8 SEPTEMBER 1939, Page 13

A Believer in Progress

By D. W. BROGAN THE publication at this moment of a book bearing the title The RI e of European Civilized/on is a challenge; for to many of us the rise is not an u..i.iterrupted curve and we may suspect with Professor Toynbee that the rise (if there was one) is over. That there has been progress in spots, in limited areas, for short periods of time, may well be admitted. "Personal relations became more humane, crowds less brutal, violent brawls less frequent, and the authorities less tyrannical. This unprecedented softening of manners led to an increase of liberty and equality in Europe for the great mass of people, hitherto subject to a small privileged minority. It greatly diminished the sum of material suffering produced by privation and ill-treatment and the moral suffering caused by oppression, humiliation, and a sense of injustice." This was the achievement of the Revolution. But what remains of that triumph, in the age of Yagoda and Streicher, in the age when we are preparing to bury ourselves to escape the bombs, where the mutilation of children is an incident of Holy War in which "God will know His own" has a far wider currency than it had in thirteenth-century Languedoc?

M. Seignobos would say that a great deal remained, for the background to his rather surprising optimism about the present is his very gloomy view of the past. The great mass of mankind have led dreary, hard, short and often brutish lives. The civilization of the Roman Empire had its superficial splendours based on the misery of a vast, hopeless slave population. The medieval serf, tormented by fear of Hell, ex;-loited by the nobility, half-starved as a result of his poor agricultural technique, bore the burden of thelplendours of the Ages of Faith. And so it has been down to our own time; only in the past two generations have the vast mass of the European peoples got any share in the good things of their civilization, beer and wine, reasonably comfortable houses and clothing, leisure, the elements of literary education, a minimum of rights and dignity. There have been important and generally beneficial changes in the past, reducing the burden of labour for the masses, the invention of the horsecollar, of the water-mill, of the innumerable more recent technical improvements in the means of production. And these improvements have not been wholly diverted to the benefit of the ruling castes; the black sky has got slowly grey; only in our own time has it got really light.

This view is itself a development of M. Seignobos's general view of history. History is about the mass of men, not about great heroes or great movements. These, indeed, are mentioned; they have to be if only because we have so little knowledge of how the poor lived, of what they thought, of the use they made of what opportunities for the pursuit of happiness were open to them. We know more of Ceasar than of the slave, of the world of the Quatre Fils Aymon than of the serfs, of the court of Louis XIV than of the peasants whom La Bruyere saw. But wherever possible, M. Scignobos dwells on the masses, takes the gilt off the aristocratic gingerbread, never lets the plumage divert him from the dying bird.

There are drawbacks to this method. Things happen with an inevitability that rather stifles curiosity, Sometimes the Individual is allowed to have played a great part; Peter the Great, for instance, but the majestic river of history flows on bringing its silt of material improvement down to our times by its own movethent. Perhaps it did, but it may be due to the pernicious influence of Marxism, but for whatever reason it is not quite enough that progress should keep on keeping on. Bert Smallways was no historian, but Mr. Wells has been much more successful in giving us a sense of wonder at the achievement of the human race than can be got from this austere narrative.

There are compensations. M. Seignobos has been, for nearly two generations, a master of the art of high vulgarization. He is not brilliant, illuminating, dogmatic, tendentious in the manner of Bainville, but he is a worthy s irvivor of the great school of Lavisse and Rambaud. His translator has, as a rule, served him well, although there are ambiguous passages that make one suspect that Mrs. Philips has introduced difficulties that were not in the text. Does the remark about the Bishop in the early church—"he alone administered all the sacraments, even baptism and the Communion"—mean that priests administered none and, if it does not, why the emphasis on two sacraments that, if one may put it that way, involve less episcopal power than some others? It is a little odd, too, to find M. Seignobos who (unless my memory fails) is of Huguenot oriLin, so far forgetting his New Testament as to use the metaphor of the sheep and the shepherd as the proof of the despotic power of the clergy. The good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep is no Duce or Eater who can do no wrong and whose subjects lay down their lives for him. But in dealing with ecclesiastical matters, M. Seignobos is inclined to underline his points excessively. Although he is not sure what, if anything, the clergy believe to-day, he thinks that he knows a great deal about the feelings of the anonymous mass of the people on the sixteenth century. "The absolute opposition between the Churches, each of which declared itself the only legitimate one, necessarily caused every Christian endless agony of mind." How does he know? Does M. Scignobos seriously think that the peasants who adjusted their formal religion in England or Germany to the views of the sovereign or the local lord decided after a study of the probabilities and a wager in the manner of Pascal? Does he think to-day that voters in Saint Denis make up their minds on the important contemporary religious question of where is the centre of the true Communist Church, in Moscow or in Mexico, by a careful weighing of M. Boris Souvarine against M. Louis Aragon? Since we can only guess in these matters, it is as plausible a guess to suggest that most Christians in the sixteenth century chose one side or the other from cemviction or for convenience and thought that God approved the choice or would understand the necessity for the change. It was said by F. F. Urquhart of his master, Achille Luchaire, that that eminent medievalist had one serious fault, he disliked the Middle Ages. It would be unjust to say of M. Scignobos that he dislikes any age or indeed that he likes any age, but as we get nearer the French Revolution, nearer the imperfect but still valuable embodiment of the Rights of Man in constitutions and in practice, the narrative has less the character of a judicial summing up of what little can be said on behalf of a rather shady character. In clothing, customs, ideas, ambitions, the bourgeoisie are dominant, a fact that does not move M. Seignobos to much regret. He obviously thinks their rule an improvement on that of the nobles and not necessarily inferior to that of the Party and the Ogpu in the Soviet Union. Perhaps all of this process is seen too much from the point or view of a French academic Radical. The fact that very few noble names can be found in the lists of ministers of the Third Republic surely does not prove that the nobility were everywhere, even in France, disappearing, everywhere ising all real importance? In France almost all the nobles were Catholics, and for forty years or more to be an active Catholic in France was to be debarred from office. M. Scignobos is a good European and his national bias is not nationalistic. Only in his omission of the Moroccan link in the chain that led to war in 1914 could a critic see signs of blindness, and it is not a fault (>1 courage in a Republican historian to refuse to follow faures in his polemics against prc-war French policy. If such a book does no more than strengthen our faith in certain achievements ckspised in Berlin and Moscow, it will have served a useful purpose in this dark hour.