THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY AND
THE HISTORICAL WORLD (1901)1
TRANSLATED BY PATRICIA VAN TUYL
The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which is reproached for being unhistorical, produced a new conception of history, which was conveyed in the brilliant historical masterpieces of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon. In these works, the view of the human race's solidarity and progress spread its light over all peoples and ages. Now for the first time, universal history acquired a nexus drawn from empirical observation itself. This nexus was rational in that it connected all events in terms of ground and consequent, and critically superior in its rejection of any transcendence of given reality through otherworldly ideas. It was based on a completely unbiased application of historical criticism, which did not spare even the most sacred shrines of the past, and on a method of comparison that spanned all the stages of mankind.
This new experience-based conception of a nexus in the life of mankind made possible for the first time a scientific connection of natural science with history. Hypotheses concerning the origin of the universe, the formation of the earth, and man's appearance on the earth amid the animal species could now be linked with the process of history through the idea of evolution.
But this century's attitude to life already contained within it the limits of its historical enlightenment. These cheerfully and confidently progressive men of the Enlightenment saw in all the past merely the stages leading up to their own heights. This view filled them with a godlike impudence toward the methodical scholarship of previous centuries, with a most immodest consciousness of their own merit, and with happy sovereignty of the new spirit represented by the name Voltaire.
There have been great historians since the Greeks who, with the clairvoyance of artists, looked into the affairs of the world. But it is the inner law of historical science that, as the historical world forms____________________