From The Bibliophile Library of Literature, Art, & Rare Manuscripts, Vol. XVIII, compiled and arranged by Nathan Haskell Dole, Forrest Morgan, and Caroline Ticknor; The International Bibliophile Society, New York-London; 1904; pp. 6179-6184.
[FRANÇOIS PIERRE GUILLAUME GUIZOT: A French historian and statesman; born at Nimes, October, 4, 1787. In early life a law student, tutor, and journalist, he was appointed to a professorship of modern history (1812) in the University of France. He then engaged in politics; entered the ministry of justice after the second restoration; and while minister of public instruction under Soult, established a system of primary schools throughout France. From 1840 to 1848 he was actually, though not nominally, chief minister to Louis Philippe. On the fall of the latter he escaped to London, and later returned to France, devoting the remainder of his life to literary work at his country seat of Val Richer, in Normandy, where he died in 1874. His most important writings are: “History of the English Revolution,” “General History of Civilization in Europe,” “Parliamentary History of France,” and “Corneille and his Time,” “Shakespeare and his Time.”]
I PURPOSE now to enter upon the History of the Civilization of Europe; but before doing so, before going into its proper history, I must make you acquainted with the peculiar character of this civilization — with its distinguishing features, so that you may be able to recognize and distinguish European civilization from every other.
When we look at the civilizations which have preceded that of modern Europe, whether in Asia or elsewhere, including even those of Greece and Rome, it is impossible not to be struck with the unity of character which reigns among them. Each appears as though it had emanated from a single fact, from a single idea. One might almost assert that society was under the influence of one single principle, which universally prevailed and determined the character of its institutions, its manners, its opinions — in a word, all its developments.
In Egypt, for example, it was the theocratic principle that took possession of society, and showed itself in its manners, in its monuments, and in all that has come down to us of Egyptian civilization. In India the same phenomenon occurs — it is still a repetition of the almost exclusively prevailing influence of theocracy. In other regions a different organization may be observed — perhaps the domination of a conquering caste: and where such is the case, the principle of force takes entire possession of society, imposing upon it its laws and its character. In another place, perhaps, we discover 6180 society under the entire influence of the democratic principle; such was the case in the commercial republics which covered the coasts of Asia Minor and Syria — in Ionia and Phœnicia. In a word, whenever we contemplate the civilizations of the ancients, we find them all impressed with one ever-prevailing character of unity, visible in their institutions, their ideas, and manners — one sole, or at least one very preponderating influence, seems to govern and determine all things.
I do not mean to aver that this overpowering influence of one single principle, of one single form, prevailed without any exception in the civilization of those states. If we go back to their earliest history, we shall find that the various powers which dwelt in the bosom of the societies frequently struggled for mastery. Thus among the Egyptians, the Etruscans, even among the Greeks and others, we may observe the warrior caste struggling against that of the priests. In other places we find the spirit of clanship struggling against the spirit of free association, the spirit of aristocracy against popular rights. These struggles, however, mostly took place in periods beyond the reach of history, and no evidence of them is left beyond a vague tradition.
Sometimes, indeed, these early struggles broke out afresh at a later period in the history of the nations; but in almost every case they were quickly terminated by the victory of one of the powers which sought to prevail, and which then took sole possession of society. The war always ended by the domination of some special principle, which, if not exclusive, at least greatly preponderated. The coexistence and strife of various principles among these nations were no more than a passing, an accidental circumstance.
From this cause a remarkable unity characterizes most of the civilizations of antiquity, the results of which, however were very different. In one nation, as in Greece, the unity of the social principle led to a development of wonderful rapidity; no other people ever ran so brilliant a career in so short a time. But Greece had hardly become glorious, before she appeared worn out: her decline, if not quite so rapid as her rise, was strangely sudden. It seems as if the principle which called Greek civilization into life was exhausted. No other came to invigorate it, or supply its place.
In other states, say, for example, in India and Egypt, 6181 where again only one principle of civilization prevailed, the result was different. Society here became stationary; simplicity produced monotony; the country was not destroyed; society continued to exits; but there was no progression; it remained torpid and inactive.
To this same cause must be attributed that character of tyranny which prevailed, under various names, and the most opposite forms, in all the civilizations of antiquity. Society belonged to one exclusive power, which could bear with no other. Every principle of a different tendency was proscribed. The governing principle would nowhere suffer by its side the manifestation and influence of a rival principle.
This character of simplicity, of unity, in their civilization, is equally impressed upon their literature and intellectual productions. Who that has run over the monuments of Hindu literature lately introduced into Europe, but has seen that they are all struck from the same die? They all seem the result of one same fact; the expression of one same idea. Religious and moral treatises, historical traditions, dramatic poetry, epics, all bear the same physiognomy. The same character of unity and monotony shines out in these works of mind and fancy, as we discover in their life and institutions. Even in Greece, notwithstanding the immense stores of knowledge and intellect which it poured forth, a wonderful unity still prevailed in all relating to literature and the arts.
How different to all this is the case as respects the civilization of modern Europe! Take ever so rapid a glance at this, and it strikes you at once as diversified, confused, and stormy. All the principles of social organization are found existing together within it; powers temporal, powers spiritual, the theocratic, monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements, all classes of society, all the social situations, are jumbled together, and visible within it; as well as infinite gradations of liberty, of wealth and of influence. These various powers, too, are found here in a state of continual struggle among themselves, without any one having sufficient force to master the others, and take sole possession of society. Among the ancients, at every great epoch, all communities seem cast in the same mold: it was now pure monarchy, now theocracy or democracy, that became the reigning principle, each in its turn reigning absolutely. But modern Europe contains examples 6182 of all these systems, of all the attempts at social organization; pure and mixed monarchies, theocracies, republics more or less aristocratic, all live in common, side by side, at one and the same time; yet, notwithstanding their diversity, they all bear a certain resemblance to each other, a kind of family likeness which it is impossible to mistake, and which shows them to be essentially European.
In the moral character, in the notions and sentiments of Europe, we find the same variety, the same struggle. Theocratical opinions, monarchical opinions, aristocratic opinions, democratic opinions, cross and jostle, struggle, become interwoven, limit, and modify each other. Open the boldest treatises of the middle age: in none of them is an opinion carried to its final consequences. The advocates of absolute power flinch, almost unconsciously, from the results to which their doctrine would carry them. We see that the ideas and influences around them frighten them from pushing it to its uttermost point. Democracy felt the same control. That imperturbable boldness, so striking in ancient civilizations, nowhere found a place in the European system. In sentiments we discover the same contrasts, the same variety; an indomitable taste for independence dwelling by the side of the greatest aptness for submission; a singular fidelity between man and man, at the same time an imperious desire in each to do his own will, to shake off all restraint, to live alone, without troubling himself with the rest of the world. Minds were as much diversified as society.
The same characteristic is observable in literature. It cannot be denied that in what relates to the form and beauty of art, modern Europe is very inferior to antiquity; but if we look at her literature as regards depth of feeling and ideas, it will be found more powerful and rich. The human mind has been employed upon a greater number of objects, its labors have been more diversified, it has gone to a greater depth. Its imperfection in form is owing to this very cause. The more plenteous and rich the materials, the greater is the difficulty of forcing them into a pure and simple form. That which gives beauty to a composition, that which in works of art we call form, is the clearness, the simplicity, the symbolical unity of the work. With the prodigious diversity of ideas and sentiments which belong to European civilization, the difficulty 6183 to attain this grand and chaste simplicity has been increased.
In every part, then, we find this character of variety to prevail in modern civilization. It has undoubtedly brought with it this inconvenience, that when we consider separately any particular development of the human mind in literature, in the arts, in any of the ways in which human intelligence may go forward, we shall generally find it inferior to the corresponding development in the civilization of antiquity: but, as a set-off to this, when we regard it as a whole, European civilization appears incomparably more rich and diversified: if each particular fruit has not attained the same perfection, it has ripened an infinitely greater variety. Again, European civilization has now endured fifteen centuries, and in all that time it has been in a state of progression. It may be true that it has not advanced so rapidly as the Greek; but, catching new impulses at every step, it is still advancing. An unbounded career is open before it; and from day to day it presses forward to the race with increasing rapidity, because increased freedom attends upon all its movements. While in other civilizations the exclusive domination, or at least the excessive preponderance of a single principle, of a single form, led to tyranny, in modern Europe the diversity of the elements of social order, the incapability of any one to exclude the rest, gave birth to the liberty which now prevails. The inability of the various principles to exterminate one another compelled each to endure the others, made it necessary for them to live in common, for them to enter into a sort of mutual understanding. Each consented to have only that part of civilization which fell to its share. Thus, while everywhere else the predominance of one principle has produced tyranny, the variety of elements of European civilization, and the constant warfare in which they have been engaged, have given birth in Europe to that liberty which we prize so dearly.
It is this which gives to European civilization its real, its immense superiority — it is this which forms its essential, its distinctive character. And if, carrying our views still further, we penetrate beyond the surface into the very nature of things, we shall find that this superiority is legitimate — that it is acknowledged by reason as well as proclaimed by facts. Quitting 6184 for a moment European civilization, and taking a glance at the world in general, at the common course of earthly things, what is the character we find it to bear? What do we here perceive? Why, just that very same diversity, that very same variety of elements, that very same struggle, which is so strikingly evinced in European civilization. It is plain enough that no single principle, no particular organization, no simple idea, no special power, has ever been permitted to obtain possession of the world, to mold it into a durable form, and to drive from it every opposing tendency, so as to reign itself supreme. Various powers, principles, and systems here intermingle, modify one another, and struggle incessantly — now subduing, now subdued — never wholly conquered, never conquering. Such is apparently the general state of the world, while diversity of forms, of ideas, of principles, their struggles and their energies, all tend toward a certain unity, a certain ideal, which, though perhaps it may never be attained, mankind is constantly approaching by dint of liberty and labor. Hence European civilization is the reflected image of the world — like the course of earthly things, it is neither narrowly circumscribed, exclusive, nor stationary. For the first time, civilization appears to have divested itself of its special character: its development presents itself for the first time under as diversified, as abundant, as laborious an aspect as the great theater of the universe itself.
European civilization has, if I may be allowed the expression, at last penetrated into the ways of eternal truth — into the scheme of Providence; — it moves in the ways which God has prescribed. This is the rational principle of its superiority.