A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Extract From Letter To The Publishers. byGuizot, M.
Every history, and especially that of France, is one vast, long drama, in which events are linked together according to defined laws, and in which the actors play parts not ready made and learned by heart, parts depending, in fact, not only upon the accidents of their birth, but also upon their own ideas and their own will. There are, in the history of peoples, two sets of causes essentially different, and, at the same time, closely connected; the natural causes which are set over the general course of events, and the unrestricted causes which are incidental. Men do not make the whole of history it has laws of higher origin; but, in history, men are unrestricted agents who produce for it results and exercise over it an influence for which they are responsible. The fated causes and the unrestricted causes, the defined laws of events and the spontaneous actions of man's free agency—herein is the whole of history. And in the faithful reproduction of these two elements consist the truth and the moral of stories from it.
Never was I more struck with this two-fold character of history than in my tales to my grandchildren. When I commenced with them, they, beforehand, evinced a lively interest, and they began to listen to me with serious good will; but when they did not well apprehend the lengthening chain of events, or when historical personages did not become, in their eyes, creatures real and free, worthy of sympathy or reprobation, when the drama was not developed before them with clearness and animation, I saw their attention grow fitful and flagging; they required light and life together; they wished to be illumined and excited, instructed and amused.
At the same time that the difficulty of satisfying this two-fold desire was painfully felt by me, I discovered therein more means and chances than I had at first foreseen of succeeding in making my young audience comprehend the history of France in its complication and its grandeur. When Corneille observed,—
"In the well-born soul Valor ne'er lingers till due seasons roll,"—
he spoke as truly for intelligence as for valor. When once awakened and really attentive, young minds are more earnest and more capable of complete comprehension than any one would suppose. In order to explain fully to my grandchildren the connection of events and the influence of historical personages, I was sometimes led into very comprehensive considerations and into pretty deep studies of character. And in such cases I was nearly always not only perfectly understood but keenly appreciated. I put it to the proof in the sketch of Charlemagne's reign and character; and the two great objects of that great man, who succeeded in one and failed in the other, received from my youthful audience the most riveted attention and the most clear comprehension. Youthful minds have greater grasp than one is disposed to give them credit for, and, perhaps, men would do well to be as earnest in their lives as children are in their studies.
In order to attain the end I had set before me, I always took care to connect my stories or my reflections with the great events or the great personages of history. When we wish to examine and describe a district scientifically, we traverse it in all its divisions and in every direction; we visit plains as well as mountains, villages as well as cities, the most obscure corners as well as the most famous spots; this is the way of proceeding with the geologist, the botanist, the archeologist, the statistician, the scholar. But when we wish particularly to get an idea of the chief features of a country, its fixed outlines, its general conformation, its special aspects, its great roads, we mount the heights; we place ourselves at points whence we can best take in the totality and the physiognomy of the landscape. And so we must proceed in history when we wish neither to reduce it to the skeleton of an abridgment nor extend it to the huge dimensions of a learned work. Great events and great men are the fixed points and the peaks of history; and it is thence that we can observe it in its totality, and follow it along its highways. In my tales to my grandchildren I sometimes lingered over some particular anecdote which gave me an opportunity of setting in a vivid light the dominant spirit of an age or the characteristic manners of a people; but, with rare exceptions, it is always on the great deeds and the great personages of history that I have relied for making of them in my tales what they were in reality—the centre and the focus of the life of France.