The Freedom of History
By George L. Burr, President of the American Historical Association, 1915–16
Presidential address read before the American Historical Association, at Cincinnati, December 28, 1916. Published in the American Historical Review 22, no. 2 (January 1917): 253–71.
Books by George L. Burr
When, in my college days, our old professor of philosophy added to his course on the history of philosophy a course on the philosophy of history the boys averred that that was easy enough: he had only to read his old lectures backward. Perhaps, before I am through, it may be as easy to guess why one who has long been a student of the history of freedom now takes for his theme the freedom of history. Not the freedom of the historian. Far be it from me, in this presence, to discuss the liberties taken by historians, or even the liberties sometimes taken with historians. It is of history in her own proper person that I wish to speak.
To a student of the history of freedom it might appear, I admit, on a first glance through the literature of his subject, that the powers which hamper liberty must for long have troubled themselves little about history. But, though her place in the earliest annals of repression is small as compared, say, with that of philosophy, it needs but a moment’s thought to be sure that not one of the sorts of authority—tribal, political, theological, social—among which Sir Frederick Pollock has divided the responsibility for persecution can ever have been indifferent to the study of the past. And, as the inquirer takes up one by one those rude beginnings of record which shed dim light on early human affairs, it presently dawns on him that whatever in them savors of freedom comes not from tolerance, but from monopoly. Soon, too, it dawns on him that, even if in that old day official tradition could have found a rival, that rival could by no means have been history. For, as one studies method and spirit of those old jottings, priestly or royal, rhapsodic or epic, one grows to understand how large a liberty must first come to human thought before the thing we now call history could be born, and why it was no accident that that birth, when at last it came only in the freest of ancient commonwealths at the very acme of its freedom.
The historians of Greek civilization have not failed, indeed, to point out the many steps by which even there that advent was prepared: how the Homeric poems paved the way by their free handling of the gods and of their share in the affairs of men—how Hesiod by his daring to reduce to system myth and legend—how the Ionian philosophers by their new teaching as to the nature and the worth of truth—how Hecataeus by his bold assertion of the right of criticism. But from these to history was yet a mighty stride. Even Hecataeus used free hand only to reject. Topic and matter tradition still supplied him. His story began still with the gods; and from them, unwincing, he traced his own descent.
Then, in the Athens of Pericles, there rose the father of History. Father of the name, he was, as of the thing; and surely seldom, in this world where all things pass by shades into each other, was new departure conceived more clearly or more vividly defined than then was history by Herodotus. Such is just now our emphasis on continuity, which is the condition of all science, that we are in danger of forgetting change, which is the condition of history; and you will pardon me if I pause for a moment on what may seem so tiresomely familiar. “Of the history of Herodotus the Halicarnassian”, so began the pregnant opening sentence that stood to him for preface and introduction, “this is a setting forth”. That word History (ίστορία), which now replaced the verb of simple narration that had still contented Hecataeus, was chosen with care. Set in the forefront like a title and thereby destined to become the current name not only of the book of Herodotus but of the new study it opened, that word was no strange word to his readers. It was only, as we all know, the noun of the familiar verb that meant “to inquire”. What Herodotus meant by it we still call “research”. What he thus emphasized as marking off his book from others was not his subject, but his method. Hecataeus had asserted his freedom of judgment; but that judgment was subjective. Herodotus asserts his freedom of initiative: what he offers is truth sought out and verified. In the land, in the city, where above all is honored the ποιητής, the creator, the artist who can invent and adorn—at Athens, where all things are measured by the standard of “the fair and the good”—Herodotus will set up the new ideal of objective truth, of plodding inquiry. But, if method thus take the foreground, his next words define as clearly the field and the purpose of his book: “Of the research of Herodotus this is a setting forth”, he wrote, “in order that the doings of men may not be obscured by time, nor their achievements, great and wonderful, whether by Greeks or by barbarians wrought, fail of renown”. With research he will enter a field heretofore sacred to religion and to poetry; yet he will concern himself not with the gods, but with the affairs of men. He will narrate great deeds; but not those of his own ancestors, his own city—not those of Athens, the home of his exile—not those of the Greeks, his race and that of his readers. “Whether by Greeks or by barbarians wrought”: he believes in the worth of great deeds for their own sake, and impartially told. Here forsooth is something new. But he has more to say. His is no vague chronicle, beginning and ending nowhere and wandering at the author’s will. As, like a man of science, he has put first his method—as, like a philosopher, he has defined his general aim—so now, like an artist, he seizes him a specific theme, with unity and action of its own. Disdaining all prelude, he launches on the story of that great Graeco-Persian world-struggle he will make central, refusing, even for that, all causes older than the human ones he can himself investigate.
Do we grasp the full significance of his pronouncement? That deed of Herodotus was itself one of the achievements great and wonderful that must not fail of its renown. In all the progress of human thought I know but one transition to match in significance that emancipation of history from poetry: the step, centuries later, by which what we now call natural science turned from the high company of theology and her handmaid philosophy to the humbler but surer path of observation and experiment. In the East, even before Herodotus, the national genius of the Jews had developed, in the study of the past, beginnings of rare promise; but to the end that Hebrew chronicling remained only a Jacob’s ladder, with the angels of God ascending and descending between earth and heaven. Only Greece was ripe for the step of Herodotus; and Greece none too ripe. We who measure his work by that which came after, and note how much there was still in him of the love of story-telling, of naive credulity, of reverence for the gods, forget too often that there were limits to his freedom—that Athens was just passing into the control of the populace, the most conservative of social elements—that, even while he wrote, that populace enacted the law of Diopeithes, which put at the mercy of its juries all who doubted the gods or taught new views—that his friends, an Anaxagoras, a Protagoras, were driven out on that charge.
Herodotus, it is true, was genuinely reverent. The men who open for their fellows the door to a new era—an Augustine, a Dante—must ever be men of reverence. Only such can gain a hearing. But they are also men of tact. Only such can “put it over”. Yet, if Herodotus reverenced the gods, he counted their plans unknown alike to all men. If he credited their oracles, he did not overlook how often they are equivocal or misleading. If he listened to dreams, he distrusted their interpreters and knew that oftenest what men dream is but an echo of their waking thoughts. He first among the Greeks showed reverence for the gods of other lands. Strange tales he told, but often to spice them with a doubt; and, even when most naïve, there was shrewd art in his naïveté. Everywhere he asked for evidence, and everywhere made human eyes and ears its test. From first to last his interest was in human affairs and human deeds; and ever, as his work advanced, he wandered less and less from that great central drama he had made his theme.
So did Herodotus educate his readers; and it is the very measure of his achievement that the greater historian who followed him found history free. Thucydides had need no longer to propitiate an audience. He built on the foundations laid by Herodotus; and, if with incomparably more of insight, judgment, self-restraint, he yet but realized the same ideal. For him, too, the field of history was only human affairs, human achievements. He, too, would reach no farther back than the great world-struggle of his yesterday, and even for that would rest at every point upon research. He, too, and even more clearly than Herodotus, aimed at no mere literary success, but at that sternly true discernment and portrayal of human life which should make his work, as he averted, no momentary triumph, but a κτήμα ές άεί—a thing of worth forever.
Thus high did Thucydides rate the thing we know as history. True, he did not call it by that name; and even Herodotus, though he used that word not only for his research but for the information it brought him, had not so clearly made it cover his narrative itself. But never was literary form less accident than theirs. “Out of purpose and matter is born the form”, said the great historian who a century ago opened a new day for history.1 And in that word the Greek public from the first found a name for the new thing as a whole. Though the word might still be used in its old meaning of research in general, it was already to Aristotle, in the next generation, a technical term. Carefully that master of rhetoric discriminates history from poetry. Their difference, he says, is not that one is prose, the other verse. Herodotus in verse would still be history. But history must relate the things that actually took place, poetry such things as might take place. Poetry’s interest is in the universal, history’s in the particular.2
Truth to fact, interest in the particular: to-day as then that description holds. Already history had won in the republic of letters the citizenship that still is hers. And yet—she went no further. In Thucydides history reached the highest point attained in all antiquity. Though in later Greece and in that Rome which was her pupil there rose many who deserve the historian’s name, their best work, as men agree, was but approximation to what Thucydides had done. Why? Was it in any wise from lack of freedom?
Not of religious freedom. The tact of Herodotus, the self-restraint of Thucydides, had their reward. Athens voted the Halicarnassian not exile but ten talents. It was Socrates the philosopher who went to his death for impiety. But we are growing wiser than to measure the fruits of intolerance by death sentences. The matter is more complex. Even religious intolerance is such, not because religion is so intolerant, but only because intolerance is so religious. The veriest skeptic of us cannot get hot about the collar without dropping into religion for an oath. If we keep our temper, our intolerance, though perhaps as deadly, loses its flavor of piety; and, since now what seems to us shaken is not the pillars of the universe, but only those of society, or perhaps of business, we may substitute for a heresy trial mere starvation through loss of place or of good name. But for the repression of man or of idea there is no need of malice—or of intent. Simple neglect will do as well. And for new ideas there is an attitude more fatal still: kindly inertia. That inertia, I mean, which listens and applauds, but never grasps the point; that inertia which welcomes every new-coined phrase, but uses it not for the new idea, but as a blank check for ideas in general or no idea at all; that inertia which for every new thing must find a place in old categories, though in doing so it trim away its very identity; that inertia which is forever doing the new the honor to lift it into good society by identifying it with something old.
How was it with history among the ancients? A scholar whose special fitness for the task will not be questioned, Hermann Peter, the foremost student of ancient historiography, has devoted a volume to what he deems the cause of that stagnation. He finds the explanation, as have others before him, in the conquest of history by rhetoric. “The general public”, he tells us, “found it more delightful and convenient to listen to a melodious style, an entertaining narrative, and the historians gladly let themselves be led by this current, since it promised the greater applause.”3 Parting company with philosophy, its fellow in the search for truth, what still called itself history became the tool of the politician, the advocate, the popular lecturer, the literary artist—of all who would win by its means a selfish end. They talked still of research, but it was for rhetorical effect. They took their story as they found it, if only they could delight the popular taste. Herodotus and Thucydides were still admired; but it was for their style or their success. Now and then a bold thinker, such as Polybius, rose again to the great thought of the masters and prized historical truth; but not even such could free themselves from slavery to rhetoric—its demands absorbed their best time and effort. Thus Hermann Peter; and, though his colors are dark, few will question their essential truth who remember the rooted aestheticism of Graeco-Roman culture.
The historian, then, was not yet wholly free. Herodotus and Thucydides had won for history a hearing, and for themselves a fame that tempted imitators. They had not created for it a public; and without a public there could be, for the mass of scholars, no economic freedom. That the bar was economic, at least in great part, is suggested not alone by the gap between ideals and practice—what nobler ideal for the truth of history could there be than that which Cicero declares the accepted one, to dare no falsehood nor conceal a truth nor be suspect of favor or of guile?4—but by what we know of the financial fortunes of those who approached most nearly such ideals. Herodotus and Thucydides were men of family and doubtless of estate, able to travel and writing in the leisure and the detachment of exile. So, too, of course, was Polybius, the guest-friend of the Scipios. The statesman Caesar, the courtier Tacitus, the retired officer Ammianus, were, like them, favorites of fortune—or knew how to master fortune. If even for these the tide had grown too strong, where should ordinary men find encouragement or means for the search of documents, the verification of evidence, the patient sifting and weighing? Whence could come the chairs, the endowments, the libraries and archives, the public subsidies, while as yet no public demand existed? The ten talents granted by Athens to Herodotus did not prove a precedent; and even they were doubtless a crowning of the patriot, the artist, rather than the historian.
But, back of all this, why? Why no public? Why no demand? What thus for centuries enslaved and sterilized history was, I am convinced, no set antipathy, no ill will at all. It was mere inertia. No age ever needed history more; but this age had failed to grasp its nature and its worth. The standards of the age were those of art, and it asked only that history be “raised to an art”. And one remembers how Guizot ascribes the short life of ancient civilizations to their want of variety in institutions and ideals.
It was Christianity, thinks Hermann Peter, that freed history from rhetoric and restored truth to the throne. Alas, what that new age enthroned was not truth, but the Truth. In the field of morals, it is true, the new faith taught sincerity. True, too, its earliest teachers, filled with their message, were impatient of rhetoric and even of grammar, boasting themselves lovers not of words but of things. True, its philosopher apologists, led to the new religion by that search for truth still taught by philosophy, and finding in it the goal of their search, asked for it nothing but freedom and fancied it needed only a hearing to convert the world. True, the imperial convert who at last endowed it with the longed-for freedom based his act on the premise that Heaven itself would have religions free. Moreover, Christianity was an historical religion: its basis not a cosmogony or a priestly code or a series of visions or a metaphysical system, but the story of a life—its prime documents a group of biographies. And these biographies linked the story of the master to the long annals of his people, whose history, like their law, their poetry, and the lofty teaching of their prophets, became the heritage of the younger faith. In that Hebrew literature, which carried them back to the very creation, and in the world-wide outlook of their own aspiring sect, Christian scholars now found inspiration for the first thought of a history truly universal, and with zeal took up the great task of knitting into a single story the chronologies of Orient and Occident.
But—to Christian historians the biographies which were the starting-point of that Christian historiography were the record of no merely human life. That long history which was now their preamble was the sacred story of the chosen people, with its Jacob’s ladder forever linking earth to heaven. The central actor was Jehovah, now the God of all the earth. About that story and its culmination in the Gospels all other history must now fall into place; and from the sacred record—for the record too is sacred—may be learned the plans of the Omnipotent. It was Jerome who now found them in the interpretations and the visions of Daniel—in the image with head of gold and belly of brass, in the four great beasts that came up out of the sea—and from his day on almost to ours the changing empires of earth have been forced to find a place within that scheme. Whatever in non-sacred annals was found in conflict with Holy Writ must be discarded. What was left must be adjusted to its words. Man’s career on earth became a fall. Nor might human wit exalt itself: Pythagoras and Plato had learned from Moses, Seneca from Paul.
Yet history was still of moment, and earth was still its scene. But when the religious genius of Augustine, turning with disdain from earthly story, centred all interest on a State of God which filled the universe, and traced from revelation its career, even from the primal counsels of eternity to the ultimate goal of prophecy in the New Jerusalem, leaving to earth and time but a poor midway span—when even in that earthly span man’s place was but a puppet’s, his impulses the voice of guardian angel or besetting fiend, and all the spheres ’twixt Empyrean and Hell the battleground of God and Satan—when, to the growing exegesis of the Church, not even Holy Writ itself was prized for the poor literal facts of history, but for those deeper meanings, allegorical, moral, anagogical, mystical, to be discerned beneath: then history, like all else, was lost in theology.
The Middle Age did not dissever them. Nay, to forbid it there grew to completeness that consummate preserver of the unity of thought, the procedure against heresy. And to the end of that long age of faith history did not escape the paternal eye. Yet even through that age history lived on. Great was often her freedom in all that lay beyond the line of sacred. Ever and again a biographer or a contemporary historian—an Einhard or a Nithard in the ninth century, a Villehardouin or a Joinville in the thirteenth—showed how vigorous still could be the interest in human affairs and human deeds. All through that age one finds by snatches abundant proof of the same impulse. And long before the ending of that age the clergy’s scribbling habit was heaping up materials that should one day prove rich for history. That they did not fruit in history then was due, I am convinced, far less to intolerance than to inertia. Revelation sufficed. “For we Christians”, Augustine had said, “stayed by divine authority in the history of our religion, doubt not the utter falsehood of whatever contravenes it, and know that whatever else there be in secular writings, true or false, is of no moment to our right and blessed living.” “Stayed by divine authority”: ah, that was what contented the Middle Ages. What room in any soul for interest in human affairs when all the history worth while had been worked out and made a part of the great scheme of salvation? What need of insight or research when history had been “raised to a philosophy”?
Even when the Middle Ages waned, the revived study of the ancients and the rise of a lay republic of letters did not at first, one must confess, greatly advantage the freedom of history. The courtier humanist charged with a biography of his princely patron or a history of his dynasty, the humanist chancellor commissioned by the city fathers to write the history of the town, was perhaps less free to find or tell the truth than had been the churchly chronicler unhampered by hereditary lords or local vanity. The audience, too, was humanist, and the tyranny of rhetoric, never wholly dispelled throughout the Middle Ages, now reasserted itself with double power. It was the humanist historian’s very function to make the glories of his prince or of his city a vehicle for the display of the Latin style to which he owed his post. And if history, thus again an art, a branch of literature, dared in a field so secular to shun the mention of ecclesiastical miracle and even to forget the great plan of salvation, it was too often to borrow from the ancients a strange varnish of omen and of prodigy.
But, little by little, the two civilizations thus face to face brought reciprocal emancipation. The scholars forced to trim between the two grew critical of both. A Petrarch sifting for a Luxemburg emperor the Austrian charters, a Valla detecting for Alfonso of Naples the absurdity of the Donation of Constantine, might still reach only the results their lords desired; but they reached them by methods sound and full of startling suggestiveness. And when a Valla, thus accredited, but at no master’s beck, found flaws as well in sainted Vulgate and in scarce less sainted Livy, the age of free inquiry had dawned. In that new atmosphere of intellectual alertness, there came now to the helm in Church and State men of keen vision and of open mind. For three-quarters of a century there ripened in Italy and spread through Europe a freedom of thought and speech not reached again till our day. The growing zeal for knowledge found employment for others than dilettanti; and at Rome, where world-wide interests and rich archives offered the scholar yet another freedom, there now dawned once more upon a plodding functionary the great thought of Herodotus. Flavio Biondo was no genius like the Greek; but his honest soul had caught the meaning of research, and the fruits his years of downright toil wrung from the fallow medieval centuries stirred abler minds to imitation. A humanist pope, himself no mean historian, gave Biondo’s labors vogue by an abridgment in more flowing Latin. A humanist librarian of the Vatican used his treasures for a history of the popes which in its chatty frankness forgot both rhetoric and religious awe. And while there thus revived at Rome, and soon beyond the Alps, the spirit of Herodotus, there was born again in free and democratic Florence the spirit of Thucydides. A Machiavelli, a Guicciardini, a Varchi, brought to bear upon the history of earlier days and of their own the trained political experience and social insight gained by touch with practical affairs. And even before such models could exert their charm, the keen eyes of a Philippe de Commines were busy in France and Burgundy, and Venice was extorting from her diplomats such masterpieces of political alertness as attest how ripe the time was growing.
Nor from that day has history languished. To her freedom there came, indeed, sudden check with the great religious reaction we call the Reformation. Once more human affairs sank into insignificance. Less by far than that of the older church did the theology of Luther or Calvin accord reality or worth to human effort. Luther valued history, it is true, but only as a divine lesson; and Melanchthon set himself to trace in it the hand of God, adjusting all its teachings to the need of Protestant dogma. Had either Papist or Lutheran brought unity to Christendom, history again must have become the handmaid of theology. But, while the struggle lasted, both sides had other use for her. And now it came to history’s profit that Christianity is an historical religion. Not in the court of metaphysics, but at the bar of sober fact, had Protestant and Catholic to make good their charges and their claims; and by such evidence as should not only quiet the devout but rout opponents and convince the hesitant. At bottom, too, they were honest and earnest men who strove, convinced each of the soundness of his cause and eager to prove it by research. To discomfit the Magdeburg centuriators a Baronius printed wholesale the archives of the Vatican. To rescue what could yet be saved of the prestige of the saints the Bollandists outdid their Calvinist critics in relentless sifting of the legends. Contemporary annalists vied with each other in savage suspicion—and in documentation. Soon on both sides came internal rivalries: Calvinist impeached Lutheran, and Anglican Calvinist—Benedictine rallied to defend against Jesuit his ancient charters. And on all sides this wealth of study brought keener insight, fairer judgment, deeper interest in human affairs.
Were my theme the freedom, not of history, but of the historian, there would be another tale to tell: how a Christendom divided into camps made travel perilous, hampered research, cut short the intercourse of scholars; how Inquisition was reinforced by Index, and State united with Church for the muzzling of the press; how the civil power, leaned on yet more heavily by Protestant than Catholic, put at the beck of religious party all its means of repression, and how, as religious passion died and religious conviction grew hollow, that civil power made religious pretext serve its own ends and built up for the State a repression more unscrupulous. But, if the works of Guicciardini, left unpublished at his death, could see print only after mutilation, and Varchi’s must wait two centuries for print at all—if even old Platina must find place upon the Index—if Giannone atoned for his history of Naples by ending his days in a Savoyard dungeon, or even in Switzerland Johann von Müller must fend off the censor by making Bern read Boston in his imprint—such things as these but muzzled history. In their own way they were, indeed, a tribute to her success and her importance; and, though for a time they made historians cautious and often silent, the time came when such censures were the fortune of a book, and publishers intrigued for them to quicken sales. Under the very shelter of that censorship the churchly scholars worked out the sciences of research and piled up great tomes of sifted record which should one day equip both friend and foe; and in defiance of that censorship unchurchly scholars—Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire—shut out from the archives of states and churches, broadened history to the story of civilization and made it teach the experience of mankind. Kings were their disciples; and, however vigorously the “enlightened despots” wielded still the censorship in their own defense, they called historians to university chairs and to the keeping of their libraries and archives.
Even the French Revolution, which swept their work away and would fain wipe all things out to build them new, proved no serious interruption. The problems born of its new freedom, the wider interests bred by its democracy, the sobering lessons taught by its collapse, stirred in its sons an appetite for history to match that of its reactionary foes; and, in its sweep over Europe, it had sequestered everywhere for public use treasures of book and manuscript which now for the first time became accessible to the world of scholars. And in the train of this cataclysm came the great inventions and administrative devices—postal system and steamship, railway and telegraph—which have yet more freed the historian from the bonds of time and space. Of what these have made possible in the century behind us I do not need to speak: of the organization of historians, the great enterprises, national and international, the subsidies of governments, the aid from institutions of learning—the co-operation of neighbor studies—of the resulting wealth of production, the broadening of history’s scope, the democratizing of all her interests. The new friends brought, indeed, new perils. How Napoleon dealt with history and historians is a commonplace. The “Göttingen seven” may remind us of the temper of the Reaction. ’48 had too its martyrs, among them Mommsen. What indignant religion still could do is suggested by the academic careers of Strauss and Renan—to come no nearer. State endowments and state professorships have brought the state new power to reward or punish. Prizes, orders, decorations, social preferment, have proved an influence sometimes more seductive—and not unused. The Roman Index still persists, revised and rejuvenated at the opening of the twentieth century by the same pope who opened to scholars the treasures of the Vatican; and only last year saw placed upon it the latest volume of the most scholarly of church historians. Nor is all clear sailing ahead. The Polizeistaat of present-day Europe is no Elysium of intellectual freedom, as we shall know when some day it is safe to tell its story; nor are the rising theories of collectivism much more reassuring than those of state omnipotence. To any who think our easy-going America is at bottom more tolerant let me commend the essay in which one of our own number has over the shoulders of Kansas laid playful lash on our society as a whole.5 How fragile is all liberty in time of stress we need just now no reminder; and I trust that the doughty publisher who has given us so fair-minded a history of the censorship of the Church may survive to attempt a study which will more severely test his impartiality—on the censorship of the present war.
But through all this, though historians have suffered, history herself has come unscathed. Her conception of her task has deepened and broadened. The sciences of nature and of mind have relieved her of much that she once thought it hers to explain. The new sciences of society have enriched her with a background and are daily illumining her results by theirs. She herself is learning to ply at need their methods and has thus bridged many a gap. But she is still free to make her central task that of Herodotus and Thucydides, of Biondo and Guicciardini: her method research, her theme human experience and human effort, her aim to understand and to portray.
Yet no. From the side of our neighbors who are devoted to the method of study which in our day has monopolized the name of science, and from the great and growing public whose intellectual habits have been shaped by this, there has come again and again a demand that history be “raised to a science”. It has found spokesmen not only in men of science, but among historians themselves. Sometimes these have been content with refusing to history a scientific rank; but oftener, denying it all worth, they have proposed to assimilate its method to theirs or to adopt its name for their own science. Thus Auguste Comte a century ago would turn it into sociology; and, in like fashion since, the adepts of one and another study. Only the other day a colleague of our own, in a learned and thoughtful booklet, claimed its name for anthropology.6
Let it not be thought that I deprecate such discussion. Discussion is above all things to be welcomed, and deep should be our gratitude to those who meet us on its plane. Let us learn from them all we can. What I deprecate is only that inertia which does not take the trouble to think, but is always for whatever seems to make its intellectual labor easy by levelling distinctions. How in antiquity that inertia “raised” history to an art, how in the Middle Age to a philosophy, I have tried to tell you. Even in success the laziness of that inertia showed its cloven foot; for the art imposed on history was not true art, but conventional artifice—the philosophy that smothered history was not free speculation, but veiled authority. From the point of view of art or of philosophy, history, if approached in freedom by thinking men, could well have vindicated her right to be. And to-day it is not against any effort to test her scientific worth that she demurs, but against the imposition upon her, by those who have not waited to understand what she herself is about, of a method born of other needs and meant for other ends—a method itself not free from metaphysical taint, and often, as urged on history, a cloak but too transparent for the yea or nay of dogma.
The rise, among students of these sciences, of such an attitude is not hard to explain. While as yet it was history alone that studied the past her name came to be used, in current speech, not only for all study of the past, but for the past itself; and, when the rising sciences learned too to use “the historical method”—to study things in their becoming as well as in their being—they too in this sense studied history. As man is of course a child of nature, he too came within the scope of these sciences; and, while biology and anthropology thus studied man’s career as animal, the new sciences of society took fruitful cognizance, and by a kindred method, of his development in family and tribe, community and race, and the systematic sciences of mind dealt with all the phases and activities of his intellectual life. What wonder that those devoted to this method of study have found it hard to see what place is left for history? To make that word cover all study of the past would make it inclusive of all sciences; and, recognizing that history has had special connection with things human, they have assumed its narrower field to be the human past and that whatever studies the human past is history. But this is rash. Not so has science grown. The sciences, like the arts, were born of practical needs. Their fields were not cut four-square out of the blue, like a western state or a theme for a doctor’s thesis. They did but stumble on them, playing with the tools of the busy arts after the day’s work. What justified them then, what justifies them now, is not their fitting into any scheme for the division of knowledge, but the worth of what they seek and their effectiveness in seeking it. The formal sciences, mathematics and logic, deal with all that is; but they do not shut out physics, nor physics chemistry, nor these biology, from a like free range. There is no study that is but may throw light upon the past of man. That for his knowledge of that past man needs physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, goes without saying. It nowise follows that these or any of these are history, or that history is not needed too. What history is, what history is for, must be asked of history herself.
But here perhaps our scientific neighbor interrupts: “Of history herself? Ah, you mean historiography.” Well, to shelve as historiography what has so long been known as history and then to borrow the ancient name for some new use of her materials, reminds me, I confess, of that old derivation of Middletown from Moses—by dropping -oses and adding -iddletown. But what, then, has that old-fashioned history to say for herself? Why should she still be free? Freedom is not air or sunlight, ample for all. Freedom is elbow-room—and elbow-room in a crowd. Why in this huddled, hustling world should that old history take space or time?
It does not depend on whether that history is a science or an art or a philosophy or mixed of all or apart fro.m all. All these may be ways to truth. Such classifications describe; they do not prescribe. To the logicians themselves their boundaries are shadowy. Benedetto Croce, who seems once to have reckoned history a science, a dozen years ago pronounced it art, and later has identified it with philosophy. But by a science he did not mean a natural science; when he called it art he added “but without loss of loyalty to fact”; and when he declared it philosophy he explained that this is only when philosophy has become history.7 These are but a poet’s discernings of the underlying unity of truth, and mean to us in practice no more than when his opponent Aliotta tells us that “the severance commonly made between history and philosophy and history and science is a practical device justified by the limited nature of the human mind” and that “to a thought capable of taking in at once all the universal and special determinations in the single fact there would be no such thing as a plurality of sciences, there would be only science, that is to say philosophy, which would also have the concreteness of history”.8 To a philosopher, whose function it is to see existence as a whole and interpret it to his own generation, such vistas matter much; but to us who still toil with our nets in the ocean of truth they are not the lights of port, but only the far glimmer of the dawn.
Yet, in the fruits of our toil, even our neighbors have seen some use. Professor Ritchie has called history the laboratory of politics; and I suppose that all the studies which deal with human affairs would grant to it this lowly task of hewer of wood. More reassuring has been what in these latter days philosophy has learned from studying what history actually is and does. Even Henri Berr, the clever realist who, while the idealists were writing books, founded instead a review,9 tells us, in the volume in which at the end of a decade he sums up his teachings and urges the substitution of sociology for what has hitherto been called history, that “it cannot be denied that history responds to needs profound and immediate, distinct both from aesthetic curiosity and from the curiosity” which he counts “properly scientific”. There is, he says, “a sort of vital instinct”, common alike to peoples and to individuals, which interests them in their ancestors and in the past, and which “tends, so to speak, to root and perpetuate their moral being”. Wherefore he is inclined to think that, even after his new science has taken shape, “this description of the past, this empirical reconstruction of vanished reality”, will not be wholly useless.10
Much more encouraging to history are the findings of that new idealism which in its multitudinous forms, on both sides of the Channel and of the Atlantic has been the most notable movement of present-day thought. Not only do its spokesmen find history fundamental to those “sciences of mind” which they now sharply discriminate in aim and method from the “sciences of nature”, but they rate it a science itself, though with a method of its own, and have set themselves at formulating the logic of that method. If some in their zeal have gone too far in restricting its processes to those peculiar to itself, it is much to have recognized these and their worth. But, though they rate high its quest of knowledge, these thinkers discern in history something more. Already in 1883 Dilthey, in his foundation-laying “Introduction to the Sciences of Mind”, pointed out that the experience we broaden through history, the life we live in it, is of a piece with our own living, and, like it, not a means, but an end in itself;11 and others, developing this thought, have shown how only through thus coming into touch with life in all its concrete complexity, with life in process of being lived, can men or peoples enter into fullness of living.12 And they point out how over and above the dramatic interest, the compelling power, which history shares with the great creations of literature (they too reproductions of life), there is in history another and a special potency because of its reality—the one wholly concrete reality with which human study deals.13 Thus has the systematic thought of our day seemed to arrive at what was urged a century ago by Wilhelm von Humboldt and a-generation ago by the great English historian and teacher of history who taught that history’s highest use is in itself, its object not primarily knowledge, but “travel, acquaintance, experience, life”.
But to the student of freedom there reveals itself in history another value—a value that makes the freedom of history vital to us all. To point it out is the culmination of my message. It is that on the freedom in history and so, perforce, on the freedom of history—all our other freedom rests.
Let me illustrate.
On the altar of her method of study [writes the eloquent sociologist Gumplowicz], sociology sacrifices—man. He, the lord of creation, the author of historical events as the historians think, he who as monarch or as minister guides according to his will the destiny of peoples ... sinks away, in sociology, to a meaningless cipher. In complete contradiction to the portrayals of the historians even the mightiest statesman is for the point of view of the sociologist only a blind tool in the invisible but all-powerful hand of his social group, which itself in turn only follows an irresistible law of nature.14
Now, if this be true and if the method of sociology be all, of what use for even the mightiest statesman to exert himself? Of what use for him to study sociology? Yet even Gumplowicz surely was not writing for the mere joy of utterance. He hoped for readers, and for readers who would act upon his teachings. Even he assumes and builds upon a freedom which for the method of sociology does not exist. For what study does it exist? Only for history. For literature, yes; but only as literature borrows from history—and would grow fantastic if not held forever to the test of history. What Gumplowicz affirms for sociology he would unquestionably affirm for every systematic science, from physics to psychology.
Yet this freedom nobody denies. I am not dealing in metaphysics. I am not talking of what is called “the freedom of the will”. I speak of a practical freedom, recognized alike by determinist and indeterminist—nay, it is the determinist who just now is the more strenuous in his insistence on this freedom of action and of choice. Without it there could be, of course, no worth in foresight, no use in education. Without it all other freedom, of voice or pen, would be a mockery. Whatever may explain or lie behind it, who will question that on it rests all purpose, effort, character?
That all those who speak for the sciences of nature and of society are as extreme in statement as Gumplowicz I am far from saying. That some day their sciences, too, will give more thought to the individual I do not doubt. But that their method of study—the method now urged on history—has ignored his freedom is patent. Take the books of even the most strenuous believers in that freedom. Take that eloquent survey of anthropology with which Eduard Meyer has prefaced his great history of antiquity, though protesting against any confusion of the two studies and jealously guarding history’s point of view. See how in it men and peoples seem mere victims of the great abstractions—how all things do themselves. Then turn and read the pages of his history. But why should not the sciences of law have their own method? How else could they have mastered for us that overwhelming universe of which it was theirs to give us rational conception? In all that universe there is only a single being—man—to whom we need give other thought as well. That for man we need it is not—and herein lies a fundamental misconception of history’s critics—because we count him better or other than the rest of nature. It is only because of the accident that we ourselves are men. Were we oysters or cabbages instead, it would be oysterdom or cabbagedom that thus concerned us. But, being men, and having to be men, there is for us in human life a something for which we need and have a special key. It is the sphere of freedom. Measured by bulk, that sphere is small indeed; and science after science—anthropology, sociology, anthropogeography, psychology individual and social—has cut down what we thought its limits. But in exact proportion to this narrowing has risen for us its importance; for, small or great, it measures our significance.
Who does not remember Mark Twain’s first diary: “Got up, washed, went to bed,—Got up, washed, went to bed”? Why is it so funnily stupid? It is all true. It is all important—to the anthropologist. A science based on it would answer perfectly the test of Auguste Comte—“knowledge, whence foreknowledge”. But why care for foreknowledge? Surely, for science, which is timeless, after-knowledge is as good. Auguste Comte himself makes answer: “knowledge, whence foreknowledge; foreknowledge, whence action.”15 Action? Even to Auguste Comte, then, life is, above all, an art.
And who can question it? How does its every activity win from us that name as soon as it gains its freedom: the art of courtesy, the art of conversation, the art of coquetry, the art of persuasion, the art of diplomacy, the art of leadership. Life—the life that counts, the life of freedom—is made up of such. Life is the sum of all the arts. But life should be yet more. For it must knit and blend all these into a higher art, the art of living, and with finest sense for beauty as for use.
How does one learn an art? One may use science, indeed. For any art one does well to equip one’s self with knowledge of its elements and laws. But who would stop—or start—with these? One goes straight to art itself. One shares its work; one lives its life. One learns by imitation; by all that mingled wealth of admiration, repulsion, suggestion, adaptation, that springs from the immediate touch of life with life. But back of this: whence comes creative impulse? Where is freedom born? Long ago that question was answered. “It is life that quickeneth.” We, whose craft it is to make men men, know well how before all training must come the vital touch that kindles interest, that stirs endeavor.
In our day again a great French sociologist has set men thinking. To Gabriel Tarde it is imitation that is the substance of our lives. But he does not restrict its action to lives contiguous: “its influence is exerted”, he says, “not only from great distances, but over great intervals of time”—“between Lycurgus and a member of the French Convention, between the Roman painter of a Pompeian fresco and the modern decorator whom it inspires.” “Imitation”, he declares, “is generation at a distance.”16 And back of imitation he finds in life what is yet more important: the source of all imitation—and its goal as well. This he calls “invention”.17 I think we know it better as initiative. And this, whence comes all social change, like imitation, whence comes social order, he traces ever to the individual life. Now, the individual life—private or public, life of individual man or individual group—lives on in history alone. That life of imitation and initiative she alone makes central. Her method partakes of art, not from disloyalty to science, but because this life of freedom is itself an art, and only by art can be interpreted or shared.
But long, long ago, ages before the slow eye of science had begun to espy this, the sound instinct of human kind had found in life itself the school for action. Religion had caught its lessons, and, endowing with man’s life and freedom the elemental powers, had written those lessons on the skies. Poetry took up the message, and, first of the arts, wrought out in winged words her visions of how on earth that life, that freedom, had been incarnate in heroes. But, as that freedom ripened, there came a day when on a thoughtful exile, watching how freemen gather experience in a world of fact and how a high-souled statesman moves them to great deeds, there broke another vision. Then, in the Athens of Pericles, there rose the father of History.
George Lincoln Burr (1857–1938) received his PhD from Cornell University in 1881, where he taught ancient and medieval history until 1922. He also served as librarian at Cornell from 1888 until his death in 1938. He is best remembered for an article published in the American Historical Review, "Year 1000 and the Antecedents of the Crusades" (1901), that provided a key overview of the scholarship and disproved a number of myths. [back to top]
4. Cicero, De Oratore, II. 15: “Quis nescit primam esse historiae legem, ne quid falsi dicere audeat? Deinde ne quid veri non audeat? Ne quae suspicio gratiae sit in scribendo? Ne quae simultatis? Haec scilicet fundamenta nota sunt omnibus.” [back to text]
7. Benedetto Croce, Il Concetto della Storia (second ed., Rome, 1896); Estetica (Milan, 1902), p. 29 (p. 44 of Douglas Ainslie’s English translation, London, 1909); and pp. 213–215 of his chapter on the function of logic in Arnold Ruge’s Encyclopaedie der Philosophischen Wissenschaften, I. (Tübingen, 1912). [back to text]
14. Ludwig Gumplowicz, Sociologie und Politik (Leipzig, 1892), p. 54: “Auf dem Akar ihrer Erkenntnis opfert die Sociologie—den Menschen! Er, der Herr der Schöpfung, der Urheber historischer Ereignisse nach der Meinung der Historiker, der als Monarch oder Minister die Geschicke der Vö1ker nach seinem Willen lenkt ... er sinkt in der Sociologie zu einer bedeutunglosen Null herab. Ganz im Gegensatz zu den Schilderungen der Historiker ist für die Betrachtungsweise des Sociologen auch der mächtigste Staatsmann nur ein blindes Werkzeug in der unsichtbaren aber übermächtigen Hand seiner socialen Gruppe, die selber wieder nur einem unwiderstehlichen socialen Naturgesetze folgt.” [back to text]
15. “Science, d’où prévoyance; prevoyance, d’où action: telle est la formule très-simple qui exprime, d’une manière exacte, la relation générale de la science et de l’art.” Cours de Philosophie Positive (Paris, 1830), I. 63. [back to text]
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