H.G. Wells and The Outline of History by Strafford P Riggs 1920
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The Outline of History (Macmillan), by Mr. Wells, presents a difficulty to the reviewer almost as imposing as the two volumes themselves. To sit down in a comfortable chair and deliberately, cold-bloodedly read through a history of the world and of mankind from the vague theories surrounding the world’s and mankind’s nebulous dawn, down to the Treaty of Versailles, which brought to an end the great conflict of 1914—1918, is, in itself, a monumental task. But we are at once reconciled by the fact that the work is the effort of Mr. Wells, which, of course, mitigates the apparent arduousness of the task. In fact one rather experiences a certain feeling of adventure and pleasant exploration at the contemplation of tackling the book. I firmly believe that the majority of people reading The Outline will be tasting for the first time the romance of universal history: for the first time, because they admire Mr. Wells—or are directly antagonistic to his ideas —-and for no other reason would delve into the maze of history. Whether or not one approves of the author and his Socialism, everything that he has written is vastly interesting and thought-inspiring.
But to get back to The Outline. Rather, a short sketch of Mr. Wells’ beliefs. Without a knowledge of them one reads The Outline at a disadvantage. Mr. Wells is the pater primus, the pontifex maximus of Socialism. Not the Socialism of today — that bickering, uneducated, unintelligent, hysterical mob of non-entities which seeks to drag to its own low level everything that it despairs of attaining—but Socialism in the abstract, or in the essence. He dreams of a World State, a Brotherhood of Man, in which the peoples of the earth shall be bound together in the Kingdom of God by ties of humanity, and under the rule of the Invisible King. (Mr. Wells cannot get away from the necessity of aristocracy, even if it is only the spirit of God). As the starting point in the struggle for such a State, he cries, “Education!” By education and education only can the human race attain perfection—or near perfection. It is the panacea of all present, past, and future civic, moral, and spiritual evils. It is the soul of progress. . . . 'And we agree, oh! heartin and worshipfully. But—while the world is being educated must we not have government? A careful —or even cursory -—perusal of a series of articles in the Times leaves no doubt in the lay mind, from Mr. Wells’ discussion of the ever-enigmatical Russian situation, that he desires at once to put into execution his World State (Bolshevism) and let the education policy come later. Lenin would be, we gather, the Anointed One of God in his earthly kingdom. Mr. Wells has too brilliant a mind, too tremendous an intellect, ever to subscribe to such possibilities. I feel strongly that he has over-stepped his mark, and that in time he will appreciate the gravity of his disquisitions on Russia as coming from him, and will either explain his statements satisfactorily concerning his belief in Bolshevism, or abandon them. But criticism of contemporaries is usually more fatal to the one who makes than to the one who receives the criticism. Often it acquires a deadly boomerang, annihilating the person who hurls it. . But there is a horror, isn’t there, in even allowing oneself to imagine for a moment that there was a possibility of Mr. Wilson going down in history as one of the sublime geniuses, and Bolshevism as the only logical salvation of government?
And now, keeping Mr. Wells’ theory of Socialism well in mind, but disregarding his last utterances as to the efficacy of Bolshevism, we turn to The Outline of History. I firmly believe that it was written for two great purposes: to solidify the author’s belief that history is the foundation of education, and to show by concrete examples that the whole trend of civilization has been gradually toward the world state of Mr. Wells’ dream. Whether or not he convinces the casual reader of this second purpose I cannot say. With me he fails. Into all the great conquerors, from Alexander to Napoleon Bonaparte, he has read the motive of his own desires and beliefs: that humankind is slowly groping its way toward a vast and powerful confederation of the nations of the world. . . . But it seems to me that these conquerors have not had such altruistic plans as impetus to their conquests. In every case it has been the desire of the leader, first, to add glory to his own person; secondly, to write the name of his nation down in the history of the world as the greatest of nations; and thirdly, to force foreign powers to become a part of his empire in order that they may contribute their intellectual or physical attainments to the sum of one nation’s supremacy. . . . Mr. Wells acknowledges the truth of this, but credits his conquerors with a deeper motive, a hidden desire, a secret passion for the unification of the nations of the earth. No one gainsays him, I suppose. Few conquerors have left us any hint whatever of such motives except as the result of personal or national glorification. Then, too, it must be remembered that each of the great world empires has not survived; it has been broken up directly the strong influence of its maker declined or was removed.
Has the world desired unification? I think not. Humanity is composed of too great varieties of sects and nationalities. Climatic conditions have imposed different mental and moral conditions upon races and for too long ever to be able to reconcile them with each other. Racial traits are too deep—seated and secure. . But what may come cannot be prophesied. As Mr. Wells says, mankind is coming of age. The full light has not yet dawned, but there is a glow, a dim misty aura in the heart of humanity. From each failure man has risen again with renewed vigour and splendour. His ambition is not yet dead, but he is still supremely stupid in his refusal to look into the past in order that he may devine the future.
Mr. Wells is a hard hitter against Greece and Rome. One gets from him the impression that both countries are vastly overrated. Greece, he says, in the Golden Age of Pericles, was outstanding only because a select number of artists, philosophers, and scientists made her so. There was an advanced clique, in Athens, which spread a certain glory over the age which has been misinterpreted as coming from the entire nation. She opened the way to a higher intellectuality. The only contribution that she made to history was her ambition for accomplishment, and not her accomplishment: she was the first great asker of questions; she did not answer them. The supreme gifts of art, literature, and thought she made to the world he passes over lightly. That she attained a height of intellectual prowess which the world has never since reached he does not admit.
Compared with Rome, however, Greece makes a better showing. Under the scorching pen of Mr. Wells, Rome becomes a mere incident in history, a wretched mockery of political institutions, and void entirely of any statecraft. These are strong accusations. He shatters every illusion that is current to-day regarding the greatness of the Roman Empire. Statesmen and historians of greater breadth than Mr. Wells may think otherwise, but to the intelligence which has only a smattering of ancient politics and ancient governments it must be admitted that he does his shattering effectively and with apparent logic.
Mr. Wells, I gather, places the highest point to which Roman ascendency attained at the period just preceding the Punic Wars. The three conflicts with Carthage mark the beginning of the decline in the moral and political institutions. From then on the state became a continual chaos of internal strife, immorality, and political decay. Caesar he deals with in four pages of severity and scorn. He credits him with absolutely nothing. . . . The reign of the Emperors was a mere vulgar display backed by no intellectual, artistic, or governmental achievements. Even the apparent culture and glory under the Five Good Emperors was no more than a brilliant cloak covering the rotting and diseased mentality of Rome. . . . All in all, her contributions seem pitifully nil. “Compared with the quiet steady expansion, the security, and the civilizing task of the contemporary Chinese Empire, or with Egypt between 4000 and 1000 B. C., or with Sumeria before the Semitic conquest, this (Rome) amounts to a mere incident in history. . . . The reputation of Rome has flourished through the prosperity of her heirs. The tradition of Rome is greater than its reality.” . . . Such is his picture. He leaves little or nothing to commend her existence. But his conclusions are those of a man well versed in the subject he is exposing, and not those of an ideal—and illusion-destroying fanatic.
It is not for me to go further with a catalogue of Mr. Wells’ opinions. He treats every dominant phase of history with interesting and worthy analysis. If the reader becomes too prejudiced against the author’s insistence upon reading into history his own interpretations, he must blame himself. The Outline of History is a brilliant contribution to historical literature and a monument of no mean proportions to its author’s passionate belief in education—and particularly the education which teaches its students the value of the past as a means to a greater future—and his sublime faith of a World State as the salvation of mankind and the fuel which must keep burning in the hearts of men the undying fire of Courage. . . . STRAFFORD PESHINE RIGG.