Points of friction/Living in History


Living in History


WHEN Mr. Bagehot spoke his luminous words about "a fatigued way of looking at great subjects," he gave us the key to a mental attitude which perhaps is not the modern thing it seems. There were, no doubt, Greeks and Romans in plenty to whom the "glory" and the "grandeur" of Greece and Rome were less exhilarating than they were to Edgar Poe,—Greeks and Romans who were spiritually palsied by the great emotions which presumably accompany great events. They may have been philosophers, or humanitarians, or academists. They may have been conscientious objectors, or conscienceless shirkers, or perhaps plain men and women with a natural gift of indecision, a natural taste for compromise and awaiting developments. In the absence of newspapers and pamphlets, these peaceful pagans were compelled to express their sense of fatigue to their neighbours at the games or in the market-place; and their neighbours—if well chosen—sighed with them over the intensity of life, the formidable happenings of history.

Since August, 1914, the turmoil and anguish incidental to the world's greatest war have accentuated every human type,—heroic, base, keen, and evasive. The strain of five years' fighting was borne with astounding fortitude, and Allied statesmen and publicists saw to it that the clear outline of events should not be blurred by ignorance or misrepresentation. If history in the making be a fluid thing, it swiftly crystallizes. Men, "living between two eternities, and warring against oblivion," make their indelible record on its pages; and other men receive these pages as their best inheritance, their avenue to understanding, their key to life.

Therefore it is unwise to gibe at history because we do not chance to know it. It pleases us to gibe at anything we do not know, but the process is not enlightening. In the second year of the war, the English "Nation" commented approvingly on the words of an English novelist who strove to make clear that the only things which count for any of us, individually or collectively, are the unrecorded minutiæ of our lives. "History," said this purveyor of fiction, "is concerned with the rather absurd and theatrical doings of a few people, which, after all, have never altered the fact that we do all of us live on from day to day, and only want to be let alone."

"These words," observed the "Nation" heavily, "have a singular truth and force at the present time. The people of Europe want to go on living, not to be destroyed. To live is to pursue the activities proper to one's nature, to be unhindered and unthwarted in their exercise. It is not too much to say that the life of Europe is something which has persisted in spite of the history of Europe. There is nothing happy or fruitful anywhere but witnesses to the triumph of life over history."

Presuming that we are able to disentangle life from history, to sever the inseverable, is this a true statement, or merely the expression of mental and spiritual fatigue? Were the great historic episodes invariably fruitless, and had they no bearing upon the lives of ordinary men and women? The battles of Marathon and Thermopylæ, the signing of the Magna Charta, the Triple Alliance, the Declaration of Independence, the birth of the National Assembly, the first Reform Bill, the recognition in Turin of the United Kingdom of Italy,—these things may have been theatrical, inasmuch as they were certainly dramatic, but absurd is not a wise word to apply to them. Neither is it possible to believe that the life of Europe went on in spite of these historic incidents, triumphing over them as over so many obstacles to activity.

When the "Nation" contrasts the beneficent companies of strolling players who "represented and interpreted the world of life, the one thing which matters and remains," with the companies of soldiers who merely destroyed life at its roots, we cannot but feel that this editorial point of view has its limitations. The strolling players of Elizabeth's day afforded many a merry hour; but Elizabeth's soldiers and sailors did their part in making possible this mirth. The strolling players who came to the old Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia interpreted "the world of life," as they understood it; but the soldiers who froze at Valley Forge offered a different interpretation, and one which had considerably more stamina. The magnifying of small things, the belittling of great ones, indicate a mental exhaustion which would be more pardonable if it were less complacent. There are always men and women who prefer the triumph of evil, which is a thing they can forget, to prolonged resistance, which shatters their nerves. But the desire to escape an obligation, while very human, is not generally thought to be humanity's noblest lesson.

Many smart things have been written to discredit history. Mr. Arnold called it "the vast Mississippi of falsehood," which was easily said, and has been said in a number of ways since the days of Herodotus, who amply illustrated the splendours of unreality. Mr. Edward Fitzgerald was wont to sigh that only lying histories are readable, and this point of view has many secret adherents. Mr. Henry Adams, who taught history for seven years at Harvard, and who built his intellectual dwelling-place upon its firm foundations, pronounced it to be "in essence incoherent and immoral." Nevertheless, all that we know of man's unending efforts to adjust and readjust himself to the world about him we learn from history, and the tale is an enlightening one. "Events are wonderful things," said Lord Beaconsfield. Nothing, for example, can blot out, or obscure, the event of the French Revolution. We are free to discuss it until the end of time; but we can never alter it, and never get away from its consequences.

The lively contempt for history expressed by readers who would escape its weight, and the neglect of history practised by educators who would escape its authority, stand responsible for much mental confusion. American boys and girls go to school six, eight, or ten years, as the case may be, and emerge with a misunderstanding of their own country, and a comprehensive ignorance of all others. They say, "I don't know any history," as casually and as unconcernedly as they might say, "I don't know any chemistry," or "I don't know metaphysics." A smiling young freshman in the most scholarly of women's colleges told me that she had been conditioned because she knew nothing about the Reformation.

"You mean,—" I began questioningly.

"I mean just what I say," she interrupted. "I didn't know what it was, or where it was, or who had anything to do with it."

I said I didn't wonder she had come to grief. The Reformation was something of an episode. And I asked myself wistfully how it happened she had ever managed to escape it. When I was a little schoolgirl, a pious Roman Catholic child with a distaste for polemics, it seemed to me I was never done studying about the Reformation. If I escaped briefly from Wycliffe and Cranmer and Knox, it was only to be met by Luther and Calvin and Huss. Everywhere the great struggle confronted me, everywhere I was brought face to face with the inexorable logic of events. That more advanced and more intelligent students find pleasure in every phase of ecclesiastical strife is proved by Lord Broughton's pleasant story about a member of Parliament named Joliffe, who was sitting in his club, reading Hume's "History of England," a book which well deserves to be called dry. Charles Fox, glancing over his shoulder, observed, "I see you have come to the imprisonment of the seven bishops"; whereupon Joliffe, like a man engrossed in a thrilling detective story, cried desperately, "For God's sake, Fox, don't tell me what is coming!"

This was reading for human delight, for the interest and agitation which are inseparable from every human document. Mr. Henry James once told me that the only reading of which he never tired was history. "The least significant footnote of history," he said, "stirs me more than the most thrilling and passionate fiction. Nothing that has ever happened to the world finds me indifferent." I used to think that ignorance of history meant only a lack of cultivation and a loss of pleasure. Now I am sure that such ignorance impairs our judgment by impairing our understanding, by depriving us of standards, of the power to contrast, and the right to estimate. We can know nothing of any nation unless we know its history; and we can know nothing of the history of any nation unless we know something of the history of all nations. The book of the world is full of knowledge we need to acquire, of lessons we need to learn, of wisdom we need to assimilate. Consider only this brief sentence of Polybius, quoted by Plutarch: "In Carthage no one is blamed, however he may have gained his wealth." A pleasant place, no doubt, for business enterprise; a place where young men were taught how to get on, and extravagance kept pace with shrewd finance. A self-satisfied, self-confident, money-getting, money-loving people, honouring success, and hugging their fancied security, while in far-off Rome Cato pronounced their doom.

There are readers who can tolerate and even enjoy history, provided it is shorn of its high lights and heavy shadows, its heroic elements and strong impelling motives. They turn with relief to such calm commentators as Sir John Seeley, for years professor of modern history at Cambridge, who shrank as sensitively as an eighteenth-century divine from that fell word "enthusiasm," and from all the agitation it gathers in its wake. He was a firm upholder of the British Empire, hating compromise and guiltless of pacifism; but, having a natural gift for aridity, he saw no reason why the world should not be content to know things without feeling them, should not keep its eyes turned to legal institutions, its mind fixed upon political economy and international law. The force that lay back of Parliament annoyed him by the simple primitive way in which it beat drums, fired guns, and died to uphold the institutions which he prized; also because by doing these things it evoked in others certain simple and primitive sensations which he strove always to keep at bay. "We are rather disposed to laugh," he said, "when poets and orators try to conjure us with the name of England." Had he lived a few years longer, he would have known that England's salvation lies in the fact that her name is, to her sons, a thing to conjure by. We may not wisely ignore the value of emotions, nor underestimate the power of the human impulses which charge the souls of men.

The long years of neutrality engendered in the minds of Americans a natural but ignoble weariness. The war was not our war, yet there was no escaping from it. By day and night it haunted us, a ghost that would not be laid. Over and over again we were told that it was not possible to place the burden of blame on any nation's shoulders. Once at least we were told that the causes and objects of the contest, the obscure fountains from which had burst this stupendous and desolating flood, were no concern of ours. But this proffered release from serious thinking brought us scant peace of mind. Every honest man and woman knew that we had no intellectual right to be ignorant when information lay at our hand, and no spiritual right to be unconcerned when great moral issues were at stake. We could not in either case evade the duty we owed to reason. The Vatican Library would not hold the books that have been written about the war; but the famous five-foot shelf would be too roomy for the evidence in the case, the documents which are the foundation of knowledge. They, at least, are neither too profuse for our patience, nor too complex for our understanding. "The inquiry into the truth or falsehood of a matter of history," said Huxley, "is just as much an affair of pure science as is the inquiry into the truth or falsehood of a matter of geology; and the value of the evidence in the two cases must be tested in the same way."

The resentment of American pacifists, who, being more human than they thought themselves, were no better able than the rest of us to forget the state of Europe, found expression in petulant complaints. They kept reminding us at inopportune moments that war is not the important and heroic thing it is assumed to be. They asked that, if it is to figure in history at all (which seems, on the whole, inevitable), the truth should be told, and its brutalities, as well as its heroisms, exposed. They professed a languid amusement at the "rainbow of official documents" which proved every nation in the right. They inveighed bitterly against the "false patriotism" taught by American schoolbooks, with their absurd emphasis on the "embattled farmers" of the Revolution, and the volunteers of the Civil War. They assured us, in and out of season, that a doctor who came to his death looking after poor patients in an epidemic was as much of a hero as any soldier whose grave is yearly decorated with flowers.

All this was the clearest possible exposition of the lassitude induced in faint-hearted men by the pressure of great events. It was the wail of people who wanted, as the "Nation" feelingly expressed it, to be let alone, and who could not shut themselves away from the world's great tragedy. None of us are prepared to say that a doctor and a nurse who perform their perilous duties in an epidemic are not as heroic as a doctor and a nurse who perform their perilous duties in war. There is glory enough to go around. Only he that loveth his life shall lose it. But to put a flower on a soldier's grave is a not too exuberant recognition of his service, for he, too, in his humble way made the great sacrifice.

As for the brutalities of war, who can charge that history smooths them over? Certain horrors may be withheld from children, whose privilege it is to be spared the knowledge of uttermost depravity; but to the adult no such mercy is shown. Motley, for example, describes cruelties committed three hundred and fifty years ago in the Netherlands, which equal, if they do not surpass, the cruelties committed six years ago in Belgium. Men heard such tales more calmly then than now, and seldom sought the coward's refuge—incredulity. The Dutch, like other nations, did better things than fight. They painted glorious pictures, they bred great statesmen and good doctors. They traded with extraordinary success. They raised the most beautiful tulips in the world. But to do these things peacefully and efficiently, they had been compelled to struggle for their national existence. The East India trade and the freedom of the seas did not drop into their laps. And because their security, and the comeliness of life which they so highly prized, had been bought by stubborn resistance to tyranny, they added to material well-being the "luxury of self-respect."

To overestimate the part played by war in a nation's development is as crude as to ignore its alternate menace and support. It is with the help of history that we balance our mental accounts. Voltaire was disposed to think that battles and treaties were matters of small moment; and Mr. John Richard Green pleaded, not unreasonably, that more space should be given in our chronicles to the missionary, the poet, the painter, the merchant, and the philosopher. They are not, and they never have been, excluded from any narrative comprehensive enough to admit them; but the scope of their authority is not always sufficiently defined. Man, as the representative of his age, and the events in which he plays his vigorous part,—these are the warp and woof of history. We can no more leave John Wesley or Ignatius Loyola out of the canvas than we can leave out Marlborough or Pitt. We know now that the philosophy of Nietzsche is one with Bernhardi's militarism.

As for the merchant,—Froissart was as well aware of his prestige as was Mr. Green. "Trade, my lord," said Dinde Desponde, the great Lombard banker, to the Duke of Burgundy, "finds its way everywhere, and rules the world." As for commercial honour,—a thing as fine as the honour of the aristocrat or of the soldier,—what can be better for England than to know that after the great fire of 1666 not a single London shopkeeper evaded his liabilities; and that this fact was long the boast of a city proud of its shopkeeping? As for jurisprudence,—Sully was infinitely more concerned with it than he was with combat or controversy. It is with stern satisfaction that he recounts the statutes passed in his day for the punishment of fraudulent bankrupts, whom we treat so leniently; for the annulment of their gifts and assignments, which we guard so zealously; and for the conviction of those to whom such property had been assigned. It was almost as dangerous to steal on a large scale as on a small one under the levelling laws of Henry of Navarre.

In this vast and varied chronicle, war plays its appointed part. "We cannot," says Walter Savage Landor, "push valiant men out of history." We cannot escape from the truths interpreted, and the conditions established by their valour. What has been slightingly called the "drum-and-trumpet narrative" holds its own with the records of art and science. "It cost Europe a thousand years of barbarism," said Macaulay, "to escape the fate of China."

The endless endeavour of states to control their own destinies, the ebb and flow of the sea of combat, the "recurrent liturgy of war," enabled the old historians to perceive with amazing distinctness the traits of nations, etched as sharply then as now on the imperishable pages of history. We read Froissart for human delight rather than for solid information; yet Froissart's observations—the observations of a keen-eyed student of the world—are worth recording five hundred years after he set them down.

"In England," he says, "strangers are well received"; yet are the English "affable to no other nation than their own." Ireland, he holds to have had "too many kings"; and the Scotch, like the English, "are excellent men-at-arms, nor is there any check to their courage as long as their weapons endure." France is the pride of his heart, as it is the pride of the world's heart today. "In France also is found good chivalry, strong of spirit, and in great abundance; for the kingdom of France has never been brought so low as to lack men ready for the combat." Even Germany does not escape his regard. "The Germans are a people without pity and without honour." And again: "The Germans are a rude, unmannered race, but active and expert where their own personal advantage is concerned." If history be "philosophy teaching by example," we are wise to admit the old historians into our counsels.

To withhold from a child some knowledge—apportioned to his understanding—of the world's sorrows and wrongs is to cheat him of his kinship with humanity. We would not, if we could, bruise his soul as our souls are bruised; but we would save him from a callous content which is alien to his immaturity. The little American, like the little Austrian and the little Serb, is a son of the sorrowing earth. His security—of which no man can forecast the future—is a legacy bequeathed him by predecessors who bought it with sweat and with blood; and with sweat and with blood his descendants may be called on to guard it. Alone among educators, Mr. G. Stanley Hall finds neutrality, a "high and ideal neutrality," to be an attribute of youth. He was so gratified by this discovery during the years of the war, so sure that American boys and girls followed "impartially" the great struggle in Europe, and that this judicial attitude would, in the years to come, enable them to pronounce "the true verdict of history," that he "thrilled and tingled" with patriotic—if premature—pride.

"The true verdict of history" will be pronounced according to the documentary evidence in the case. There is no need to vex our souls over the possible extinction of this evidence, for closer observers than our impartial young Americans are placing it permanently on record. But I doubt if the equanimity which escapes the ordeal of partisanship is to be found in the mind of youth, or in the heart of a child. Can we not remember a time when the Wars of the Roses were not—to us—a matter for neutrality? Our little school histories, those vivacious, anecdotal histories, banished long ago by rigorous educators, were in some measure responsible for our Lancastrian fervour. They fed it with stories of high courage and the sorrows of princes. We wasted our sympathies on "a mere struggle for power"; but Hume's laconic verdict is not, and never can be, the measure of a child's solicitude. The lost cause fills him with pity, the cause which is saved by man's heroic sacrifice fires him to generous applause. The round world and the tale of those who have lived upon it are his legitimate inheritance.

Mr. Bagehot said, and said wisely after his wont, that if you catch an intelligent, uneducated man of thirty, and tell him about the battle of Marathon, he will calculate the chances, and estimate the results; but he will not really care. You cannot make the word "Marathon" sound in his ears as it sounded in the ears of Byron, to whom it had been sacred in boyhood. You cannot make the word "freedom" sound in untutored ears as it sounds in the ears of men who have counted the cost by which it has been preserved through the centuries. Unless children are permitted to know the utmost peril which has threatened, and which threatens, the freedom of nations, how can they conceive of its value? And what is the worth of teaching which does not rate the gift of freedom above all earthly benefactions? How can justice live save by the will of freemen? Of what avail are civic virtues that are not the virtues of the free? Pericles bade the Athenians to bear reverently in mind the Greeks who had died for Greece. "Make these men your examples, and be well assured that happiness comes by freedom, and freedom by stoutness of heart." Perhaps if American boys bear reverently in mind the men who died for America, it will help them too to be stout of heart, and "worthy patriots, dear to God."

In the remote years of my childhood, the study of current events, that most interesting and valuable form of tuition, which, nevertheless, is unintelligible without some knowledge of the past, was left out of our limited curriculum. We seldom read the newspapers (which I remember as of an appalling dulness), and we knew little of what was happening in our day. But we did study history, and we knew something of what had happened in other days than ours; we knew and deeply cared. Therefore we reacted with fair intelligence and no lack of fervour when circumstances were forced upon our vision. It was not possible for a child who had lived in spirit with Saint Genevieve to be indifferent to the siege of Paris in 1870. It is not possible for a child who has lived in spirit with Jeanne d'Arc to be indifferent to the destruction of Rheims Cathedral in 1914. If we were often left in ignorance, we were never despoiled of childhood's generous ardour. Nobody told us that "courage is a sublime form of hypocrisy." Nobody fed our young minds on stale paradoxes, or taught us to discount the foolish impulsiveness of adults. Our parents, as Mr. Henry James rejoicingly observes, "had no desire to see us inoculated with importunate virtues." The Honourable Bertrand Russell had not then proposed that all teaching of history shall be submitted to an "international commission," "which shall produce neutral textbooks, free from patriotic bias." There was something profoundly fearless in our approach to life, in the exposure of our unarmoured souls to the assaults of enthusiasms and regrets.

The cynic who is impatient of primitive emotions, the sentimentalist whose sympathy is confined exclusively to his country's enemies, grow more shrill-voiced as the exhaustion of Europe becomes increasingly apparent. They were always to be heard by those who paused amid the thunderings of war to listen to them; but their words were lost in the whirlwind. It was possible for a writer in the "Survey" to allude brutally in the spring of 1916 to the "cockpit of Verdun." It was possible for Mr. Russell to turn from the contemplation of Ypres, and say: "The war is trivial for all its vastness. No great human purpose is involved on either side, no great principle is at stake." If the spiritual fatigue of the looker-on had found an echo in the souls of those who were bearing the burden and heat of the day, the world would have sunk to destruction. "The moral triumph of Belgium," said Cardinal Mercier, when his country had been conquered and despoiled, "is an ever memorable fact for history and civilization." Who shall be the spokesman of the future?

In the last melancholy pages of that able and melancholy book, "The Economic Consequences of the Peace," Mr. Keynes describes the apathy of victorious England, too spent to savour victory. "Our power of feeling or caring beyond the immediate questions of our own material well-being is temporarily eclipsed. We have been moved already beyond endurance, and need rest. Never, in the lifetime of men now living, has the universal element in the soul of man burnt so dimly."

Never perhaps in the centuries, for when in the centuries has that element been so ruthlessly consumed? England is like a swimmer who has carried the lifeline to shore, battling amid the breakers, tossed high on their crests, hurled into their green depths, pounded, battered, blinded, until he lies, a broken thing, on the shore. The crew is safe, but until the breath comes back to his labouring lungs, he is past all acute consideration for its welfare. Were Mr. Keynes generous enough to extend his sympathy alike to foes and friends, he might even now see light shining on the horizon. It would do him—it would do us all—good to meditate closely on the probable state of Europe had Germany triumphed. The "hidden currents" of which we are warned may be sweeping us on a reef; but the most imminent and most appalling calamity has been averted. "Events are wonderful things," and we may yet come to believe with Froissart, lover of brave deeds and honourable men, that "the most profitable thing in the world for the institution of human life is history."