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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/June 1915/Science and History

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 86‎ | June 1915

By Dr. C. W. SUPER


THE question has been a good deal discussed whether history is a science or an art. Those who deny to it a place among the sciences proceed on the assumption that science deals only with facts, with uncontrovertible truths, and as history is for the most part founded on the preponderance of probabilities, it should not be ranked as a science. It is not possible to frame a definition of science sufficiently comprehensive to embrace all subjects that may be investigated by man. Only a single branch of science deals with incontrovertible truths, that is mathematics, while the subject matter of all others is constituted of data and not of facts. Science is founded upon method rather than upon results. All the sciences that deal with forces which may be more or less modified by acts dependent upon the human will, such as economics, politics, ethics, and others of the same class, can never attain positive results. Besides, some of the sciences are constituted of forces that are latent and more or less inscrutable so that there is no possibility of predicting when they will become active. Comte placed geology among the histories. It is the discovery of the changes that have taken place in the composition and recomposition of the globe. While there is substantial agreement among experts as to the order in which these changes took place, there are many minor points upon which there is more or less divergence of opinion. When we endeavor to set forth the order in which events took place we produce history, even though the artistic element be entirely lacking. History, as the term is usually understood, is the interpretation, from written records, of the psychic forces as manifested in acts land institutions. By written we are, however, to understand all the devices which men have employed for the purpose of preserving the memory of their deeds to future generations. William James defined history "as the observation of a series of changes of conditions that never exactly repeat themselves and that ever tend toward further and unfathomable changes."

According to this definition everything in the universe that is capable of being intellectually apprehended and is not static may be dealt with historically. The discovery and investigation of the memorials that man has unintentionally left of himself are usually classed as prehistory, and include paleontology, anthropology and some other sciences.

The term history is used interchangeably in one of two senses, although they differ widely. Can there be a history where there is no record, or only a very incomplete one? If we say, the French character is the product of French history, we mean one thing; if we say, M. Martin wrote a French history or a history of the French, we mean something quite different. This distinction is rarely observed with care.

All knowledge, every fact as distinguished from opinion or belief, may be classed under the head of science; at any rate, it is difficult to distinguish between them. There is a great deal of knowledge not intellectually apprehended that is the result of experience or of instinct. We are wont to employ the latter term to designate a capacity which we can not further analyze. Most quadrupeds when thrown into deep water swim as readily the first time as the twentieth, while man can not swim until he has learned. We know that quadrupeds can swim, but it is a question whether they know it. Is it proper to apply the term knowledge to what is known without having been learned? Most men as well as other animals learn by experience; the latter only to a limited extent however. The most important discovery ever made by man was the use of fire. How he made it we do not know. The Greek myth of Prometheus, who is reputed to have stolen it from heaven, points to a celestial origin, that is to a stroke of lightning. How highly fire was prized in ancient times is demonstrated by the veneration accorded to the Vestal virgins. They represented the last remnant of paganism to give way before the advance of Christianity. Herodotus relates that the sole survivor of the Lacedæmonians at the battle of Thermopylæ was so disgraced that "no Spartan would give him a light to kindle his fire." In pioneer times the housewife was usually careful to keep the fire on the hearth from going out in the summer when it was not needed for warmth. In this respect civilized people usually exhibit less ingenuity than savages. The practical use that could be made of fire was without doubt the most important discovery made by prehistoric man; it is probable that his rise from the bestial stage began with it.

Buckle believed history to be the most popular branch of knowledge and the one upon which most had been-written. If his opinion is correct it is due to the circumstance that it is hardly possible to deal with any subject without viewing it to some extent historically. But he also considered the most celebrated historians inferior to the most successful cultivators of physical science. The comparison is unfair because the subject matter is widely disparate. The cultivator of a physical science works with his materials directly; the historian indirectly. The former is a good deal in the position of the magistrate who, when trying a case, has his witnesses before him. He can examine and cross-examine until he has ascertained the truth as nearly as possible. The latter is like the same official who has to rely upon affidavits. He can not go behind the returns, or if he does, he has to depend upon surmises and probablilities. Although Buckle wrote a history of civilization and frequently uses the term, as also science and history, I do not find that he defines any of them. He undertook to write a history of human progress that should be as trustworthy as a work on natural or physical science, because he thought it possible to discover and to formulate its laws as clearly as those of the material universe. Neither does M. Guizot define civilization, although he devotes many pages of his work to explaining what he means by the term. M. Rambauld in his recent history of French civilization admits that, notwithstanding the vast amount of work that has been done in the collection of materials, there are still many points to be cleared up. After telling his readers what sort of a history he proposes to write, he sums up by saying: "In a word, how our ancestors lived and by what labors they prepared the better life that we now enjoy." This sort of history approaches most nearly to a physical science because it deals with such general facts that they can be confirmed by a great deal of testimony. We can usually tell how a people who come within the historic period lived, what were their customs and their religion, what was their social and political organization, even when we are constrained to accept with much reservation the reputed deeds of individuals.

The term "science" has of late fallen into almost as great disrepute as the other much-abused word "professor." Both have shared the fate of the man who once upon a time went down to Jericho. We hear of a science of carpentry, a science of journalism, a science of athletics, a science of horse-shoeing, and the like almost without end, every one of which is presided over by its appropriate professor, or by several of them. If we could have a science of humbug, a science of dulness, a science of false pretense, each properly manned or womaned, our gullible public would probably ere long be wiser than it is now. When the English language contained only forty or fifty thousand words, every one had a fairly definite meaning which all intelligent persons understood. Now when it is reputed to include about ten times as many, each one is given the significance that the ignorance or the heedlessness of the user chooses to assign to it. For as Mephistopheles said to the student:

And just where fails the comprehension,
A word steps promptly in as deputy.

What doth it profit a man to enter upon the laborious and endless task of seeking for facts when words will serve many more purposes and can be picked up anywhere and everywhere?

History being the written record of events arranged with reference to their relation to each other as cause and effect in the nature of the case is preceded by chronicles. The peoples who inhabited all that part of the world known as the "Ancient East" hardly got beyond this stage. We have characteristic specimens in the Old Testament. In many. perhaps in all, of the Greek cities, chroniclers were also at work. Wherever language has been reduced to writing men have appeared who kept records. Sometimes they were public officials, sometimes private persons who wrote for reasons which they could probably not themselves have explained. It is known that Herodotus used materials collected by municipal chroniclers when compiling his historical work. He tells the reader that he published his researches in the hope of preserving from decay "the remembrance of what men have done and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory." When he adds that he wants "to put on record what were the grounds of their feud," he enters upon the field of philosophical if not of scientific history.

Except in the quantity of materials collected the modern "local paper" may be regarded as the successor of the old-time chronicles. Its object is to record events from day to day, without taking into account their connection with each other, even when there is such connection. All local newspapers are unreliable except in so far as they publish proceedings of municipal councils, of courts and of other public bodies. None of them print anything that would put a "leading citizen" in a bad light. We may be sure that most of the records of the olden time, except in rare cases, partook of this character. It is evident that any person endowed with ordinary common sense who has a fair education can write a history. All he needs is materials upon which to base his conclusions. But a history written with no other object in view than to set forth facts nobody would read except from a sense of duty or as an act of penance. The work of the historian worthy of the name requires not only judgment in the scrutinizing of evidence, but likewise in the sifting and arrangement of materials and the final form that is given to the narrative. It is probable that in the matter of artistic form the models set up by the Greeks and Romans will never be surpassed. But the range of their discussion is either very narrow, or their statements full of errors. They are chiefly concerned with wars or with those things that pertain to war; they fail to tell us much that we should like to know, and of which they could give us trustworthy information because it came under their immediate observation. They omitted what they considered of no importance; they lacked the point of view of the scientist, to whom nothing that exists is unimportant. It is probable that Professor Freeman formulated his definition of history as "past politics" from a study of the works of the ancients. This definition is now regarded as grossly inadequate because the reading public has come to realize more and more fully that in states which claim to be civilized only a small part of the people are directly engaged in war or politics. Except in rare instances the proportion has never been much larger. Nor does any man now agree with Xenophon that the only occupations worthy of a gentleman are war and politics. But even Voltaire believed that a state of war was more conformable to the nature of man than one of peace.

The belief that a history should appeal more to the feelings of the reader than to his judgment is now held by few persons. As the drama is the most moving of literary compositions history should be dramatic, that is, it should be a work of art, not la collection of documents. Voltaire maintained that a history like a tragedy should have an exposition, a development of the action, and a catastrophe. He maintained that the historian should not only have an extensive acquaintance with the affairs of the world, but should also be endowed with the capacity for dramatic representation. He calls the citation of documents foolishness, and appeals to the example of the ancients as proof of his contention. Documents he considered nothing more than the scaffolding which is taken away when a structure is completed. Frederic Schiller, who was a skilful dramatist and a writer of the first rank, composed histories without knowing much history. Moreover, he did not pretend to know much. He once wrote to a friend that history was a sort of storehouse for his imagination, the contents of which had to submit to whatever use he wished to make of them, and that he would always be a poor authority for any future writer who should be so unfortunate as to turn to him. The belief that the value of a history depends more upon the style in which it is written than upon the matter which it contains prevailed almost universally until comparatively recent times. Oliver Goldsmith wrote a "History of the Earth and Animated Nature," the title of which he probably borrowed along with a great deal of the matter from Buffon's "Histoire Naturelle." Albeit, more than one of his readers has ventured to doubt whether he could have told a duck from a goose. Yet he produced an interesting work, as I can testify from the impression it made upon me when I first (and last) read it many years ago. Both the Irishman and the Frenchman looked at the world through the medium of their imagination, and consequently saw many things that had no objective existence. In 1877 Professor Du Bois-Reymond delivered an address in Cologne in which he endeavored to prove that the history of mankind is virtually the history of the natural sciences. Although he defended his position with much skill and eloquence, he probably carried conviction to the minds of but few of his hearers and readers. Others have maintained that history is embodied in the efforts of men to invent better tools. It is not easy to see how, viewed from either of these positions, there could be any history for more than a thousand years beginning with the Christian era. There is a great deal of movement and at times a great deal of intellectual activity, but the result was fruitless. In the penal system of former days the treadmill was a common mode of punishment. The exercise doubtless strengthened the arms and legs of the criminal, but it was without profit to anybody. After the writings of Aristotle became known in western Europe they were accepted as the final word upon every subject on which the Stagirite had expressed himself. Yet he would have been the first man to protest against such a misuse of his books. Far more intellectual ingenuity was expended in trying to prove that they were true than in investigating to what extent they were true. If there is a subject that intimately concerns every man, woman and child, it is the healing art. And it has always been the same. Yet so thoroughly convinced were the minds of the medical fraternity that Galen had spoken the last word upon their profession, that until the beginning of the modern era he had the whole field to himself. When John Locke was in Montpellier he attended the ceremony of conferring the degree of doctor of medicine upon a candidate. Part of it consisted in an address by the head of the faculty which in this case was almost wholly taken up with a diatribe against Harvey's theory of the circulation of the blood.

The history of medicine illustrates in a striking way the tendency of the human mind to stagnate and dogmatize, and demonstrates how an art eventually becomes impregnated with the scientific spirit. The infancy of medical science falls in the middle of the seventeenth century; it is therefore not three hundred years old. In the Iliad physicians are held in great esteem by the Greeks. Herodotus tells us that the medical art was highly specialized in ancient Egypt and that there were physicians for almost every part of the body. Embalmers were also classed among physicians, for we are told in Genesis that Joseph commanded the physicians to embalm the body of his father. That there were practising physicians in Palestine at an early period is evident from a few passages in the Old Testament. When we reflect that the ancient Greeks were almost continually at war either with barbarians or among themselves, it seems incredible that their books tell us almost nothing about the care of the sick and wounded in their armies. Xenophon relates that once during the retreat of the Ten Thousand, after a particularly severe conflict with the enemy, the officers found it necessary to appoint eight physicians because there were many wounded. If he had said "additional" we should suppose that the number of those whose duty it was to attend to the disabled was insufficient. The passage clearly conveys the meaning that there had been no previous provision for an organization corresponding to the modern ambulance corps. It is doubtful if the ancient Greek language contains a word corresponding to our "hospital." Hippocrates did not dogmatize, for the reason that he was one of the world's really great men. But some of his pupils founded the Dogmatic school; and while they made a few discoveries, their system was vitiated by philosophical theorems and subtleties. For nearly two centuries they had the field to themselves, when the inevitable reaction came and the Empirical school arose. This was in some measure a return to first principles. Some centuries later appeared Themison of Laodicea, who was the most conspicuous person among the disciples of the Methodical school. He endeavored to trace all diseases to a few types and to find a cure for each type. Here was evidently something more than a mere glimpse of the real state of the case. His contemporary, Athenæus of Cilicia, founded the Pneumatists, whose adherents assumed the existence of an air-like substance in the human body, to which its condition both, in health and disease was due. Agatinus of Sparta, the father of the Eclectic school, came a little later. The circle of medical theory was now complete. Galen, at a subsequent period, compiled a sort of medical encyclopedia, and although he was both a careful observer and a profound thinker he could not free himself entirely from the prejudices of his age. About a thousand years later several physicians of note appeared among the Saracens and the Jews; but their skill was due rather to sanity of judgment than to knowledge of the healing art. All the sciences and most of the arts have every now and then found themselves in a blind-alley where no further progress was possible until some hitherto unknown way out had been discovered. Medical knowledge and skill had probably exploited their opportunities to the utmost seventeen or eighteen centuries ago. There was no advance possible until the microscope had reached a high degree of excellence. The progress of chemistry had also an important bearing on the healing art. An air-ship sufficiently powerful to carry a man has been desiderated ever since Daedalus made his famous flight from Crete to Italy. Albeit, there seemed to be no possibility of repeating the performance until either the original secret had been rediscovered or some fuel lighter than any known a generation ago. Michael Faraday declared that "there is not a law under which any part of the universe is governed that does not come into play in the phenomena of the chemical history of a candle."

The history of human thought as distinguished from the history of human acts is at bottom a quest for the fundamental principles by which the cosmos is governed. "Philosophy," says Schwegler, "deals with the totality of experience under the form of an organic system in harmony with the laws of thought." But as the totality of experience is not the same to-day that it was yesterday, nor will it be the same to-morrow that it is to-day, we are always getting a little nearer to a goal which can never be reached. The history of philosophy is for the most part the history of efforts to systematize knowledge from the observation of a comparatively small number of facts. The mistakes into which such a method leads is now so fully recognized by historians of human actions that they refuse to formulate a philosophy of history. They assure us that it is as unscientific, and therefore as illusory, to seek a plan in the course of events as it would be to seek a plan in the constitution of the cosmos. Some of their maxims are:

Tell us nothing except what the evidence before you warrants and tell us everything for which you find evidence, so far as the space at your command will permit. No man has a right to ask for himself or for his friends immunity at the bar of history. The historian is a judge, not an advocate.

There can be no doubt that the gradual change that has come over the attitude of the more intelligent public opinion toward the past is due to the progress of physical science. The man who is in advance of his age usually has to pay the penalty for his rashness. How many men beginning with Anaxagoras have suffered banishment, imprisonment and torture for daring to know more than those who had his fate in their hands. It is a melancholy tale that has been repeated over and over again. Albeit, in the conflict between conservatism and radicalism the latter has always won in the end. To it has come the reward that always comes to the undismayed searcher for truth.

The fundamental principle of art is deception. A work of art is either an illusion or a delusion. It is never an exact reproduction of nature, of facts. A portrait which accurately represents an original is not artistic. A painting, a photograph, an engraving is such a disposition of white upon black or of colors as to produce the illusion of relief. An accurate drawing can not be made of a work of art. Neither can work on chemistry, or on physics or on biology or on mathematics be made artistic. The same is true, in a large measure, of historical writings. A faithful chronicle is not a history even when the connection between cause and effect is clearly set forth. It comes too near the truth, it approaches too close to science to be interesting to the great majority of readers. Hence the more artistically a history is constructed, the more popular it is likely to become, and likewise the more unreliable. The purpose of the artist is to produce pleasure by deceiving the spectator or the reader. Every historian endeavors to make his work interesting, readable. No scientist feels such a prompting. The distinction that is now usually made between the terms science, knowledge and learning is not of long standing. Bacon's "Advancement of Learning" is merely a translation of "De Augmentis Scientiarum." Science, as now generally interpreted, means the accumulation of facts relating to man and the universe that have been discovered because they were sought. Learning is used to designate data that have been stored up in the memory without examination of their accordance with facts. A man may be very learned, yet be in possession of a very small quantity of real information. Knowledge is used to designate those facts that men have come into possession of by experience and observation. Rome grew great and eventually made itself master of the known world without having produced a single scientist. Pliny is the only Roman who has the slightest claim to this designation. Yet his "Natural History" is such a vast collection of absurdities that one wonders how an avowed atheist could think it worth while to record them. He cites nearly five hundred writers as his authorities, and it is known that he was an indefatigable reader. But he had time neither to think nor to observe. He was conscientious in the performance of every duty incumbent upon him, and thought he was doing posterity a great service in the compilation of his work. He was skeptical in everything that came under his own observation, and credulous of the testimony of others. He was a predecessor of Faust who at one period of his career congratulated himself that he knew more than everybody else, was haunted by neither doubts nor scruples, feared neither hell nor the devil, hence had given himself over to magic. It is unscientific to call anything that happens or is, "strange"; yet one is often tempted to apply the epithet to that characteristic of man that makes him averse to the truth when it is disagreeable or conflicts with preconceived opinions. Opinions and beliefs can not change the most insignificant fact. It is only the truth whether in science or history that abides.