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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > VI THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF ROMANTICISM
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The reaction manifested itself with the sentimental return to the past, and with the defence undertaken by the politicians of old institutions worthy of being preserved or accorded new life. Hence arose two forms of historical representation, which certainly belong in a measure to all periods, but which were very vigorous at the romantic period: nostalgic historiography and historiography which restored. And since the past of their desires, which supplied the material for practical recommendations, was just that which the enlightenment and the Revolution had combated and overthrown—the Middle Ages and everything that resembled or seemed to resemble the Middle Ages—both kinds of history were, so to say, medievalized. Just as a watercourse which has been forcibly diverted from its natural bed noisily returns to it as soon as obstructions are removed, so a great sigh of joy and satisfaction, a warm emotion of tenderness, welled up in and reanimated all breasts as, after so long a rationalistic ascesis, they again took to themselves the old religion, the old national customs, regional and local, again entered the old houses and castles and cathedrals, sang again the old songs, dreamed again the old legends. In this tumult of sentiment we do not at first observe the profound and irremediable change that has taken place in the souls of all, borne witness to by the anxiety, the emotion, the pathos of that apparent return. It would be to belittle the nostalgic historiography[Pg 265] of the romantic movement to make it consist of certain special literary works, for in reality it penetrated all or almost all the writings of that time, like an irresistible current, to be found not only in lesser and poorer spirits, such as De Barante, nor only in the more poetically disposed, such as Chateaubriand, but in historians who present some of the most important or purely scientific thoughts, for example Niebuhr. The life of chivalry, the life of the cloister, the Crusades, the Hohenstaufen, the Lombard and Flemish communes, the Christian kings of Spain at strife with the Arabs, the Arabs themselves, England divided between Saxons and Normans, the Switzerland of William Tell, the chansons de geste, the songs of the troubadours, Gothic architecture (characteristic vicissitude of a name, applied in contempt and then turned into a symbol of affection), became at this time the object of universal and national sympathy, as did the rough, ingenuous popular literature, poetry, and art: translations or abbreviations of the medieval chronicles were even reprinted for the enjoyment of a large and eager circle of readers; the first medieval museums were formed; an attempt was made to restore and complete ancient churches, castles, and city palaces. Historiography entered into close relations and exchange of ideas with the new literary form of historical romance, which expressed the same nostalgia, first with Walter Scott and then with his innumerable followers in all countries. (This literary form was therefore quite different from the historical fiction of Manzoni, which is free from such sentiment and whose historical element has a moral foundation.) I have already remarked that this nostalgia was far more modern of content than at first supposed; so much so that every one was attracted[Pg 266] to it by the motive that most appealed to himself, whether religious or political, Old Catholic, mystical, monarchical, constitutional, communal-republican, national-independent, liberal-democratic, or aristocratic. Nevertheless, when the past was taken as a poetic theme, there was a risk that the idealizing tendency of the images would be at strife with critical reflection: hence the cult of the Middle Ages, which had become a superstition, came to a ridiculous end. Fueter quotes an acute remark of Ranke, relating to one of the last worthy representatives of the romantic school, Giesebrecht, author of the History of the German Empire, admirer and extoller of the 'Christian-Germanic virtues,' of the power and excellence of the medieval heroes. Ranke described all this as "at once too virile and too puerile." But the puerility discernible at the sources of this ideal current, before it falls into the comic, is rather the sublime puerility of the poet's dream.

The actual modern motives, which present themselves as sentiments in nostalgic historiography, acquired a reflex form with the same or other writers, as tendencies to the service of which their narratives were bent. Here, too, it would be superfluous to give an account of all the various forms and specifications of these tendencies (which Fueter has already done admirably), from the persistent Rousseauism of Giovanni Müller to Sismondi, or from the ideal of a free peasantry of Niebuhr, the ultramontane ideal of Leo, the imperialistic-medieval ideal of the already mentioned Giesebrecht and Ficker, the old liberal of Raumer, the neo-liberal of Rotteck and Gervinus, the anglicizing of Guizot and Dahlmann, or the democratic ideal of Michelet, to the neo-Guelfish ideal of Troya and Balbo and Father Tosti, to the Prussian hegemony of Droysen and of Treitschke, and[Pg 267] so on. But all of these, and other historians with a particular bias, lean, with rare exceptions, on the past, and find the justification of their bias in the dialectic of tradition or in tradition itself. Nobody any longer cared to compose by the light of abstract reason alone. The extreme typical instance is afforded by the socialistic school, which took the romantic form in the person of its chief representative, Marx, who endowed it with historiographical and scientific value. His work was in complete opposition to the socialistic ideals that had appeared in the eighteenth century, and he therefore boasted that they had passed from the state of being a Utopia to that of a science. His science was nothing less than historical necessity attributed to the new era that he prophesied, and materialism itself no longer wished to be the naturalistic materialism of a d'Holbach or a Helvétius, but presented itself as 'historical materialism.'

If nostalgic historiography is poetry and that with a purpose is practical and political, the historiography, the true historiography, of romanticism is not to be placed in either of the two, in so far as it is considered an epoch in the history of thought. Certainly, poetry and practice arose from a thought and led to a thought as its material or problem: the French Revolution was certainly not the cause or the effect of a philosophy, but both the cause and the effect, a philosophy in the act, born from and generating the life that was then developed. But thought in the form of thought, and not in the form of sentimental love of the past or effort to revive a false past, is what determines the scientific character of that historiography, which we desire to set in a clear light. And it reacted in the form of thought against the thought of the enlightenment[Pg 268], so crudely dualistic, by opposing to it the conception of development.

Not indeed that this concept was something entirely new, which had then burst forth in bud for the first time: no speculative conception that is really such can be absent at one time and appear at another. The difference lies in this, that at a given period scientific problems seem to apply to one rather than to another aspect of thought, which is always present in its totality. So that when we say that the conception of development was absent from antiquity and from the eighteenth century, we utter a hyperbole. There are good reasons for this hyperbole, but it remains a hyperbole and should not be taken literally and understood materially. Nor are we to believe that there was no suspicion or anticipation of the important scientific conception of development prior to the romantic period. Traces of it may be found in the pantheism of the great philosophers of the Renaissance, and especially in Bruno, and in mysticism itself, in so far as it included pantheism, and yet more distinctly in the reconstruction of the bare bones of the theological conception with the conception of the course of historical events as a gradual education of the human race, in which the successive revelations should be the communication of books of a gradually less and less elementary nature, from the first Hebrew scriptures to the Gospels and to the revisions of the Gospels. Lessing offers an example of this. Nor were the theorists of the enlightenment always so terribly dualistic as those that I have mentioned, but here and there one of them, such as Turgot, although he did not altogether abandon the presupposition as to epochs of decadence, yet recognized the progress of Christianity over antiquity and of modern times[Pg 269] over Christianity, and attempted even to trace the line of development passing through the three ages, the mythological, the metaphysical, and the scientific. Other thinkers, like Montesquieu, noticed the relativity of institutions to customs and to periods; others, like Rousseau, attached great importance to the strength of sentiment. Enlightenment had also its adversaries during its own period, not only as represented by political abstraction and fatuous optimism (such as that of Galiani, for instance), but also in more important respects, destined later to form the special subject of criticism, such as contempt for tradition, for religion, and for poetry and arid naturalism. Hence the smile of Hamann at the blind faith of Voltaire and of Hume in the Newtonian astronomical doctrines and at their lack of sense for moral doctrines. He held that a revival of poetry and a linking of it with history were necessary, and considered history to be (here he was just the opposite of Bodin) not the easiest but the most difficult of all mental labours. But in the Scienza nuova of Vico (1725) was to be found a very rich and organic anticipation of romantic thought (as should now be universally recognized and known). Vico criticized the enlightenment only in its beginnings (when it was still only natural jurisprudence and Cartesianism), yet he nevertheless penetrated more deeply than others who came after him into its hidden motives and measured more accurately its logical and practical consequences. Thus he opposed to the superficial contempt for the past in the name of abstract reason the unfolding of the human mind in history, as sense, imagination, and intellect, as the divine or animal age, the heroic age, and the human age. He held further that no human age was in the wrong, for each had its own strength and beauty,[Pg 270] and each was the effect of its predecessor and the necessary preparation for the one to follow, aristocracy for democracy, democracy for monarchy, each one appearing at the right moment, or as the justice of that moment.

The conception of development did not, however, in the romantic period, remain the thought of a solitary thinker without an audience, but broadened until it became a general conviction; it did not appear timidly shadowed forth, or contradictorily affirmed, but took on body, coherence, and vigour, and dominated spirits. It is the formative principle of the idealist philosophy, which culminated in the system of Hegel. Few there were who resisted its strength, and these, like Herbart, were still shut up in pre-Kantian dogmatism, or tried to resist it and are more or less tinged with it, as is the case with Schopenhauer and yet more with Comte and later with positivistic evolutionism. It gives its intellectual backbone to the whole of historiography (with the exception here too of lingerers and reactionaries), and that historiography corrects for it, in greater or less measure, the same one-sided tendencies which came to it from the sentimental and political causes already described, from tenderness for the near past or for "the good old times," and for the Middle Ages. The whole of history is now understood as necessary development, and is therefore implicitly, and more or less explicitly, all redeemed; it is all learned with the feeling that it is sacred, a feeling reserved in the Middle Ages for those parts of it only which represented the opposition of God to the power of the devil. Thus the conception of development was extended to classical antiquity, and then, with the increase of knowledge and of attention, to Oriental[Pg 271] civilizations. Thus the Romans, the Ionians, the Dorians, the Egyptians, and the Indians got back their life and were justified and loved in their turn almost as much as the world of chivalry and the Christian world had been loved. But the logical extension of the conception did not find any obstacle among the philosophers and historians, even in the repugnance that was felt for the times to which modern times were opposed, such as the eighteenth century. The spectacle was witnessed of the consecration of Jacobinism and of the French Revolution in the very books of their adversaries, Hegel, for instance, finding in those events both the triumph and the death, the one not less than the other, the 'triumphant death' of the modern abstract subjectivity, inaugurated by Descartes. Not only did the adversaries, but also the executioners and their victims, make peace, and Socrates, the martyr of free thought and the victim of intolerance, such as he was understood to be by the intellectualists of the eighteenth century and those who superstitiously repeat them in our own day, was condemned to the death that he had well deserved, in the name of History, which does not admit of spiritual revolutions without tragedies. The drafter, too, of the Manifesto of the Communists, as he was hastening on the business of putting an end to the burgess class, both with his prayers and with his works, gave vent to a warm and grandiose eulogium of the work achieved by the burgess class, and in so doing showed himself to be the faithful child of romantic thought; because, for anyone who held to the ideology of the eighteenth century, capitalism and the burgess class should have appeared to be nothing but distortions due to ignorance, stupidity, and egoism, unworthy of any praise beyond a funeral oration. The passions of the[Pg 272] greater part of those historians were most inflammable, not less than those of the enlightened, yet satire, sarcasm, invective, at least among the superior intellects, vividly encircled the historical understanding of the time, but did not oppress or negate it. The general impression experienced from those narratives is that of a serious effort to render justice to all, and we owe it to the discipline thus imparted to the minds and souls of the thinkers and historians of romanticism that it is only the least cultivated or most fanatical among the priests and Catholics in general who continue to curse Voltaire and the eighteenth century as the work of the devil. In the same way, it is only vulgar democrats and anti-clericals, akin to the former in their anachronism and the rest, who treat the reaction, the restoration, and the Middle Ages with equal grossness. Enlightenment and the Jacobinism connected with it was a religion, as we have shown, and when it died it left behind it survivals or superstitions.

To conceive history as development is to conceive it as history of ideal values, the only ones that have value, and it was for this reason that in the romantic period there was an ever increasing multiplication of those histories which had already increased to so considerable an extent in the preceding period. But their novelty did not consist in their external multiplication, but in their internal maturation, which corrected those previously composed, consisting either of learned collections of disconnected items of information, or judgments indeed, but judgments based upon an external model, which claimed to be constructed by pure reason and was in reality constructed by arbitrary and capricious abstraction and imagination. And now the history of poetry and of literature is no longer measured according[Pg 273] to the standard of the Roman-humanistic ideal, or according to the classical ideal of the age of Louis XIV, or of the ratiocinative and prosaic ideal of the eighteenth century, but discovers by degrees its own measure in itself, and beginning with the first attempts of Herder, of the Schlegels, and then of Villemain, of Sainte-Beuve, and of Gervinus, and for antiquity of Wolf and Müller, finally reaches the high standard represented by the History of Italian Literature of de Sanctis. Suddenly the history of art feels itself embarrassed by the too narrow ideal of Lessing and of Winckelmann, and there is a movement toward colour, toward landscape, toward pre-Hellenic and post-Hellenic art, toward the romantic, the Gothic, the Renaissance, and the baroque, a movement that extends from Meyer and Hirth to Rumohr, Kluger, Schnaase, till it reaches Burckhardt and Ruskin. It also tries here and there to break down the barriers of the schools and to attain the really artistic personality of the artists. The history of philosophy has its great crisis with Hegel, who leads it from the abstract subjectivism of the followers of Kant to objectivity, and recognizes the only true existence of philosophy to consist of the history of thought, considered in its entirety, without neglecting any one of its forms. Zeller, Fischer, and Erdmann in Germany, Cousin and his school in France, Spaventa in Italy, follow Hegel in such objective research. The like takes place in the history of religion, which tries to adopt intrinsic criteria of judgment, after Spittler and Planck, the last representatives of the rationalistic school, with Marheinecke, Neander, Hase, and finds a peculiarly scientific form with Strauss, Baur, and the Tübingen school; and from Eichhorn to Savigny, Gans, and Lassalle in the history of rights. The conception of the State always yields[Pg 274] the leadership more and more to that of the nation in the history called political, and 'nationality' substitutes the names of 'humanity,' 'liberty,' and 'equality,' and all the other ideas of the preceding age that once were full of radiance, but are now dimmed. This nationalism has wrongly been looked upon as a regression, in respect of that universalism and cosmopolitanism, because (notwithstanding its well-known sentimental exaggerations) it notably assists the concrete conception of the universal living only in its historical creations, such as nations, which are both products and factors of its development. And the value of Europeanism is revived as the result of this acquisition of consciousness of the value of nations. It had been too much trampled upon during the period of the enlightenment, owing to the naturalistic spirit which dominated at that time, and to the reaction taking place against the historical schemes of antiquity and Christianity, although it was surely evident that history written by Europeans could not but be 'Europocentric,' and that it is only in relation to the course of Gr?co-Roman civilization, which was Christian and Occidental, that the civilizations developed along other lines become actual and comprehensible to us, provided always that we do not wish to change history into an exhibition of the different types of civilization, with a prize for the best of them The difference is also made clear for the same reason between history and pre-history, between the history of man and the history of nature, which had been illegitimately linked by the materialists and the naturalists. This is to be found even in the works of Herder, who retains a good many of the elements of the century of his birth mingled with those of the new period. But it is above all in romantic historiography that we observe[Pg 275] the search for and very often the happy realization of an organic linking together of all particular histories of spiritual values, by relating religious, philosophical, poetical, artistic, juridical, and moral facts as a function of a single motive of development. It then becomes a commonplace that a literature cannot be understood without understanding ideas and customs, or politics without philosophy, or (as was realized rather later) rights and customs and ideas without economy. And it is worth while recording as we pass by that there is hardly one of these histories of values which has not been previously presented or sketched by Vico, together with the indication of their intrinsic unity. Histories of poetry, histories of myth, of rights, of languages, of constitutions, of explicative or philosophical reason, all are in Vico, although sometimes wrapped up in the historical or sociological epoch with which each one of them was particularly connected. Even modern biography (which illustrates what the individual does and suffers in relation to the mission which he fulfils and to the aspect of the Idea which becomes actual in him) has its first or one of its first notable monuments in the autobiography of Vico—that is to say, in the history of the works which Providence commanded and guided him to accomplish "in diverse ways that seemed to be obstacles, but were opportunities."

This transformation of biography does not imply failure to recognize individuality, but is, on the contrary, its elevation, for it finds its true meaning in its relation with the universal, as the universal its concreteness in the individual. And indeed individualizing power, perception of physiognomies, of states of the soul, of the various forms of the ideas, sense of the differences of times and places, may be said to show themselves[Pg 276] for the first time in romantic historiography. That is to say, they do not show themselves rarely or as by accident, nor any longer in the negative and summary form of opposition between new and old, civil and barbarous, patriotic and extraneous. It does not mean anything that some of those............
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