France: A Modern History

France: A Modern History

France: A Modern History

France: A Modern History

Excerpt

France as part of Western culture.-- History is the conscious, methodical, critical memory of mankind. It preserves, and often has to recapture, the life of former days. Now, the life of our ancestors was made up, like our own, of sickness and health, of labor, repose, and pleasure, of ambitions and frustrations, of love and quarrels, and, in a degree singularly difficult to measure, of wonder, awe, and worship. These are the essentials, under the changing pageant of customs; and in all this, governments play but a secondary part. Even today, educated as we deem ourselves to our civic responsibilities, most of us give little time and less thought to public affairs. We vote every two years on national issues, we glance at a few items of political news, we listen for a few minutes to a radio reporter, and feel that we have done our share. Man's chief concern never was to support or overthrow governments. When he called man a political animal, Aristotle meant gregarious or sociable. So political history, which for ages held undisputed sway, records but a small part of our collective experience; certainly not the highest and best.

Even that small part, closely examined, is not sufficient unto itself. The strivings and rivalries of individuals and groups would be of little significance if back of their speeches, votes, intrigues, revolutions, and wars, we could not discern great issues. It is the presence of such issues that transmutes the crank, the busybody, the troublemaker, the bandit, into a historical character. These issues become political; but they arise from the very life of the people; they are problems of religion or economics, of human dignity, social status, collective security and welfare. Political events have their roots in civilization and culture, the sum total of a people's activities. Detached from these realities, the annals of courts, armies, and parliaments would be futile. Two centuries ago, Voltaire saw with his matchless clarity that if history is to be intelligent, it must be all-embracing.

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