Ever since History emerged as a major and independent field of study during the time of the 18th Century European Enlightenment - the time of Voltaire, Gibbon, Rousseau and the French Encyclopaedists - the study of history has been subject to pulls in two different directions. On the one hand, impelled by the respect for facts and details [as opposed to mere speculation] which is a distinctive mark of the modern scientific temper, historians tended more and more to confine themselves to specialized areas of study - a particular short period of time or a particular aspect [cultural, political, intellectual, artistic, economic, etc.], of the history of a nation or a civilization. Or they might specialize in the study of an event or movement of great significance - say the French or the Russian Revolution, or confine themselves even to only certain aspects of these movements. The scientific, factual temper of the times forbade the broad vision and sweeping generalization which presumably went with working on larger historical canvasses.
On the other hand, since history as a universal theme had entered human consciousness, the study of history as the study of human destiny could not be ignored. And such a study was undertaken by the philosophically minded historians, Marx and Comte in the 19th Century, and Spengler, Mosca and Toynbee in the 20th. These philosophical historians discern dominant themes or determining factors in history - the economic factor for Marx, the 'ascent' from the mythological-religious to the philosophical to the scientific spirit in human thinking for Comte, the domination of the ruling class for Mosca, and the hold and progress of religious faiths in societies, for Toynbee. For these 'macro historians', these factors provide the explanations for the broad movements and trends in history.
However, the danger in working on such a scale is that while it may illuminate certain aspects of history, it over-explains and hence explains very little of the greater part of it. And, as in the case of the Marxist explanation, it could turn into a fanatical ideology.
And hence the question for the historian is that of having a long range view of the main trends, both material and spiritual, in history, and combining this with a respect for life as it is actually lived by millions of human beings earning their living 'by the sweat of their brow', and being subject to the vicissitudes of famine or disease, war or revolution. It means paying attention to geography and climate which determine the physical and mental habits of populations, to the state of health of peoples over periods of time, to changing patterns of food habits, of agricultural, trading and industrial patterns which changed at first slowly over long periods of time, and gained an ever increasing momentum in modern times, and to much else besides; at the same time not losing sight of the great movements of the human spirit - science, art, culture and religion. It means keeping both the details of the foreground and the distant horizon of the background in view.
To quote Fernand Braudel on the task of historians, 'This long-term history, history-at-a-distance, blue-water cruising on the high seas of time, rather than prudent coastal navigation never losing sight of the land - this way of proceeding, call it what you will - has both advantages and drawbacks. Its advantages are that it forces one to think, to explain matters in unaccustomed terms, and to use historical explanation as a key to one's own time. Its drawbacks or dangers are that it can lapse into the facile generalizations of a philosophy of history more imaginary than researched or proved.
'Historians are surely right to mistrust over-enthusiastic explorers like Oswald Spengler or Toynbee. Any history which is pressed to the point of general theory requires constant returns to practical reality-figures, maps, precise chronology and verification.'
Braudel! as a historian has been a pioneer in the art of writing history as he advises here - he navigates on the blue waters of the high seas, but at the same time keeps in constant touch with practical reality - 'figures, maps, precise chronology and verification'. To keep to the nautical metaphor, he is aware of both the long protracted ground swell of the ocean and of the wave of the moment. He is a philosophical historian with a feel for detail.
Braudel's 'A History of Civilization' is the product of this talent. In it he gives us an overview of the civilizations of Islam, Africa, China, India, Japan, Europe, the Americas, and what he calls 'the other Europe' of Muscovy, Russia and the USSR. In doing this, his attempt is to give the reader a feel of the essential nature of each civilization, both materially as well as intellectually and spiritually. [Inevitably, some of his judgements could be disputed; for instance, in his statement in the section on India that 'Buddhism was a religion for the individual, the desocialized person', he seems to lose sight of the ideal of the Bodhisatva, who vows to help all others in society, and also of the role of the Sangha whose members are models of conduct for laymen. ]
For Braudel, whatever is felt to be real in the lives of people, is real, not to be ignored on theoretical grounds. After giving detailed accounts of the geographical and economic factors in European history, he does not exclude any other relevant - factor on ideological grounds. Here for instance is what he has to say about contemporary Europe: 'It is disturbing to note that Europe as a cultural ideal and objective is the last item on the current agenda. No one is concerned with a mystique or an ideology; no one pays attention to the misleading calm waters of Revolution or of Socialism, that still run deep, no one seems concerned by the living waters of religious faith. But Europe will not be built unless it draws upon those old forces that fIrst formed it and still move within it: in a word, unless it calls forth the many forms of humanism that it contains.'
If history is the story of mankind which is also the story of oneself, then Braudel is a historian who tells this story without leaving out the sub-stories and sub-plots which are contained in it.
While giving us these graphic accounts of the factors that shape and condition societies and civilizations, Braudel does not raise the question whether we can ever try to be conscious of our conditioning and so in some measure be free of it. In fact, true to the faith of most historians, he believes not in the attempt to be free of conditioning, but in trying to work within the field of this conditioning: 'The true man of action is he who can measure most nearly the constraints upon him, who chooses to remain within them and even to take advantage of the weight of the inevitable, exerting his own pressure in the same directions. All efforts against the prevailing tide of history - which is not always obvious - are doomed to failure'. Presented with such a statement we cannot but remember that the great totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century claimed to be representing the 'tide of history' and justified all their excesses on this ground. Braudel's own account of the 'draconian measures' [to use his phrase] used during the Chinese forced collectivization campaign [Mao's Great Leap Forward] is carefully neutral. He says, 'This is not the place to praise or condemn the People's Republic of China, though he could do both' .
The central question for the modern world it would seem, is whether freedom is to be sought within historical time, or as all the great religious figures throughout the ages have said, outside it. The modern mind is yet to resolve this crucial question.
Whatever view one holds on this question, Braudel's work with its freedom from one sided ideological bias, gives us an illuminating account of the historical forces which shape and condition us. His other major works are 'Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800' and 'Study of Civilization' in three volumes, titled 'The Structures of Everyday Life', 'The Wheels of Commerce' and 'The Perspective of the World' respectively, which make for rewarding reading, and give an overview of the life of humanity through the ages.
THIS STRANGE CREATURE CALLED MAN
A Being from another world parked his space ship in an isolated spot. The next morning he passed a military camp, where he saw men sticking knives fastened to odd looking poles into bags of straw. 'What is this?'he asked a uniformed youth. 'Bayonet practice', answered the youth. 'We're practising on dummies. We have to learn to use the bayonet a certain way to kill a man. Of course we don't kill many men with bayonets. We kill most of them with bombs.' 'But why should you want to learn to kill men?' exclaimed the Being, aghast. 'We don't, ' said the youth bitterly. 'We are sent here against our will and we don't know what to do about it.'
That afternoon the Being passed through a large city. He noticed a crowd gathered in a public square to see a uniformed youth being decorated with a medal. 'Why is he being decorated with a medal?' inquired the Being. 'Because he killed a hundred men in battle, ' said the man beside him. The Being looked with horror upon the youth who had killed a hundred men and walked away.
In another part of the city the Being heard a radio announcing loudly that a certain man was soon to be executed. 'Why is he to be put to death?' asked the Being.'Because he killed two men, ' said the man beside him. The Being walked away bewildered.
That evening, after the Being had thought the matter over, he opened his notebook and wrote: It seems that all youths are forced to learn how to kill men efficiently. Those who succeed in killing a large number of men are rewarded with medals. Those who turn out to be poor killers and succeed in killing only a few men are punished by being put to death.
The Being shook his head sadly and added a postscript: It looks as though this strange creature called Man will exterminate himself very quickly.
[Peace Pilgrim, Ocean Tree Books]