Time is always revealing the weaknesses of past achievements, and suggesting doubts as to the methods by which they were won. Each generation, as it looks back, sees a change in the perspective, and cannot look with the same eyes as its predecessor.
There are other reasons of a like kind which might further explain the exceeding difficulty of writing a history of modern times on any consecutive plan. The possibility of effective and adequate condensation is almost abandoned, except for rudimentary purposes. The point of view of any individual writer influences not only his judgment of what he presents, but his principle of selection; and such is the wealth of matter with which the writer of modern history has to deal, that selection is imperative. In the vast and diversified area of modern history, the point of view determines the whole nature of the record, or else the whole work sinks to the level of a mass of details uninformed by any luminous idea. The writer who strives to avoid any tendency becomes dull, and the cult of impartiality paralyses the judgment.
The present work is an attempt to avoid this result on an intelligible system. Every period and every subject has features of its own which strike the mind of the student who has made that period or subject the field of his investigations. His impressions are not derived from previous conceptions of necessary relations between what he has studied and what went before or after; they are formed directly from the results of his own labours. Round some definite nucleus, carefully selected, these impressions can be gathered together; and the age can be presented as speaking for itself. No guide is so sure for an historian as an overmastering sense of the importance of events as they appeared to those who took part in them. There can be no other basis on which to found any truly sympathetic treatment.
From this point of view a series of monographs, conceived on a connected system, instead of presenting a collection of fragments, possesses a definite unity of its own. The selection and arrangement of the subjects to be treated provides a general scheme of connexion which readily explains itself. Each separate writer treats of a subject with which he is familiar, and is freed from any other responsibility than that of setting forth clearly the salient features of the period or subject entrusted to him. The reader has before him a series of presentations of the most important events and ideas. He may follow any line of investigation of his own, and may supply links of connexion at his will. He may receive suggestions from different minds, and may pursue them. He is free from the domination of one intelligence—a domination which has its dangers however great that intelligence may be—striving to express the multifarious experience of mankind in categories of its own creation. He is free at the same time from the aridity of a chronological table,—a record of events strung round so slight a thread that no real connexion is apparent. Each subject or period has a natural coherence of its own.