The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

by H. B.
Volume 4, no. 10, 1893/94, pgs. 721-727

The science of sociology, of which history is a branch, deals with the activities of man. It is the province of history to describe these activities in all their relations, to trace the course of their successive manifestations from the earliest memorials of man's existence down to the familiar social phenomena of the present day. History, perhaps in a greater degree than other branches of knowledge, lends itself readily to the process of sub-division, and thus we find, without surprise, that the realm of history has been divided into many sections, following, however, more or less two distinct lines of cleavage: first, that of national or political organizations, and secondly, that of the divergent activities of mankind. Thus, on the one hand we have our separate national histories concentrated upon the doings of a single people, and on the other, our histories of literature, philosophy, and art, whose course flows on from race to race and from land to land as the current leads. But all these histories of individual nations, all these histories of various human activities, cannot in any true sense be complete in themselves or independent one of another; they are in reality only the separated parts or members of one organic, universal whole. And while they may be treated separately, even with advantage, from a certain standpoint and under certain limitations, yet in such a manner are the threads of man's life, the threads of history interwoven--nation with nation, art with art, science with science--crossed and recrossed, and crossed again, that to give substance and validity to our conceptions of even the least important of these separate departments of men's activities, the various and complex tracery of universal history must at all times be present to our consciousness. Let us take a concrete example. It will be generally admitted, in the first place, that the art of Greece was in one aspect the outcome of the national characteristics, but the national characteristics can only be studied in the national history; therefore, the knowledge of the general history of Greece is necessary to the proper study of Greek art. Again, it is recognized by all writers on the subject, that the art of Greece did not arise as a new creation, but that its origin may be traced in the art of other nations, in Phoenicia, in Egypt, in the nations of the East, thus opening again a wide vista of general history. Once more, few can doubt that another factor in Greek art is to be found in her literature, her ethical theory and practice, her nascent philosophies and religious belief. Here we have a forceable example of the solidarity of history.

The organic unity of history has been dwelt upon at some length, as the neglect of this fact has, in the teaching of history, been largely the cause of failure in the production of adequate educational results.

In reviewing briefly the more important elements of history, man himself naturally comes forward to occupy the foremost place. Without stepping aside to dwell upon the characteristics of man and human nature, which indeed, are somewhat beyond the sphere of our enquiries, it will be useful to call to mind certain, perhaps very obvious facts, which however, in our study of history are not without considerable importance. Man, then--including in the word the idea of society--man is not a mere counter, human nature is not as some hold, a fixed and unchangeable quantity, like every other organism, man, with his dual nature--on the one side, material, of the earth earthy, bound to the clod--on the other, distinguished from the brutes by faculties which science has not yet defined, and which meantime, we may call spiritual, affinities with the powers divine--like every other organism, man is subject to progressive changes, to variation, to evolution, influences, the depth and extent of which we have as yet failed fully to measure, or even to estimate. Mankind is affected by these evolutionary forces through two different avenues, first, by the ordinary organic process of physiological inheritance and natural selection, whereby variation arises strictly within the individual, thence spreading to society; and again by a wider and unique process of psychological inheritance, whereby the accumulated treasures of the race--treasures of experience, treasures of habit, treasures of thought, are passed on, as in the torch race, without break or interval from generation to generation, and from hand to hand, in one ceaseless and undivided steam. From this point of view, the race of man is recognized as a single continuous whole, a single active, living organism. In this idea of evolutionary force, acting without intermittence upon the social organism, we have a second aspect of history which should be fundamentally present in all our teaching.

We have now seen that history deals with the activities of man; that these activities, in their manifestations so various, are yet the activities of a single organism--an organism born in the darkness of antiquity, yet alive and exuberant to-day with a fresh fullness of life. We have further noted the fact that this organism is moulded and shaped continuously by the unresting hands of evolving powers and forces. Into the nature and action of these forces it is now our business to enquire.

The most powerful, or at all events, the most obvious force at work in the shaping of man's activities will be found in his environment, by which his actions at every point are limited, directed and controlled. On analysis, the environment of man will be found to consist of elements of a more or less geographic nature. Questions of physiography; the physical features of the land in which he lives--elevation, mountain chains, rivers, seaboard, position in relation to other lands; geological considerations, such as subterranean disturbance, mineral wealth, soil and subsoil; then considerations of climate--vegetable and animal products, fisheries--all these profoundly affect the activities of man, determining in a quite fundamental manner, and in minute detail, his occupations, and through these, his habits and customs, ways of life and ways of thought.

As an extreme case of the influence of geographical environment upon man's activities, the case of the Esquimaux may be adduced where the peculiar conditions have produced a correspondingly peculiar mode of life. Or again, the case of the inhabitants of the Thibetan tablelands may be instanced, where the elevation and the climate preclude entirely the possibility of their obtaining a livelihood by any other occupation than the pastoral life; which again involves a thinly scattered and wandering population and the patriarchal rule. Or to take another example, in Egypt we have a land whose conditions naturally impel towards agriculture and a certain density of population; while the extraordinary fertility to be derived from the waters of the Nile, tends to efforts towards enlarging its area of enrichment--the establishment of an organized systems of river barriers and canals, with the necessary corollary of a strong government and a highly evolved civilization.

Again, the fact already glanced at that mankind, though--at least in our Western world--universally admitted to be sprung from one original stock, have yet been found from immemorial time to be separated into various strands of races differing markedly each from each in colour, physical characteristics, habits and customary ways. Whence comes a variation so profound? Again in geography may be traced the main efficient cause. Forced emigration, caused by deficiency of sustenance or otherwise, and consequent change of geographical environment produces change of occupation followed by change in habits and customs; cessation of intercourse follows; separation--geographic isolation supervenes, producing finally a permanent variation of racial type.

Thus by the action of environmental causes, almost entirely of a geographical nature, mankind has ceased to present the aspect of a homogeneous organism; disruption has taken place, distinct races, tribes, and nations have been formed. But gradually between the disrupted portions new relations arise: through war and commerce, through struggle and co-operation, through the various clash of thought and spirit a vital transfusion takes place, a vast fertilizing intercourse is brought about; a renewed vigor of youth is aroused, a fuller pulse of life beats in the heart of the world, a new stage of world history is inaugurated.

Alas that we should have to recognize that there is another side to the story. Alas that in the history of man so many blind alleys should discover themselves. Alas that so many an opening bud, full of hope and promise, should be blasted. But so it is--if in the upward course one step should be maintained for the ten that fail, our advance may yet be sure. In the tapestry of life, though, for every thread that glimmers forth, wrought into beauty in the finished pattern of the web, there are ten which hang loose and ravelled in apparent waste and confusion and ugliness; yet when all is said, may we not still trust that life is not a Penelope's web--a ravelled skin--a useless tangle--a labour in vain--

         "that somehow good
    Will be the final goal of ill.
    *     *     *     *
    That nothing walks with aimless feet;
         That not one life will be destroyed
         Or cast as rubbish to the void,
    When God hath made the pile complete."
    [Tennyson, In Memorium]

So far in our search for the formative causes of man's activities science may lead us; but beyond the reach of science as we know it, are other factors in the life of man; which must by no means be left out of account. And first may be named that power so mysterious, so beyond man's strength to cope with, yet so real, so widely recognized in the affairs of men--the power of Fate, of Fortune, of Providence--which, though it may surpass the bounds of our present knowledge, may yet not lie beyond the bounds of law. The fated thing happens for good or evil; the stroke falls, and the cause is beyond man's search: such are the stroke of death, the battle panic, the birth of great world leaders; events by which, as we say, the course of the world is changed.

Again, in man himself, resides a power--an independent power, hard to define or limit; a power that raises him above the blind forces of nature--a power by which he "looks before and after"--a power of self-compulsion whereby he may rule himself, direct his own activities, and in life or death, triumph over fate and his environment.

    "There's a divinity that shapes our ends
    Rough-hew them as we may."
    [Shakespeare's Hamlet]

Nevertheless the truth must stand that--

    "Man is man and master of his fate."
    [Tennyson, Idylls of the King]

As we would enquire in regard to any new plant, or bird, or insect, which might be brought under our notice--Whence does it come? Where does it live? What is its habitat?--so let us ask in the case before us, What are the limits within which the activities of man must of necessity be confined? or to use a more technical phrase, What is the form in which they must be studied?

In the study of the surface of the earth, in the study of geography, we make use of an ideal representation or diagram called a map. This map is a diagram of two dimensions--breadth and width--marked off into accurate divisions by the parallels, so called, of latitude and longitude, and yields with approximate correctness, by the use of scale and compasses, the precise extent of the earth's surface. Within these limits thus defined, all the details which form the subject of geographical science are noted down, and may again be read off and viewed at a glance in their complete relation one to another by the eye of the student.

Is it possible for us to image to ourselves a similar graphic diagram in which the facts of history might be represented? First let us ask:--What are the fundamental conditions necessary to the construction of such a diagram? We saw that in the case of Geography the conditions necessary were the conditions of the surface only with its two dimensions. With history we shall find a greater complication. History, in the first place, will found its diagram frankly upon the geographical map. In considering the environment of man, we have already noted the enormous influence which geographic conditions bring to bear on man's activities; further, we have to notice that the activities of man which form the subject of history, are strictly confined within the bounds of the earth's surface; again, that each individual man, each society of men, has its definite geographical environment; that the activities of each display themselves within a definite limited portion of the earth's surface, and, finally, that every act of man, every detail of history, has its definite geographical locus, without the ascertainment of which much of its relative historic value would be lost. The breadth and width, then, of History, the ground plan so to speak, must coincide with the longitude and latitude of the world map.

The configuration of the earth's surface in relation to the whole period of man's existence upon this planet may be practically regarded as fixed; during the lapse of the many centuries which are included within the historical period geographic changes of an important character have been a quantity almost negligible. With the activities of man, however, it is otherwise; from day to day--from year to year--from century to century we see in them a continual flux, a growth, an evolution; in the affairs of men, motion, succession, change is an essential element. This flux then, this growth, this evolution has its necessary condition in the ceaseless flow of Time. In Time we have found the third dimension of our diagram--in Time and Place we have found the "form" of history.

Our historical diagram will thus consist of a flowing stream, divided into pulsations by the pendulum stroke of time; and further, the amplitude of this stream will be limited and defined by the measured world-map, with its definite parallels. Here, then, within this three dimensioned space thus accurately defined, we may set forth the course of all the varied activities of man in all their manifold embroidery, the warp and the woof of fate and of necessity, and the never-ceasing golden thread of strenuous human endeavour.

To sum up the results of our investigation: we have found in the forces of Environment, Fate and human Will the great formative causes of those activities of man which constitute the subject matter of history.

Environment supplies the material basis of man's activities, and prescribes the general conditions with which all the functionings of man must correlate themselves.

Fate--the element of uncertainty and disturbance in the life of man--may perhaps be viewed as representing the arbitrary, the incalculable, the particular side of the forces of environment.

Will--the power of the active choice--overlooked by some as insignificant and illusory, has yet surely, like the grain of mustard seed, a living power of independent reaction, of cumulative organic growth. Will represents the struggle of man, as against the powers of fate and environment, for the mastery of his own activities.

The interest of history, then, will be found in tracing out the course of this struggle, in disentangling its various threads, so that the pathway of human life may again create itself for our understanding. We shall be interested to follow the moulding of mankind by the forces of environment and fate, but we shall be supremely interested to watch the bridling of these by the spiritual initiative of man.

H. B.

Proofread by LNL, May 2021