Characteristics of the Present Age/Lecture 9


The Scientific constitution of the Third Age has been sufficiently described in our former lectures, partly in itself, and partly by means of antecedent and succeeding conditions. The remaining characteristics and peculiarities of any Age depend upon its Social condition, and especially upon the State, and are to be defined thereby. Therefore we cannot proceed with our delineation of the Third Age, until we have seen to what stage of its development the State has attained in this Age,—of course in the countries of the highest Culture,—to what extent the Absolute Idea of the State is therein expressed and realized, and how far it is not.

In none of the relations of Humanity does our Race possess less real liberty, and in none is it more hindered and obstructed, than in the constitution of the State, which being chiefly determined by the common condition of mankind, checks the activity of men of the highest wisdom, and sets limits to the realization of their plans. The political constitution of an Age is therefore the result of its earlier fortunes, whereby its present condition has been determined, which in turn determines its constitution;—hence this constitution cannot be understood in the way in which we shall endeavour here to understand that of our own Age except through the History of the Age. But here we meet with a new difficulty,—this, namely:—our Age is far from being at one with itself in its view of History, and still farther from agreement with that view which we, who are guided by Reason as Knowledge, take of History, which view it cannot even understand. It is therefore unavoidably necessary that we should, in the first place, set forth our own view in a general way, and justify it, before making those applications of it which are afterwards to occupy our attention;—and to this purpose we shall devote our present lecture.

It is so much the more incumbent upon us to enter upon this exposition, inasmuch as History is itself a part of Knowledge, and ranks with Physics as the second department of Empiricism; and we have already expressed ourselves distinctly on the nature of these Sciences, while we have given only a passing glance to History. In this respect our present lecture still belongs to that part of our undertaking which comprises a picture of Scientific existence in general;—closing that division of our plan, and opening up a passage to a new portion of it.

Not by any means with the view of leading your judgment captive beforehand, but, on the contrary, that I may incite you to its more vigorous exercise, I have to intimate, that I shall here give utterance to nothing but what, in my opinion, must become evident to you at once by its own immediate clearness;—of which there may be ignorance, but with respect to which, when once announced, there can be no dispute.

I begin my definition of the nature of History with a metaphysical principle, the strict proof of which I am prevented from adducing solely by the popular nature of our present discourses, but which recommends itself directly to the natural sense of Truth in man, and without the adoption of which we could arrive at no firm foundation in the whole field of Knowledge;—with this principle, namely:—Whatever actually exists, exists of absolute necessity; and necessarily exists in the precise form in which it does exist; it is impossible that it should not exist, or exist otherwise than as it does. Hence, to whatever possesses real existence we cannot attribute any beginning, any mutability, or any arbitrary cause. The One, True, and Absolutely Self-Existent Being, is that which all voices call by the name,—God. The Existence of God is not the mere foundation, cause, or anything else of Knowledge, so that the two could be separated from each other; but it is absolutely Knowledge itself: His Existence and Knowledge are absolutely one and the same thing; He exists in Knowledge, precisely as He exists in His own Being, as absolute self-sufficient Power; and thus when we say—‘His Existence is absolute,’ and—‘Knowledge has absolute Existence,’—the meaning is exactly the same. This principle, which is here announced merely in the form of a result, may be made thoroughly clear in the higher walks of Speculation. But further:—a World has no Existence but in Knowledge, and Knowledge itself is the World; and thus the World, by means of Knowledge, is the Divine Existence in its mediate or indirect manifestation; while Knowledge itself is the same Divine Existence in its direct or immediate manifestation. If therefore any one should say that the World might also not exist; that at one time it actually did not exist; that at another time it arose out of nothing; that it came into existence by an arbitrary act of God, which act He might have left undone had He so pleased;—it is just the same as if he should say, that God might also not exist; that at one time He actually did not exist; that at another time He came into existence out of non-existence, and determined Himself to be by an arbitrary act of will, which He might have left undone had He so pleased. This Being, then, of whom we now speak, is the Absolute Being, transcending all Time; and whatever is comprehended in this Idea is only to be perceived a priori in the world of Pure Thought, and is invariable and unchangeable throughout all Ages.

Knowledge is, as we have said, the manifestation, utterance, and perfect representative of Divine Power. It exists therefore for itself; i.e. Knowledge becomes Self-Consciousness;—and in this Self-Consciousness it is its own peculiar, self-sustaining power, freedom, and activity because it is a manifestation of Divine Power;—and it is all this as Knowledge constantly developing itself throughout Eternity to higher inward purity, by means of its action upon a certain Object of Knowledge, from which this progress takes its beginning. This Object manifests itself as a definite something which might have been different from what it is; for this reason,—that it exists and is yet not understood in its primitive origin; and Knowledge has throughout Eternity to unfold its own inward power in the comprehension of this Object;—and in this progressive development we have the origin of Time.

This Object of Knowledge comes into view only in consequence of the previous existence of Knowledge, and thus lies within the limits of that existence as already set forth; it is therefore an Object of mere perception, and can only be understood empirically. It is the one, persistent, and abiding Object, towards the comprehension of which Knowledge must strive throughout Eternity: in this abiding and objective unity it is called Nature; and the Empiricism which is systematically directed upon it is called Physics. On this Object, Knowledge unfolds itself in a continuous succession of Eras; and the Empiricism which is systematically directed upon the fulfilment of this succession of Eras is called History. Its object is the development of Knowledge on the Unknown;—a development which at all times remains unexhausted.

Thus the Being and Existence which lies beyond all Time is in no way contingent; and no theory of its origin can be given either by the Philosopher or by the Historian:—the Actual Existence in Time, on the contrary, appears as if it might have been otherwise, and therefore as contingent; but this appearance of contingency arises only from our ignorance; and the Philosopher may say, generally, that the Unknown, as well as the infinite steps towards its comprehension, exists as it does exist, only that it may be so conceived of; but he cannot, by means of such a series of conceptions, at all define the Unknown, or deduce it from its primitive elements, as in that case he must have comprehended Infinity itself, which is absolutely impossible. Here therefore is his limit; and should he wish to acquire knowledge in this department, he is thus plainly directed to Empiricism for it. Just as little can the Historian set forth this Unknown, in his genesis, as the origin of Time. His business is to point out the successive modifications of actual Empirical Existence. He must therefore assume beforehand this Empirical Existence itself, and all its possible conditions. What these conditions of Empirical Existence are, and thus, what is presupposed in the mere possibility of History, and must be first of all before History can even find a beginning;—this is the business of the Philosopher, who has, in the first place, to secure a firm foundation and starting-point for the Historian. To speak quite popularly on this point;—Has man been created?—then he could not have been present, at least with consciousness, at that event, or have been able to observe how he passed over from non-existence into existence; nor can he relate it as a fact to posterity. But, it is said, the Creator has revealed it to him. I answer:—In that case the Creator would have abolished the Unknown whereon the existence of man himself depends; He would thus have destroyed man again immediately after his creation; and, as the existence of the world and of man is inseparable from the Divine Existence itself, He would at the same time have destroyed Himself;—which is entirely opposed to Reason.

As to the origin of the world and of the Human Race, then, neither the Philosopher nor the Historian has anything to say; for there is absolutely no such origin: there is only the One Necessary Being, raised above all Time. As to the necessary conditions of Actual Existence which lie beyond all Actual Existence itself, and therefore beyond Empiricism;—of them the Philosopher has to give an account; and should the Historian in his early researches touch upon such themes, he must distinctly understand that they belong not to the province of History, but to that of Philosophy,—it may be in the old simple form of narrative, in which form it is called Myth; and he must here acknowledge the jurisdiction of Reason, which in matters of Philosophy is the only judge, and not endeavour to sway us by the imposing word Fact. The fact,—often most fruitful and instructive,—is here simply that such a Myth has been.

Having thus fixed the boundaries which separate Philosophy and History, I shall now proceed, in the next place, to define generally the conditions of Empirical Existence which are presupposed in the possibility of History.

Knowledge necessarily divides itself in consciousness, into a consciousness of many individuals and persons:—a division which is strictly deduced from its first principle in the Higher Philosophy. As surely as Knowledge exists,—and this is as sure as that God exists, for it is His Existence itself,—so surely does Humanity also exist, and that in the form of a Human Race consisting of many individual members; and since the condition of the social life of men is intercourse by means of speech, this Human Race is also provided with the implement of Language. No History, therefore, should undertake to explain the origin of the Human Race in general, nor of its social life, nor of its language. Further, it is a part of the essential vocation of Humanity that in this, its first life on Earth, it should train itself up with freedom to become an outward manifestation of Reason. But out of nothing, nothing can arise; and thus Unreason can never become Reason. Hence, in one point of its existence, at least, the Human Race must have been purely Reasonable in its primitive form, without either constraint or freedom. In one point of its existence, at least, I say; for the true purpose of its existence does not consist in being Reasonable, but in becoming Reasonable by its own freedom; and the former is only the means and the indispensable condition of the latter: we are therefore entitled to no more extensive conclusion than that the condition of Absolute Reasonableness must have been somewhere extant. From this conclusion we are forced to admit the existence of an original Normal People, who by the mere fact of their existence, without Science or Art, found themselves in a state of perfectly developed Reason. But there is nothing to hinder us from also admitting that there lived at the same time dispersed over the whole earth, timid and rude Earth born Savages without any Culture but what was necessary for the preservation of their mere sensuous existence;—for the purpose of the life of the Human Race is only to cultivate itself according to Reason, and it would be quite practicable to carry out this process among the Earth born Savages by means of the Normal People.

As an immediate consequence of this position, no History should attempt to explain the origin of Culture in general, nor the Population of the different regions of the Earth. The laboured hypotheses, especially on the last point, which are accumulated in books of travels, are, in our opinion, trouble and labour lost. But there is nothing from which History, as well as a certain half-philosophy, should more carefully guard itself than the altogether irrational and fruitless attempt to raise Unreason to Reason by a gradual lessening of its degree; and, given only a sufficient range of centuries, to produce at last a Leibnitz or a Kant as the descendant of an Ourang-Outang.

History takes cognisance only of the New,—the Wonderful;—that which may be contrasted with what has gone before, and what shall follow it. On this account there was no History among the Normal People, and there is no History of them. Under the guidance of their Instinct, one day passed away like another; and one individual life like all the rest. Everything shaped itself spontaneously according to order and morality. There could even be no Science or Art; Religion alone adorned their existence, and gave the simple uninformed mind a relation to the Eternal. As little could there be a History among the Earth born Savages; for with them, likewise, one day passed away like another,—with only this difference, that on one day they found food in abundance while on another they could obtain nothing; prostrated the one day from indulgence and on the next from enervation;—to awaken again, in either case, to the same unchanging round which led to no result.

Had things remained in this state; had the absolute Culture,—which however did not look upon itself as Culture but only as Nature,—remained separate from the surrounding Barbarism, then no History could have arisen; and, what is still more important, the end of the existence of the Human Race could not have been attained. The Normal People must therefore, by some occurrence or other, have been driven away from their habitations, all access to which was thenceforth cut off; and must have been dispersed over the seats of Barbarism. Now for the first time could the process of the free development of the Human Race begin; and with it, History,—the record of the Unexpected and the New,—which accompanies such a process. For now, for the first time, the dispersed descendants of the Normal People perceived with astonishment that all things were not, of necessity, such as they were with them; but might be otherwise having indeed discovered them to be otherwise in reality; and the Earth-born, after they had been awakened to conscious intelligence, had a great deal even more wonderful to record. In this conflict of Culture with Barbarism, the germs of all Ideas and all Science,—except Religion, which is as old as the world itself, and is inseparable from the existence of the world,—unfolded themselves, as the power and means of leading Barbarism to Culture.

Far from History being able reasonably to raise her voice on the subject of her own birth, all that has now been set forth is presupposed in the mere existence of History. Inferences from a state of things amid which it has had its beginning, as to what has preceded that state, especially inferences from the Myths which are already in actual existence, and in so far have themselves become facts,—particularly when such inferences are in accordance with Logic,—should be thankfully accepted. But let us bear in mind that they are inferences and not History;—and should we desire to examine more closely the form of the inference, let us not be scared back by the bugbear—Fact. Let this be our first incidental observation; and let the second be as follows:—Every one who is capable of a survey of History as a whole,—which however is always rarer than a knowledge of its individual curiosities; and who in particular is able to comprehend what is universal, eternal, and unchanging in it, might in such a survey obtain a clear view of some of the most important problems of History;—for example, how the existence of races of men, differing so much from each other in colour and physical structure, is possible;—why it is that at all times, down even to the present day, civilization is always spread by means of foreign incomers, who encounter aboriginal inhabitants in a state of greater or lesser Barbarism;—whence arises the inequality among men discoverable wherever History has a beginning;—and so forth.

All that we have now set forth are necessary conditions of the existence of a Human Race;—the latter, however, must absolutely be, and hence the former must have been;—so far Philosophy informs us. Now all this is not merely a general supposition, but these things must further have had a definite existence;—for example, with regard to what we have said above,—the existence of the Normal People is not a mere general supposition, but they must have existed in one particular region of the earth and in no other; although, so far as appears to us, they might have existed elsewhere; they had a language, which of course was constituted according to the fundamental laws of all language, but which possessed besides an element which appears to us as if it might have been otherwise, and therefore as an arbitrary element. Here Philosophy is at an end, because the Comprehensible is at an end; and what is Incomprehensible in the present life begins. Here accordingly Empiricism enters the field, which in this connexion is named History;—and the subordinate phenomena, which only in their general nature can be deduced from a priori principles, would now present themselves in their special and particular character as facts, without any explanation of their genesis, if they were not necessarily concealed from the view of History by other causes.

This much, however, follows from what has now been said:—History is mere Empiricism; it has only facts to communicate, and all its proofs are founded upon facts alone. To attempt to rise from such facts to Primeval History, or to argue how such or such a thing might have been, and then to take for granted that it has been so in reality,—is to stray beyond the limits of History, and produce an a priori History; just as the Philosophy of Nature, referred to in our preceding lecture, endeavoured to find an a priori Science of Physics.

The evidence of facts proceeds in the following manner: First of all, there is a fact which has come down to our own time,—which may be seen with our eyes, heard with our ears, and felt with our hands. This can be understood only on the supposition of an earlier fact no longer perceptible to us. Hence such an earlier fact is admitted as having been once perceptible. This rule, that we can accept as proved only so much of the earlier fact as is absolutely necessary for the comprehension of the now-existing fact, is to be taken strictly; for it is only to the Understanding, and by no means to the Imagination, that we can concede any value in historical evidence. Why then should we attempt to educe and define the earlier fact further than is absolutely requisite for the explanation of the present? In all Sciences, and particularly in History, it is of greater importance to understand distinctly how much we do not know than to fill up the void with fiction and conjecture. For example, I read a work which is said to be Cicero’s, and till now has been universally acknowledged to be his:—this is the fact of the Present. The earlier fact to be detected herein is this:—Whether the particular Cicero who is distinctly known to us by means of other history did actually write this work. I go through the whole series of evidence lying in the interval of time between me and Cicero; but I know that herein error and illusion are possible, and this external proof of authenticity is not in itself decisive. I turn therefore to the internal characteristics: Is it the style, the mode of thinking of a man who lived at that time, who filled such a station in society, and was surrounded by such circumstances? Suppose I find these things so, then the evidence is complete:—it is not possible to conceive that this book, as it now exists, could have existed if Cicero had not written it: he was the only man who could write it thus; therefore he has written it.

Another instance:—I read the first chapters of the so-called first book of Moses, and, as must be presupposed, I understand them. Whether it was Moses who composed them; or,—since this, from internal evidence, may be obviously impossible,—whether it was he who collected them from mere verbal tradition and placed them on record; or whether it was Ezra, or some still later writer; is of no importance to me here:—it is even of no importance to me in this case whether any such person as Moses or Ezra ever lived; nor do I care to know how this composition has been preserved;—fortunately it has been preserved, and this is the main point. I perceive by its contents that it is a Myth concerning the Normal People in opposition to another merely Earth born People; and concerning the religion of the Normal People and their dispersion; and of the origin of the Jehovah-Worship, among the adherents of which the primitive religion of the Normal People was once more to re-appear, and through them to be spread over the whole world. I conclude from the contents of this Myth that it must be older than all History, since from the commencement of the historic period down to the time of Jesus there was none able even to understand much less to invent it; and also because I find the same Myth everywhere repeated as the mythical beginning of the History of all nations;—although in a more fabulous and sensuous form. The existence of this Myth, before all other History, is the first fact of History, and its true beginning; and therefore it cannot be explained by means of any previous fact:—the contents of this Myth are thus not History but Philosophy, and a belief in it is no further obligatory on any one than as it is confirmed by his own investigations.

We have said before, that if the true end of the Existence of the Human Race was to be attained it was necessary that the Normal People should be dispersed over the seats of Barbarism: and now, for the first time, there occurred something new and remarkable, which aroused the memory of Man for its preservation;—now, for the first time, could History, properly so called, have a beginning; for it can do no more than collect in the shape of facts, and by means of mere Empiricism, that gradual civilization of the Actual Human Race of History which is produced by the admixture of the original Culture with the original Barbarism. In this province, for the first time, the historical Art, the fundamental principle of which we have stated above, comes into play for the discovery and collection of facts; and to enable us to comprehend clearly and completely the actual condition of the Present Time, particularly in so far as it may lead us to the discovery of previous facts, as well as to perceive distinctly under the condition of what earlier facts alone the present can be understood. It is here particularly necessary to dismiss altogether the delusive notion of probability which, taking its rise in a feeble Philosophy, has thence spread over every other science, and especially has found a secure refuge in History. The Probable, because it is only probable, is for that very reason not true;—and why should we concede any place whatever in Science to the untrue? Strictly speaking, the Probable is what would be true if such and such principles, evidences, and facts which are awanting, could be produced. If we are of opinion that these absent proofs may be recovered, perhaps by the discovery of lost documents, or the digging up of hidden volumes, we may then properly enough note down these probabilities, so that their substance may not be lost, distinguishing them by this mark,—mere probabilities, accompanied with a notice of what is requisite to establish their truth; but we must by no means fill up the gap between them and Truth by our own too easy belief, and by the desire to prove an hypothesis which we, as Historians, choose to advance a priori.

The History of this gradual Culture of the Human Race, as History properly so called, is again made up of two intimately connected elements; one a priori, and the other a posteriori. The a priori is the World-Plan, the general features of which we have set forth in our first lecture, conducting Humanity through the Five Epochs already enumerated. Without historical information at all the Thinker may know that these Epochs, as we have described them, must succeed each other, and may also be able, in the same way, to characterize generally such of them as have not yet taken their place in History as facts. Now this development of the Human Race does not take place at once, as the philosopher pictures it to himself in thought, but, disturbed by foreign powers, it takes place gradually, at different times, in different places, and under particular circumstances. These conditions do not by any means arise from the Idea of the World-Plan, but are unknown to it; and since there is no other Idea of a World-Plan, they are an Absolute Unknown to Philosophy: and here begins the pure Empiricism of History;—its a posteriori element;—History in its own proper form.

The Philosopher who in his capacity of Philosopher meddles with History follows the a priori course of the World-Plan, which is clear to him without the aid of History at all; and the use which he makes of History is not to prove anything by it, for his principles are already proved independently of History; but only to illustrate and make good in the actual world of History, that which is already understood without its aid. Throughout the whole course of events, therefore, he selects only the instances in which Humanity really advances towards the true end of its being, and appeals only to these instances,—laying aside and rejecting everything else; and as he does not intend to prove historically that Humanity has to pursue this course, having already proved it philosophically, he only points out, for the purposes of illustration, the occasions on which this has been visible in History. The mere Collector of Facts indeed proceeds, and ought to proceed, quite differently. But his business is not to be despised on account of its opposition to Philosophy;—it is, on the contrary, highly honourable if properly pursued. He has absolutely no support, no guide, no fixed point, except the mere outward succession of years and centuries, wholly irrespective of their significance; and it is his business to declare all that can be discovered historically in any of these Epochs of Time. He is an Annalist. Does anything of this kind escape him?—then he has transgressed the rules of his art, and must endure the reproach of ignorance or carelessness. Now in each of these Epochs,—which he distinguishes only by their succession in Time, but not by means of their essential nature,—there lie, as only the Philosopher can tell him, or the Annalist himself if he be a Philosopher may know, the most diverse elements in immediate contact and intermixture;—the remnants of original Barbarism, or of an original Culture which has passed away without communication; remnants or else foreshadowings of all the other four Epochs of Culture;—and finally the actually living and progressive Culture itself. The merely empirical Historian has to collect faithfully all these elements just as he finds them, and to place them in order beside each other: the Philosopher who uses History for the purpose which we have here in view, has only to do with the latter element,—the actually living and progressive movement of Culture,—laying aside all the rest; and thus the empirical Historian, who should judge him according to the rules of his own art, and conclude that he was ignorant of that which he had no occasion to produce, would be at fault, for it is specially to be expected of the Philosopher that he should not bring forward on every occasion all that he knows, but only so much as bears upon the purpose in view. To make the distinction clear at once:—the Philosopher employs History only so far as it serves his purpose, laying aside everything of which he can make no use; and I announce freely, that in the following inquiry I shall employ it in this way. Such a proceeding, which would be highly culpable in the mere empirical study of History, and would indeed subvert the very nature of this science, is quite justifiable in the Philosopher; for he has already, independently of all History, proved the principles for the illustration of which he makes use of History. He should indeed deserve blame did he assert as fact that which had never taken place; but he relies upon the results of historical inquiry, of which results he employs only the most general; and it would be a great misfortune to historical inquiry itself, if so much as this were not clearly established;—but he deserves no blame if he is merely silent with respect to some things which may nevertheless have taken place. He endeavours to understand the true significance and meaning of such historical events as are of universal importance; and with regard to them he calls to mind only the fact of their occurrence;—the manner in which they took place, which doubtless implies many other facts, he leaves to the empirical Historian. Should he find that, with his perhaps limited knowledge of historical details, he may yet be able to understand and explain a fact in its connexion with the whole World-Plan much better than he who possesses a more extensive acquaintance with such details, he need not be surprised at this, for only on this account is he a Philosopher. In short, it is Necessity which guides our Race,—not by any means a mere blind Necessity, but the living, conscious, and intelligent Necessity of the Divine Life; and only after we have come under this gentle leading can we be truly free, and interpenetrated with Life; for beyond this there is nothing but Illusion and Unreality. Nothing is as it is, because God wills it so arbitrarily, but because He cannot manifest Himself otherwise than as he does. To acknowledge this guidance, humbly to acquiesce therein, and in the consciousness of this identity with the Divine Power to attain true Blessedness, is the business of all men; to comprehend in clear intelligence what is Universal, Absolute, Eternal, and Unchangeable in this leading of the Human Race, is the business of the Philosopher; to set forth the Actual Phenomena of the inconstant and ever-changing spheres over which with steadfast course it holds its way, is the business of the Historian;—whose discoveries are only incidentally employed by the former.

It is of course to be understood that the use which we have partly made of History already, and partly still intend to make of it, can be no other than this its philosophical use, and cannot be looked at otherwise than as we have described it to-day,—I trust clearly and distinctly. Our next task shall be to show how the Idea of the State according to Reason gradually became realized among men, and at what point of this development of the Absolute State our own Age stands. In order to confine ourselves very carefully within the boundaries of our own Science, and not to give any cause on our part for reviving the old dispute between Philosophy and History, we shall not even give out that which we have to state on this subject as ascertained historical data, but only as hypotheses and distinct questions for History, leaving it to the Historian to bring them to the test of facts, and to inquire how far they are confirmed thereby. Should our views prove merely new and interesting, they may still give rise to inquiries from which at least something also new and interesting may come forth, if not exactly that which was hoped for;—and so our trouble shall not be wholly lost. Restricting ourselves to this modest desire, we hope that we shall not lose the countenance even of the Historian.