What Is History?
Chapters 1 and 2
by E. H. Carr
Balliol College, Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge
I Often Think It Odd That It Should Be So Dull, For A Great Deal Of It Must Be Invention - Catherine Morland on History
I. The Historian and His Facts
WHAT is history ? Lest anyone think the question meaningless or superfluous, I will take as my text two passages relating respectively to the first and second incarnations of the Cambridge Modern History. Here is Acton in his report of October 1896 to the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press on the work which he had undertaken to edit:
It is a unique opportunity of recording, in the way most useful to the greatest number, the fullness of the knowledge which the nineteenth century is about to bequeath.... By the judicious division of labour we should be able to do it, and to bring home to every man the last document, and the ripest conclusions of international research.
Ultimate history we cannot have in this generation; but we can dispose of conventional history, and show the point we have reached on the road from one to the other, now that all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution.
And almost exactly sixty years later Professor Sir George Clark, in his general introduction to the second Cambridge Modern History , commented on this belief of Acton and his collaborators that it would one day be possible to produce 'ultimate history', and went on:
Historians of a later generation do not look forward to any such prospect. They expect their work to be superseded again and again. They consider that knowledge of the past has come down through one or more human minds, has been 'processed' by them, and therefore cannot consist of elemental and impersonal atoms which nothing can alter.... The exploration seems to be endless, and some impatient scholars take refuge in scepticism, or at least in the doctrine that, since all historical judgements involve persons and points of view, one is as good as another and there is no 'objective' historical truth.
Where the pundits contradict each other so flagrantly, the held is open to inquiry. I hope that I am sufficiently up-to-date to recognize that anything written in the 1890s must be nonsense. But I am not yet advanced enough to be committed to the view that anything written in the 1950s necessarily makes sense. Indeed, it may already have occurred to you that this inquiry is liable to stray into something even broader than the nature of history. The clash between Acton and Sir George Clark is a reflection of the change in our total outlook on society over the interval between these two pronouncements. Acton speaks out of the positive belief, the clear-eyed self-confidence, of the later Victorian age; Sir George Clark echoes the bewilderment sad distracted scepticism of the beat generation. When we attempt to answer the question 'What is history?’ our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live. I have no fear that my subject may, On closer inspection, seem trivial. I am afraid only that I may seem presumptuous to have broached a question so vast and so important.
The nineteenth century was a great age for facts.’ What I want', said Mr. Gradgrind in Ward Times, 'is Facts.... Facts alone are wanted in life.' Nineteenth-century historians on the whole agreed with him. When Ranke in the 1830s, in legitimate protest against moralizing history, remarked that the task of the historian was 'simply to show how it really was ( wei es eigentlich gewesen )', this not very profound aphorism had an astonishing success. Three generations of German, British, and even French historians marched into battle intoning the magic words 'Wieu eigendich gewesen ' like an incantation - designed, like most incantations, to save them from the tiresome obligation to think for themselves. The Positivists, anxious to stake out their claim for history as a science, contributed the weight of their influence to this cult of facts. First ascertain the facts, said the Positivists, then draw your conclusions from them. In Great Britain, this view of history fitted in perfectly with the empiricist addition which was the dominant strain in British philosophy from Locke to Bertrand Russell. The empirical theory of knowledge presupposes a complete separation between subject and object. Pacts, like sense- impressions, impinge on the observer from outside and are independent of his consciousness. The process of reception is passive: having received the data, he then acts on them. The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, a useful but tendentious work of the empirical school, clearly marks the separateness of the two processes by defining a fact as 'a datum of experience as distinct from conclusions'. This is what may be called the common-sense view of history. History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fish monger's slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him. Acton, whose culinary tastes were austere, wanted them served plain. In his letter of instructions to contributors to the first Cambridge Modem History he announced the requirement 'that our Waterloo must be one that satisfies French and English, German and Dutch alike; that nobody can tell, without examining the list of authors, where the Bishop of Oxford laid down the pen and whether Fairbairn or Gasquet, Liebermann or Harrison took it up'. Even Sir George Clark critical as he was of Acton’s attitude, himself contrasted the hard core of facts in history with the surrounding pulp of disputable interpretation - forgetting perhaps that the pulpy part of the fruit is more rewarding than the hard core. First get your facts straight, then plunge at your peril into the shifting sands of interpretation - that is the ultimate wisdom of the empirical, common- sense school of history. It recalls the favourite dictum of the great liberal journalist C. P. Scott: 'Facts are sacred, opinion is free.'
Now this clearly will not do. I shall not embark on a philosophical discussion of the nature of our knowledge of the past. Let us assume for present purposes that the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and the fact there is a table in the middle of the room are of the same or of a comparable order, that both these facts enter our consciousness in the same or in a comparable manner, and that both have the same objective character in relation to the person who knows them. But, even on this bold and not very plausible assumption, our argument at mice runs into the difficulty that not all facts about the past are historical facts, or are treated as such by the historian. What is the criterion which distinguishes the facts of history from other fan about the past?
What is a historical fact? This is a crucial question into which we must look a little more closely. According to the commonsense view, there are certain basic facts which are the same for all historians and which form, so to speak, the backbone of history - the fact, for example, that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. But this view calls for two observations. In the first place, it is not with facts like these that the historian is primarily concerned. It is no doubt important to know that the great battle was fought in 1066 and not in 1065 or 1067, and that it was fought at Hastings and not at Eastbourne or Brighton. The historian must not get these things wrong. But when points of this kind are raised, I am reminded of Housman's remark that 'accuracy is a duty, not a virtue'. To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber or properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function. It is precisely for matters of this kind that the historian is entitled to rely on what have been called the 'auxiliary sciences' of history archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, chronology, and so forth. The historian is not required to have the special skills which enable the expert to determine the origin and period of a fragment of pottery or marble, to decipher an obscure inscription, or to make the elaborate astronomical calculations necessary to establish a precise date. These so-called basic facts, which are the same for all historians, commonly belong to the category of the raw materials of the historian rather than of history itself. The second observation is that the necessity to establish these basic facts rests not on any quality in the facts themselves, but on an a priori decision of the historian. In spite of C. P. Scott's motto, every journalist knows today that the most effective way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts. It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts, speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the door, and in what order or context. It was, I think, one of Pirandello's characters who said that a fact is like a sack - it won't stand up till you've put something in it, The only reason why we are interested to know that the battle was fought at Hastings in 1066 is that historians regard it as a major historical event. It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar's crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all. The fact that you arrived in this building half an hour ago on foot, or on a bicycle, or in a car, is just as much a fact about the past as the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. But it will probably be ignored by historians. Professor Talcott Parsons once called science 'a selective system of cognitive orientations to reality'. It might perhaps have been put more simply. But history is, among other things, that. The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.
Let us take a look at the process by which a mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history. At Stalybridge Wakes in 1850, a vendor of gingerbread, as the result of some petty dispute, was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob. Is this a fact of history? A year ago I should unhesitatingly have said 'no'. It was recorded by an eye- witness in some little- known memoirs; but I had never seen it judged worthy of mention by any historian. A year ago Dr Kitson Clark cited it in his Ford lectures in Oxford. Does this make it into a historical fact? Not, I think, yet. Its present status, I suggest, is that it has been proposed for membership of the select club of historical facts. It now awaits a seconder and sponsors. It may be that in the course of the next few years we shall see this fact appearing first in footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books about nineteenth- century England, and that in twenty or thirty years' time it may be a well-established historical fact. Alternatively, nobody may take it up, in which case it will relapse into the limbo of unhistorical facts about the past from which Dr Kitson Clark has gallantly attempted to rescue it. What will decide which of these two things will happen? It will depend, I think, on whether the thesis or interpretation in support of which Dr Kitson Clark cited this incident is accepted by other historians as valid and significant. Its status as a historical fact will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fact of history.
May I be allowed a personal reminiscence. When I studied ancient history in this university many years ago, I had as a special subject 'Greece in the period of the Persian Wars'. I collected fifteen or twenty volumes on my shelves and took it far granted that there, recorded in these volumes, I had all the facts relating to my subject. Let us assume - it was very nearly true - that those volumes contained all the facts about it that were then known, or could be known. It never occurred to me to inquire by what accident or process of attrition that minute selection of facts, out of all the myriad facts that must once have been known to somebody, had survived to become tire facts of history. I suspect that even today one of the fascinations of ancient and medieval history is that it gives us the illusion of having all the facts at our disposal within a manageable compass: the nagging distinction between the facts of history and other facts about the past vanishes, because the few known facts are all facts of history. As Bury, who had worked in both periods, said, 'the records of ancient and medieval history are starred with lacunae. ' History has been called an enormous jig-saw with a lot of missing parts. But the main trouble does not consist in the lacunae. Our picture of Greece in the fifth century B.C. is defective not primarily because so many of the bits have been accidentally lost, but because it is, by and large, the picture formed by a tiny group of people in the city of Athens. We know a lot about what fifth-century Greece looked like to an Athenian citizen; but hardly anything about what it looked like to a Spartan, a Corinthian, or a Theban - not to mention a Persian, or a slave or other non-citizen resident in Athens. Our picture has been preselected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that view worth preserving. In the same way, when I read in a modern history of the Middle Ages that the people of the Middle Ages were deeply concerned with religion, I wonder how we know this, and whether it is true. What we know as the facts of medieval history have almost all been selected for us by generations of chroniclers who were professionally occupied in the theory and practice of religion, and who therefore thought it supremely important, and recorded everything relating to it, and not much else. The picture of the Russian peasant as devoutly religious was destroyed by the revolution of 1917- The picture of medieval man as devoutly religious, whether true or not, is indestructible, because nearly all the known facts about him were preselected for us by people who believed it, and wanted others to believe it, and a mass of other facts, in which we might possibly have found evidence to the contrary, has been lost beyond recall. The dead hand of vanished generations of historians, scribes, and chroniclers has determined beyond the possibility of appeal the pattern of the past. The history we read writes Professor Barraclough, himself trained as a medievalist, though based on facts, is, strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgements.
But let us turn to the different, but equally grave, plight of the modern historian. The ancient or medieval historian may be grateful for the vast winnowing process which, over the years, has put at his disposal a manageable corpus of historical facts. As Lytton Strachey said, in his mischievous way, 'ignorance is the first requisite of the historian, ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits.'" When I am tempted, as I sometimes am, to envy the extreme competence of colleagues engaged in writing ancient or medieval history, I find consolation in the reflexion that they are so competent mainly because they are so ignorant of their subject. The modern historian enjoys none of the advantages of this built-in ignorance. He must cultivate this necessary ignorance for himself - the more so the nearer he comes to his own times. He has the dual task of discovering the few significant facts and turning them into facts of history, and of discarding the many insignificant facts as unhistorical. But this is the very converse of the nineteenth- century heresy that history consists of the compilation of a maximum number of irrefutable and objective facts. Anyone who succumbs to this heresy will either have to give up history as a bad job, and take to stamp -collecting or some other form of antiquarianism, or end in a madhouse. It is this heresy which during the past hundred years has had such devastating effects on the modern historian, producing in Germany, in Great Britain, and in the United States, a vast and growing mass of dry-as-dust factual histories, of minutely specialized mono- graphs of would-be historians knowing more and more about less and less, sunk without trace in an ocean of facts, It was, I suspect, this heresy - rather than the alleged conflict between liberal and Catholic loyalties - which frustrated Acton as a historian. In an early essay he said of his teacher Dollinger: 'He would not write with imperfect materials, and to him the materials were always imperfect.' Acton was surely here pronouncing an anticipatory verdict on himself, on that strange phenomenon of a historian whom many would regard as the most distinguished occupant the Regius Chair of Modern History in this university has ever had - but who wrote no history. And Acton wrote his own epitaph, in the introductory note to the first volume of the Cambridge Modern History published just after his death, when he lamented that the requirements pressing on the historian 'threaten to turn him from a man of letters into the compiler of an encyclopaedia'. Something had gone wrong. What had gone wrong was the belief in this untiring and unending accumulation of hard facts as the foundation of history, the belief that facts speak for themselves and that we cannot have too many facts, a belief at that time so unquestioning that few historians then thought it necessary - and some still think it unnecessary today - to ask themselves the question.
The nineteenth-century fetishism of facts was completed and justified by a fetishism of documents. The documents were the Art of the Covenant in the temple of facts. The reverent historian approached them with bowed head and spoke of than in awed tones. If you find it in the documents, it is so. But what, when we get down to it, do these documents - the decrees, the treaties, the rent-rolls, the blue books, the official correspondence, the private letters and diaries - tell us. No document am tell us more than what the author of the document thought - what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to hap- pen or would happen, or perhaps only what he wanted others no think he thought, or even only what he himself thought he thought. None of this means anything until she historian has got to work on it and deciphered it. The facts, whether found in documents or not, have still to be processed by the historian before he can make any use of them: the we he makes of them is, if I may put it that way, the processing process.
Let me illustrate what I am trying to say by an example which I happen to know well. When Gustav Stresemann, the Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic, died in 1929, he left behind him an enormous mass - 300 boxes full - of papers, official, semi-official, and private, nearly all relating to the six years of his tenure of office as Foreign Minister. His friends and relatives naturally thought that a monument should be raised to the memory of so great a man. His faithful secretary Bernhard got to work; and within three years there appeared three massive volumes, of some 600 pages each, of selected documents from the 300 boxes, with the impressive title Stresemanns Vermachtnis. In the ordinary way the documents themselves would have mouldered away in some cellar or attic and disappeared for ever; or perhaps in a hundred years or so some curious scholar would have come upon them and set out to compare them with Bernhard's text. What happened was far more dramatic. In 1945 the documents fell into the hands of the British and American Governments, who photographed the lot and put the photostats at the disposal of scholars in the Public Record office in London and in the National Archives in Washington, so that, if we have sufficient patience and curiosity, we can discover exactly what Bernhard did. What he did was neither very unusual nor very shocking. When Stresemann died, his western policy seemed to have been crowned with a series of brilliant successes - Locarno, a the admission of Germany to the League of Nations, the Dawes and Young plans and the American loans, the withdrawal of allied occupation armies from the Rhineland. This seemed the important and rewarding: part of Stresemmn's foreign policy; and it was not unnatural that it should have been over-represented in Bernhard's selection of documents. Stresemann's eastern policy, on the other hand, his relations with the Soviet Union, seemed to have led nowhere in particular; and, since masses of documents about negotiations which yielded only trivial results were not very interesting and added nothing to Stresemann's reputation, the process of selection could be more rigorous. Stresemann in fact devoted a far more constant and anxious attention to relations with the Soviet Union, and they played a far larger part in his foreign policy as a whole, than the reader of the Bernhard selection would surmise. But the Bern- hard volumes compare favourably, I suspect, with many published collections of documents on which the ordinary historian implicitly relies.
This is not the end of my story. Shortly after the publication of Bernhard's volumes, Hitler came into power. Stresemann's name was consigned to oblivion in Germany, and the volumes disappeared from circulation: many, perhaps most, of the copies must have been destroyed. Today Stresemanns Vernachtnis is a rather rare book. But in the west Stresemann's reputation stood high. In 1935 an English publisher brought out an abbreviated translation of Bernhard's work - a selection from Bernhard's selection; perhaps one-third of the original was omitted. Sutton, a well-known translator from the German, did his job competently and well. The English version, he explained in the preface, was 'slightly condensed, but only by the omission of a certain amount of what, it was felt, was more ephemeral matter ... of little interest to English readers or students'. This again is natural enough. But the result is that Stresemann's eastern policy, already under- represented in Bernhard, recedes still further from view, and the Soviet Union appears in Sutton's volumes merely as an occasional and rather unwelcome intruder in Stresemann's predominantly western foreign policy. Yet it is safe to say that, for all except a few specialists, Sutton and not Bernhard - and still less the documents themselves - represents for the western world the authentic voice of Stresemann. Had the documents perished in 1945 in the bombing, and had the remaining Bernhard volumes disappeared, the authenticity and authority of Sutton would never have been questioned. Many printed collections of documents, gratefully accepted by historians in default of the originals, rest on no securer basis than this.
But I want to carry the story one step further. Let us forget about Bernhard and Sutton, and be thankful that we can, if we choose, consult the authentic papers of a leading participant in some important events of recent European history. What do the papers tell us ? Among other things they contain records of some hundreds of Stresemann's conversations with the Soviet Ambassador in Berlin and of a score or so with Chicherin. These records have one feature in common. They depict Stresemann as having the lion's share of the conversations and reveal his arguments as invariably well put and cogent, while those of his partner are for the most part scanty, confused, and unconvincing. This is a familiar characteristic of all records of diplomatic conversations. The documents do not tell us what happened, but only what Streetman thought had happened, or what he wanted others to think, or perhaps what he wanted himself to think, had happened. It was not Sutton or Bernhard, but Stresemann himself, who started the process of selection. And if we had, say, Chicherin's records of these same conversations, we should still learn from them only what Chicherin thought, and what really happened would still have to be reconstructed in the mind of the historian. Of course, facts and documents are essential to the historian. But do not make a fetish of them. They do not by themselves constitute history; they provide in themselves no ready-made answer to this tiresome question 'What is history?'
At this point I should like to say a few words on the question why nineteenth-century historians were generally indifferent to the philosophy of history. The term was invented by Voltaire, and has since been used in different senses; but I shall take it to mean, if I use it at all, our answer to the question,’ What is history-' The nineteenth century was, for the intellectuals of western Europe, a comfortable period exuding confidence and optimism. The facts were on the whole satisfactory; and the inclination to ask and answer awkward questions about them was correspondingly weak. Ranke piously believed that divine providence would take care of the meaning of history, if he took care of the facts; and Burckhardt, with a more modern touch of cynicism, observed that 'we are not initiated into the purposes of the eternal wisdom'. Professor Butterfield as late as 1931 noted with apparent satisfaction that 'historians have reflected little upon the nature of things, and even the nature of their own subject'.' But my predecessor in these lectures, Dr A. L. Rowse, more justly critical, wrote of Sir Winston Churchill's World Crisis - his book about the First World War - that, while it matched Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution in personality, vividness, and vitality, it was inferior in one respect: it had 'no philosophy of history behind it'.' British historians refused to be drawn, not because they believed that history had no meaning, but because they believed that its meaning was implicit and self-evident. The liberal nineteenth-century view of history had a close affinity with the economic doctrine of laissez-faire - also the product of a serene and self- confident outlook on the world. Let everyone get on with his particular job, and the hidden hand would take care of the universal harmony. The facts of history were themselves a demonstration of the supreme fact of a beneficent and apparently infinite progress towards higher things. This was the age of innocence, and historians walked in the Garden of Eden, without a scrap of philosophy to cover them, naked and unashamed before the god of history. Since then, we have known Sin and experienced a Fall; and those historians who today pretend to dispense with a philosophy of history Pre :merely trying, vainly and self- consciously, like members of a nudist colony, to recreate the Garden of Eden in their garden suburb. Today the awkward question can no longer be evaded.
During the past fifty years a good deal of serious work has been done on the question 'What is history?' It was from Germany, the country which was to do so much to upset the comfortable reign of nineteenth-century liberalism, that the first challenge came in the 1880s and 1890s to the doctrine of the primacy and autonomy of facts in history. The philosophers who made the challenge are now little more than names: Dilthey is the only one of them who has recently received some belated recognition in Great Britain. Before the turn of the century, prosperity and confidence were still too great in this country for any attention to be paid to heretics who attacked the cult of facts. But early in the new century, the torch passed to Italy, where Croce began to propound a philosophy of history which obviously owed much to German masters. All history is 'contemporary history', declared Croce,' meaning that history consists essentially in seeing the past through the eyes of the present and in the light of its problems, and that the main work of the historian is not to record, but to evaluate; for, if he does not evaluate, how can he know what is worth recording? In 1910 the American historian, Carl Becker, argued in deliberately provocative language that 'the facts of history do not exist for any historian till he creates them'. These challenges were for the moment little noticed. It was only after 1920 that Croce began to have a considerable vogue in France and Great Britain. This was not perhaps because Croce was a subtler thinker or a better stylist than his German predecessors, but because, after the First World War, the facts seemed to smile on us less propitiously than in the years before 1914, and we were therefore more accessible to a philosophy which sought to diminish their prestige. Croce was an important influence on the Oxford philosopher and historian Collingwood, the only British thinker in the present century who has made a serious contribution to the philosophy of history. He did not live to write the systematic treatise he had planned; but his published and unpublished papers on the subject were collected after his death in a volume entitled The Idea of History, which appeared in 1945
The views of Collingwood can be summarized as follows. The philosophy of history is concerned neither with 'the past by itself nor with 'the historian's thought about it by itself, but with 'the two things in their mutual relations'. (This dictum reflects the two current meanings of the word 'history' - the inquiry conducted by the historian and the series of past events into which he inquires.) 'The past which a historian studies is not a dead past, but a past which in some sense is still living in the present.' But a past act is dead, i.e. meaningless to the historian, unless he can understand the thought that lay behind it. Hence 'all history is the history of thought', and 'history is the re-enactment in the historian's mind of the thought whose history he is studying'. The reconstitution of the past in the history,', mind is dependent on empirical evidence. But it is not in itself an empirical process, and cannot consist in a mere recital of facts. On the contrary, the process of reconstitution governs the selection and interpretation of the facts : this, indeed, is what makes them historical facts. ' History', says Professor Oakeshott, who on this point stands near to Collingwood, ‘is the historian's experience. It is " made " by nobody save the historian: to write history is the only way of making'.
This searching critique, though it may call for some serious reservations, brings to light certain neglected truths. In the first place, the faces of history never come to us 'pure', since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it. Let me take as an example the great historian in whose honour and in whose name these lectures were founded. G. M. Trevelyan, as he tells us in his autobiography, was 'brought up at home on a somewhat exuberantly Whig tradition and he would not, I hope, disclaim the title if I described him as the last and not the least of the great English liberal historians of the Whig tradition. It is not for nothing that he traces back his family tree, through the great Whig historian George Otto Trevelyan, to Macaulay, incomparably the greatest of the Whig historians. Trevelyan's finest and maturest work, England under Queen Anne, was written against that background, and will yield its full meaning and significance to the reader only when read against that background. The author, indeed, leaves the reader with no excuse for failing to do so. For, if following the technique of connoisseurs of detective novels, you read the end first, you will find on the last few pages of the third volume the best summary known to me of what is nowadays called the Whig interpretation of history; and you will see that what Trevelyan is trying to do is to investigate the origin and development of the Whig tradition, and to root it fairly and squarely in the years after the death of its founder, William III. Though this is not, perhaps, the only conceivable interpretation of the events of Queen Anne's reign, it is a valid and, in Trevelyan's hands, a fruitful interpretation. But, in order to appreciate it at its' full value, you have to understand what the historian is doing. For if, as Collingwood says, the historian must re- enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae, so the reader in his turn must re-enact what goes on in the mind of the historian. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St Jude's, goes round to a friend at St Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use - these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind offish he wants to catch. By and lame, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. Indeed, if, standing Sir George Clark on his head,
I were to call history 'a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disputable facts ', my statement would, no doubt, be one-sided and misleading, but no more so, I venture to think, than the original dictum.
The second point is the more familiar one of the historian's need of imaginative understanding for the minds of the people with whom he is dealing, for the thought behind their acts: I say imaginative understanding', not 'sympathy', lest sympathy should be supposed to imply agreement. The nineteenth century was weak in medieval history, because it was too much repelled by the superstitious beliefs of the Middle Ages, and by the barbarities which they inspired, to have any imaginative understanding of medieval people. Or take Burckhardt's censorious remark about the Thirty Years War: It is scandalous for a creed, no matter whether it is Catholic or Protestant, to place its salvation above the integrity of the nation." It was extremely difficult for a nineteenth-century liberal historian, brought up to believe that it is right and praiseworthy to kill in defence of one's country, but wicked and wrong-headed to kill in defence of one's religion, to enter into the state of mind of those who fought the Thirty Years War. This difficulty is particularly acute in the held in which I am now working. Much of what has been written in English speaking countries in the last ten years about the Soviet Union, and in the Soviet Union about the English-speaking countries, has been vitiated by this inability to achieve even the most elementary measure of imaginative understanding of what goes on in the mind of the other party, so that the words and actions of the other are always made to appear malign, senseless, or hypocritical. History cannot be written unless the historian can achieve some kind of contact with the mind of those about whom he is writing.
The third point is that we can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present. The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence. The very words which he uses - words like democracy, empire, war, revolution - have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. Ancient historians have taken to using words like polls and plebs in the original, just in order to show that they have not fallen into this trap. This does not help them. They, too, live in the present, and cannot cheat themselves into the past by using unfamiliar or obsolete words, any more than they would become better Greek or Roman historians if they delivered their lectures in a chilamys et a toga. The names by which successive French historians have described the Parisian crowds which played so prominent a role in the French revolution - les sans-vulottes, le peuple, la canaille, les bras-nus - are all, for those who know the rules of the game, manifestos of a political affiliation and of a particular interpretation. Yet the historian is obliged to choose: the use of language - forbids him to be neutral. Nor is it a matter of words alone. Over the past hundred years the changed balance of power in Europe has reversed the attitude of British historians to Frederick the Great. The changed balance of power within the Christian churches between Catholicism and Protestantism has profoundly altered their attitude to such figures as Loyola, Luther, ad Cromwell. It requires only a superficial knowledge of the work of French historians of the last forty years on the French revolution to recognize how deeply it has been affected by the Russian revolution of 1917- The historian belongs not to the past but to the present. Professor Trevor-Roper tells us that the historian 'ought to love the past'.' This is a dubious injunction. To love the past may easily be an expression of the nostalgic romanticism of old men and old societies, a symptom of loss of faith and interest in the present or future. Cliche for cliche, I should prefer the one about freeing oneself from 'the dead hand of the past'. The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.
If, however, these are some of the insights of what I may call the Collingwood view of history, it is time to consider some of the dangers. The emphasis on the role of the historian in the making of history tends, if pressed to its logical conclusion, to rule out any objective history at all: history is what the historian makes. Collingwood seems indeed, at one moment, in an unpublished note quoted by his editor, to have reached this conclusion :
St Augustine looked at history from the point of view of the early Christian; Tillamont, from that of a seventeenth-century Frenchman; Gibbon, from that of an eighteenth- century Englishman; Mommsen from that of a nineteenth-century German. There is no point in asking which was the right point of view. Each was the only one possible for the man who adopted
This amounts to total scepticism, like Froude's remark that history is 'a child's box of letters with which we can spell any word we please'." Collingwood, in his reaction against 'scissors- and-paste history', against the view of history as a mere compilation of facts, comes perilously near to treating history as something spun out of the human brain, and leads back to the conclusion referred to by Sir George Clark in the passage which I quoted earlier, that there is no "objective" historical truth'. In place of the theory that history has no meaning, we are offered here the theory of an infinity of meanings, none any more right than any other - which comes to much the same thing. The second theory is surely as untenable as the first. It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different because interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing the facts of history, and because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another, and the facts of history are in principle not amenable to objective interpretation. I shall have to consider at a later stage what exactly is meant by objectivity in history.
But a still greater danger lurks in the Collingwood hypothesis. If the historian necessarily looks at his period of history through, the eyes of his own time, and studies the problems of the past as a key to those of the present, will he not fall into a purely pragmatic view of the facts, and maintain that the criterion of a right interpretation is its suitability to some present purpose? On this hypothesis, the facts of history are nothing, interpretation is everything. Nietzsche had already enunciated the principle: 'The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it. ... The question is how far it is life-furthering, life- preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-creating. The American pragmatists moved, less explicitly and less wholeheartedly, along the same line. Knowledge is knowledge for some purpose. The validity of the knowledge depends on the validity of the purpose, But even where no such theory has been professed, practice has often been no less disquieting. In my own held of study I have seen too many examples of extravagant interpretation riding roughshod over facts not to be impressed with the reality of this danger. It is not surprising that perusal of some of the more extreme products of Soviet and anti-Soviet schools of historiography should sometimes breed a certain nostalgia for that illusory nineteenth-century haven of purely factual history.
How then, in the middle of the twentieth century, are we to define the obligation of the historian to his facts ~ I trust that I have spent a sufficient number of hours in recent years chasing and perusing documents, and stuffng my historical narrative with properly footnoted facts, to escape the imputation of treating facts and documents too cavalierly. The duty of the historian to respect his facts is not exhausted by the obligation to see that his facts are accurate. He must seek to bring into the picture all known or knowable facts relevant, in one sense or another, to the theme on which he is engaged and to the interpretation proposed. If he seeks to depict the Victorian Englishman as a moral and rational being, he must not forget what happened at Starybridge Wakes in 1850. But this, in turn, does not mean that he can eliminate interpretation, which is the life-blood of history. Laymen - that is to say, non-academic friends or friends from other academic disciplines - sometimes ask me how the historian goes to work when he writes history.
The commonest assumption appears to be that the historian divides his work into two sharply distinguishable phases or periods. First, he spends a long preliminary period reading his sources and filling his notebooks with facts: then, when this is over, he puts away his sources, Fakes out his notebooks and writes his book from beginning to end.
This is to me an unconvincing and implausible picture. For myself, as soon as I have got going on a few of what I take to be the capital sources, the itch becomes too strong and I begin to write - not necessarily at the beginning, but somewhere, anywhere. Thereafter, reading and writing go on simultaneously. The writing is added to, subtracted from, re- shaped, cancelled, as I go on reading. The reading is guided and directed and made fruitful by the writing: the more I write, the more I know what I am looking for, the better I understand the significance and relevance of what I find. Some historians probably do all this preliminary writing in their head without using pen, paper, or typewriter, just as some people play chess in their heads without recourse to board and chessmen: this is a talent which I envy, but cannot emulate. But I am convinced that, for any historian worth the name, the two processes of what economists call 'input' and 'output' go on simultaneously and are, in practice, parts of a single process. If you try to separate them, or to give one priority over the other, you fall into one of two heresies. Either you write scissors-and- paste history without meaning or significance; or you write propaganda or historical fiction, and merely use facts of the past to embroider a kind of writing which has nothing to do with history.
Our examination of the relation of the historian to the facts of history finds us, therefore, in an apparently precarious situation, navigating delicately between the Scylla of an untenable theory of history as an objective compilation of facts, of the unqualified primacy of fact over interpretation, and the Charybdis of an equally untenable theory of history as the subjective product of the mind of the historian who establishes the facts of history and masters them through the process of interpretation, between a view of history having the centre of gravity in the past and a view having the centre of gravity in the present. But our situation is less precarious than it seems. We shall encounter the same dichotomy of fact and interpretation again in these lectures in other guises - the particular and the general, the empirical and the theoretical, the objective and the subjective. The predicament of the historian is a reflexion of the nature of man. Man, except perhaps in earliest infancy and in extreme old age, is not totally involved in his environment and unconditionally subject to it. On the other hand, he is never totally independent of it and its unconditional master.
The relation of man to his environment is the relation of the historian to his theme. The historian is neither the humble slave nor the tyrannical master of Ids facts. The relation between the historian and his facts is one of equality, of give-and-take. As any working historian knows, if he stops to reflect what he is doing as he thinks and writes, the historian is engaged on a continuous process of moulding his facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts. It is impossible to assign primacy to one over the other.
The historian starts with a provisional selection of facts, and a provisional interpretation in the light of which that selection has been made - by others as well as by himself. As he works, both the interpretation and the selection and ordering of facts undergo subtle and perhaps partly unconscious changes, through the reciprocal action of one or the other. And this reciprocal action also involves reciprocity between present and past, since the historian is part of the present and the facts belong to the past. The historian and the facts of history are necessary to one another. The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without their historian are dead and meaningless. My first answer therefore to the question 'What is history?' is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.
2. Society and the individual
THE question which comes first - society or the individual - is like the question about the hen and the egg. Whether you treat it as a logical or as a historical question, you can make no statement about it, one way or the other, which does not have to be corrected by an opposite, and equally one-sided, statement. Society and the individual are inseparable; they are necessary and complementary to each other, not opposites. 'No man is an island, entire of itself;' in Dome's famous words: 'every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.' That is an aspect of the truth. On the other hand, take the dictum of J. S. Mill, the classical individualist: 'Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance. ‘Of course not. But the fallacy is to suppose that they existed, or had any kind of substance, before being 'brought together'. As soon as we are born, the world gets to work on us and transforms us from merely biological into social units. Every human being at every stage of history or pre-history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society. The language which he speaks is not an individual inheritance, but a social acquisition from the group in which he grows up. Both language and environment help to determine the character of his thought; his earliest ideas come to him from others. As has been well said, the individual apart from society would be both speechless and mindless. The lasting fascination of the Robinson Crusoe myth is due to its attempt to imagine an individual independent of society. The attempt breaks down. Robinson is not an abstract individual, but an Englishman from York; he carries his Bible with him and prays to his tribal God. The myth quickly bestows on him his Man Friday; and the building of a new society begins. The other relevant myth is that of Kirilov in Dostoyevsky's Devils who kills himself in order to demonstrate his perfect freedom. Suicide is the only perfectly free act open to individual man; every other act involves in one way or another his membership of society.
It is commonly said by anthropologists that primitive man is less individual and more completely moulded by his society than civilized man. This contains an element of truth. Simpler societies are more uniform, in the sense that they call for, and provide opportunities for, a far smaller diversity of individual skills and occupations than the more complex and advanced societies. Increasing individualization in this sense is a necessary product of modern advanced society, and runs through all its activities from top to bottom. But it would be a serious error to set up an antithesis between this process of individualization and the growing strength and cohesion of society. The development of society and the development of the individual go hand in hand and condition each other. Indeed what we mean by a complex or advanced society is a society in which the interdependence of individuals on one another has assumed advanced and complex forms. It would be dangerous to assume that the power of a modern national community to mould the character and thought of its individual members, and to produce a certain degree of conformity and uniformity among them, is any less than that of a primitive tribal community. The old conception of national character based on biological differences has long been exploded; but differences of national character arising out of different national backgrounds of society and education are difficult to deny. That elusive entity 'human nature' has varied so much from country to country and from century to century that it is difficult not to regard it as a historical phenomenon shaped by prevailing social conditions and conventions. There are many differences between, say, Americans, Russians, and Indians. But some, and perhaps the most important, of these differences take the form of different attitudes to social relations between individuals, or, in other words, to the way in which society should be constituted, so that the study of differences between American, Russian, and Indian society as a whole may well turn out to be the best way of studying differences between individual Americans, Russians, and Indians. Civilized man, like primitive man, is moulded by society just as effectively as society is moulded by him. You can no more have the egg without the hen than you can have the hen without the egg.
It would have been unnecessary to dwell on these very obvious truths but for the fact that they have been obscured for us by the remarkable and exceptional period of history from which the western world is only just emerging. The cult of individual- ism is one of the most pervasive of modern historical myths. According to the familiar account in Burckhardt's Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, the second part of which is subtitled 'The Development of the Individual', the cult of the individual began with the Renaissance, when man, who had hitherto been 'conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation', at length 'became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such'. Later the cult was connected with the rise of capitalism and of Protestantism, with the beginnings of the industrial revolution, and with the doctrines of laissez-faire. The rights of man and the citizen proclaimed by the French revolution were the rights of the individual. Individualism was the basis of the great nineteenth- century philosophy of utilitarianism, Morley's essay On Compromise, a characteristic document of Victorian liberalism, called individualism and utilitarianism 'the religion of human happiness and well-being'. 'Rugged individualism' was the keynote of human progress.
This may be a perfectly sound and valid analysis of the ideology of a particular historical epoch. But what I want to make clear is that the increased individualization which accompanied the rise of the modern world was a -normal process of advancing civilization. A social revolution brought new social groups to positions of power. It operated, as always, through individuals and by offering fresh opportunities of individual development; and, since in the early stages of capitalism the units of production and distribution were largely in the hands of single individuals, the ideology of the new social order strongly emphasized the role of individual initiative in the social order. But the whole process was a social process representing a specific stage in historical development, and cannot be explained in terms of a revolt of individuals against society or of an emancipation of individuals from social restraints.
Many signs suggest that, even in the western world, which was the focus of this development and of this ideology, this period of history has reached its end: I need not insist here on the rise of what is called mass democracy, or on the gradual replacement of predominantly individual by predominantly collective forms of economic production and organization. But the ideology generated by this long and fruitful period is still a dominant force in western Europe and throughout the English- speaking countries. When we speak in abstract terms of the tension between liberty and equality, or between individual liberty and social justice, we are apt to forget that fights do not occur between abstract ideas. These are not struggles between individuals as such and society as such, but between groups of individuals in society, each group striving to promote social policies favourable to it and to frustrate social policies inimical to it. Individualism, in the sense no longer of a great social movement but of false opposition between individual and society, has become today the slogan of an interested group and, because of its controversial character, a barrier to our understanding of what goes on in the world. I have nothing to say against the cult of the individual as a protest against the perversion which treats the individual as a means and society or the state as the end. But we shall arrive at no real understanding either of the past or of the present if we attempt to operate with the concept of an abstract individual standing outside society.
And this brings me at last to the point of my long digression. The common-sense view of history treats it as something written by individuals about individuals. This view was certainly taken and encouraged by nineteenth-century liberal historians, and is not in substance incorrect. But it now seems over-simplified and inadequate, and we need to probe deeper. The knowledge of the historian is not his excusive individual possession: men, probably, of many generations and of many different countries have participated in accumulating it. The men whose actions the historian studies were not isolated individuals acting in a vacuum: they acted in the context, and under the impulse, of a past society. In my last lecture I described history as a process of interaction, a dialogue between the historian in the present and the facts of the past. I now want to inquire into the relative weight of the individual and social elements on both sides' of the equation. How far are historians single individuals, and how far products of their society and their period? How far are the facts of history facts about single individuals and how far social facts?
The historian, then, is an individual human being. Like other individuals, he is also a social phenomenon, both the product and the conscious or unconscious spokesman of the society to which he belongs; it is in this capacity that he approaches the facts of the historical past. We sometimes speak of the course of history as a 'moving procession'. The metaphor is fair enough, provided it does not tempt the historian to think of himself as an eagle surveying the scene from a lonely crag or as a V.I.P. at the saluting base. Nothing of the kind ! The historian is just another dim figure trudging along in another part of the procession. And as the procession winds along, swerving now to the right and now to the left, and sometimes doubling back on itself, the relative positions of different parts of the procession are constantly changing, so that it may make perfectly good sense to say, for example, that we are nearer today to the Middle Ages than were our great-grandfathers a century ago, or that the age of Caesar is nearer to us than the age of Dante. New vistas, new angles of vision, constantly appear as the procession - and the historian with it - moves along. The historian is part of history. The point in the procession at which he finds himself determines his angle of vision over the past.
This truism is not less true when the period treated by the historian is remote from his own time. When I studied ancient history, the classics on the subject were - and probably still are - Grote's History of Greece and Mommsen's History of Rome. Grote, an enlightened radical- banker writing in the 1840s, embodied the aspirations of the rising and politically progressive British middle class in an idealized picture of Athenian democracy, in which Pericles figured as a Benthanite reformer and Athens acquired an empire in a fit of absence of mind. It may not be fanciful to suggest that Grote's neglect of the problem of slavery in Athens reflected the failure of the group to which he belonged to face the problem of the new English factory working class. Mommsen was a German liberal, disillusioned by the muddles and humiliations of the German revolution of 1848-9.
Writing in the 1850s - the decade which saw the birth of the name and concept of Realpolitik - Mommsen was imbued with the sense of need for a strong man to clear up the mess left by the failure of the German people to realize its political aspirations; and we shall never appreciate his history at its true value unless we realize that his well-known idealization of Caesar is the product of this yearning for the strong man to save Germany from ruin, and that the lawyer-politician Cicero that ineffective chatterbox and slippery procrastinator, has walked straight out of the debates of the Paulikirche in Frankfurt in 1948. Indeed, I should not think it an outrageous paradox if someone were to say that Grote's History of Greece has quite as much to tell us today about the thought of the English philosophical radicals in the 1840s as about Athenian democracy in the fifth century B.C., or that anyone wishing to understand what 1848 did to the German liberals should take Mommsen's History of Rome as one of his text-books. Nor does this diminish their stature as great historical works. I have no patience with the fashion, set by Bury in his inaugural lecture, of pretending that Mommsen's greatness rests not on his History of Rome but on his corpus of inscriptions and his work on Roman constitutional law: this is to reduce history to the level of compilation. Great history is written precisely when the historian's vision of the past is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present. Surprise has often been expressed that Mommsen failed to continue his history beyond the fall of the republic. He lacked neither time, nor opportunity, nor knowledge. But, when Mommsen wrote his history, the strong man had not yet arisen in Germany. During his active career, the problem of what happened once the strong man had taken over was not yet actual. Nothing inspired Mommsen to project this problem back on to the Roman scene; and the history of the empire remained unwritten.
It would be easy to multiply examples of this phenomenon among modern historians. In my last lecture I paid tribute to G. M. Trevelyan's England under Queen Anne as a monument to the Whig tradition in which he had been reared. Let us now consider the imposing and significant achievement of one whom most of us would regard as the greatest British historian to emerge on the academic scene since the First World War: Sir Lewis Namier. Namier was a true conservative - not a typical English conservative who when scratched turns out to be 75 per cent a liberal, but a conservative such as we have not seen among British historians for more than a hundred years. Between the middle of the last century and 1914 it was scarcely possible for a British historian to conceive of historical change except as change for the better. In the 1920s, we moved into a period in which change was beginning to be associated with fear for the future, and could be thought of as change for the worse - a period of the rebirth of conservative thinking. Like Acton's liberalism, Namier's conservatism derived both strength and profundity from being rooted in a continental background. Unlike Fisher or Toynbee, Namier had no roots in the nineteenth-century liberalism, and suffered from no nostalgic regrets for it. After the First World War and the abortive peace had revealed the bankruptcy of liberalism, the reaction could come only in one of two forms - socialism or conservatism. Namier appeared as the conservative historian. He worked in two chosen fields, and the choice of both was significant. In English history he went back to the last period in which the ruling class had been able to engage in the rational pursuit of position and power in an orderly and mainly static society. Somebody has accused Namier of taking mind out of history." It is not perhaps a very fortunate phrase, but one can see the point which the critic was trying to make. Politics at the accession of George III were still immune from the fanaticism of ideas, and of that passionate belief in progress, which was to break on the world with the French revolution and usher in the century of triumphant liberalism. No ideas, no revolution, no liberalism: Namier chose to give us a brilliant portrait of an age still safe - though not to d remain safe for long - from all these dangers.
But Namier's choice of a second subject was equally significant. Namier by-passed the great modern revolutions, English, French, and Russian - he wrote nothing of substance on any of them - and elected to give us a penetrating study of the European revolution of 1 848 - a revolution that failed, a set-back all over Europe for the rising hopes of liberalism, a demonstration of the hollowness of ideas in face of armed force, of democrats when confronted with soldiers. The intrusion of ideas into the serious business of politics is futile and dangerous: Namier rubbed in the moral by calling this humiliating failure 'the revolution of the intellectuals'. Nor is our conclusion a matter of inference alone; for, though Namier wrote nothing systematic on the philosophy of history, he expressed himself in an essay published a few years ago with his usual clarity and incisiveness. 'The less, therefore,' he wrote, ‘man clogs the free play of his mind with political doctrine and dogma, the better for his thinking.' And, after mentioning, and not rejecting, the charge that he had taken the mind out of history, he went on:
Some political philosophers complain of a 'tired lull' and the absence at present of argument on general politics in this country; practical solutions are sought for concrete problems, while programmes and ideals are forgotten by both parties. But to me this attitude seems to betoken a greater national maturity, and I can only wish that it may long continue undisturbed by the workings of political philosophy.
I do not want at the moment to join issue with this view: I will reserve that for a later lecture. My purpose here is merely to ; understand or appreciate the work of the historian unless you have first grasped the standpoint from which he himself approached it; secondly, that that standpoint is itself rooted in a social and historical background. Do not forget that, as Marx once said, the educator himself has to be educated; in modern jargon, the brain of the brain-washer has itself been washed. The historian, before he begins to write history, is the product of history.
The historians of whom I have just spoken - Grote and Mommsen, Trevelyan and Namier - were each of them cast, so to speak, in a single social and political mould; no marked change of outlook occurs between their earlier and later work. But some historians in periods of rapid change have reflected in their writings not one society and one social order, but a succession of different orders. The best example known to me of this is the great German historian Meinecke, whose span of life and work was unusually long, and covered a series of revolutionary and catastrophic changes in the fortunes of his country. Here we have in effect three different Meineckes, each the spokesman; of a different historical epoch, and each speaking through one of his three major works. The Meinecke of Weltburgetthum and Nationalstaat, published in 1907, confidently sees the realization of German national ideals in the Bismarckian Reich and - like many nineteenth-century thinkers, from Mazzini onwards - identities nationalism with the highest form of universalism: this is the product of the baroque Wilhelmine sequel to the age of Bismarck. The Meinecke of Die idee der Staatsrason, published in 1925 speaks with the divided and bewildered mind of the Weimar Republic: the world of politics has become an arena of unresolved conflict between raison d'etat and a morality which is external to politics, but which cannot in the last resort override the life and security of the state. Finally the Meinecke of Die Entstehung des Historismus, published in 1936 when he had been swept from his academic honours by the Nazi flood, utters a cry of despair, rejecting a historicism which appears to recognize that 'Whatever is, is right' and tossing uneasily between the historical relative and a super-rational absolute. Last of all, when Meinecke in his old age had seen his country succumb to a military defeat more crushing than that of 1918, he relapsed helplessly in Die Deutsche Katastrophe of 1946 into the belief in a history at the mercy ofblind, inexorable chance.' The psychologist or the biographer would be interested here in Meinecke's development as an individual: what interests the historian is the way in which Meinecke reflects back three - or even four - successive, and sharply contrasted, periods of present time into the historical past.
Or let us take a distinguished example nearer home. In the iconoclastic 1930s, when the Liberal Party had just been snuffed out as an effective force in British politics, Professor Butterfield wrote a book called The Whig Interpretation of History, which enjoyed a great and deserved success. It was a remarkable book in many ways - not least because, though it denounced the Whig Interpretation over some 130 pages, it did not (so far as I can discover without the help of an index) name a single Whig except Fox, who was no historian, or a single historian save Acton, who was no Whig But anything that the book lacked in detail and precision it made up for in sparkling invective. The reader was left in no doubt that the Whig interpretation was a bad thing; and one of the charges brought against it was that it 'studies the past with reference to the present'. On this point Professor Butterfield was categorical and severe:
The study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history, is the essence of what we mean by the word 'unhistorical’ .
Twelve years elapsed. The fashion for iconoclasm went out. Professor Butterfield's country was engaged in a war often said to be fought in defence of the constitutional liberties embodied in the Whig tradition, under a great leader who constantly invoked the past 'with one eye, so to speak, upon the present'. In a small book called The Englishman and His History published in 1944, Professor Butterfield not only decided that the Whig interpretation of history was the 'English' interpretation, but spoke enthusiastically of ‘the Englishman's alliance with his history' and of the 'marriage between the present and the past'. To draw attention to these reversals of outlook is not an unfriendly criticism. It is not my purpose to refute the proto-Butterfield with the deutero-Butterfield, or to confront Professor Butterfield drunk with Professor Butterfield sober. I am fully aware that, if anyone took the trouble to peruse some of the things I wrote before, during, and after the war, he would have no difficulty at all in convincing me of contradictions and inconsistencies at least as glaring as any I have detected in others. Indeed, I am not sure that I should envy any historian who could honestly claim to have lived through the earth- shaking events of the past fifty years without some radical modifications of his outlook. My purpose is merely to show how closely the work of the historian mirrors the society in which he works. It is not merely the events that are in flux. The historian himself is in flux. When you take up a historical work, it is not enough to look for the author's name on the title-page: look also for the date of publication or writing - it is sometimes even more revealing. If the philosopher is right in telling us that we cannot step into the same river twice, it is perhaps equally true, and for the same reason, that two books cannot be written by the same historian.
And, if we move for a moment from the individual historian to what may be called broad trends in historical writing, the extent to which the historian is the product of his society becomes all the more apparent. In the nineteenth century, British historians with scarcely an exception regarded the course of history as a demonstration of the principle of progress: they expressed the ideology of a society in a condition of remarkably rapid progress. History was full of meaning for British historians, so long as it seemed to be going our way; now that it has taken a wrong turning, belief in the meaning of history has become a heresy. After the First World War, Toynbee made a desperate attempt to replace a linear view of history by a cyclical theory - the characteristic ideology of a society in decline.
Since Toynbee's failure, British historians have for the most part been content to throw in their hands and declare that there is no general pattern in history at all. A banal remark by Fisher to that: effect has achieved almost as wide a popularity as Ranke's aphorism in the last century. If anyone tells me that the British historians of the last thirty years experienced this change of heart as the result of profound individual reflexion and of the burning of midnight oil in their separate garrets, I shall not think it necessary to contest the fact. But I shall continue to regard all this individual thinking and oil-burning as a social phenomenon, the product and expression of a fundamental change in the character and outlook of our society since 1914. There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write. Geyl, the Dutch historian, in his fascinating monograph translated into English under the title Napoleon For and Against, shows how the successive judgements of French nineteenth-century historians on Napoleon reflected the changing and conflicting patterns of French political life and thought throughout the century. The thought of historians, as of other human beings, is moulded by the environment of the time and place. Acton, who fully recognized this truth, sought for an escape from it in history itself:
History [he wrote] must be our deliverer not only from the undue influence of other times, but from the undue influence of our own, from the tyranny of environment and the pressure of the air we breathe.
This may sound too optimistic an assessment of the role of history. But I shall venture to believe that the historian who is most conscious of his own situation is also more capable of transcending it, and more capable of appreciating the essential nature of the differences between his own society and outlook and those of other periods and other countries, than the historian who loudly protests that he is an individual and not a social phenomenon. Man's capacity to rise above his social and historical situation seems to be conditioned by the sensitivity with which he recognizes the extent of his involvement in it.
In my first lecture I said: Before you study the history study the historian. Now I would add: Before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment. The historian, being an individual, is also a product of history and of society; and it is in this twofold light that the student of history must learn to regard him.
Fet us now leave the historian and consider the other side of my equation - the facts of history - in the light of the same problem. Is the object of the historian's inquiry the behaviour of individuals or the action of social forces? Here I am moving on to well- trodden ground. When Sir Isaiah Berlin published a few years ago a sparkling and popular essay entitled Historical Inevitability - to the main thesis of which I shall return later in these lectures - he headed it with a motto, culled from the works of Mr T. S. Eliot, 'Vast impersonal forces'; and throughout the essay he pokes fun at people who believe in 'vast impersonal forces' rather than individuals as the decisive factor in history. What I will call the Bad King John theory of history - the view that what matters in history is the character and behaviour of individuals - has a long pedigree. The desire to postulate individual genius as the creative force in history is characteristic of the primitive stages of historical consciousness. The ancient Greeks liked to label the achievements of the past with the names of eponymous heroes supposedly responsible for them, to attribute their epics to a bard called Homer, and their laws and institutions to a Lycurgus or a Solon. The same inclination reappears at the Renaissance, when Plutarch, the biographer- moralist, was much more popular and influential a figure in the classical revival than the historians of antiquity. In this country, in particular, we all learned this theory, so to speak, at our mother's knee; and today we should probably recognize that there is something childish, or at any rate childlike, about it. It had some plausibility in days when society was simpler, and public affairs appeared to be run by a handful of known individuals. It clearly does not fit the more complex society of our times; and the birth in the nineteenth century of the new science of sociology was a response to this growing complexity. Yet the old tradition dies hard. At the beginning of this century, 'history Is the biography of great men' was still a reputable dictum. Only ten years ago a distinguished American historian accused his colleagues, perhaps not too seriously, of the 'mass murder of historical characters) by treating them as 'puppets of social and economic forces'. Addicts of this theory tend nowadays to be shy about it; but, after some searching, I found an excellent contemporary statement of it in the introduction to one of Miss Wedgwood's books.
The behaviour of men as individuals [she writes] is more interesting to me than their behaviour as groups or classes. History can be written with this bias as well as another; it is neither more, nor less, misleading.... This book.., is an attempt to understand how these men felt and why, in their own estimation, they acted as they did.'
This statement is precise; and, since Miss Wedgwood is a popular writer, many people, I am sure, think as she does. Dr Rowse tells us, for instance, that the Elizabethan system broke down because James I was incapable of understanding it, and that the English revolution of the seventeenth century was an 'accidental' event due to the stupidity of the two first Stuart kings. Even Sir James Neale, a more austere historian than Dr Rowse, sometimes seems more eager to express his admiration for Queen Elizabeth than to explain what the Tudor monarchy stood for; and Sir Isaiah Berlin, in the essay which I have just quoted, is terribly worried by the prospect that historians may fail to denounce Genghis Khan and Hitler as bad men. The Bad King John and Good Queen Bess theory is especially rife when we come to more recent times. It is easier to call communism 'the brain-child of Karl Marx' (I pluck this flower from a recent stockbrokers' circular) than to analyse its origin and character, to attribute the Bolshevik Revolution to the stupidity of Nicholas II or to German gold than to study its profound social causes, and to see in the two world wars of this century the result of the individual wickedness of Wilhelm II and Hitler rather than of some deep-seated breakdown in the system of international relations.
Miss Wedgwood's statement, then, combines two propositions. The first is that the behaviour of men as individuals is distinct from their behaviour as members of groups or classes, and that the historian may legitimately choose to dwell on the one rather than on the other. The second is that the study of the behaviour of men as individuals consists of the study of the conscious motives of their actions.
After what I have already said, I need not labour the first point. It is not that the view of man as an individual is more or less misleading than the view of him as a member of the group; it is the attempt to draw a distinction between the two which is misleading. The individual is by definition a member of a society, or probably of more than one society - call it group, class, tribe, nation, or what you will. Early biologists were content to classify species of birds, beasts, and fishes in cages, aquariums, and showcases, and did not seek to study the living creature in relation to its environment. Perhaps the social sciences today have not yet fully emerged from that primitive stage. Some people distinguish between psychology as the science of the individual and sociology as the science of society; and the name 'psychologism' has been given to the view that all social problems are ultimately reducible to the analysis of individual human behaviour. But the psychologist who failed to study the social environment of the individual would not get very far. It is tempting to make a distinction between biography, which treats man as an individual, and history, which treats man as part of a whole, and to suggest that good biography makes bad history.’ Nothing causes more error and unfairness in man's view of history', Acton once wrote, 'than the interest which is inspired by individual characters.’ But this distinction, too, is unreal. Nor do I want to take shelter behind the Victorian proverb placed by G. 1M. Young on the title-page of his book Victorian England:’ Servants talk about people, gentlefolk discuss things.' Some biographies are serious contributions to history: in my own field, Isaac Deutscher's biographies of Stalin and Trotsky are outstanding examples. Others belong to literature, like the historical novel. ‘To Lytton Strachey', writes Professor Trevor-Roper, 'historical problems were always, and only, problems -of individual behaviour and individual eccentricity. ... Historical problems, the problems of politics and society, he never sought to answer, or even to ask.'" Nobody is obliged to write or read history; and excellent books can be written about the past which are not history. But I think we are entitled by convention - as I propose to do in these lectures - to reserve the word 'history' for the process of inquiry into the past of man in society.
The second point, i.e. that history is concerned to inquire why individuals 'in their own estimation, acted as they did', seems at first sight extremely odd; and I suspect that Miss Wedgwood like other sensible people, does not practise what she preaches. If she does, she must write some very queer history. Everyone knows today that human beings do not always, or perhaps even habitually, act from motives of which they are fully conscious or which they are willing to avow; and to exclude insight into unconscious or unavowed motives is surely a way of going about one's work with one eye wilfully shut. This ~s, however, what, according to some people, historians ought to do. The point is this. So long as you are content to say that the badness of King John consisted in his greed or stupidity or ambition to play the tyrant, you are speaking in terms of individual qualities which are comprehensible even at the level of nursery history. But, once you begin to say that Ring John was the unconscious tool of vested interests opposed to the rise to power of the feudal barons, you not only introduce a more complicated and sophisticated view of Ring John's badness, but you appear to suggest that historical events are determined not by the conscious actions of individuals, but by some extraneous and all-powerful forces guiding their unconscious will. This is, of course, nonsense. So far as I am concerned, I have no belief in Divine Providence, World Spirit, Manifest Destiny, History with a capital H, or any other of the abstractions which have sometimes been sup- posed to guide the course of events; and I should endorse without qualification the comment of Marx:
History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, fights no battles. It is rather man, real living man who does everything, who possesses and fights.
The two remarks which I have to make on this question have nothing to do with any abstract view of history, and are based on purely empirical observation.
The first is that history is to a considerable extent a matter of numbers. Carlyle was responsible for the unfortunate assertion that 'history is the biography of great men'. But listen to him at his most eloquent and in his greatest historical work: Hunger and nakedness and nightmare oppression lying heavy on twenty-five million hearts: this, not the wounded vanities or contradicted philosophies of philosophical advocates, rich shopkeepers, rural noblesse, was the prime mover in the French revolution; as the like will be in all such revolutions, in all countries."
Or, as Lenin said:’ Politics begin where the masses are; not where there are thousands, but where there are millions, that is where serious politics begin." Carlyle's and Lenin's millions were millions of individuals: there was nothing impersonal about them. Discussions of this question sometimes confuse anonymity with impersonality. People do not cease to be people, or individuals - individuals, because we do not know their names. Mr Eliot's 'vast, impersonal forces' were the individuals whom Clarendon, a bolder and franker conservative, calls 'dirty people of no name'. These nameless millions were individuals acting more or less unconsciously, together, and constituting a social force.
The historian will not in ordinary circumstances need to take cognizance of a single discontented peasant or discontented village. But millions of discontented peasants in thousands of villages are a factor which no historian will ignore. The reasons which deter Jones from getting married do not interest the historian unless the same reasons also deter thousands of other individuals of Jones's generation, and bring about a substantial fall in a marriage-rate: in that event, they may well be historically significant. Nor need we be perturbed by the platitude that movements are started by minorities. All effective movements have few leaders and a multitude of followers; but this does not mean that the multitude is not essential to their success. Numbers count in history.
My second observation is even better attested. Writers of many different schools of thought have concurred in remarking that the actions of individual human beings often have results which were not intended or desired by the actors or indeed by any other individual. The Christian believes that the individual, acting consciously for his own often selfish ends, is the unconscious agent of God's purpose. Mandeville's 'private vices - public benefits' was an early and deliberately paradoxical expression of this discovery. Adam Smith's hidden hand and Hegel's 'cunning of reason', which sets individuals to work for it and to serve its purposes, though the individuals believe themselves to be fulfilling their own personal desires, are too familiar to require quotation. 'In the social production of their means of production,' wrote IMarx in the preface to his Critique of Political Economy , ‘human beings enter into definite and necessary relations which are independent of their will.' 'Man lives consciously for himself,' wrote Tolstoy in War and Peace, echoing Adam Smith, ‘but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic universal aims of humanity.' And here, to round off this anthology, which is already long enough, is Professor Butterfield: 'There is something in the nature of historical events which twists the course of history in a direction that no man ever intended.’ Since 1914, after a hundred years of only minor local wars, we have had two major world wars. It would not be a plausible explanation of this phenomenon to maintain that more individuals wanted war, or fewer wanted peace, in the first half of the twentieth century than in the last three quarters of the nineteenth. It is difficult to believe that any individual willed or desired the great economic depression of the 1930s. Yet it was indubitably brought about by the actions of individuals, each consciously pursuing some totally different aim. Nor does the diagnosis of a discrepancy between the intentions of the individual and the results of his action always have to wait for the retrospective historian. 'He does not mean to go to war,' wrote Lodge of Woodrow Wilson in March 1917, 'but I think he will be carried away by events.' It defies all the evidence, to suggest that history can be written on the basis of 'explanations in terms of human intentions" or of accounts of their motives given by the actors themselves, of why 'in their own estimation, they acted as they did'. The facts of history are indeed facts about individuals, but not about actions of individuals performed in isolation, and not about the motives, real or imaginary, from which individuals suppose themselves to have acted. They are facts about the relations of individuals to one another in society and about the social forces which produce from the actions of individuals results often at variance with, and sometimes opposite to, the results which they themselves intended.
One of the serious errors of Colling wood's view of history which I discussed in my low lecture was to assume that the thought behind the act, which the historian was called on to investigate, was the thought of the individual actor. This is a false assumption. What the historian is called on to investigate is what lies behind the act; and to this the conscious thought or motive of the individual actor may be quite irrelevant.
Here I should say something about the role of the rebel or dissident in history. To set up the popular picture of the individual in revolt against society is to reintroduce the false anti- thesis between society and the individual. No society is fully homogeneous. Every society is an arena of social conflicts, and those individuals who range themselves against existing authority are no less products and reflexions of the society than those who uphold it. Richard II and Catherine the Great represented powerful social forces in the England of the fourteenth century and in the Russia of the eighteenth century: but so also did Wat Tyler and Pugachev, the leader of the great serf rebellion. Monarchs and rebels alike were the product of the specific conditions of their age and country. To describe Wat Tyler and Pugachev as individuals in revolt against society is a misleading simplification. If they had been merely that, the historian would never have heard of them. They owe their role in history to the mass of their followers, and are significant as social phenomena, or not at all. Or let us take an outstanding rebel and individualist at a more sophisticated level. Few people have reacted more violently and more radically against the society of their day and country than Nietzsche. Yet Nietzsche was a direct product of European, and more specifically of German, society - a phenomenon which could not have occurred in China or Peru. A generation after Nietzsche's death it became clearer than it had been to his contemporaries how strong were the European, and specifically German, social forces of which this individual had been the expression; and Nietzsche became a more significant figure for posterity than for his own generation.
The role of the rebel in history has some analogies with that of the great man. The great- man theory of history - a particular example of the Good Queen Bess school - has gone out of fashion in recent years, though it still occasionally rears its ungainly bead. The editor of a series of popular history text-books, started after the Second World War, invited his authors 'to open up a significant historical theme by way of a biography of a great: man'; and Mr A. J. P. Taylor told us in one of his minor essays that 'the history of modern Europe can be written in terms of three titans: Napoleon, Bismarck, and Lenin', though in his more serious writings he has undertaken no such rash project. What is the role of the great man in history? The great man is an individual, and, being an outstanding individual, is also a social phenomenon of outstanding importance. 'It is an obvious truth', observed Gibbon, 'that the times must be suited to extraordinary characters, and that the genius of Cromwell or Retz might now expire in obscurity.' Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, diagnosed the converse phenomenon: 'The class war in France created circumstances and relations which enabled a gross mediocrity to strut about in a hero's garb.' Had Bismarck been born in the eighteenth century - an absurd hypothesis, since he would not then have been Bismarck - he would not have united Germany and might not have been a great man at all. But one need not, I think, as Tolstoy does, deny great men as no more than 'labels giving names to events'. Sometimes of course the cult of the great man may have sinister implications. Nietzsche's superman is a repellent figure. It is not necessary for me to recall the case of Hitler, or the grim consequences of the 'cult of personality' in the Soviet Union. But it is not my purpose to deflate the greatness of great men: nor do I want to subscribe to the thesis that 'great men are almost always bad men'. The view which I would hope to discourage is the view which places great men outside history and sees them as imposing themselves on history in virtue of their greatness, as 'lack-in-the-boxes who emerge miraculously from the unknown to interrupt the real continuity of history'.' Even today I do not know that we can better Hegel's classic description:
The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of his age, tell his age what its will is, and accomplish it. What he does is the heart and essence of his age; he actualizes his age.
Dr Leavis means something like this when he says that great writers are 'significant in terms of the human awareness they promote'. The great man is always representative either of existing forces or of forces which he helps to create by way of challenge to existing authority. But the higher degree of creativity may perhaps be assigned to those great men who, like Cromwell or Lenin, helped to mould the forces which carried them to greatness, rather than to those who, like Napoleon or Bismarck, rode to greatness on the back of already existing forces. Nor should we forget those great men who stood so far in advance of their own time that their greatness was recognized only by succeeding generations. What seems to me essential is to recognize in the great man an outstanding individual who is at once a product and an agent of the historical process, at once the representative and the creator of social forces which change the shape of the world and the thoughts of men.
History, then, in both senses of the word - meaning both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he inquires - is a social process, in which individuals are engaged as social beings; and the imaginary antithesis between society and the individual is no more than a red herring drawn across our path to confuse our thinking. The reciprocal process of interaction between-the historian and his facts, what I have called the dialogue between present and past, is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday.
History, in Burckhardt's words, is 'the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another'.' The past is intelligible to us only in the light of the present; and we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past. To enable man to understand the society of the past, and to increase his mastery over the society of the present, is the dual function of history.
The End of What Is History - Chapters 1 and 2 by E.H. Carr