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Polybius, the Greek historian of the rise of the Roman empire, viewed it as the prize example of the natural laws which regulated the cyclical transformation of one governmental form into another. He believed, like Plato, that all states inevitably passed through the phases of kingship, aristocracy and democracy which degenerated into their allied forms of despotism, oligarchy and mob rule. The generation and degeneration of these successive stages of rulership was due to natural causes. “This is the regular cycle of constitutional revolutions, and the natural order in which institutions change, are transformed, and return to their original stage”, he wrote.
Just as they knew and named the major kinds of political organisation from monarchy to democracy, so did the Greek thinkers of both the idealist and materialist schools originate the basic types of historical interpretation which have endured to the present day.
They were the first to try to explain the evolution of society along materialist lines, however crude and awkward were their initial efforts. The Atomists, the Sophists and the Hippocratic school of medicine put forward the idea that the natural environment was the decisive factor in the moulding of mankind. In its extreme expressions this trend of thought reduced social-historical changes to the effects of the geographical theatre and its climatic conditioning. Thus Polybius wrote: “We mortals have an irresistible tendency to yield to climatic influences; and to this cause, and no other, may be traced the great distinctions which prevail among us in character, physical formation and complexion, as well as in most of our habits, varying with nationality and wide local separation.”
These earliest sociologists taught that mankind had climbed from savagery to civilisation by imitating nature and improving upon her operations. The finest exponent of this materialist view in Graeco-Roman culture was Lucretius who gave a brilliant sketch of the steps in the development of society in his poem On The Nature of Things.
Predominant among the Greek thinkers, however, were the sorts of explanation which have ever since been the stock in trade of the historical idealists. There were five of these.
1. The Great God Theory. The most primitive attempts to explain the origin and development of the world and man are the creation myths to be found among preliterate peoples. We are best acquainted with the one in Genesis which ascribes the making of heaven and earth with all its features and creatures to a Lord God who worked on a six-day schedule. These fanciful stories do not have any scientific validity.
The raw materials for genuine history-writing were first collected in the annals of the reigns and chronicles of kings in the river valley civilisations of the Near East, India and China. The first synthetic conception of history arose from the fusion of elements taken over from the old creation myths with a review of these records. This was the Great God, or theological version of history which asserted that divine beings directed human affairs together with the rest of the cosmos.
Just as the royal despots dominated the city states and their empires, so the will, passions, plans and needs of the gods were the ultimate causes of events. The king is the agent who maintains the world in being by means of an annual contest with the powers of chaos. This theological theory was elaborated by the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians before it came down to the Greeks and Romans. It was expounded in the Israelite scriptures whence it was taken over and reshaped by the Christian and Mohammedan religions and their states.
Under the theocratic monarchies of the East the divine guidance of human affairs was wrapped up with the godlike nature of the priest-king. In Babylon, Egypt, the Alexandrian Empire and Rome the supreme ruling force of the universe and the forceful ruler of the realm were regarded as equally divine. The Great God and the Great Man were one and the same.
2. The Great Man Theory. The straightforward theological view of history is too crude and naive, too close to primitive animism, too much in conflict with civilised enlightenment to persist without criticism or change except among the most ignorant and devout. It has been supplanted by more refined versions of the same type of thinking.
The Great Man theory emerged from a dissociation of the dual components of the Great God theory. The immense powers attributed to the gods become transferred to and concentrated in some figure at the head of the state, the church or other key institution or movement. This exceptionally placed personage was supposedly endowed with the capacity for moulding events as he willed. This is the pristine source of the tenacious belief that unusually influential and able individuals determine the main direction of history.
Fetishistic worship of the Great Man has come down through the ages from the god-kings of Mesopotamia to the adoration of a Hitler. It has had numerous incarnations according to the values attached at different times by different people to the various domains of social activity. In antiquity these ranged from the divine monarch, the tyrant, the lawgiver (Solon), the military conqueror (Alexander), the dictator (Caesar), the hero-emancipator (David), and the religious leader (Christ, Buddha, Mohammed). All these were put in the place of the Almighty as the prime mover and shaper of human history.
The most celebrated latter-day expounder of this viewpoint was Carlyle who wrote: “Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here.”
3. The Great Mind Theory. A more sophisticated and philosophical variant of the Great God-Man line of thought is the notion that history is drawn forward or driven ahead by some ideal force in order to realise its preconceived ends. The Greek Anaxagoras said: “Reason (Nous) governs the world.” Aristotle held that the prime mover of the universe and thereby the ultimate animator of everything within it was God, who was defined as pure mind engaged in thinking about itself.
Hegel was the foremost modern exponent of this theory that the progress of mankind consisted in the working out and consummation of an idea. He wrote: “Spirit, or Mind, is the only motive principle of history.” The underlying goal of the World Spirit and the outcome of its laborious development was the realisation of the idea of freedom.
The Great Mind Theory easily slides into the notion that some set of brilliant intellects, or even one mental genius, supplies the mainspring of human advancement. Plato taught that there are “some natures who ought to study philosophy and to be leaders in the state; and others who are not born to be philosophers, and are meant to be followers rather than leaders”.
Thus some 18th century rationalists who believed that “opinion governs mankind” looked toward an enlightened monarch to introduce the necessary progressive reconstruction of the state and society. A more widespread manifestation of this approach contrasts to the unthinking mob some upper stratum of the population as the exemplar of reason which alone can be entrusted with political leadership and power.
4. The Best People Theory. All such interpretations contain infusions of the prejudice that some elite, the Best Race, the favoured nation, the ruling class alone make history. The Old Testament assumed that the Israelites were God’s chosen people. The Greeks regarded themselves as the acme of culture, better in all respects than the barbarians. Plato and Aristotle looked upon the slave-holding aristocracy as naturally superior to the lower orders.
5. The Human Nature Theory. Most persistent is the view that history in the last analysis has been determined by the qualities of human nature, good or bad. Human nature, like nature itself, was regarded as rigid and unchanging from one generation to another. The historian’s task was to demonstrate what these invariant traits of the human constitution and character were, how the course of history exemplified them, and how the social structure was moulded or had to be remodelled in accordance with them. Such a definition of essential human nature was the starting point for the social theorising of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and other great idealists.
But it will also be found at the bottom of the social and political philosophy of the most diverse schools. Thus the empiricist David Hume flatly asserts in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: “Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.”
Many of the 19th century pathfinders in the social sciences clung to this old standby of “the constant and universal principles of human nature”. For example, E.B. Tylor, the founder of British anthropology, wrote in 1889: “Human institutions, like stratified rocks, succeed each other in series substantially uniform over the globe, independent of what seems the comparatively superficial differences of race and language, but shaped by similar human nature.”
Although they may have held different opinions of what the essential qualities of humanity were, idealist and materialist thinkers alike have appealed in the last resort to permanent principles of human nature to explain social and historical phenomena. Thus the materialist-minded Thucydides, as M.I Finley tells us in his introduction to The Greek Historians, believed that “human nature and human behaviour were … essentially fixed qualities, the same in one century as another”.
For many centuries after the Greeks, scientific insight into the workings of history made little progress. Under Christianity and feudalism the theological conception that history was the manifestation of God’s plan monopolised social philosophy. In contrast to the stagnation of science in Western Europe, the Moslems and Jews carried forward the social as well as the natural sciences. The most original and unsurpassed student of social processes between the ancients and moderns was the 14th century thinker of the Maghreb, Ibn Khaldun who analysed the stages of development of the Mohammedan countries and cultures and the causes of their typical institutions and features in the most materialist manner of his epoch.
This eminent Moslem statesman was very likely the first scholar to formulate a clear conception of sociology, the science of social development. He did so under the name of the study of culture.
He wrote: “History is the record of human society, or world civilisation; of the changes that take place in the nature of that society, such as savagery, sociability, and group solidarity; of revolutions and uprisings by one set of people against another with the resulting kingdoms and states, with their various ranks; of the different activities and occupations of men, whether for gaining their livelihood or in the various sciences and crafts; and, in general, of all the transformations that society undergoes by its very nature.”
The next big advance in scientific understanding of history came with the rise of bourgeois society and the discovery of other regions of the globe associated with its commercial and naval expansion. In their conflicts with the ruling feudal hierarchy and the Church the intellectual spokesmen for progressive bourgeois forces rediscovered and reasserted the ideas of class struggle first noted by the Greeks and instituted historical comparisons with antiquity to bolster their claims. Their new revolutionary views demanded not only a wider outlook upon the world but a deeper probing into the mechanism of social change.
Such bold representatives of bourgeois thought as Machiavelli and Vico in Italy, Hobbes, Harrington, Locke and the classical economists in England, the Scottish school of Adam Ferguson, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, D’Holbach and others in France helped accumulate the materials and clear the site for a more realistic picture of society and a more rigorous understanding of its modes and stages of development.
On a much higher level of social and scientific development, historical thought from the 17th to the 19th centuries tended to become polarised, as in Greece, between idealist and materialist modes of explanation. Both schools of thought were animated by a common aim. They believed that history had an intelligible character and that the nature and sources of its laws could be ascertained.
Theological interpreters like Bishop Bossuet continued to see God as the director of the historical procession. While most other thinkers did not dispute that divine providence ultimately shaped the course of events, they were far more concerned with the mundane ways and means through which history operated.
Giambattista Vico of Naples was the great pioneer among these thinkers. He asserted at the beginning of the 18th century that since history, or “the world of nations”, had been created by men, it could be understood by its makers. He emphasised that social and cultural phenomena passed through a regular sequence of stages which was cyclical in character.
He insisted that “the order of ideas must follow the order of things” and that the “order of human things” was “first the forests, after that the huts, thence the village, next the cities and finally the academies”. His “new science” of history sought to discover and apply “the universal and eternal principles … on which all nations were founded, and still preserve themselves”. Vico brings forward the class struggle in his interpretation of history, especially in the heroic age represented by the conflict between the plebeians and patricians of ancient Rome.
The materialistic theorists who came after Vico in Western Europe looked for these “universal and eternal principles” which determined history in very different quarters than the idealists. But neither school doubted that history, like nature, was subject to general laws which the philosopher of history was obligated to find.
The key thought of the English and French materialists of the 17th and 18th centuries was that men were the products of their natural and social environments. As Charles Brockden Brown, an American novelist of the early 19th century, put it: “Human beings are moulded by the circumstances in which they are placed.” In accord with this principle, they turned to the objective realities of nature and society to explain the historical process.
Montesquieu, for example, regarded geography and government as the twin principal determinants of history and society. The physical factor was most influential in the earlier and more primitive stages of human existence, although its operation never ceased; the political factor became more dominant as civilisation advanced.
He and his contemporary materialists largely ignored the economic conditions which stood between nature and the political institutions. The economic basis and background of political systems and the struggles of contending classes which issued from economic contradictions were beyond their field of vision.
The French historians of the early 19th century acquired a deeper insight into the economic conditioning of the historical process through their studies of the English and French revolutions. They had watched the French revolution go through a complete cycle. This started with the overthrow of the absolute monarchy, passed through the revolutionary regime of Robespierre and the bourgeois-military dictatorship of Napoleon and ended in the Bourbon Restoration. In the light of these vicissitudes they learned the crucial role of class struggles in pushing history forward and pointed to sweeping shifts in property ownership as the prime cause of social overturns. But they remained unable to uncover the fundamental determinants which led to the reconstruction and replacement of property relations as well as political forms.
Many leading philosophers of the bourgeois era had a materialist view of nature and man’s relations with the world around him. But none of them succeeded in working out a consistent or comprehensive conception of society and history along materialist lines. At a certain point in their analyses they departed from materialist premises and procedures, attributing the ultimate causal agencies of human affairs to an invariant human nature, a farseeing human reason, or a great individual.
What was generally responsible for their inability to reach bedrock and their deviation into nonmaterialist types of explanation in the fundamental areas of historical and social determination? As bourgeois thinkers, they were hemmed in and held back by the inescapable restrictions of the capitalist horizon. So long as the ascending bourgeoisie was on its way to supremacy, its most enlightened ideologists had a passionate and persistent interest in boring deeply into economic, social and political realities. After the bourgeoisie had consolidated its position as the ruling class, its thinkers shrank from probing to the bottom of social and political processes. They became more and more sluggish and shortsighted in the fields of sociology and history because discovery of the underlying causes of change in these fields could only threaten the continuance of capitalist domination.
One big barrier to the deepening of social science was their tacit assumption that bourgeois society and its main institutions embodied the highest attainable form of social organisation. All previous societies led up to that point and stopped there. There was apparently no progressive exit from the capitalist system. That is why the ideologists of the English bourgeoisie from Locke to Ricardo and Spencer tried to fit their conceptions of the meaning of all social phenomena into the categories and relations of that transitory order. This narrowness made it equally difficult for them to decipher the past, get to the bottom of their present, and foresee the future.
Idealistic interpretations of history were promulgated and promoted by numerous theorists from Leibnitz to Fichte. Their work was consummated by Hegel. In the early decades of the 19th century Hegel revolutionised the understanding of world history, placing it at the widest vantage point of the bourgeois era. His contributions may be summed up in thirteen points.
1. Hegel approached all historical phenomena from the standpoint of their evolution, seeing them as moments, elements, phases in a single creative, cumulative, progressive and ceaseless process of becoming.
2. Since the world about him, which he called “objective mind”, was the work of man, he, like Vico, was convinced that it was intelligible and could be explicated by the inquiring mind.
3. He conceived history as a
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