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The Spirit Of History
by [?]

Buildings become tombs when the race that constructed them has disappeared. Libraries and manuscripts are catacombs where most of us might wander in the dark forever, finding no issue. To know dead generations and their environments through these channels, to feel a love so strong that it calls the past forth from its winding-sheet, and gives it life again, as Christ did Lazarus, is the privilege only of great historians.

France is honoring the memory of such a man at this moment; one who for forty years sought the vital spark of his country’s existence, striving to resuscitate what he called “the great soul of history,” as it developed through successive acts of the vast drama. This employment of his genius is Michelet’s title to fame.

In a sombre structure, the tall windows of which look across the Luxembourg trees to the Pantheon, where her husband’s bust has recently been placed, a widow preserves with religious care the souvenirs of this great historian. Nothing that can recall either his life or his labor is changed.

Madame Michelet’s life is in strange contrast with the ways of the modern spouse who, under pretext of grief, discards and displaces every reminder of the dead. In our day, when the great art is to forget, an existence consecrated to a memory is so rare that the world might be the better for knowing that a woman lives who, young and beautiful, was happy in the society of an old man, whose genius she appreciated and cherished, who loves him dead as she loved him living. By her care the apartment remains as it stood when he left it, to die at Hyères,-the furniture, the paintings, the writing-table. No stranger has sat in his chair, no acquaintance has drunk from his cup. This woman, who was a perfect wife and now fills one’s ideal of what a widow’s life should be, has constituted herself the vigilant guardian of her husband’s memory. She loves to talk of the illustrious dead, and tell how he was fond of saying that Virgil and Vico were his parents. Any one who reads the Georgics or The Bird will see the truth of this, for he loved all created things, his ardent spiritism perceiving that the essence which moved the ocean’s tides was the same that sang in the robin at the window during his last illness, which he called his “little captive soul.”

The author of La Bible de l’Humanité had to a supreme degree the love of country, and possessed the power of reincarnating with each succeeding cycle of its history. So luminous was his mind, so profound and far-reaching his sympathy, that he understood the obscure workings of the mediæval mind as clearly as he appreciated Mirabeau’s transcendent genius. He believed that humanity, like Prometheus, was self-made; that nations modelled their own destiny during the actions and reactions of history, as each one of us acquires a personality through the struggles and temptations of existence, by the evolving power every soul carries within itself.

Michelet taught that each nation was the hero of its own drama; that great men have not been different from the rest of their race-on the contrary, being the condensation of an epoch, that, no matter what the apparent eccentricities of a leader may have been, he was the expression of a people’s spirit. This discovery that a race is transformed by its action upon itself and upon the elements it absorbs from without, wipes away at a stroke the popular belief in “predestined races” or providential “great men” appearing at crucial moments and riding victorious across the world.

An historian, if what he writes is to have any value, must know the people, the one great historical factor. Radicalism in history is the beginning of truth. Guided by this light of his own, Michelet discovered a fresh factor heretofore unnoticed, that vast fermentation which in France transforms all foreign elements into an integral part of the country’s being. After studying his own land through the thirteen centuries of her growth, from the chart of Childebert to the will of Louis XVI., Michelet declared that while England is a composite empire and Germany a region, France is a personality. In consequence he regarded the history of his country as a long dramatic poem. Here we reach the inner thought of the historian, the secret impulse that guided his majestic pen.