Thursday, January 3, 2013

History as Moral Philosophy

The historian of morals and ideas has a mission no less austere than that of the historian of events.  The latter has the surface of civilization, the struggles of the crowns, the births of princes, the marriages of kings, the battles, the assemblies, the great public men, the evolutions in the sunlight, all the exterior; the other historian  has the interior, the foundation, the people who work, who suffer, and who wait, overburdened woman, agonizing childhood, the dumb wars of man with man, the obscure ferocities, the prejudices, the established iniquities, the subterranean reactions of the law, the secret evolutions of souls, the vague shudderings of the multitudes, the starving, the barefooted, the bare armed, the disinherited, the orphans, the unfortunate and the infamous, all the goblins that wander in darkness.  He must descend with a heart at the same time full of charity and of severity, as a brother and as a judge, to those impenetrable casemates where crawl in confusion those who bleed and those who strike, those who weep and those who curse, those who fast and those who devour, those  who suffer wrong and those who commit it.  Have these historians of hearts and souls lesser duties than the historians of the exterior facts?  Do you think that Dante has fewer things to say than Machiavelli?  Is the underworld of civilization, because it is deeper and more gloomy, less important than the upper?  Do we really know the mountain if we do not know the cavern?

We must say, however...a decided separation between the two classes of historians might be inferred, which does not exist in our mind.  No man is a good historian of the open, visible, signal, and public life of the nations, if he is not, at the same time, to a certain extent, the historian of events, and vice versa.  They are two different orders of different facts which answer to each other, which are always linked with and often produce each other.  All the lineaments which Providence traces upon the surface of a nation have their dark but distinct parallels, in the bottom, and all the convulsions of the bottom produce upheavals at the surface.  True history dealing with all, the true historian deals with all.  

--Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

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