented by the priest? The possibility of reciprocal accusations confirms the dualism, active in the new as in the old conception, and rendering it[Pg 248] unsuitable for the understanding of development and of history.

The historiographical aporia of antiquity was also being increased by abstract individualism or the 'pragmatic' conception. So true was this that it was precisely at that time that the formula was resumed, and pragmatism, as history of human ideas, sentiments, calculations, and actions, as a narrative embellished with reflections, was opposed to theological or medieval history and to the old ingenuous chronicles or erudite collections of information and documents. Voltaire, who combats and mocks at belief in divine designs and punishments and in the leadership of a small barbarous population called upon to act as an elect people and to be the axle of universal history (so that he may substitute for it the lay theology which has been described), is the same Voltaire who praises in Guicciardini and in Machiavelli the first appearance of an histoire bien faite. The pragmatic mode of treatment was extended even to the narrative of events relating to religion and the Church and was applied by Mosheim and others in Germany. Owing to this penetration of rationalism into ecclesiastical historiography and into Protestant philosophy, it afterward seemed that the Reformation had caused thought to progress, whereas, as regards this matter, the Reformation simply received humanistic thought in the new form, to which it had previously been opposed. If, in other respects, it aided the advance of the historical conception in an original manner, this was brought about, as we shall see, by means of another element seething within it, mysticism. But meanwhile not even Catholicism remained immune from the pragmatic, of which we find traces in the Discours of Bossuet, who represents the Augustinian conception, shorn of its[Pg 249] accessories, reduced and modernized, lacking the irreconcilable dualism of the two cities and the Roman Empire as the ultimate and everlasting empire, allowing natural causes preordained by God and regulated by the laws to operate side by side with divine intervention, and conceding a large share to the social and political conditions of the various peoples. We do not speak of the last step taken by the same author in his Histoire des variations des églises, when he conceived the history of the Reformation objectively and in its internal motives, presenting it as a rebellious movement directed against authority. Even his adversary Voltaire recognized that Bossuet had not omitted d'autres causes in addition to the divine will favouring the elect people, because he had several times taken count de l'esprit des nations. Such was the strength of l'esprit du siècle. The pragmatic conceptions of that time are still so well known and so near to us, so persistent in so many of our narratives and historical manuals, that it would be useless to describe them. When we direct our thoughts to the historical works of the eighteenth century, there immediately rises to the memory the general outline of a history in which priests deceive, courtiers intrigue, wise monarchs conceive and realize good institutions, combated and rendered almost vain through the malignity of others and the ignorance of the people, though they remain nevertheless a perpetual object of admiration for enlightened spirits. The image of chance or caprice appears with the evocation of that image, and mingling with the histories of these conflicts makes them yet more complicated, their results yet stranger and more astonishing. And what was the use, that is to say, the end, of historical narrative in the view of those historians? Here also the reading of a few lines of Voltaire affords[Pg 250] the explanation: Cet avantage consiste surtout dans la comparaison qu'un homme d'état, un citoyen, peut faire des lois et des mours étrangères avec celles de son pays: c'est ce qui excite l'émulation des nations modernes dans les arts, dans l''agriculture, dans le commerce. Les grandes fautes passées servent beaucoup à tout genre. On ne saurait trop remettre devant les yeux les crimes et les malheurs: on peut, quoi qu'on en dise, prévenir les uns et les autres. This thought is repeated with many verbal variations and is to be found in nearly all the books of historiographie theory of the time, continuing the Italian mode of the Renaissance in an easier and more popular style. The words 'philosophy of history,' which had later so much success, at first served to describe the assistance obtainable from history in the shape of advice and useful precepts, when investigated without prejudice—that is to say, with the one 'assumption' of reason.

The external end assigned to history led to the same results as in antiquity, when history became oratorical and even historico-pedagogic romances were composed, and as in the Renaissance, when 'declamatory orations' were preserved, and history was treated as material more or less well adapted to certain ends, whence arose a certain amount of indifference toward its truth, so that Machiavelli, for instance, deduced laws and precepts from the decades of Livy, not only assuming them to be true, but accepting them in those parts which he must have recognized to be demonstrably fabulous. Orations began to disappear, but their disappearance was due to good literary taste rather than to anything else, which recognized how out of harmony were those expedients with the new popular, prosaic, polemical tone that narrative assumed in the eighteenth[Pg 251] century. In exchange they got something worse: lack of esteem for history, which was considered to be an inferior reality, unworthy of the philosopher, who seeks for laws, for what is constant, for the uniform, the general, and can find it in himself and in the direct observation of external and internal nature, natural and human, without making that long, useless, and dangerous tour of facts narrated in the histories. Descartes, Malebranche, and the long list of their successors do not need especial mention here, for it is well known how mathematics and naturalism dominated and depressed history at this period. But was historical truth at least an inferior truth? After fuller reflection, it did not seem possible to grant even this. In history, said Voltaire, the word 'certain,' which is used to designate such knowledge as that "two and two make four," "I think," "I suffer," "I exist," should be used very rarely, and in the sole sense of "very probable." Others held that even this was saying too much, for they altogether denied the truth of history and declared that it was a collection of fables, of inventions and equivocations, or of undemonstrable affirmations. Hence the scepticism or Pyrrhonism of the eighteenth century, which showed itself on several occasions and has left us a series of curious little books as a document of itself. Such is, indeed, the inevitable result when historical knowledge is looked upon as a mass of individual testimonies, dictated or altered by the passions, or misunderstood through ignorance, good at the best for supplying edifying and terrible examples in confirmation of the eternal truths of reason, which, for the rest, shine with their own light.

It would nevertheless be altogether erroneous to found upon the exaggeration to which the theological[Pg 252] and pragmatical views attained in the historiography of the enlightenment, and see in it a decadence or regression similar to that of the Renaissance and of other predecessors. Not only were germs of error evolved at that time, not only did the difficulties that had appeared in the previous period become more acute, but there was also developed, and elevated to a high degree of efficiency, that historiography of spiritual values which Christian historiography had intensified and almost created, and which the Renaissance had begun to transfer to the earth. Voltaire as historiographer deserves to be defended (and this has recently been done by several writers, admirably by Fueter), because he has a lively perception of the need of bringing history back from the treatment of the external to that of the internal and strives to satisfy this need. For this reason, books that gave accounts of wars, treaties, ceremonies, and solemnities seemed to him to be nothing but 'archives' or 'historical dictionaries,' useful for consultation on certain occasions, but history, true history, he held to be something altogether different. The duty of true history could not be to weight the memory with external or material facts, or as he called them events (événements), but to discover what was the society of men in the past, la société des hommes, comment on vivait dans l'intérieur des familles, quels arts étaient cultivés, and to paint 'manners' (les mours); not to lose itself in the multitude of insignificant particulars (petits faits), but to collect only those that were of importance (considérables) and to explain the spirit (l'esprit) that had produced them. Owing to this preference that Voltaire accords to manners over battles we find in him the conception (although it remains without adequate treatment[Pg 253] and gets lost in the ardour of polemic) that it is not for history to trace the portrait of human splendours and miseries (les détails de la splendeur et de la misère humaine) but only of manners and of the arts, that is, of the positive work; in his Siècle de Louis XIV he says that he wishes to illustrate the government of that monarch, not in so far as il a fait du bien aux fran?ais, but in so far as il a fait du lien aux hommes. What Voltaire undertook, and to no small extent achieved, forms the principal object of all historians' labours at this period. Whoever wishes to do so can see in Fueter's book how the great pictures to be found in Voltaire's Essai sur les mours and Siècle were imitated in the pages both of French writers and in those of other European countries—for instance, in the celebrated introduction by Robertson to his history of Charles V. It will also be noticed how the special histories of this or that aspect of culture ............
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