Page images

The leaders of the Reformation advanced with rapid strides from their denial of allegiance to the pope to the formation of a new religious body; the founders of modern science and modern philosophy, free for the most part from the agnostic despair of later times, believed that they were substituting more stable and fruitful forms of thought for those whose lack of value bad at length become patent. A conspicuous feature of the skepticism of the eighteenth century in France is the potency of modern science and the mechanical view of the world, when carried out in all their implications by a people whose logic does not shrink back from even the most extreme conclusions. And the same principle will be found to apply to the present age. The fact, indeed, is obscured by the unique relation existing between the positive and the negative tendencies of the forces by which the thought of our time is molded. Never in the history of human thinking have principles of constructive value in their own sphere been applied with so destructive purpose in other departments of reflection; never, for instance, have men been so confident that they possess settled truth within the region of sense-experience and so doubtful whether truth is even attainable in the region of transcendent speculation. Yet, as the age passes on from its earlier to its later stages, it becomes less possible either to ignore the existence of fruitful positive forces beneath and behind the negative movements, or to confine the effect of these within the limits of the region where their work began. Science still leads on to philosophy as of old; the exigencies of social and political, as well as of individual, life continue to demand an ethic, albeit certain dominant developments of contemporary opinion have little of an ethical sort to offer; religion refuses to accept the sentence of condemnation passed upon it, or even to stay dead in hearts where it has been crushed down.

Prominent among the forces effective in the production of contemporary forms of thought has been the historical spirit. The nineteenth century is preeminently an historical age—an age in which historical studies have engrossed the attention of scholars, and, more notably still, a period marked by the application of the principles of historical development in explaining the genesis of the most various human institutions. The beginnings of this interest in historical investigation go farther back, indeed, than the opening of the present age. There is a sense in which it might with truth be urged that the eighteenth century, also, was characterized by interest in the experience of the past, and even that the leaders of that


made use of the lessons of history, as they understood them, in their endeavors to meet the needs of their time. Illustrations of these positions are easy to cite from among the ranks of the destructive schools themselves. Voltaire wrote histories, as well as satires and lampoons. Montesquieu based his Spirit of Laws on the historical parallels of national life, as well as on the current conceptions of nature and of man. Rosseau winged his shafts with comparisons drawn from the democracies of antiquity. The revolutionary assemblies prated of Greece and Rome in their headlong debates, and sought to dignify the government of reason by aping pagan festivals. In Britain, Hume would be remembered for his History of England, thongh we did not have his essays and his philosophical writings to keep his fame alive; and it is but a short time since that the whole English-speaking world was busy in cel. ebrating the centenary of the appearance of the Memoirs of the author of the Decline and Fall. Thus, though the his

, toric spirit is rightly counted a special characteristic of the present age, it must not be supposed that the current devotion to historical methods of thonght sprung up without preparation in the century that preceded our own.

There are two points, however, which serve to distinguish the historical spirit of this age from that of earlier times. The first of these is the better development of the methods of historical investigation. The methods of minute research which have shown themselves so fruitful in other fields of inquiry have been welcomed by historical scholars as potent instruments in the solntion of their peculiar problems. Never before has the inquiry into the facts of history been pursued with so persistent determination, and never have the facts when ascertained been utilized so sacredly in the formation of historical conclnsions. As the physical scientist observes and experiments in his laboratory or in the fields, as he tests and measures and weighs, so the productive leaders of historical study in this age go back to the primary sources of information. Animated by a spirit of exact investigation, they make long journeys in order to become eyewitnesses of the scenes of historic events; they study the monuments to recover the annals of early civilizations; they ransack old libraries and bring the facts to light which lie hidden in the time-stained records of the past; they burrow in official archives that original State papers may be made to yield their secrets; and they apply the criteria of critical interpretation to the data when they have thus been gathered, in order that the prima facie bearing of the evidence may be sifted by the strictest tests. In short, the historian

, of to-day differs from the annalist of the past as much by his patient investigation of the phenomena of history as by his endeavor to view his results in those larger connections which the mind of the annalist was entirely unfitted to grasp.

If the influence of historical inquiry on the progress of nineteenth-century opinion stopped here, however, its importance would scarcely be sufficient to compel its enumeration among the controlling forces of the age. It is not because history has interested us for its own sake that it has gained a foreinost place in our thinking, or even-though here its effect has been very great, because, like history in every age, it enforces lessons bearing on the questions of political and civil society. The strongest attraction that it presents to the minds of contemporary thinkers is to be found in the proffer of itself as a means for the solution of the most varied and most pressing problems. This conception was for the most part foreign to the thought of the eighteenth century. Reflective minds were then too often governed by the same delusion that had misled their Athenian predecessors of the fifth century before the Christian era. As the latter believed that government was the invention of tyrants for the better oppression of the subject, and religion and morals devices of the ruler, abetted by the priest, for the further exploitation of his people, so the former proceeded on the assumption that institutions could be created at a stroke, or that at least they were possible products of artificial making. The State was held to be the result of a compact. In social life, as well as in individual conduct, a return must be made to the state of nature. Religion was to be purified from the corrupting additions which had been engrafted on the primitive rational faith. In general, on the basis of the new ideas, a complete reform of human institutions was to be undertaken in the unhesitating belief that the world stood on the threshold of a second golden age. It is the result, in part, of the failure of these brilliant dreams that the thinking of our later age rejects the assumptions on which the work of its predecessor was founded. No longer do we believe that institutions are created out of hand; and at least the calmer heads among us are doubtful concerning man's capacity to better his condition by making all things new. In place of the conviction that institutions have sprung from single deeds, on the part of leading individuals, or on the part of society as a whole, there has been substituted the belief that, like all things else, they are the outcome of a process of growth. In this way the point of view is essentially changed, the method of historical inquiry issuing in the method of genetic explanation. This first watchword of the new time has been well phrased in the title of a work by a well-known American historian and philosopher.* Not merely the destiny of men, but the nature and destiny of all things, are now studied in the light of their origin. Biological science has been revolutionized by a theory of the genesis of species. The final origin of law and custom is sought in the habits of the tribe. The source, if not always the sanction, of moral principles is discovered in the conditions of social health and progress. The great debate concerning religion and theology takes on new forms; for assailant and apologist alike view the subject from a more reasonable position than that which formed the vantage ground of the old antagonists, the questions at issue being discussed no longer as disconnected phenomena to be considered in detail, but in connection with the principle of growth, ultimately in connection with the development of impulses deeply embedded in man's essential nature. Society as a whole is looked on as an organism, subject, like organisms at large, to the laws of evolution. In fine, if the method of genetic explanation was undervalued or ignored in the last age, in this it has become a foremost factor.

Fiske, The Destiny of Man Viewed in the Light of his Origin.

To the exaggerations of the genetic method obvious objection may be taken. First, when it is said that the method of historical or genetic explanation constitutes a constructive force in recent thinking it may be rejoined that, so far from restoring the principles of intellectual and religious belief which of late have been called in question, it raises certain of these difficulties in an acute form. Secondly, in opposition to the confident reliance on the method as the weapon for a successful attack on all kinds of problems, it has often been urged that, after all, the question of origin is one thing and the question of nature and meaning other and different from this. And it inust be admitted that these criticisms have considerable weight. In fact, they might be stated still more forcibly and retain their cogency; for it is undeniable that the results of the historical method, especially when it has been made a sort of universal instrument, have contributed as few things else to the transitional character of the age in which we live. The generation is but just passing, for instance, to which Darwinian evolution appeared to undermine the foundations of all religious, if not of all ethical, truth ; while the idea of development in general holds so prominent a place in present opinion that the men of the day are liable to forget that, quite before Darwin or Spencer had begun his work, Hegel, among others, announced the principle of continuity with such distinctness and power that many of the questions which it affects—for example, the question of the natural and the supernaturalreceived a formulation decisive for their critical discussion ever since.

In estimating the force of this objection, however, it is important to consider the question of relative values. No one who understands the history of the times can ignore the destructive influence of the principle under consideration. But when inquiry takes a broader sweep it is clear that in thought, as elsewhere, nothing can be gained without the payment of the purchase price; and that, in times of doubt, especially, all forward movements are liable to involve a heavy outlay. The point at issue is not whether the historical spirit of the age has been one source of the perplexities under which our thinking labors, nor even, when its constructive influence is recognized,

« PreviousContinue »