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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Arthur Livingston (1883–1944)

By Guglielmo Ferrero (1871–1942)

GUGLIELMO FERRERO has never written to any great extent on the question of the synthesis of sciences. But this question has exercised his mind one may say from his early youth. As a practical scholar, and one feeling himself in a very unusual degree interested in all the problems of contemporary life, he has been forced to give an answer to it. And from that answer, which in a sense anticipates the work of Enriquez and William James by a decade and a half, spring both the qualities and the defects of ‘The Greatness and Decline of Rome.’

In the preface to the French edition of Mr. Ferrero’s study on ‘Les lois psychologiques du symbolisme’ (Paris, Alcan, 1895), the author declares “that he has intentionally neglected a portion of the previous researches made by historical criticism in the field of symbolism.” He thought that in so doing he was “reacting against the exaggeration of a just and rational tendency which promised to arrest the development of sociological science.” Admitting of course that “history to become a science must begin with the criticism of documents and facts,” without which “it is impossible to construct solid syntheses and reliable theories,” excessive empiricism in the use of such documents and facts prevents historical criticism from creating the new science which must spring from it, namely, the psychological and sociological interpretation of history. “Criticism has become the sole object of criticism. People are content to gather and discuss documents, but they protest against any effort made to utilize them.” In studying history, people have forgotten the ulterior purpose of such study, namely the “construction of comprehensive syntheses.” Why so many microscopic studies of detached facts, and “no attention whatever to the intermediate facts which bind them together” and without which the detached facts themselves have no meaning?

It is curious that adverse critics, who have denounced Ferrero’s willingness to subtract from or to add to the documentary source of a historical fact, should have taken so little account of this methodic attitude that underlies his work. If it be held that to support some of his most brilliant suggestions, in fact most of his more revolutionary hypotheses, no document can be cited, what can be said against his feeling that in “refusing acceptance as critical tools of those psychological and sociological laws which science had rendered if not certain at least very probable,” history has been forced to adopt “the simple rules of literary interpretation themselves very unreliable and as often equally inconclusive”? So great is the bulk and so conflicting the conclusions of the “literature of any subject,” that if the scholar confines himself to simple synthetic reconstructions, he will never be able “to arrive at any conclusion whatsoever.” “Since it is from theory alone that facts derive their value and significance, theory is often useful even when it may be partially false. For it throws light on phenomena hitherto unobserved, thus opening the way to ulterior and more fortunate researches.” “The edifice of science rests on a foundation of ruined theories and demolished hypotheses just as the Rome of our day rests on the accumulated fragments of antiquity.”

As a matter of practice it is probable that Ferrero inclines principally to a pragmatic concept of theories as instruments of research. In the psychological studies mentioned above he borrows from physical science the “laws” of the inertia of matter and of the line of least resistance, using also to some extent the “laws” of Darwinian evolution. From Cesare Lombroso he later borrows the Lombrosian “law” of genius, as in his theory of the exceptional man in his brilliant essay on Bismarck and Germany in ‘L’Europa giovane’ (Milan, Treves, 1897). The “laws” of Spencerian hedonism inform to a large extent ‘Militarism’ (New York, London, 1902), not to mention the Marxian “law” of economic determinism that even runs rampant in ‘The Greatness and Decline of Rome.’

But the fact that Mr. Guglielmo Ferrero speaks so frequently of the “laws of history,” the “laws of sociology,” the “laws of psychology,” coupled with the tone of assurance which is characteristic of his style, leads one to feel that he is not long concerned with the hypothetical and instrumental character of the theories he exploits. His critics indeed have been most irritated by his readiness not only to transport scientific generalizations from their proper field to some other, as may serve his purpose, but also to give the new generalizations he is thus enabled to make an absolute value they do not have, and even again to utilize these new hypotheses as a basis of assumed fact for still others. In scholars accustomed to rigidly empirical methods, and who in their esteem for accuracy have an instinctive suspicion of imagination, especially if the imaginative product enjoy a great popular success, the magnificent reconstructions of Mr. Ferrero in every field that he has touched create an impression of dubious instability. Though it is true that no one of them thus far has collapsed in any essential particular.

It is especially to the use Mr. Ferrero has made of psychological science, supplemented by the resources of his own introspection and by his truly remarkable gift for observing men and society, that the extraordinary originality and immense popularity of his history of Rome is due. Believing, with some reserves, to be sure, in the relative immutability of psychological laws, Mr. Ferrero conceives of ancient man as a creature only superficially different from the men and women we see about us. “Phenomena which appear very obscure and very complicated” usually are to be explained “by psychological observations often very commonplace.” Mr. Ferrero has no patience with the ingenuity commonly displayed in historical interpretations, nor is he affected by the mirage which hangs above events of the distant past. “Almost all phenomena, even when most strange, can be accounted for by the common psychological laws which we see operating within ourselves.” The masterly artistic feat accomplished in ‘The Greatness and Decline of Rome’ is this integration of Roman life with the aspirations, the sufferings, the emotions and passions of our present-day world. Mr. Ferrero sees the phenomena of the Barbaric Invasions reappearing in the tumults of the Soudan in our own day. He compares Attila with Napoleon Bonaparte. The Rome of Augustus lives for him in certain aspects of contemporary American life. His article, justly celebrated, on the ‘Defects of Ancient Civilizations’ illuminates whole areas of important contemporary problems of politics and finance.

It has been the fashion for some time to ridicule as far fetched and exaggerated this “modernism” of Ferrero’s work; just as it has been frequently pointed out that in his character paintings he uses all the devices, and sometimes also all the freedom, of the writers of romance. This analogy, while suggestive of many of Mr. Ferrero’s virtues, is likewise easily to be exaggerated. It becomes entirely vicious, when by the epithets of “journalist,” and “romancer,” so often applied to him, critics mean to question the seriousness of his scientific purpose or the thoroughness of his investigation. Mr. Ferrero is indeed a journalist, but a journalist of the Italian tradition, which has never freed the author of the journalistic article from personal responsibility for the soundness of his scientific pronouncements. He is a successful journalist in the sense that he has written little on even the most special fields of history that has failed to interest the general public. So also he is a romancer, if by romance we mean that in his writings the great figures of history cease to be intangible symbols of a life entirely dead, distant acquaintances whose names we know but whose inner lives we never understand. Cæsar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Nero, are clothed by Mr. Guglielmo Ferrero with the flesh and blood of a plausible humanity which swallows up the centuries that separate us from them. But even this richness of character delineation fails to exhaust the artistic resources developed in ‘The Greatness and Decline of Rome.’ This massive work expresses a temperament, intellectually impatient it may be, but passionately eager to embrace the whole of life in terms both of experience and of understanding. Another great artistic motive disengages itself one may say from the very vastness of the material which Mr. Ferrero treats. It is a sense of the turmoil of conflicting energies in which all individuals, even the most favored by nature and fortune, are compelled to live. The complex forces that determine the conditions and the consequences of human endeavor, remaining incomprehensible to the actors themselves, causing them to fail in their keenest desires, but as it were utilizing those desires to ends unforeseen, come to constitute for Mr. Ferrero a kind of Destiny, a word that not infrequently returns under his pen. But it is a Destiny of paradoxical nature, whereby man is destined to work out, but successfully, his own salvation, rising, but by dint of will and intelligence, from barbarism to civilization ever higher. The fire of this confident but shrewd progressivism, in which occasionally the memory of a socialism long outgrown breaks through to view, illumines and warms many a passage of Mr. Guglielmo Ferrero’s historical writings. He has exerted, and continues daily to exert an unquestionably humanizing force upon the thought of contemporary Europe and America.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—Educated at Pisa (Law) and Bologna (Letters). Since 1891 one of the foremost publicists of Europe. His early interests were principally in the psychological interpretation of legal institutions. He was closely affiliated with the work of the criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, whose daughter, Gina Lombroso, he married. In 1891 he was banished for socialistic propaganda. He traveled extensively in France, England, Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia. In 1898 he lectured on Militarism at Milan. ‘The Greatness and Decline of Rome,’ the title also of the famous work of Montesquieu, was published in 1902 to 1907 (5 vols.). In 1906 he lectured at the Collège de France. He traveled through South America in 1907 and in the United States in 1908. Among his most important works of recent date are ‘Characters and Events of Roman History,’ 1908; ‘Between Two Worlds,’ 1913; ‘Ancient Rome and Modern America,’ 1914.