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Chapter 5: The Philosophy of History

THE positions we have reached may be described as too purely abstract to be of any scientific significance; but if so, they will not be correctly described. For, in attempting to discuss the principles which are involved in the interpretation of the concrete, we have been helped to a more definite idea of the concrete itself, (α) We have come face to face, not with a nature which is but an aggregate of chemical elements and physical energies, or a mere succession of living forms that are ever struggling to live, yet ever succumbing to death; but with a nature which is veiled spirit, which speaks of mind to mind, and which, as an intelligible order, is a medium of intercourse between the Intelligence it embodies and the intellect by which it is studied. (β) And Man completes the lesson of Nature. He is not a mere fortuitous aggregation of atoms or an organism made by his environment, whether conceived as nature or as circumstances, but a person who embodies a moral law so imperative in its terms as to imply that the universe in which; he lives is also moral. (γ) And the life he lives corresponds alike to the nature which enfolds him and to the nature which he realizes. It is not the life of a mere physical being or animal automaton, but of a moral person, standing within nature, yet rising above it, gifted with freedom, yet without either the knowledge or the experience that could at once use it for ends becoming the ideal of his personality; with the eternal law written on his heart, yet with fleshly passions or inherited tendencies or defects of temper that obliterate the law or bewilder him who would read it. And so there arises in his nature a conflict which is only too well expressed in the contradictions of his conduct. But out of his struggles with himself and his environment, with his habits and his conscience, with the nature around him, the law within him, and the God above him, come sufferings that educate and ennoble. From life he so learns to know evil and good, sorrow and happiness, that it may well be described as a discipline for immortality.

But we must now pass from what some may still conceive to be the region of abstract metaphysics to the very concrete region of the history which shows man living his common and collective life. Now, it is not my purpose either to sketch this history, which could be done here only in an outline too shadowy to have any significance, or to expound a philosophy of its course, its stages, and its goal, but simply to indicate what may be regarded as some of the principles needed for its interpretation and to state one of the great problems it raises. This chapter is, indeed, but transitional; it is meant to connect the discussion of fundamental questions in religious thought with a discussion concerning historical religion.

§ I. The Significance of History

1. The point where the new discussion joins hands with the old is here: the man who is at once the interpreter and the interpretation of nature, who is embodied reason and incorporated law, and who looks at the perplexities of life with an eye suffused and dim from the troubles of his own soul, is not a particular but a typical person. What we conceive to be his mind does not mean the psychology of this child or that individual, the philosophy of a school or a period, but the mind of generic Man; and so man here denotes a Race with a history behind it which helps to explain the mind that is within it. And this history, construed as man's articulated mind, signifies that the science of nature without the science of history is an incomplete and an indecipherable fragment.

Now we have already argued that nature and man are so related that it must be read through him and he be read into it if it is ever to be more than a mass of unintelligibilities. Without him it would be as unfinished as a literary fragment which never got beyond the preamble to the story, and which, indeed, knew nothing of any plot, and less than nothing of any dénouement. But the parallel goes much farther than this, and means that the creative process whose beginnings can be traced in nature is continued in man; that his acts and achievements, the states and customs, the laws and literatures, the arts and sciences, the philosophies he has elaborated and the religions he has believed, are as real things and as integral parts of the universe as any of the forces, elements, or organisms which physical science is accustomed to think it handles; that the tendency to educe higher from lower forms reigns in human as well as in natural history, and was, indeed, seen in the former long before it obtained recognition in the latter; and that the true method of interpretation is to proceed from man to nature, for the highest holds and knows the secret of the lowest, while the lowest neither holds nor knows the secret of the highest. If, then, the history of man be the continuation of the record of creation, it follows that the creative energy has not ceased to operate, and that its character, qualities, tendencies, modes of working and relation to the forms developed can be better studied here than in the field of nature. This position is fundamental to our argument, and follows from the parallel between the immanence of God in nature and in man. He dwells in both and He works through both, though always in methods agreeable to the medium employed. What is energy in nature is reason and will in man, but they are no less ours that they are inspired by Him, and no less His that they appear in us as conscious and voluntary activities. These may seem but cryptic utterances; we must try to make them more intelligible and lucid.

2. The experience of the individual has an instructive counterpart in the life of the race. The significance of his own history dawned but slowly upon the mind of man. It is a curious but certain fact, with something much more than a psychological interest, that Nature was at first a much more urgent problem to him than he was to himself. His earliest and most urgent intellectual need was to adjust himself to his environment, to make out the meaning of the world he lived in, the objects he handled, the food he lived on, the river that flowed past his cave, the sun that shone by day, the moon that walked in beauty by night, the stars that came out of the darkness and hid themselves at the breaking of the dawn, the powers that worked him good or ill, the birth in which his life began, and the death in which it ended. He could not but puzzle himself about these things. What did they mean? who had caused them? and whence had they come? what did he himself mean? why were the scenes around him and he so short a time together? what had been before him? and what would be after him? These were the questions his curious intellect asked of itself and of Nature, refusing to be satisfied without some more or less rational response, and this in time worked itself here into a science, and there into a philosophy, now into some act of worship, and again into an article of religious faith. But in the long and slow course of development man became a greater problem to himself than ever Nature had been to him, though he did not even then discover that his problem involved a vaster and more colossal Man than was contained within his own personality. For the human individual is no atom, without a history and without a name. He begins to be generations before he is born; then he is born into a family, he resumes the family he is born into, and is the sum of all his ancestors. The family dwelt in a village which lived in a state; the family epitomized the village, and the village epitomized the state, while the state embosomed the village and the village absorbed the family and the family the individual. The state, in its turn, was subsumed under a people, was heir to all its acquired qualities, the organ of its peculiar genius, a form under which that genius lived, and through which it accomplished its work. The people, again, was a member of a still wider organism, belonged to a given species, a white or black, a tawny or yellow race, speaking a given kind of language, nasal or guttural, monosyllabic or polysyllabic, inflexional or syntactical, or both. And, finally, the species was absorbed in the genus; individuals, families, states, and kinds were comprehended under the generic Man, the collective Race, the sum total of Humanity. What then was Humanity? How were its parts related? Had it any reason, any end? Whence had it come, and whither was it going? Had it a common life, or was life an attribute only of the units composing it? How were the periods of its history connected, and what was the value of its several ages—ancient, middle, modern—for each other and for the whole? And without any solution of these questions could man, even as a solitary individual, be said to be explained?

3. But these questions were for long the problems and speculations of an elect few; even now they are to the vast majority of mankind unknown and inconceivable. For they become of intellectual interest and urgency only when certain ideas emerge which bind the unit consciously to mankind. These ideas may be represented by the terms:—the unity, the continuity, and the community of human life, order and purpose in human history. Man had to be conceived in all his families, races, states, and times, as even more a unity than the nature which enfolded him, while his unity included a variety unknown to nature. For this unity was not a mere term of co-ordination, but denoted continuous being, a race immortal through the mortality of its units, and with a life which every moment grew out of the life that was or that had been. And the life as continuous was common, possessed by all, shared by each, communicated and communicable through the reciprocity of the unit with the whole, and the whole with the unit. And so this unity involved an order pervading all the tumults of men, harmonizing all their dissonances, and making at once their storms and calms, their alliances and their enmities, their jealousies and friendships, the horrors of their wars and the victories of their peace, work out the end towards which Humanity, as a mass moved by its units, ever tended and struggled.

But these ideas, though native to what may be termed the ideal in man, were unwelcome to much that was actual in him. They represent the supernatural rather than the natural elements in his life; and, odd as it may seem, man's ear has ever been quicker to hear external sounds than the inner voice. And these were not ideas that rose unbidden, demanding entertainment and refusing to be dismissed; but guests to whose entreaties the natural mind and passions of man could offer a stout resistance. For the very conditions that made Nature speak to man, turned man himself dumb. Thus the idea of unity has proved to be an offence to what we may term the natural human mind in all the stages of its culture. Savage man was proud of his family and his tribe; other families were there to be robbed, other tribes were there to be slain; what he cared for was not to know his kinship with them, but his differences from them, alike as regards origin, fortunes, and destiny. And this pride of race or blood was even more a note of civilized than of savage man; and, strange to say, drew its inspiration from causes that ought to have been its death. Thus his culture made the Greek scornful of the barbarian, his religion made the Jew insolent to the Gentile, his law made the Roman citizen jealous of the provincial. And this is not an individual, it is an even intenser political and social feeling. For what are states in their relation to each other but embodiments of that industrial jealousy and exclusive pride which has made so many of them like colossal personalities inspired by greed, ambitious for conquest, full of the lust of battle with feebler tribes and peoples, ready to find fame and even happiness in annexing the wealth of those they subdued, and to use the very strength of the vanquished as if it were their own? It was therefore not by any easy process of Nature, but by a high and supernatural grace, that the unity of man became first a possible, then a tolerable, and finally a victorious idea.

§ II. The Ideas of Unity and Order in History

1. But what does unity as here applied mean? The idea is so complex, and contains so many and so varied elements, that it may well break while being stretched wide enough to comprehend them all. The term does not denote unity of origin either as regards time or place or mode; but it does denote unity of source or cause, the equal and cognate relation of all to the one Creator who is the common Father of men. It also expresses unity of nature, a oneness of spirit or of reason, which shows itself in all minds being subject to the same laws and conditions of thinking, and which makes thought simply as thought intelligible to every mind, and every mind capable of knowing and being known to every other. The metaphysical idea of unity differs from the physical, for the conscious unit who lives within the organic unity called the human race is divided, as by the whole diameter of being, from the unconscious atom which is a convertible moment in a physical universe it can neither know nor be known to. It, further, connotes sameness of value, not adventitious, but essential, not as actual or realized, but as real and realizable; and makes the savage the equal of the sage, not in extrinsic and attained, but in intrinsic and potential worth. The substantive thus becomes an ethical unity, for the most refined has duties to the coarsest; the man who leads the van has in his keeping the life of him who brings up the last rear guard. It is therefore a unity which has nothing to do with the accidents of existence; indeed it finds in these—the differences of colour, climate, custom, language, laws, religions—the supreme hindrances to its outward realization; and so it tends to grow into a unity of interests, a communion of responsibilities, a law of solidarity which makes the good of any a common good, and the injury of one a harm to all. As in physics the unity of energy is expressed in the correlation and convertibility of forces, so the unity of man is authenticated by the capability of men to become each like to the other. And if we seek a name for the common essence or character which constitutes this unity, what better one need we desire than Humanity, a name which so felicitously combines the ethnical and the ethical, the real and the ideal elements in the conception? For the term expresses a process as well as a fact, since unity is believed, unification begins; and attempts are made to realize the dream of the one humanity which is yet to stand up and build upon the earth the city of God.

2. Out of this unity, with its correlative community and continuity of life, comes what we may describe as the immanent teleology which makes man's progress in civilization a progressive realization of reason, the incorporation in the societies and states he creates of the qualities intellectual, ethical, æsthetic, and religious by virtue of which he is man. If his customs and institutions, languages and religions, arts and literatures, stages and degrees of civilization be studied in themselves, they will appear to present an infinite variety; but if they be looked at in relation to the mind which has been their source, it will be seen that there have been at work certain uniform causes which express a certain unity in the causal nature. For it could only be in obedience to some immanent tendencies or laws of being, though educed and exercised by external needs, that men have everywhere grouped themselves into families, families have formed themselves into tribes, tribes have aggregated into nations, and nations expanded and consolidated into states. It is due to no accident that in every community systems of legislation have arisen whose affinities can be explained only by factors of origin which are common in nature and invariable in action, though their difference simply the dissimilarity of the conditions, outer and inner, under which each community has lived and tried to order its life. Industries, too, and arts have risen and grown as if they were spontaneous things, though they are products of will and creations of reason, affected indeed by climate and geographical situation, but determined as regards being by the character and quality of the race. Commerce and exchange, economic states and conditions, may also be brought under the categories of law and reason; and so represent the operation in human nature of common and stable factors. Literature is as universal in its being as it is varied in its forms, existing here as the rude or savage story, there as the classic poem or elaborate romance; but wherever or whatever it may be, it embodies the ideas by which some people lived and were moved. Religion is the greatest and most distinctive of all the creations of the human spirit, in form the most infinitely diversified, but in substance, in ultimate ideal constituents, the most invariable. The essential unity of these products of the reason, and, consequently, of the reason which has created them, is seen in their communicability, their being in the most perfect degree exchangeable and transmissible things. Nation can borrow from nation; the later is the heir of the earlier age. And so no state creates a good for itself alone, and no empire can do an evil that is not an injury to the race. The life of humanity is one, and its goods are common. The uniformities of Nature have their counterpart, and, as it were, intellectual equivalent, in the unities of History.

3. But if unity was a late and hard idea to acquire, order was, though for different reasons, still later and harder. For what is the conflict of forces, the tempestuous strife of elements in Nature, compared to the collision of will and passion in man and between men? “He loved the better, he did the worse,” represents a fact of collective as of personal experience. If a single state, nay, if a single city, be taken as a type of man, what can his history seem but the chosen arena of wilfulness or lawless accident, the field where an infinite multitude of choices, each under the guidance of a reason which does not show itself reasonable because bent only on petty aims and mean ambitions, meet daily in forceful antagonism? How is it possible to discover order in history when all that can be discovered, if man be studied in his actual life, is a mass of colliding units, every unit being a centre of force which cannot be changed by expenditure into some other mode of existence, because where the soul is concerned, the fiercest impact against other souls makes each only the more distinctly personal? The state of war in the savage tribe is a state of kindly humanity compared with the mass of latent or open violence in the modern city, where nothing but the overmastering strength of the law, which is sovereign, can hold down the explosive energy stored in thousands of sullen and discontented wills. And if, when life is studied in the concrete present, we can see only this conflict of lawless wills, how, when the whole is regarded, can there be any room for the ideas of law, or progress, or purpose? And without these what could history seem save a chaos less rational and more disordered than that which the ancient imagination conceived as heaving tumultuous in the abyss, before the broad-bosomed earth, or the starry heaven, or “the golden-tressed sun” rose to call out of the confusion a radiant and ordered cosmos?

But here the doctrine of the connexion and the continuity of Nature and man asserts itself. For if no order or law can be found in history, the collective life of man will represent only a mindless chance; and if law be left out of human life, can it be conceived to reign in Nature? And if we conceive it to reign in the lower, but not in the higher realm, what completeness or consistency can there be in our view of the universe? Mind surely cannot stand within an ordered Nature with this as its sole distinction—that it is the home of all disorderliness. To find physical laws inviolable, and then to allow no historical laws to exist, would be to act like a man who should find the alphabet significant, but no significance in the literature created by the reason of the philosopher or the imagination of the poet. And so thinkers were driven to seek in history the law and order which they had found in Nature, though their search was slower and less successful in the one case than it had been in the other. It was characteristic that the idea had come to theology long before it dawned on philosophy, and while as yet science had no dream of it or care for it. Men who had conceived the Divine Will as the cause of Nature could not, with any show of logical consistency, allow that in the higher realm of mind God had, by leaving the whole course of time to the mercy of an infinity of blind and aimless wills, deposed Himself and enthroned Accident. Hence it became a necessity to belief to introduce some idea of law in history; and the form under which this was attempted to be done was by making the will of God the sole efficient factor of movement and change. His was affirmed to be the one free will, and He foreordained and executed all things according to His good pleasure. While Freedom reigned in heaven, Necessity governed on earth; and men were but pawns in the hands of the Almighty, who moved them whithersoever He willed. This was the principle common to theologies like those of Augustine and Calvin, and to philosophies like those of Spinoza and Leibnitz; but while it made of God the highest reality, it also made illusions of our most real experiences, and turned the most invincible of human beliefs—the beliefs of man in his own freedom—into the unveracity of a nature which could not choose but lie. Such a theory had not, therefore, the secret of continued life within it, and died before the emphasis which came to be progressively laid on the truth of human nature and the reality of human experience.

But though the idea of order be necessary to the scientific views both of nature and of history, yet the order is not in the two cases identical in kind and character. The order of nature is a rigorous uniformity, but the order of history is veiled in an infinite variety. In nature there is a uniform energy, incapable of exhaustion by expenditure or of destruction by change; but in history the cause of movement is though one yet not uniform, and is so highly and variously conditioned as to appear often arbitrary or accidental in action rather than simply contingent. In nature the operative cause necessitates, but in history there are forces that lead as well as forces that drive; and it is here no paradox to say that the power which does not persuade will be unable to compel. Indeed, we may affirm that what appears in the vicissitudes of states or the careers of persons now as fate or necessity, and now as chance or luck, will be found on analysis to be beliefs translated into facts by the energy of some rational will or wills. And this means that the factors of order in history must be stated in the terms of mind rather than of matter, i.e. as reasons and motives, as needs and desires, as beliefs and aims, rather than as forces, static and dynamic. But if mind be the main maker of order in history, then its movement will be progressive, the struggle of mind to realize itself, to be emancipated from the dominion of what is not mind; and, therefore, from the restrictions, physical, political, social, which hinder the development of its immanent ideal, personal and collective. If order be so conceived, then we may define it as the tendency which the reason institutes and governs, but nature and passion now condition, now limit, and now impede, towards the realization of its idea as reason, i.e. the attainment of the highest freedom, or the right of man to be himself, a free man in a free state.

§ III. The Cause of Order in History

1. But so to conceive the order is also to determine how its cause must be conceived. The cause is mind or reason or thought, which, whether it be impersonated in man, embodied in nature, or operative in the forces and tendencies which govern human affairs, is one in essence, cognate in all its forms, and kindred in movement, though varied in manifestation. What is involved in this statement may be briefly thus exhibited.

i. Man is the vehicle of the order; through him as mind it is realized. This does not mean that he is or has always been a being of high or developed intelligence; but only that he must, in however germinal a form, be rational to be man. He may be but potential intellect; but whatever he may be, the energy which compels all life to grow forces the potential to struggle into the actual. In other words, reason must act according to its nature; and its nature is to express and to enshrine itself in forms, customs, laws, institutions, which reflect it and correspond to the stage of growth, culture, or development it has reached. As it is the nature of the normal reason so to behave, this behaviour is not the characteristic of one person, but of all persons; their affinities make their collective action contributory to a common end, though the line along which they act may be indefinitely extended and may here and there bend into the most curious and tortuous curves. The person is thus, by the very idea of him, a social unit, and all his action contributes to modify or develop the social unity.

ii. The man who is reason lives within a rational system and in intercourse with it. The intelligible which is without operates upon the intellect which is within, evoking its energies and stimulating its thought. The action of nature upon mind represents the action not of mere physical forces or material qualities upon the senses of some more or less passive percipient, but of one reason upon another reason. It is a movement in which the subjective reason which is man, and the objective Spirit which weaves the appearances we see Him by, alike participate. The nature which is visible Mind speaks to the man who is embodied spirit.1

iii. Nature, though the earliest, is not the sole Intelligible which acts upon man; man is another. The individual is impossible without the society, and the longer the race lives the more potent grows the power of the past over the present; persons affect persons, who are, in an ever progressive degree, healed, helped, or harmed more by them than by Nature. This means that moral forces are cumulative as well as regulative. It follows that personalities become factors of progress marking man's movement towards civilization; and the philosophy which does not reckon the potent personality as a great generative ethical force will never fully and really render a rational account of human life.2

iv. The race which is conceived to be so constituted does not live in isolation from its Source. The forms that struggle for life can never be separated from their environment. The visible environment of man is twofold, an intelligible nature and a rational and a moral society; but the invisible Environment, the common background of both, is the Spirit whose thought has been aiming in each and through each at ever fuller and more adequate expression. There is nothing so inconsequent and hateful as the atheism which finds God in nature but not in man, in creation but not in history. If we believe that God never ceases to govern, we must conclude that His activity will find a large field for its exercise in human affairs. And if His will be active there, then it is not simply as a directive, but as a creative will, and His peculiar creations are the ideas and ideals that most make for freedom and righteousness. Of course His action is mediate, but it is none the less His that it is through another, by men that it may be for man. It is, too, limited by the intelligence and conditioned by the freedom of the agent, and has in its results all their infinite degrees of capacity and attainment, but still He is the impulse that moves, His the fraction of truth or equity, perhaps infinitesimal, which their elaborate structures have been organized to preserve.

2. Out of the idea, then, of history as a continued creative process due to the continued, though conditioned, activity of the original creative Mind rises the problem we desire to discuss:—By what method and through what agency have the ideas of order and law come into man's life and incorporated themselves first in tribal, then in national, and finally in universal forms? How has it happened that, in spite of the strong tendencies in human nature, personal and social, to selfish preservation and enlargement of being, there has yet been a development of the race towards a wider reason and a nobler mind? The problem, which may be said to be common to all modern speculations, philosophical or theological, concerning the cause, method, and end of human history may be stated in more detail somewhat thus:

i. The course of human society has been to create an order higher than the natural, to substitute an “ethical process,” governed by altruistic principles, for the “cosmic process,” where the weakest goes to the wall and the strongest survives. The course has not been uniform or rapid; but if we take the foremost peoples as the standard of the possibilities in man and in society, then the distance covered by them in the movements from the savage to the civilized state, is simply immeasurable.

ii. Among the most potent factors of human development there stand certain primary impulses, instincts, or passions which, as representing in the human individual and society the same order of facts and forces that create in the lower animals the struggle for life, we may call natural. These primary passions are apparently most potent in the more rudimentary stages of social evolution, where the strong man is the sovereign, and the only order obeyed is his will, while hunger and greed recognize no moral restraints; and they persist in the aggressive selfishness of individuals and the colossal selfishness of classes or States. These passions of ungoverned human nature, which is yet feeling after modes and principles of government, are, up to a certain point, efficient in developing both the personal and the social organism; but when this point is reached, they tend to become forces of disintegration and dissolution. For as forms of mere force their tendency is to evoke forms of countervailing forces, i.e. to beget the private and social vices which, as public injuries, first burden and impoverish the feeble, and then grow heavier burdens than the strong can carry.

iii. If, then, there is to be rational and moral progress, or movement towards a happier and better balanced state of being, it must be by some process or power which subordinates first the individual and then the whole to some higher law than the mere struggle to live, or the hunger that will not be denied food, or the passion that only indulgence can assuage. This higher law may be described as the emergence of an authority that can compel the will of the unit to seek the good of the whole, and the will of the whole to labour for the good of the unit.

iv. This authority must, in the ultimate analysis, be ideal, i.e. an authority which does not repose on mere strength or physical might, but makes its appeal to the reason, and rules by governing men from within, by the categorical imperative which speaks to the conscience, and by the persuasion which constrains the will to seek the better part The authority must be thus ideal in its nature, and ethical in its form, function, and scope: for force, whether natural or institutional in its origin, whether military, sacerdotal, or regal in its kind, can cure no moral ill; and is in its essence only a primary passion become colossal and victorious.

v. The only ideas capable of subduing man's primary passions and aboriginal nature, and creating an order higher than they knew, are ideas which are in harmony with the ideal he incorporates, and which he has evolved in the course of his historical existence. This evolution, though it is a natural, is yet not a purely self-determined process, but is moved from above as well as from within, by the creative will as well as by the creature's. But unless the ideas which are to govern man were germane to his nature, they could not he appropriated by him, or obtain ascendency over him.

vi. Hence comes the problem—Have any ideas of this order grown up at once in and out of the intellectual and moral life of man, i.e. ideas that had the power to master his natural impulses and passions, to penetrate, transfigure, and command the nature which needed to be subdued, and then, by means of the change effected in it, to organize a higher and more ethical society? If so, whence did these ideas come? and what gave them their authority?

vii. But if this be the problem, it is obvious in what direction we must look for a solution, for modern research has proved that the main factor by which the higher ideas and emotions are evoked for incorporation in human conduct, custom or institution is Religion. In it there is expressed a mind which transcends Nature, and reaches out to ideals which Nature alone could not realize. If, then, man and the powers that move him in history are to be understood, we must try to understand the religions. And so we are by the philosophy of history introduced to the philosophy of Religion.

  • 1.

    Ante, pp. 35–37.

  • 2.

    Ante, p. 92.