The unconscious attitude of the Victorian Englishman towards history was that of someone living outside history altogether. He took it for granted – without warrant – that he himself was standing on terra firma, secure against being engulfed in that ever-rolling stream in which Time had borne all his less privileged sons away. In his own privileged state of being emancipated, as he supposed, from history, the Victorian Englishman gazed with curiosity, condescension, and a touch of pity, but altogether without apprehension, at the spectacle of less fortunate denizens of other places and periods struggling and foundering in history’s flood – in much the same way as, in a mediaeval Italian picture, the saved lean over the balustrade of Heaven to look down complacently at the torments of the damned in Hell.
He may be thinking of manuscripts. Mantegna, not medieval, was the first to paint this kind of illusion on a ceiling, but I am not sure whether his balustrade in the Ducal Palace in Mantua is that of heaven.
Charles the First – worse luck for him – had been in history, but Sir Robert Walpole, though threatened with impeachment, had just managed to scramble out of the surf, while we ourselves were well beyond high-water mark in a snug coign of vantage where nothing could happen to us. Our more backward contemporaries might, perhaps, still be waist-high in the now receding tide, but what was that to us?
I remember, at the beginning of a university term during the Bosnian crisis of 1908-9, Professor L. B. Namier, then an undergraduate at Balliol and back from spending a vacation at his family home just inside the Galician frontier of Austria, saying to us other Balliol men, with (it seemed to us) a portentous air: “Well, the Austrian army is mobilized on my father’s estate and the Russian army is just across the frontier, half-an-hour away.” It sounded to us like a scene from The Chocolate Soldier, but the lack of comprehension was mutual, for a lynx-eyed Central European observer of international affairs found it hardly credible that these English undergraduates should not realize that a stone’s-throw away, in Galicia, their own goose, too, was being cooked.
Hiking round Greece three years later on the trail of Epaminondas and Philopoemen and listening to the talk in the village cafés, I learnt for the first time of the existence of something called the foreign policy of Sir Edward Grey. Yet, even then, I did not realize that we too were still in history after all. I remember feeling acutely homesick for the historic Mediterranean as I walked, one day in 1913, along the Suffolk coast of a grey and uneventful North Sea. The general war of 1914 overtook me expounding Thucydides to Balliol undergraduates reading for Literae Humaniores, and then suddenly my understanding was illuminated. The experience that we were having in our world now had been experienced by Thucydides in his world already. I was re-reading him now with a new perception – perceiving meanings in his words, and feelings behind his phrases, to which I had been insensible until I, in my turn, had run into that historical crisis that had inspired him to write his work. Thucydides, it now appeared, had been over this ground before. He and his generation had been ahead of me and mine in the stage of historical experience that we had respectively reached; in fact, his present had been my future. But this made nonsense of the chronological notation which registered my world as “modern” and Thucydides’ world as “ancient.” Whatever chronology might say, Thucydides’ world and my world had now proved to be philosophically contemporary. And, if this were the true relation between the Graeco-Roman and the Western civilizations, might not the relation between all the civilizations known to us turn out to be the same?
And so you have Toynbee. And that electrifying moment in 1914, after Europe and its chocolate soldiers had been sleep-marching towards the greatest catastrophe in their history, is easy to imagine when you read the ominous opening of Thucydides’ work. Crawley’s translation (1874).
“Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world – I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters.”
Civilization on Trial, OUP, 1948