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To unreflective minds history appears only as an intricate or confused mass of details. Change follows change, revolution presses upon revolution. Now all is a dead level of monotonous usage, then all is unaccountable and startling transition. New forms of religion and politics, of customs and manners, play their brief hour or age, then, in their turn, grow old and vanish away. Empires rise, decline, and fall. Love and hate, piety and atheism, justice and injustice, peace and war contend for the mastery. At one time the world is luminous with hope, at another dark with despair. Individuals, families, and nations, like multitudinous waves, chase each other over the bosom of the deep, and are finally ingulfed in a stormy sea.
Under the steady gaze of philosophic, and especially, of Christian thought, much of this chaotic aspect of society disappears. Order begins to emerge; principles and laws are recognized; a progress and a purpose are discerned. To attain this, however, requires a lofty stand-point and a
far-reaching vision. The whole domain of human affairs, like a landscape from the summit of a mountain, must lie in comprehensive unity beneath the gaze. Inspiration, indeed, long ago discerned, and in brief, pregnant utterances, indicated the true condition of humanity; but ages had to elapse before it could be comprehended, and above all exhibited, in any thing like a philosophical or coherent form. Indeed, the idea of universal history, or of history as a unit and a system, is the product of the seventeenth century. Even now there are cultivated minds, and among them a few distinguished historians, who can recognize in it no central or all-comprehending force. It is only occasionally, and as a compliment to religion, that they acknowledge the presence of the Deity in the affairs of man. Some of them would even eliminate all such conceptions from history as mystical and irrelevant. It is a happy circumstance, however, that the more profound and philosophical historians are the most inclined to recognize the divine element. Even those metaphysicians who have sometimes been suspected of pantheistic infidelity, Vico, Fichte, Schelling, and Cousin, have given this idea the most distinct expression. Cousin, especially, has recognized it in the fullest and most eloquent terms. It may now be regarded as the settled conviction of the leading thinkers of the world.
Bossuet, in his Universal History, was the first to elucidate and apply this great thought. Still his work is neither thorough nor philosophical. It possesses the character of a grand historical sketch, intended for popular impression. In several respects its range is narrow and ecclesiastical, being confined too much to the mere theocracy of the Jews, and the hierarchy of the Papal church. The state is absorbed in the church, and the march of history is described only from the Roman Catholic view. The historical details are meagre, and sometimes inaccurate. Still it possesses the great merit of recognizing the presence of God in the affairs of men, and describing the succession of events with a grave eloquence.
Much more profound and philosophical is the sublime idea which runs through the New Science (Scienza Nuova) of John Baptist Vico, that singular Italian thinker, who united the brevity and obscurity of Heraclitus to the depth and force of Plato. He maintains that the divine element underlies humanity in all its phases, and may be recognized even in the superstitions of the heathen cultus. Still he gives undue prominence to the mere natural element, and falls into some singular crudities and absurdities. Had Jonathan Edwards been more familiar with general history, and in his History of Redemption
applied the leading thought which pervades that work to the general course of human affairs, he would have created an era in historical, as he has done in theological research. Herder, with less depth of intellect or force of character, but with a wider and more liberal range of study, starts from the same fundamental position as Bossuet and Vico, and shows how art, science, language, poetry, and religion mingle in the march of humanity towards ideal perfection. His system, however, is too narrow and empirical for a complete explanation of the phenomena of history. F. W. Schlegel follows in the same track, with considerable reach of thought, and a distinct recognition of fundamental principles. He does greater justice than his predecessors to the influence of the remoter Oriental nations; still his work strikes us as superficial and fragmentary. Like Bossuet, he is too much under the influence of Papal views, and fails to give a complete or philosophical exposition of the subject.
Bunsen, in the first volume of his Hippolytus, presents, in aphoristic form, a comprehensive sketch of the philosophy of history, in a manner much more complete and satisfactory than Schlegel. Marred by rationalistic fancies, and obscure or incomplete ontological statements, his view, upon the whole, is the most sat