I've been on a Mahan jag lately and found this speech by him. It's listed on Amazon; several sellers have printed it up and are selling it in booklet form.

I'll be honest with you, the language in this speech is pretty dense. However, boiled down to the nut-meats, he has some pretty good things to say. I'm lucky to be a nerd, so I could understand him. In the spirit of his suggestion to 'not let your knowledge die with you', I'm now putting this out on the Web. Enjoy!

- Crocuta,

P.S. Don't let his stern appearance deter you. This man was one sharp tack. I am enjoying the hell out of his 'Mahan on Naval Warfare' currently (a sampler edited by Prof. Westcott).

From: https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/alfred-thayer-mahan

Alfred Thayer MahanPresident of the American Historical Association, 1902

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Presidential address delivered before the American Historical Association meeting in Philadelphia, December 26, 1902. Published in Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1902, 49–63.

Subordination in Historical Treatment

Original text My "simplified translation"

Members of the American Historical Association, ladies and gentlemen: The distinguished office with which you have honored me, of being your president for a civil year, involves the duty of making an address upon the occasion of our annual meeting. As time passes, and occasion succeeds occasion in multiple series, the difficulty of contributing anything new to the thought of our fellow-workers becomes increasingly apparent. One can only hope that by searching into his personal experience, by a process of self-examination, seeking to know and to formulate that which has perhaps been undergone rather than achieved, passively received rather than actively accomplished, there may emerge from consciousness something which has become one’s own; that there may be recognized, as never before, precisely what has been the guidance, the leading tendency, which has characterized intentions framed and shaped conclusions reached.

Since I've been your president for a year, I must give you a speech at this annual meeting. After all this time and activity, it's hard for me to contribute anything new, but I'll try.

One of the most distinguished of our recent predecessors in the walks of history, the late Bishop of London, Mandell Creighton, has said with much force:

There is only one thing we can give to another, and that is the principles which animate our own life. Is not that the case in private life? Is not that the case in your relationship with those with whom you come in contact? Do you not feel increasingly that the one thing you can give your brother is a knowledge of the principles upon which your own life rests? It is assuredly the most precious possession that you have. It is assuredly the one that is the most easily communicated.

Bishop Mandell Creighton said that your own personal principles are your most precious possession, and also the easiest gift to give to your fellow human beings.

Although by him urged with immediate reference to considerations of moral or religious effect, these sentences have in my apprehension their application to influence of every kind. That which you are in yourself that you will be to others. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth in the longrun speaketh; and if you have received the gift of utterance, more or less, you will utter most profitably that which is your own by birthright or which has been made your own by effort and reflection.

Although he was talking about moral or religious principles, this idea has wider application. What you are inside, is what you can be to others. If you are good at speaking, the best thing to say is what you are, what you have made, or what you have figured out.

To communicate to others that which one’s self has acquired, be it much or little, be it money or any other form of human possession, is not only a power but a duty, now so commonly recognized, so much a note of to-day’s philosophy of life—if somewhat less of to-day’s practice—as to need no insistence here. If it be in any measure a reproach to a man to die rich, as has been somewhat emphatically affirmed, it is still more a reproach to depart with accumulations of knowledge or experience willingly locked up in one’s own breast. For the wealth of money remains, to receive such utilization as others may give it; the man can not carry it away with him; but his thoughts and his treasures of knowledge perish with him, if he has not had the unselfish pains to communicate them to others before he dies. Thus only do they become part of the common stock of mankind; like the labors, for example, of the great captains of industry, whose works, even when conceived and executed in the spirit of selfishness, remain for the benefit of posterity.

Whatever you've acquired, to give it to others is not only a power but a duty. If a man dies rich, his money can be given to others. But if a man dies knowing things, and has not passed this knowledge on, it is lost with him. The loss of the treasure of knowledge is the most tragic. If he has recorded what he knows, then humankind can use it after he's gone.

Under the pressure of the emergency to make an address, which my momentary office requires, such a line of thought is peculiarly forced upon me; for it must be obvious to all who in a general way know my past profession that the study of history has been to me incidental and late in life, which is much the same as to say that it has been necessarily superficial and limited. It is not possible, under my conditions, to claim breadth and depth of historical research. I can not be expected to illustrate in my own person the protracted energy, the extensive delving into materials hitherto inaccessible, the vast accumulation of facts, which have been so forcibly described by the late Lord Acton, in his inaugural lecture on the Study of History, as the necessary equipment of the ideal historian to-day. Had I attempted this, beginning when I did, I must have died before I lifted pen to put to paper; and in necessary consequence it follows that upon this, as upon topics closely related to it, I am, as unfit to address you as Lord Acton was most eminently qualified by his immense stores of acquirement, the most part of which he unfortunately took away with him.

I think of this because of having to make this speech. I came late to the study of history, and my work is limited and superficial. I can't claim to be a deeply-learned, expert historian like Lord Acton. If I had tried to study as deeply as he did, I would have died before I got around to writing anything (and alas, most of what Lord Acton learned, he took with him when he died too.)

I am therefore forced to introspection, if I am to say anything the least worthy of the recognition which you have too generously accorded me by your election. I have to do for myself what but for this call I probably should never have attempted, namely, to analyze and formulate to my own consciousness the various impressions—the “unconscious cerebration,” to use a current phrase sufficiently vague for my purpose—which have formed my mental experience as a writer of history and have probably been reflected in my treatment of materials. Do not, however, fear that I propose to inflict upon you a mental autobiography. What I have so far said has been explanatory of shortcomings and apologetic, at least in intention; I trust, also, in impression. Being now finally delivered of it, I hope to get outside and clear of myself from this time forth, and to clothe such thought as I may give you in the impersonal terms which befit an attempted contribution to a perennial discussion concerning the spirit which should inform the methods of historical writing.

So, if I'm going to say anything to you that's worthy of the recognition you are giving me, I need to figure out my own mental processes that I used while writing my works, with apologies for any shortcomings. Now I'll try to get on with it in a calm and scholarly manner.

There are certain fundamental factors upon which I shall not insist, because they need only to be named for acceptance. They are summarized in thoroughness and accuracy of knowledge; intimate acquaintance with facts in their multitudinous ramifications; mastery of the various sources of evidence, of the statements, usually conflicting, and often irreconcilable, of the numerous witnesses who have left their testimony. The critical faculty, so justly prized, is simply an incident to this ascertainment of facts. It plays the part of judge and jury in a trial; not establishing the facts, but pronouncing upon the evidence. It needs not therefore to be separately classified, as something apart, but is truly embraced under the general expression of “knowledge,” exact and comprehensive. In like manner the diligence and patience required for exhaustive examination of witnesses, though proper to name, form no separate class. They are, let us say, the lawyers, the advocates, whose business is to bring fully out the testimony by which the verdict shall be decided; but, like the critical equipment, they simply subserve the one bottom purpose of clear and demonstrated knowledge.

There are certain basic things that are accepted (in the study of history). They are: thoroughness and accuracy, knowledge of facts in all their facets, and mastery of the various sources (which often conflict with each other). One must judge and weigh all these facts, much as the judge and jury must weigh on the facts at a trial.

Knowledge thus established is, I apprehend, the material with which the historian has to deal; out of which he has to build up the artistic creation, the temple of truth, which a worthy history should aim to be. Like the material of the architect it will be found often refractory; not because truth is frequently unpleasant to be heard, especially by prepossessed ears, but because the multiplicity of details, often contradictory, not merely in appearance but in reality, do not readily lend themselves to unity of treatment. It becomes thus exceedingly difficult to present numerous related truths in such manner as to convey an impression which shall be the truth. Not only may the formless mass of ill-arranged particulars affect the mind with the sense of confusion, like that produced by a room crowded with inharmonious furniture; not only may it be difficult to see the wood for the trees, but there may be such failure in grouping that the uninstructed reader may receive quite erroneous impressions as to the relative importance of the several incidents. As I have had occasion to say, in reviewing a military history, fidelity of presentation does not consist merely in giving every fact and omitting none. For the casual reader emphasis is essential to due comprehension: and in artistic work emphasis consists less in exaggeration of color than in the disposition of details, in regard to foreground and background, and the grouping of accessories in due subordination to a central idea.

This knowledge, made from evaluation of the facts or data, is the material the historian works with. Often this material is knotty and hard to handle, as it has to be forged from a dizzying pile of details which often contradict one another. The task is to bring all the little truths together to form the greater 'truth'. In military history, truth is not just presenting every fact without omitting any of them. You also have to judge their importance, and arrange them, as an artist arranges foreground, background and details in a painting to present an overall image.

Of the difficulty here existing history bears sufficient proof. Not merely the discovery of new evidence, but different modes of presenting the same facts, give contradictory impressions of the same series of events. One or the other is not true; neither perhaps is even closely true. Without impeaching the integrity of the historian, we are then forced to impeach his presentment, and to recognize by direct logical inference that the function of history is not merely to accumulate facts, at once in entirety and in accuracy, but to present them in such wise that the wayfaring man, whom we now call the man in the street, shall not err therein. Failing here, by less or more, the historian, however exhaustive his knowledge, by so far shares the fault of him who dies with his treasures of knowledge locked in his own brain. He has not perfectly communicated his gifts, and acquirements to his brethren.

Existing history (texts) are proof of this. The impression of a series of events can be reversed by presenting the same facts about it in a different way. The function of history is therefore not just to present a group of accurate facts, but to present them so that the reader can make good sense of them. The historian who can't do this again, effectively, dies with his treasures of knowledge locked in his own brain.

This communication is not a mere matter of simple narrative, nor even of narrative vivid and eloquent. All of us know histories which by the amplitude of their details and the chronological sequence of occurrences produce in the end much the same vague generality of impression which is received from watching a street movement from a window. Here and there an incident out of the common, yet often of the, most trivial in itself, catches the attention, perhaps sticks in the memory; but of the entirety nothing remains but a succession of images substantially identical, to which there is neither beginning nor end. Such may be a valid enough conception of the life of a city street, or of the general external aspect of an historic generation. Such to me is the interest of Froissart. Having the gift of pictorial utterance, he passes before you a succession of vivid scenes, concerning any one of which it is quite immaterial, whether it be directly true to history. It is true to nature. You have realized on the outside one dominant aspect of the life of that bustling, seemingly inconsequent generation, through true portrayal and frequent iteration; but there is neither beginning, middle, nor end, only surface ebullition. Take the incidents of the same period selected and grouped by Stubbs in his Constitutional History, and you see order emerging from chaos, the continuous thread of life which was before Froissart, which underran his time—though it does not appear in his, narrative—and which flows on to our own day.

This clear and understandable presentation is not just a narrative, a story of "we started at point A and ended at point B". If you do a narrative, it just looks like a street scene, like Froissart likes to do-- a bunch of things happened, but which of them were important? On the other hand, look at Stubbs' 'Constitutional History;' he pulls out and describes a continuous thread of life which ran through his era, and on through ours.

In this interrelation of incidents, successive or simultaneous, history has a continuity in which consists its utility as a teaching power, resting upon experience. To detect these relations in their consecutiveness, and so to digest the mass of materials as to evolve in one’s own mind the grouping, the presentation, which shall stamp the meaning of a period upon the minds of readers, with all the simple dignity of truth and harmony, answers to the antecedent conception by the architect of the building, into which be will put his stones and mortar. Facts, however exhaustive and laboriously acquired, are but the bricks and mortar of the historian; fundamental, indispensable, and most highly respectable, but in their raw state they are the unutilized possession of the one, or at most of the few. It is not till they have undergone the mental processes of the artist, by the due selection and grouping of the materials at his disposal, that there is evolved a picture comprehensible by the mass of men. Then only are they in any adequate sense communicated, made part of the general stock. Work thus done may be justly called a creation; for while the several facts are irreversibly independent of the master’s fabrication or manipulation, the whole truth, to which they unitedly correspond, is an arduous conception. To attain to it, and to realize it in words, requires an effort of analysis, of insight, and of imagination. There is required also a gift of expression, as often baffled as is the attempt of the painter to convey to others his conception of an historic scene, which, indeed, he may find difficulty in clearly realizing to his own mental vision. This process, however, does not create history it realizes it, brings out what is in it.

History is useful for teaching, resting on experience. The mass of facts are to the historian like bricks, mortar and lumber to an architect. The historian has to find how they relate to each other, which ones resulted in which others, and construct them into a whole which is understandable to the audience. This 'whole truth' which the historian arrives at by analysis of the facts, is truly a creation. However, it doesn't create history, it brings out what is in it.

Of such artistic presentation it is of course a commonplace to say that essential unity is the primary requirement. It must be remembered, however that such unity is not that of the simple, solitary, unrelated unit. It is organic. Like the human body, it finds its oneness in the due relation and proportion of many members. Unity is not the exclusion of all save one. The very composition of the word—unity—implies multiplicity; but a multiplicity in which all the many that enter into it are subordinated to the one dominant thought or purpose of the designer, whose skill it is to make each and all enhance the dignity and harmony of the central idea. So in history, unity of treatment consists not in exclusion of interest in all save one feature of an epoch, however greatly predominant, but in the due presentation of all; satisfied that, the more exactly the relations and proportions of each are observed, the more emphatic and lasting will be the impression produced by the one which is supreme. For instance, as it is now trite to observe, in the Iliad, amid all the abundance of action, the singleness, the unity, of the poet’s conception and purpose causes the mighty deeds of the several heroes, Greek or Trojan, to converge ever upon and to exalt the supreme glory of Achilles. It would have been quite possible, to most men only too easy, to narrate the same incidents and to leave upon the mind nothing more than a vague general impression of a peculiar state of society, in which certain rather interesting events and remarkable characters had passed under observation—Froissart, in short.

'Essential unity' is what you are aiming for. Unity doesn't mean excluding all but one thing, it means fitting all the parts together into a whole that makes sense. For example, out of all the things that happened in the Iliad, the unifying concept of its poet was to converge on the supreme glory of Achilles. If the poet hadn't done this, the Iliad would have just been a sequence of interesting events and characters-- like something by Froissart.

I speak rather from the result of my reflections than from any instance on my own part of a conscious attempt to realize my theories in an historic work, but I conceive that it would minister essentially to the intrinsic completeness of the historian’s equipment, and is yet more important to his usefulness to others—his usefulness as a teacher—if, after accumulating his facts, he would devote a considerable period to his preliminary work as an artist. I mean to the mental effort which I presume an artist must make, and an historian certainly can, to analyze his subject, to separate the several parts, to recognize their interrelations and relative proportions of interest and importance. Thence would be formed a general plan, a rough model; in which at least there should appear distinctly to himself what is the central figure of the whole, the predominance of which before teacher and reader must be preserved throughout. That central figure may indeed be the conflict of two opposites, as in the long struggle between freedom and slavery, union and disunion, in our own land, but the unity nevertheless exists. It is not to be found in freedom, nor yet in slavery, but in their conflict it is. Around it group in subordination the many events, and the warriors of the political arena, whose names are household words among usto this day. All form part of the great progress as it moves onward to its consummation; all minister to its effectiveness as an epic; all enhance—some more, some less—the majesty, not merely of the several stages, but of the entire history up to that dire catastrophe—that fall of Troy—which posterity can now see impending from the first. This, in true history, is present throughout the whole; though the eyes of many of the chief actors could neither foresee it in their day nor lived to behold. The moral of fate accomplished is there for us to read; but it belongs not to the end only but to the whole course, and in such light should the historian see and maintain it. Can it be said with truth that the figure of Lady Hamilton throws no backward shadow, no gloom of destiny, over the unspotted days of Nelson’s early career? A critic impatiently observed of my life of the admiral that this effect was produced. I confess that upon reading this I thought I had unwittingly achieved an artistic success.

It would be a good part of an historian's equipment, to not only accumulate facts, but spend a much time analyzing them, separating the parts, seeing they related to each other, and their relative importance. Figure out a general model, what the 'central figure' of the events was. This could be a conflict, such as the struggle between slavery and freedom. The unity in this example is not slavery, nor freedom, but in their conflict. The events and people of the era all were part of this conflict, and moved it on to its result. Likewise, in the Iliad, the many events led eventually to the fall of Troy. The way the events and facts tie together to create a result belongs not only to the ending, but to the whole course, and the historian should see it in this light. Can you really say that Lady Hamilton had no effect on the shining early days of [Admiral Lord] Nelson's early career? A critic once complained that my biography of Nelson showed this effect. When I read this, I thought I had unintentionally achieved an artistic success.

It should scarcely be necessary to observe that artistic insistence upon a motive does not consist in reiteration of it in direct words, in continual pointing of the moral which the tale carries. That true art conceals its artfulness is a cheap quotation. It is not by incessantly brandishing Achilles before our eyes, or never suffering him to leave the stage, that his preeminent place is assured in the minds of the audience. Nevertheless, the poet’s sense of his own motive must be ever present to him, conscious or subconscious, if his theme is not to degenerate from an epic to a procession of incidents; and this is just the danger of the historian, regarded not as a mere accumulator of facts, but as an instructor of men. In a review of a recent biography occurs the following criticism: “The character and attainments of the man himself”—who surely is the appointed center in biography—“are somewhat obscured by the mass of detail. This is indeed the worst danger incurred by the modern historian. Where his predecessor divined, he knows, and too often is unable to manage his knowledge. To consult State papers is not difficult; to subordinate them to the subject they illustrate is a task of exceeding delicacy, and one not often successfully accomplished. The old-fashioned historian thought it a pointof honor to write in a style at once lucid and picturesque. The modern is too generally content to throw his material into an “unshapely mass;” content, in short, with telling all he knows. As in war not every good general of division can handle a hundred thousand men, so in history it is more easy duly to range a hundred facts than a thousand. It appears to me that these observations, of the validity of which I am persuaded, are especially necessary at the present day. The accuracy of the historian, unquestionably his right arm of service, seems now in danger of fettering itself, not to say the historian’s energies also, by being cumbered with over-much serving, to forgetfulness of the one thing needed. May not some facts, the exact truth about some matters be not only beyond probable ascertainment, but not really worth the evident trouble by which alone they can be ascertained?

Just because you see this central theme, doesn't mean you constantly brandish it in front of the reader. However, you constantly keep it in your own mind while writing the history out. Don't bury it in details, like the recent biography whose subject was "somewhat obscured by the mass of detail". It's easy to read State papers; to show how they illustrate their subject is very delicate and tricky. The old-fashioned historian took pride in writing in a style both lucid and picturesque. The modern one [as of 1902] generally tosses all of his materal into an unshapely mass, telling us all he knows. As not every general can handle a hundred thousand soldiers, in working with history it's easier to deal with a hundred facts than a thousand of them. It's especially important these days to keep these principles in mind. Don't shackle yourself to the task of ferreting out every single fact, even those which are a lot of trouble to find and don't contribute much to the overall understanding.

I once heard of a seaman who, when navigating a ship, pleased himself in carrying out the calculated definement of her position to the hundredth part of a mile. This, together with other refinements of accuracy, was perhaps a harmless amusement, only wasteful of time; but when he proceeded to speak of navigation as an exact science, he betrayed to my mind a fallacy of appreciation, symptomatic of mental defect. I speak with the utmost diffidence, because of my already confessed deficiency in breadth and minuteness of acquirement; but I own it seems to me that some current discussions not merely demonstrate their own improbability of solution, but suggest also the thought that, were they solved, it really would not matter. May we not often confound the interest of curiosity with the interest of importance? Curiosity is well enough, as a matter of mental recreation; truth is always worth having; but it may in many cases be like the Giant’s Causeway to Dr. Johnson—worth seeing, but not worth going to see. It is troublesome enough to handle a multitude of details so as to produce clearness of impression; but to add to that difficulty a too fastidious scrupulosity as to exhausting every possible source of error, by the accumulation of every imaginable detail, is to repeat the navigator’s error by seeking to define an historical position within a hundredth of a mile. Neither in history nor in navigation do the observations, and what is called the personal equation, justify the expectation of success; and even could it be attained, the question remains whether it is worth the trouble of attaining. Lord Acton’s “ Study of history” is in this respect a kind of epic, dominated throughout in its self-revelation by the question why so learned a man produced so little. May not the answer be suggested by the vast store of appended quotations lavished upon the several thoughts of that one brief essay?

I once heard of a navigator who took great pride in calculating his ship's position to the hundredth of a mile. Fine as a hobby, but when he then spoke of navigation as "an exact science", I felt he was making a mistake. Here I speak very softly, because I'm not an expert historian, but it seems to me there are some current discussions which are unlikely to be solved and probably won't matter if they are. Curiosity must be balanced with an understanding of importance. Don't waste time ferreting out every last detail, at the cost of getting nothing said about the whole. This may be what happened to Lord Acton-- he spent so much time researching that he ran out of time to write down what he'd learned, except for his one brief essay.

It appears to me sometimes that the elaboration of research predicated by some enthusiastic devotees of historical accuracy, who preach accuracy apparently for its own sake, is not unlike that of the mathematicians who launched a malediction against those who would degrade pure mathematics by applying it to any practical purpose. Mathematics for mathematics alone, accuracy only to be accurate, are conceptions that need to be qualified. An uneasy sense of this is already in the air. Since writing these words I find another reviewer complaining thus: “The author is content simply to tell facts in their right order, with the utmost pains as to accuracy, but with hardly any comment on their significance. Of enthusiasm there is only that which specialists are apt to feel for any fact in spite of its value.” There is a higher accuracy than the weighing of scruples; the fine dust of the balance rarely turns the scale. Unquestionably, generalization is unsafe where not based upon a multitude of instances; conclusion needs a wide sweep of research; but unless some limit is accepted as to the number and extent of recorded facts necessary to inference if not to decision, observation heaped upon observation remains useless to men at large. They are incapable of interpreting their meaning. The significance of the whole must be brought out by careful arrangement and exposition, which must not be made to wait too long upon unlimited scrutiny. The passion for certainty may lapse into incapacity for decision vice recognized in military life, and which needs recognition elsewhere.

It appears to me that some historians preach accuracy for its own sake, as some mathematicians curse those who apply math to actual practical uses. It's necessary to determine, and present, which facts are significant. The fine dust of the balance rarely turns the scale. Of course, it's unsafe to generalize, unless you base your conclusion on a number of facts. To draw a conclusion you certainly need to do your research. But you must set a limit on the number of facts you used to draw that conclusion, or they will bury you and your conclusion will never get written down. It's like in the military, where if a commander demands absolute certainty, he winds up not doing anything.

I have likened to the labor of the artist the constructive work of the historian, the work by which he converts the raw material, the disconnected facts, of his own acquirement to the use of men; and upon that have rested the theory of historical composition, as it appears to my own mind. The standard is high, perhaps ideal; for it presupposes faculties, natural gifts, which we are prone to class under the term of inspiration, in order to express our sense of their rarity and lofty quality. This doubtless may be so; there, may be as few historians born of the highest order as there are artists. But it is worse than useless to fix standards lower than the best one can frame to one’s self; for, like boats crossing a current, men rarely reach as high even as the mark at which they aim. Moreover, so far as my conception is correct and its development before you sound, it involves primarily an intellectual process within the reach of most, even though the fire of genius, of inspiration, may be wanting. That informing spirit which is indispensable to the highest success is the inestimable privilege of nature’s favored few. But to study the facts analytically to detect the broad leading features, to assign to them their respective importance, to recognize their mutual relations, and upon these data to frame a scheme of logical presentation—all this is within the scope of many whom we should hesitate to call artists, and who yet are certainly capable of being more than chroniclers or even than narrators.

Here I've compared the work of a historian to that of an artist. This is a high standard, and maybe an ideal, because it assumes the gift of inspiration. While genius historians are as rare as genius artists, it is worse than useless to set standards lower than the best you think of. Like boats crossing a current, men rarely reach as high as where they've aimed. You may not have the fire of artistic genius, but this process is certainly within reach of most: Analyze the facts, find their broad leading features, figure out their relative importance, see how they relate to each other, and based on this, create a logical presentation.

In fact, to do this much may be no more than to be dryly logical. It is in the execution of the scheme thus evolved that the difficulty becomes marked; like that of the artist who falls short of reproducing to the eyes of others the vision revealed to himself. Nevertheless, simply by logical presentation the keenest intellectual gratification may be afforded—the gratification of comprehending what one sees but has not hitherto understood. From this proceeds the delineation of the chain of cause and effect; the classification of incidents, at first sight disconnected, by a successful generalization which reveals their essential unity; the exposition of a leading general tendency, which is the predominant characteristic of an epoch. These processes do not, however, end in mere gratification; they convey instruction, the more certain and enduring because of their fascinating interest.

In fact, doing this may be simply logical. Just by logical presentation, you may get the mental thrill of understanding something you didn't before. From this, you show the chain of cause and effect, the leading general tendency of the incidents which reveals their essential unity. This isn't just a mental thrill for you, however; it's information for everyone.

To conceive thus the work of the historian is perhaps natural to my profession. Certainly, from this same point of view, of artistic grouping of subordinate details around a central idea, I have learned to seek not only the solution of the problems of warfare, but the method of its history; whether as it concerns the conduct of campaigns, which we call strategy, or in the direction of battles, which we define tactics, or in the design of the individual ship of war. Unity of purpose—exclusiveness of purpose, to use Napoleon’s phrase—is the secret of great military successes. In using this word exclusiveness, which reduces unity to a unit, Napoleon was not weighing scrupulously the accuracy of his terms. He was simply censuring the particular aberration of the officer addressed, who was so concerned for a field of operations not immediately involved as to allow his mind to wander from the one predominant interest then at stake. But, though exaggerated, the term is not otherwise incorrect, and the exaggeration is rather that of emphasis than of hyperbole. Other matters may need to be considered, because of their evident relations to the central feature; they therefore, may not be excluded in a strict sense, but equally they are not to usurp the preeminence due to it alone. In so far its claim is “exclusive,” and their own exist only as ministering to it.

Maybe thinking this way about history is natural to my profession. In the military, unity of purpose is the secret of great military successes. A strategy will have one main goal, and while other matters need to be considered, they can't be allowed to interfere with it.

The military historian who is instructed in the principles of the art of war finds, as it were imposed upon him, the necessity of so constructing his narrative as to present a substantial unity in effect. Such familiar phrase as the “key of the situation,” the decisive point for which he has been taught to look, upon the tenure of which depends more or less the fortune of war, sustains continually before his mind the idea, to which his treatment must correspond, of a central feature round which all else groups, not only subordinate, but contributive. Here is no vague collocation of words, but the concrete, pithy expression of a trained habit of mind which dominates writing necessarily, even though unconsciously to the writer. So the word “combination,” than which none finds more frequent use in military literature, and which you will recall means to make of two one, reminds him, if he needs to think, that no mere narrative of separate incidents, however vivid as word painting fulfills his task. He must also show how all lead up to, and find their several meanings in, a common result, of purpose or of achievement, which unifies their action. So again “concentration,” the watchword of military action, and the final end of all combination, reminds him that facts must be massed as well as troops, if they are to prevail against the passive resistance of indolent mentality if they are to penetrate and shatter the forces of ignorance or prejudgment, which conservative impression has arrayed against them.

A military historian, familiar with the principles of the art of war, is influenced by training in such things as the "key of the situation". He thinks in terms of a central feature round which all else groups, not only subordinate to it, but contributing to it. For such a mind, no mere narrative of a string of events is enough. He must also show how all lead up to, and find their several meanings in, a common result. "Concentration", the watchword of military action, reminds him that facts must be massed as well as troops, if they are to prevail against ignorance.

It is not in the coloring, but in the grouping, that the true excellence of the military historian is found; just as the battle is won not by the picturesqueness of the scene, but by the disposition of the forces. Both the logical faculty and the imagination contribute to his success, but the former much exceeds the latter in effect. A campaign, or a battle, skillfully designed, is a work of art, and duly to describe it requires something of the appreciation and combinative faculty of an artist, but where there is no appeal beyond the imagination to the intellect impressions are apt to lack distinctness. While there is a certain exaltation in sharing, through vivid narrative, the emotions of those who have borne a part in some deed of conspicuous daring, the fascination does not equal that wrought upon the mind as it traces the sequence by which successive occurrences are seen to issue in their necessary results, or causes apparently remote to converge upon a common end. Then understanding succeeds to the sense of bewilderment too commonly produced by military events, as often narrated. Failing such comprehension, there may be fairly discerned that “it was a famous victory;” and yet the modest confession have to follow that “what they fought each other for”—what the meaning of it all is—“I can not well make out.” No appointed end is seen to justify the bloody means.

The true excellence of the military historian is found in logical presentation of the events. A skillfully designed battle or campaign is a work of art, and to describe it that way requires some artistic ability. However, artistry alone is not enough-- you must also appeal to the intellect by showing how the sequence of events led to the ending results. Otherwise, it's just a mass of confusion to the reader.

This difficulty is not confined to military history. It exists in all narrative of events, which even in the ablest hands tends to degenerate into a brilliant pageant, and in those of less capable colorists into a simple procession of passers by—a more or less commonplace street scene—to recur to a simile I have already used. It is the privilege simply of the military historian that, if he himself has real understanding of the matters he treats, they themselves supply the steadying center of observation; for the actions are those of men who had an immediate recognized purpose, which dictated their conduct. To be faithful to them he must not merely tell their deeds, but expound also their plan.

This is true of all stories of events, not just military history. Be careful not to let it degenerate into a simple street scene. The military historian has the advantage of studying events which were driven by soldiers who already had a goal in mind. To be faithful to them he must not merely tell their deeds, but also their plan.

The plan of Providence, which in its fulfillment we call history, is of wider range and more complicated detail than the tactics of a battle, or the strategy of a campaign, or even than the policy of a war. Each of these in its own sphere is an incident of history, possessing an intrinsic unity of its own. Each, therefore, may be treated after the fashion and under the limitations I have suggested; as a work of art, which has a central feature around which details are to be grouped, but kept ever subordinate to its due development. So, and so only, shall the unity of the picture be successfully preserved; but when this has been done, each particular incident, and group of incidents, becomes as it were a fully wrought and fashioned piece, prepared for adjustment in its place in the great mosaic, which the history of the race is gradually fashioning under the Divine overruling.

The plan of Providence, which we call history, is bigger and more complex than any battle or even war. We can tell about each of these smaller events, treating each one as a work of art which has a central feature around which the details are grouped. Each of these particular incidents becomes a fully wrought and fashioned piece ready to be placed in the great mosaic which we humans are gradually making, under the Divine overruling.

I apprehend that the analogy between military history and history in its other aspects—political, economical, social, and so on—is in this respect closer than most would be willing at first to concede. There is perhaps in military history more pronounced definiteness of human plan, more clearly marked finality of conclusion, and withal a certain vividness of action, all of which tend to enforce the outlines and emphasize the unity of the particular subject. A declaration of war, a treaty of peace, a decisive victory, if not quite epoch-making events, are at least prominent milestones, which mark and define the passage of time. It is scarcely necessary to observe, however, that all these have their very definite analogues in that which we call civil history. The Declaration of Independence marks the consummation of a series of civil acts; the surrender of Cornwallis terminates a military record. The Peace of Westphalia and the British Reform Bill of 1832 are alike conspicuous indications of the passing of the old and the advent of the new. But yet more, may we not say that all history is the aggressive advance of the future upon the past, the field of collision being the present. That no blood be shed does not make the sapping of the old foundations less real, nor the overthrow of the old conditions less decisive. Offense and defense, the opposing sides in war, reproduce themselves all over the historic field. The conservative, of that which now is, holds the successive positions against the progressive, who seeks change; the resultant of each conflict, as in most wars, is a modification of conditions, not an immediate reversal. Total overthrow is rare, and happily so, for thus the continuity of conditions is preserved. Neither revolution, nor yet stagnation, but still advance, graduated and moderate, which retains the one indispensable salt of national well-being, faith; faith in an established order in fundamental principles, in regulated progress.

While military history has a clearer presentation of human plans, and thus a clearer unity of each event, there are parallels with civil history as well. All history is the aggressive advance of the future upon the past, the field of collision being the present. Even if no blood is shed, old foundations can still be blown up and old conditions overthrown. You see offense and defense all over history, not just on battlefields. Conservatives, trying to keep what exists now, hold positions against progressives, who are trying to change it. Just as in actual wars, the result is usually a modification, not an immediate reversal. Total overthrow is rare; usually it's simply gradual advance, salted by faith.

Looking, then, upon the field of history thus widened—from the single particular of military events, which I have taken for illustration—to embrace all the various activities of mankind during a given epoch, we find necessarily a vast multiplication of incident, with a corresponding complication of the threads to which they severally belong. Thus not only the task is much bigger, but the analysis is more laborious; while as this underlies unity of treatment, the attainment of that becomes far more difficult. Nevertheless the attempt must be made; that particular feature which gives special character to the period under consideration must be selected and the relations of the others to it discerned, in order that in the preeminence of the one and the contributory subordination of the others artistic unity of construction may be attained. Thus only can the mass of readers receive that correct impression of the general character and trend of a period which far surpasses in instructive quality any volume of details, however accurate, the significance of which is not apprehended. An example of the thought which I am trying to express is to be found in the brief summaries of tendencies which Ranke, in his History of England in the seventeenth century, interposes from time to time in breaks of the narrative. This is not, I fancy, the most artistic method. It resembles rather those novels in which the motives and characters of the actors are explained currently instead of being made to transpire for themselves. Nevertheless the line of light thus thrown serves to elucidate the whole preceding and succeeding narrative. The separate events, the course and character of the several actors, receive a meaning and a value which apart from such a clew they do not possess.

This wider field of history does of course involve a much vaster number of incidents and facts to be dealt with. Making sense of an epoch is, as a result, a much larger and more difficult task. If you can achieve this, the mass of readers can understand the general character and trend of a period. This is much more informative than any mere mass of details, however accurate they are. I'm reminded of Ranke, in his History of England of the seventeenth century. From time to time he'd put a brief summary into his narrative. It wasn't the most artistic method, but it did help make things clearer.

I conceive that such a method is applicable to all the work of history from the least to the greatest; from the single stones, if we may so say, the particular limited researches, the monographs, up to the great edifice, which we may imagine though we may never see, in which all the periods of universal history shall have their several places and due proportion. So coordinated, they will present a majestic ideal unity corresponding to the thought of the Divine Architect, realized to His creatures. To a consummation so noble we may be permitted to aspire, and individually to take pride, not in our own selves nor in our own work, but rather in that toward which we minister and in which we believe. Faith, the evidence of things not seen as yet, and the needful motive force of every truly great achievement, may cheer us to feel that in the perfection of our particular work we forward the ultimate perfection of the whole, which in its entirety can be the work of no one hand. It may be, indeed, that to some one favored mind will be committed the final great synthesis; but he would be powerless save for the patient labors of the innumerable army which, stone by stone and section by section, have wrought to perfection the several parts; while in combining these in the ultimate unity he must be guided by the same principles and governed by the same methods that have controlled them in their humbler tasks. He will in fact be, as each one of us is, an instrument. To him will be intrusted, on a larger and final scale, to accomplish the realization of that toward which generations of predecessors have labored; comprehending but in part and obscurely the end toward which they were tending, but yet building better than they know because they built faithfully.

I think this method I have described can be applied to all historical work, from smallest to largest, from the single stones up to the final great building. We are all working on our own little parts of the great edifice of universal history, corresponding to the thought of the Divine Architect. Faith cheers us on, that each of us is contributing to this greater whole. Someday, some lucky soul will get to put it all together into the final great synthesis, using the same principles described above. That person will be building it out of the many pieces written by all those who came before, and like them, will be an instrument. Even though all his predecessors couldn't see clearly what they were building, it will be built well because they built faithfully.

Alfred Thayer Mahan (September 27, 1840–December 1, 1914) was a US Navy flag officer, geostrategist, and historian. His work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, had a widespread impact on navies around the world.


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