Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
essays

This is part of a series

January 1828

A Diversity of Orders: Guizot’s Second Lecture

“In modern Europe the diversity of the elements of social order, the incapability of any one to exclude the rest, gave birth to the liberty which now prevails.”

Editor’s Note

In his second lecture on the history of European civilization, Francois Guizot began by identifying the key elements of its historical fellows.  In the ancient world, each civilization clustered around a single ‘great idea,’ or motivating force.  In Egypt and India, theocracy prevailed; in Greece and Asia Minor, democracy; in Rome, the municipality provided cast and character to all of Roman civilization.  Modern Europe, by contrast, grew out of a balanced multiplicity of ‘great ideas’ and institutions stitched together from a variety of ancient antecedents.  As a civilization of cities, Rome proved incapable of maintaining a great empire and dissolved in the fifth century, leaving a patchwork of municipal corporations and sea of citizens behind.  The Christian church filled much of the political and cultural void left by Western Rome’s fall, dividing the affairs of church and state while establishing the moral fallibility of temporal rulers.  Meanwhile, innumerable Germanic warlords claimed hereditary title to Roman land, Roman legitimacy, and Roman privilege.  The Germans contributed also their unique love of individual liberty, a creature unknown in the Roman world.  While Romans thought of liberty in purely civic, political terms, every “barbarian” thought of himself as free by virtue of his individuality.

When combined, the Roman municipal and imperial traditions, new and powerful Christian institutions, and Germanic individualism produced a European culture capable of balancing interests, revitalizing itself, and avoiding the standard Rise-Decline-Fall pattern of historical development.  European history’s endless conflicts between popes and emperors, scientists and clergymen, kings and vassals, rulers and peasants, Catholics and heretics, all produced change from within.  This internally-produced drive for revitalization made European civilization an ever-changing project.  Unlike the static ancient monuments to single ideas, European civilization by its very nature shifted and evolved according to its environment.  Unable to evolve, the ancients disappeared.  Guizot ultimately feared that the West might abandon its natural, difficult, though decidedly healthy pluralism and share the same dismal historical fate.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

The History of Civilization in Europe, Excerpts

By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1896.

LECTURE II.: OF EUROPEAN CIVILIZATION IN PARTICULAR: ITS DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS—ITS SUPERIORITY—ITS ELEMENTS.

When we look at the civilizations which have preceded that of modern Europe, whether in Asia or elsewhere, including even those of Greece and Rome, it is impossible not to be struck with the unity of character which reigns among them. Each appears as though it had emanated from a single fact, from a single idea. One might almost assert that society was under the influence of one single principle, which universally prevailed and determined the character of its institutions, its manners, its opinions—in a word, all its developments.

In Egypt, for example, it was the theocratic principle that took possession of society, and showed itself in its manners, in its monuments, and in all that has come down to us of Egyptian civilization. In India the same phenomenon occurs…In other regions a different organization may be observed—perhaps the domination of a conquering caste…imposing [its] laws and its character. In another place, perhaps, we discover society under the entire influence of the democratic principle; such was the case in the commercial republics which covered the coasts of Asia Minor and Syria…

I do not mean to aver that this overpowering influence of one single principle, of one single form, prevailed without any exception in the civilization of those states. If we go back to their earliest history, we shall find that the various powers which dwelt in the bosom of these societies frequently struggled for mastery…These struggles, however, mostly took place in periods beyond the reach of history, and no evidence of them is left beyond a vague tradition…

The war always ended by the domination of some special principle, which, if not exclusive, at least greatly preponderated. The co-existence and strife of various principles among these nations were no more than a passing, an accidental circumstance.

From this cause a remarkable unity characterizes most of the civilizations of antiquity, the results of which, however, were very different. In one nation, as in Greece, the unity of the social principle led to a development of wonderful rapidity; no other people ever ran so brilliant a career in so short a time. But Greece had hardly become glorious, before she appeared worn out: her decline, if not quite so rapid as her rise, was strangely sudden. It seems as if the principle which called Greek civilization into life was exhausted. No other came to invigorate it, or supply its place…

How different from all this is the case as respects the civilization of modern Europe! Take ever so rapid a glance at this, and it strikes you at once as diversified, confused, and stormy. All the principles of social organization are found existing together within it; powers temporal, powers spiritual, the theocratic, monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements, all classes of society, all the social situations, are jumbled together, and visible within it; as well as infinite gradations of liberty, of wealth, and of influence. These various powers, too, are found here in a state of continual struggle among themselves, without any one having sufficient force to master the others, and take sole possession of society. Among the ancients, at every great epoch, all communities seem cast in the same mould: it was now pure monarchy, now theocracy or democracy, that became the reigning principle, each in its turn reigning absolutely…

In the moral character, in the notions and sentiments of Europe, we find the same variety, the same struggle. Theocratic opinions, monarchical opinions, aristocratic opinions, democratic opinions, cross and jostle, struggle, become interwoven, limit, and modify each other…

In every part, then, we find this character of variety to prevail in modern civilization…An unbounded career is open before it; and from day to day it presses forward to the race with increasing rapidity, because increased freedom attends upon all its movements. While in other civilizations the exclusive domination, or at least the excessive preponderance of a single principle, of a single form, led to tyranny, in modern Europe the diversity of the elements of social order, the incapability of any one to exclude the rest, gave birth to the liberty which now prevails. The inability of the various principles to exterminate one another compelled each to endure the others, made it necessary for them to live in common, for them to enter into a sort of mutual understanding…The variety of elements of European civilization, and the constant warfare in which they have been engaged, have given birth in Europe to that liberty which we prize so dearly…

Rome in its origin was a mere municipality, a corporation. The Roman government was nothing more than an assemblage of institutions suitable to a population enclosed within the walls of a city; that is to say, they were municipal institutions;—this was their distinctive character…

At this time there were no country places, no villages; at least the country was nothing like what it is in the present day. It was cultivated, no doubt, but it was not peopled. The proprietors of lands and of country estates dwelt in cities; they left these occasionally to visit their rural property, where they usually kept a certain number of slaves; but that which we now call the country, that scattered population, sometimes in lone houses, sometimes in hamlets and villages, and which everywhere dots our land with agricultural dwellings, was altogether unknown in ancient Italy.

And what was the case when Rome extended her boundaries? If we follow her history, we shall find that she conquered or founded a host of cities. It was with cities she fought, it was with cities she treated, it was into cities she sent colonies. In short, the history of the conquest of the world by Rome is the history of the conquest and foundation of a vast number of cities…

Examine the character of the monuments left us of ancient Rome—the old Roman roads. We find great roads extending from city to city; but the thousands of little by-paths, which now intersect every part of the country, were then unknown. Neither do we find any traces of that immense number of lesser objects—of churches, castles, country-seats, and villages, which were spread all over the country during the middle ages. Rome has left no traces of this kind; her only bequest consists of vast monuments impressed with a municipal character, destined for a numerous population, crowded into a single spot. In whatever point of view you consider the Roman world, you meet with this almost exclusive preponderance of cities, and an absence of country populations and dwellings. This municipal character of the Roman world evidently rendered the unity, the social tie of a great state, extremely difficult to establish and maintain.

A municipal corporation like Rome might be able to conquer the world, but it was a much more difficult task to govern it, to mould it into one compact body. Thus, when the work seemed done, when all the West, and a great part of the East, had submitted to the Roman yoke, we find an immense host of cities, of little states formed for separate existence and independence, breaking their chains, escaping on every side. This was one of the causes which made the establishment of the empire necessary; which called for a more concentrated form of government, one better able to hold together elements which had so few points of cohesion. The empire endeavored to unite and to bind together this extensive and scattered society; and to a certain point it succeeded…

It was with this spirit, with this administrative organization, and with the military system connected with it, that the Roman empire struggled against the dissolution which was working within it, and against the barbarians who attacked it from without. But, though it struggled long, the day at length arrived when all the skill and power of despotism, when all the pliancy of servitude, was insufficient to prolong its fate. In the fourth century, all the ties which had held this immense body together seem to have been loosened or snapped; the barbarians broke in on every side; the provinces no longer resisted, no longer troubled themselves with the general destiny. At this crisis an extraordinary idea entered the minds of one or two of the emperors: they wished to try whether the hope of general liberty, whether a confederation, a system something like what we now call the representative system, would not better defend the Roman empire than the despotic administration which already existed. There is a mandate of Honorius and the younger Theodosius, addressed, in the year 418, to the prefect of Gaul, the object of which was to establish a sort of representative government in the south of Gaul, and by its aid still to preserve the unity of empire…

Notwithstanding this call, the provinces and cities refused the proffered boon; nobody would name deputies, none would go to Arles. This centralization, this unity, was opposed to the primitive nature of this society. The spirit of locality, and of municipality, everywhere reappeared; the impossibility of reconstructing a general society, of building up the whole into one general state, became evident. The cities, confining themselves to the affairs of their own corporations, shut themselves up within their own walls, and the empire fell, because none would belong to the empire; because citizens wished but to belong to their city. Thus the Roman empire, at its fall, was resolved into the elements of which it had been composed, and the preponderance of municipal rule and government was again everywhere visible. The Roman world had been formed of cities, and to cities again it returned…

It must be observed, then, that the two elements which passed from the Roman civilization into ours were, first, the system of municipal corporations, its habits, its regulations, its principle of liberty—a general civil legislation, common to all; secondly, the idea of absolute power;—the principle of order and the principle of servitude.

Meanwhile, within the very heart of Roman society, there had grown up another society of a very different nature, founded upon different principles, animated by different sentiments, and which has brought into European civilization elements of a widely different character: I speak of the Christian church…At the end of the fourth century, and the beginning of the fifth, Christianity was no longer a simple belief, it was an institution—it had formed itself into a corporate body. It had its government, a body of priests; a settled ecclesiastical polity for the regulation of their different functions; revenues; independent means of influence. It had the rallying points suitable to a great society, in its provincial, national, and general councils, in which were wont to be debated in common the affairs of society…

And, first, it was of immense advantage to European civilization that a moral influence, a moral power—a power resting entirely upon moral convictions, upon moral opinions and sentiments—should have established itself in society, just at this period, when it seemed upon the point of being crushed by the overwhelming physical force which had taken possession of it…

Finally, the Church commenced an undertaking of great importance to society—I mean the separation of temporal and spiritual authority…[which] rests solely upon the idea that physical, that brute force, has no right or authority over the mind, over convictions, over truth. It flows from the distinction established between the world of thought and the world of action, between our inward and intellectual nature and the outward world around us…

Unfortunately, all its influences, even at this period, were not equally beneficial…There already prevailed in the bosom of the Church a desire to separate the governing and the governed. The attempt was thus early made to render the government entirely independent of the people under its authority—to take possession of their mind and life, without the conviction of their reason or the consent of their will. The Church, moreover, endeavored with all her might to establish the principle of theocracy, to usurp temporal authority, to obtain universal dominion. And when she failed in this, when she found she could not obtain absolute power for herself, she did what was almost as bad: to obtain a share of it, she leagued herself with temporal rulers, and enforced, with all her might, their claim to absolute power at the expense of the liberty of the subject.

Such, then, I think, were the principal elements of civilization which Europe derived, in the fifth century, from the Church and from the Roman empire. Such was the state of the Roman world when the barbarians came to make it their prey; and we have now only to study the barbarians themselves, in order to be acquainted with the elements which were united and mixed together in the cradle of our civilization…

There is one sentiment, one in particular, which it is necessary to understand before we can form a true picture of a barbarian; it is the pleasure of personal independence—the pleasure of enjoying, in full force and liberty, all his powers in the various ups and downs of fortune; the fondness for activity without labor; for a life of enterprise and adventure. Such was the prevailing character and disposition of the barbarians; such were the moral wants which put these immense masses of men into motion. It is extremely difficult for us, in the regulated society in which we move, to form anything like a correct idea of this feeling, and of the influence which it exercised upon the rude barbarians of the fourth and fifth centuries…

This love of individual liberty…was unknown among the Romans, it was unknown in the Christian church, it was unknown in nearly all the civilizations of antiquity. The liberty which we meet with in ancient civilizations is political liberty; it is the liberty of the citizen. It was not about his personal liberty that man troubled himself, it was about his liberty as a citizen…

There is another, a second element of civilization, which we likewise inherit from the barbarians alone: I mean military patronage, the tie which became formed between individuals, between warriors, and which, without destroying the liberty of any, without even destroying in the commencement the equality up to a certain point which existed between them, laid the foundation of a graduated subordination, and was the origin of that aristocratical organization which, at a later period, grew into the feudal system. The germ of this connection was the attachment of man to man; the fidelity which united individuals, without apparent necessity, without any obligation arising from the general principles of society. In none of the ancient republics do you see any example of individuals particularly and freely attached to other individuals. They were all attached to the city…

What we might call the hard fortune of European civilization—the trouble, the toil it has undergone—the violence it has suffered in its course—have been of infinitely more service to the progress of humanity than that tranquil, smooth simplicity, in which other civilizations have run their course…

This is part of a series