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Leopold von Ranke: Excerpts from Selected Works (1824-1881)

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Thus the historian must direct his principal attention to the way in which the people of a certain period thought and lived; he will find that, apart from certain unchangeable main ideas, every epoch has its particular tendency and its own ideal. Though every era has its own justification and its own worth, we should not overlook the results which it causes. Secondly, the historian must discover the differences between the individual epochs, in order to consider the inner necessities affecting the way in which they succeed one another. A certain sort of progress in the process cannot be denied. But I would not want to argue that it moves forward in a straight line. It is more like a stream, whose course winds about in its own way. It seems to me—if I may dare the remark—that God, existing in no particular time, gazes over the whole historic humanity in its totality and finds them all equally valuable. Although the idea of the education of humanity has some truth in it, from God's point of view all the generations of mankind have equal rights, and this is the way the historian too must regard them.

We can assume in the areas of material interest an absolute progress, a highly decisive ascent which would require an enormous upset to bring about a decline. But we cannot find a similar progress in moral affairs. We know that moral ideas can make considerable advance; the same is true in cultural matters. Certain great works of art and literature are nowadays enjoyed by a much larger audience than before. But it would be laughably foolish to wish to be a greater epic poet than Homer or a greater writer of tragedies than Sophocles.

Philosophers, especially those of the Hegelian school, have advanced the idea that the history of mankind proceeds like a logical process, with a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis spinning itself out in positives and negatives. But life becomes lost in Scholasticisms, and we have already rejected this view of history as a process of spirit evolving itself according to different logical categories. Such a position would hold that the idea is the only thing possessing an independent life; people would all be mere shadows or phantoms permeated by the idea. This doctrine, by which the World-Spirit causes events equally by deception and takes advantage of human suffering in order to gain its goal, is based upon an extremely unworthy conception of God and Man. It can lead only to pantheism. Mankind would thus be the evolving God who gives birth to Himself through a spiritual process which is part of His nature.

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