History of Medieval Europe

THE believer in the possibility of a science of history is not called upon to hold either the doctrine of predestination or that of freedom of the will. The only positions which at the outset need to be conceded are that when we perform an action we perform it in consequence of some motive or motives; that those motives are the result of some antecedents; and that, therefore, if we were acquainted with the whole of the antecedents and with all the laws of their movements we could with unerring certainty predict the whole of their immediate results.

History is the modification of man by nature and of nature by man. We shall find a regularity in the variations of virtuous and vicious actions that proves them to be the result of large and general causes which, working upon the aggregate of society must produce certain consequences without regard to the decision of particular individuals.

Man is affected by purely physical agents--climate, food, soil, geographical conditions and active physical phenomena. In the earliest civilizations nature is more prominent than man, and the imagination is more stimulated than the understanding. In the European civilizations man is the more prominent, and the understanding is more stimulated than the imagination. Hence the advance of European civilization is characterised by a diminishing influence of physical laws and an increasing influence of mental laws.

Clearly, then, of the two classes of laws which regulate the progress of mankind the mental class is more important than the physical. The laws of the human mind will prove to be the ultimate basis of the history of Europe. These are not to be ascertained by the metaphysical method of studying the inquirer's own mind alone, but by the historical method of studying many minds. And this whether the metaphysician belongs to the school which starts by examining sensations, or to that which starts with examination of ideas.

Therefore, we must turn to the historical, and study mental phenomena as they appear in the actions of mankind at large. Mental progress is twofold, moral and intellectual, the first having relation to our duties, the second to our knowledge. It is a progress not of capacity, but in the circumstances under which capacity comes into play; not of internal power, but of external advantage. Now, whereas moral truths do not change, intellectual truths are constantly changing, from which we may infer that the progress of society is due, not to the moral knowledge, which is stationary, but to the intellectual knowledge, which is constantly advancing.

The history of many people will become more valuable for ascertaining the laws by which past events were governed in proportion as their movements have been least disturbed by external agencies. During the last three centuries these conditions have applied to England more than to any other country; since the action of the people has there been the least restricted by government and allowed the greatest freedom of play. Government intervention is habitually restrictive, and the best legislation has been that which abrogated former restrictive legislation.

Government, religion and literature are not the cause of civilization, but its effects. The higher religion enters only where the mind is intellectually prepared for its acceptance; elsewhere the forms may be adopted, but not the essence, as medieval Christianity was merely an adapted paganism. Similarly, a religion imposed by authority is accepted in its form, but not necessarily in its essence.

In the same way literature is valuable to a country in proportion as the population is capable of criticising and discriminating; that is, as it is intellectually prepared to select and sift the good from the bad.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I