[This was the last report Dallas filed from Paris before returning to London; his parting comments on the "two theories of history" develop ideas explored earlier in The Gay Science. - Graham Law]

France (from Our Special Correspondent)

Paris, Sunday Night [24 September 1871]

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n your leading article on Rochefort ["Henri Rochefort, at least . . . ," Daily News (23 September 1871), p. 4d-e] you describe him as the fly upon the coach-wheel accused of raising all the dust, and himself imagining that he does so. I cannot help referring to this image, and asking your permission to dwell upon it for a moment, because, having been in Paris watching the whole course of the revolution for more than a year, it conveys to my mind the most vivid impression of what a revolution is, and of all the events which I have witnessed. There is a great turmoil; there is a tremendous succession of turmoils; the wheels of life revolve with furious rapidity, and the State coach drives on we know not whither; but the strangest thing to note is the impersonality of the events - the uncontrollable character of the movement; the annihilation of individual influence in the general rush. This was especially to be noticed under the Commune. There was no head - no pilot. Nobody seemed to agree with anybody. There was a perfect Babel. But the vast machine of Parisian politics dashed forward, dragged by mad contradictory impulses now to one side, now to another, but always in a path which no one seemed able to calculate. The moment anyone pretended to be master of the movement, it seemed to crush him. He was knocked down and the wheels went over him. There are two theories of history just now current and striving for pre-eminence. The one is well known to readers of Mr. Carlyle's biographies and Mr. Disraeli's novels. One is that history is constituted by individuals - by heroes. God makes the hero - the hero has ideas, makes events, and fashions the world. The other is that heroes are nothing, or at best mere trumpets; that there is a mysterious march of events and procession of ideas, which is independent of individuals. It follows subtle laws which philosophy has not yet been able to measure save in part; laws which exist as those of the planets, although no Newton has yet arisen to make them plain, and to calculate by their means the orbit of history. The truth lies probably between the two theories; but if anyone has a particular dislike of Mr. Carlyle's and Mr. Disraeli's views, and a particular fancy for the opposite theory of history, he ought to devote his attention exclusively to the phenomena of revolution. If you ask for explanation, not perhaps of this or that particular event, but of the course of events, it is not to be found in the men who are connected with them. These men on a general view of what has happened seem never more than flies upon a chance wheel, and all the wheels together move on, no one knows how, no one knows whither. The view of history as the biography of individuals will always be the most popular and intelligible; but a great crisis, whether of war or of revolution, nearly always proves events to be stronger than men, and makes us feel keenly that history is a great deal more than biography. . . .

Links to Related Material


[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland]. "France," Daily News (26 September 1871): 5c.

Created 2 February 2024