By M. GUSTAVE LE BON.
HISTORICAL studies have undergone a great transformation in our days. Almost exclusively literary a few years ago, they are tending at this time to become almost as exclusively scientific. It is not the recent progress of archaeology alone that has caused a remodeling of our knowledge and our ideas in history. The discoveries in the physical and natural sciences have had a still greater effect upon them; and it is by means of these discoveries that the notion of natural causes is entering into history more and more, and that we are habituating ourselves to consider historical phenomena as subject to laws as invariable as those that control the course of the stars and the transformations of bodies. The part which all the ancient historians attributed to Providence or to chance, is now no longer attributed to anything but natural laws, as entirely removed from chance as from the will of the gods.
The new ideas which are entering into history are due chiefly to the progress of natural science. Making more and more evident the preponderant influence of the past on the evolution of beings, it teaches us that we must first study the past in societies to comprehend their present condition and foresee their future. In the same way that the naturalist now finds the explanation of beings in the study of their ancestral forms, the philosopher who wishes to comprehend the genesis of our ideas and institutions should examine primitive usages. Thus regarded, history, the interest of which might seem but slight so long as it is limited to the enumeration of dynasties and battles, is acquiring an immense significance.
The method which the modern man of science applies to history to-day is identical with that which the naturalist applies in his laboratory. A society can be regarded as an organism in process of development. There is a social embryology as there are an animal and a vegetable embryology, and the laws of evolution that govern them all are of the same order. Social embryology, or the study of civilizations, shows us the series of advances by which the marvelous and complicated mechanism of refined societies has issued from the savage condition in which the first men long lived; how our thoughts, feelings, institutions, and creeds had their roots in the primal ages of mankind. Instead of, as formerly, seeing a gulf between the peoples who ate their aged parents and those who lavish cares upon them in their old age and weep at their tombs; between those who look upon their
- From the author's work, "Les Premières Civilisations," now appearing in parts.