Gentlemen,Such is the immensity of human affairs, that, so far from exhibiting superannuation and decay with the progress of time, they seem to gain new youth, and to gird themselves afresh at frequent intervals, in order to appear under aspects hitherto unknown. Not only does each age receive a vocation to devote itself especially to a particular region of inquiry; but the same studies are to each age as a mine but little explored, or as an unknown territory where objects for discovery present themselves at every step. In the study of history this truth is especially apparent. The facts about which history concerns itself neither gain nor lose anything by being handed down from age to age; whatever we have seen in these facts, and whatever we can see, has been contained in them ever since they were originally accomplished; but they never allow themselves to be fully apprehended, nor permit all their meaning to be thoroughly investigated; they have, so to speak, innumerable secrets, which slowly utter themselves after man has become prepared to recognise them. And as everything in man and around him changes, as the point of view from which he considers the facts of history, and the state of mind which he brings to the survey, continually vary, we may speak of the past as changing with the present; unperceived facts reveal themselves in ancient facts; other ideas, other feelings, are called up by the same names and the same narratives; and man thus learns that in the infinitude of space opened to his knowledge, everything remains constantly fresh and inexhaustible, in regard to his ever-active and ever-limited intelligence. This combined view of the greatness of events and the feebleness of the human mind, never appears so startlingly distinct as upon the occurrence of those extraordinary crises, which, so to speak, entirely delocalize man, and transport him to a different sphere. Such revolutions, it is true, do not unfold themselves in an abrupt and sudden manner. They are conceived and nurtured in the womb of society long before they emerge to the light of day. But the moment arrives beyond which their full accomplishment cannot be delayed, and they then take possession of all that exists in society, transform it, and place everything in an entirely new position; so that if, after such a shock, man looks back upon the history of the past, he can scarcely recognise it. That which he sees, he had never seen before; what he saw once, no longer exists as he saw it; facts rise up before him with unknown faces, and speak to him in a strange language. He sets himself to the examination of them under the guidance of other principles of observation and appreciation. Whether he considers their causes, their nature, or their consequences, unknown prospects open before him on all sides. The actual spectacle remains the same, but it is viewed by another spectator occupying a different place;to his eyes all is changed. What marvel is it, gentlemen, if, in this new state of things and of himself, man adopts, as the special objects of his study, questions and facts which connect themselves more immediately with the revolution which has just been accomplished,if he directs his gaze precisely towards that quarter where the change has been most profound? The grand crises in the life of humanity are not all of the same nature; although they, sooner or later, influence the whole mass of society, they act upon it and approach it, in some respects, from different sides. Sometimes it is by religious ideas, sometimes by political ideas, sometimes by a simple discovery, or a mechanical invention, that the world is ruled and changed.
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