[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]
DEBATES WITH HISTORIANS
Peter Geyl, 1955
B T Batsford, London, 1955; rebound.
The Dutch have earned a reputation for tolerance and enlightenment. In the 17th century, they offered sanctuary to great European thinkers like Spinoza and Locke – Spinoza died there; Descartes also sought protection there. Holland has also produced great historians. One of them was the late Pieter Geyl (1887-1966). Don’t just take my word for it. A J P Taylor said: ‘If I were asked to name the historian whom I have most venerated in my lifetime, I should not hesitate for an answer. I should name Pieter Geyl.’
Every now and then – it is not very often – you come across a writer who soon puts you at your ease. There is a breadth and depth of learning; there is an absence of arrogance or waspishness; and there is some compassion, some generosity of spirit, too. We may not be able to call someone ‘wise’ unless we can see something on top of a very fine mind – something like humanity, for the want of a better word.
The late Professor Geyl qualifies on all counts, in spades. He was trained in Holland but spent a lot of time teaching and writing in England and in the States; he also spent some time in Germany, something that I will come back to.
The first essay in Debates with Historians comes from about 1952 and is called ‘Ranke in the Light of the Catastrophe.’ A Times Literary Supplement piece had in the eye of Geyl suggested that Ranke by his ‘political quietism’ been a pioneer of National Socialism – the ‘Catastrophe’ of the title. (In the fashion of the time, the article was unsigned. Geyl referred to its ‘vehement one-sidedness’ and had said that in ‘this case it is not difficult to guess who is the writer’.) Geyl was intent on defending the German historian against this charge, a very decent undertaking for a Dutchman so soon after that war, you might think.
There are two things. One is the great insight of Ranke that ‘Every period is immediate to God, and its value does not in the least consist in what springs from it, but in its own existence, in its own self.’ This to me sounds like Bonhoeffer. It is to preach humility to historians – and some of them could do with the sermon.
Then there is the magisterial closure to the refutation of the charge that Ranke had prefigured National Socialism. It contains the following.
If we are tempted by our horror at the culmination of evil that we have just experienced or witnessed to pick out in the past of Germany all the evil potentialities, we may construct an impressively cogent concatenation of causes and effects leading straight up to that crisis. But the impressiveness and straightness will be of our own constructing. What we are really doing is to interpret the past in the terms of our own fleeting moment. We can learn a truer wisdom from Ranke’s phrase that it should be viewed ‘immediate to God’, and he himself, too, has a right to be so considered…..Comprehension, a disinterested understanding of what is alien to you – this is not the function of the mind which will supply the most trenchant weapons for the political rough-and-tumble….To understand is a function of the mind which not only enriches the life of the individual; it is the very breath of the civilization which we are called to defend.
God send us more people who can think and write with that largeness of spirit – and consign our mediocrities to the dustbin that they deserve.
The second essay is about Macaulay. He is the complete opposite of the ideal of Ranke. He refuses to ‘look at the past from within…to think in the terms of the earlier generations’. Macaulay looked on the past as the culmination of his view of Progress, of those ‘on the right side’ no less. Geyl finds that ‘this mental attitude toward the past is in the deepest sense unhistoric.’ Elsewhere he uses the more homely term ‘cocksure.’ But let us not forget that in writing the Whig view of the Glorious Revolution, Macaulay had a lot to be cocky and sure about. His team had won – hands down. And as they say at the footy – winners are grinners; the rest make their own arrangements.
The next essay is about Carlyle and ‘the spirit of the Old Testament that seems to be present, coupling anathematization with adoration.’ It is about Carlyle’s ‘impatience with baseness and cowardice, his feeling of being out of place in a world of superficial sentiment and mediocre living……the babbling of lifeless religiosity or the sham assurance of modern idealism. Instinct, intuition, the myth, these were his challenge to the rationalists and glorifiers of science who (unappeasable grievance) had made the Christian certitude of his childhood untenable for him’. Carlyle was impatient with those in thrall to logic. ‘Yea friends, not our Logical, Commensurative faculty, but our Imagination is King over us.’ That is not the least of Carlyle’s appeal.
Geyl, as it seems to me, gets the sadness in Carlyle exactly right: ‘the sentimental tie to a spiritual heritage which his intellect rejected, the painful reaction against the false teachers who gave him nothing in exchange for what they had robbed him of.’ That condition is very common now – it may define our time, as the time of the claimed death of God, but the author concludes on Carlyle: ‘and the perception of that tragic quality makes it possible to accept gratefully that which is vivifying in his work and serenely to enjoy its beauties.’ Would that other professional historians might be so generous with this poetic and prophetic lightning-conductor from the north.
Then follows an essay on Michelet, the first great historian of the French Revolution. I have read Michelet, mostly in translation, the better to understand the loathing of the French for the church and, for many of them at one time or another, the English. His father was an unsuccessful printer – as Professor Burrow reminds us, ‘exactly from the stratum from which the revolutionary crowds were chiefly recruited.’ But, Professor Geyl instructs us, business was bad under Napoleon, and ‘the memory of the Revolution was thus, in that poverty-stricken family, allied to detestation of the Corsican despot.’ It helps to have the inside running on the local knowledge of some historians.
You will understand the deeply emotional and personal approach of Michelet if you recall that his initial work was on medieval France and that he thought that the English in destroying Joan of Arc – whom he saw as incarnating ‘the self-consciousness of France’ – ‘thought they were deflowering France’! (God help him if he ever got to see what Shakespeare put in the mouths of her English tormentors.)
Michelet has the exclamatory style of Carlyle, and a Romantic mind-set, but, as we saw, their differences come in two words. Michelet talks of the ‘people’ – le bon peuple – while Carlyle speaks of the ‘mob’. Or, rather, as Geyl tells us, it is the people when it is good – the storming of the bastille; but when they are bad – massacring the inmates of prisons until the streets ran with blood – it is not ‘the people’ but ‘three or four hundred drunks.’ If the awful Terror was an awful weapon, it only had to be employed because of the evil English without, and the traitors within – ‘the people’ and France were guiltless. (Do you recall Francois Mitterrand saying of Vichy France that ‘The French nation was not involved in that; nor was the Republic’? Did they all come from Mars? Have you heard a Russian say that it was not Russia that invaded Afghanistan – it was the Soviet Union.)
On the one hand, Michelet dislikes Robespierre for the lack of that ‘kindness which befits heroes’; on the other hand, the moderates, who literally lost their heads, lacked ‘that relentless severity which it seemed that the hour required.’ Only seemed, Professor? When people walk on egg-shells like that, they are protecting someone.
And the treacly chauvinism – no, imperialism – defies the patience of the Dutchman.
France the country of action. Love of conquest? No, proselytism. What France wants above all is to impose her personality upon the vanquished, not because it is hers, but because she holds the naïve conviction [yes, naïve conviction] that it represents the type of the good and the beautiful. She believes that she can render to the world no greater benefit than by presenting it with her ideas, her manners, and her fashions.
Professor Geyl feared that the cult of the Revolutionary tradition may even now be a danger in the hands of propagandists of absolutist politics. ‘It began with the detestable league against Justice entered into by army and church in the Dreyfus affair.’ I agree, and very many otherwise decent French people then averted their gaze to save the honour of France, but then I look down at the footnote. ‘I must apologise for speaking the language of the supporters of Dreyfus, in which the personifying metaphors undeniably have the usual effect of effacing transitionary shadings or exceptions.’ It is very, very rare, is it not, to find a professional man apologising for dropping his professional guard?
There are four papers on Arnold Toynbee – but we have seen enough to gauge the quality of this fine book. Professor Geyl represents something very, very fine about the European tradition. He came from a nation that holds some of the title deeds of western civilization, to adopt a phrase of Churchill’s, a nation renowned for its tolerance. His was a Europe that had just been convulsed in an appalling war, for the second time in a little more than a generation, but this historian is able to analyse its history in a way that does great honour to his calling. In those essays, he had defended one German historian charged with being a step-ladder for the Nazis, and he had sought to understand what he saw as the ‘catastrophes’ that had befallen both France and Germany in different centuries and with different dictators.
I mentioned that Geyl had spent some time in Germany and that he wrote the Dutch version of the Talleyrand essay during the German occupation of Holland. For thirteen months, Pieter Geyl, even then a most distinguished Dutch historian, had been kept at a place that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama visited a couple of years ago. Its emblem was Jedem das Seine, ‘To Each his Own’. We know it under a name of unspeakable horror – Buchenwald.
On his release from Buchenwald, Geyl was kept in a Dutch prison by the Germans until the end of the war. And, yet, in the period following that war, he was able to write about Europe, and the world at large, in the terms that I have indicated. This, surely, was a colossal achievement, and one that humbles us. Professor Geyl has produced work that helps us come to terms with our humanity, and that is I think the proper purpose of the world of learning, or, as I would prefer to say, men and women of letters. Or as A J P Taylor is quoted as saying in the blurb on this book, ‘Geyl is one of the few living men whose writings make us feel that Western civilisation still exists.’