The work of historian FPG Guizot

IT was in 1812 that Guizot was first appointed to the chair of modern history at the Sorbonne. Later, politics occupied him much, but literature and history were his greatest personal interests, and from 1820 onwards he displayed astonishing literary activity. To this period belong the first part of his History of the Revolution in England, from Charles I to Charles II, a work completed during his exile in England after 1848. Between 1828 and 1830 he delivered a course of lectures which raised his reputation as a historian to its highest point and established him as one of the best writers in Europe. These lectures formed the basis of his History of Civilization in Europe (1828) and of his History of Civilization in France (1830), both classics.


THE subject I propose to consider is the civilization of Europe--its origins, its progress, its aims, its character. The fact of civilization belongs to what is called the philosophic portion of history; it is a vague, obscure, complex fact, very difficult, I admit, to explain and describe, but none the less requiring explanation and description. It is, indeed, the greatest historical fact, to which all others contribute; it is a kind of ocean which makes the wealth of a people, and in the bosom of which all the elements of the people's life, all the forces of its existence, are joined in unity.

There is an essential difference between modern European and other civilizations. The characteristic of other civilizations has been unity; they seem to have emanated from a single fact, a single idea. In Egypt and India the theocratic principle was dominant; in the Greek and Phoenician republics, the democratic principle. The civilization of modern Europe on the contrary, is diverse, confused, stormy; all the forms and principles of social organization, theocratic, monarchical, aristocratic, democratic, co-exist in it; there are infinite gradations of liberty, wealth, influence. All the various forces are in a state of constant struggle; yet all of them have a certain family resemblance, as it were, that one cannot but recognize.

These diverse elements, for all their conflict, cannot any one of them extinguish any other; each has to dwell with the rest, make a compromise with the rest. The outcome, then, of this diversity and struggle is liberty; and here is the grand and true superiority of the European over other civilizations. European civilization, if I may say so, has entered into eternal truth; it advances in the ways of God.

It would be an important confirmation of my assertion as to the diverse character of our civilization if we should find in its very cradle the causes and the elements of that diversity. And, indeed, at the fall of the Roman empire, we do so find it.

Three forms of society, each entirely different from the other, are visible at the time of chaos. The municipalities survived, the last remnant of the imperial system. The Christian Church survived. And in the third place there were the barbarians, who brought with them a military organization and a hardy, individual independence that were wholly new to the peoples who had dwelt under the shelter of the empire. The barbarian epoch was the chaos of all the elements, the infancy of all the systems, a universal hubbub, in which even the conflict itself had no definite or permanent effects.

Europe laboured to escape from this confusion. At some times, and in some places, it was temporarily checked--in particular, by the great Charlemagne in his revival of the imperial power; but the confusion did not cease until its causes no longer acted. These causes were two--one material, one moral. The material cause was the irruption of fresh barbarian hordes. The moral cause was the lack of any ideas in common among men as to the structure of society. The old imperial fabric had disappeared; Charlemagne's restoration of it depended wholly on his own personality, and did not survive him; men had no ideas of any new structure--their intellectual horizon was limited to their own affairs. By the beginning of the tenth century the barbarian invasions ended, and as the populations settled down a new system appeared based partly on the barbarians' love of independence, partly on their plans of military gradation--the system of feudalism.

Everywhere society was dismembered; everywhere there was formed a multitude of small, obscure, isolated societies, consisting of the chief, his family, his retainers, and the wretched serfs over whom he ruled without restraint. The narrow, concentrated life of the feudal lord lent, undoubtedly, a great preponderance to domesticity in his affairs. The lord had his wife and children for his permanent society; they continually shared his interests, his destiny. It was in the bosom of the feudal family that woman gained her importance. The system excited developments of private character and passion that were, all things considered, noble. Chivalry was the daughter of feudalism.

But from the social point of view, feudalism failed to provide either legal order or political security. It contained elaborate obligations between the higher and lower orders of the feudal hierarchy, duties of protection on the one side and of service on the other. But these obligations could never be established as institutions. There was no superior force to which all had to submit, no public opinion to make itself respected. Hence the system was without political guarantee to sustain it. Feudalism was as much opposed to the establishment of general order as to the extension of general liberty.

MEANWHILE, the Church, adhering to its own principles, had steadily advanced along the route that it had marked out for itself in the early days of its organization. It was during the feudal epoch the only power that made for civilized development. All education was ecclesiastical; all the arts were in the service of the Church. It had, during the Dark Ages, won the barbarians to its fold by the gorgeous solemnity of its ritual; and, to protect itself against secular interference, it had declared the spiritual power to be independent of the temporal--the first great assertion, in the history of European civilization, of the liberty of thought.

In one set of respects, the Church during the feudal epoch satisfied the conditions of good government; in another, it did not. Its power was uniformly distributed; it drew its recruits from all classes and entrusted the rule to the most capable. It was in close touch with every grade of mankind; it was the most popular and accessible society of the time, the most open to all talents and all noble ambitions.

But, on the other hand, it failed in that all-important requisite of good government, respect for liberty. It denied the rights of individual reason in spiritual matters, and it claimed the right to compel belief--a claim that placed it in dependence upon the temporal powers, since, as a spiritual body, governing by influence and not by force, it could not persecute without the aid of the secular arm.

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