It was one of Lenin’s more inspired insights that history always has the capacity to surprise. He was thinking mainly of political revolution, for as a revolutionary he had to be optimistic and hopeful in the darkest times in order to keep up the spirit of the faithful. Who could have forecast, in 1788, that within five years the French monarchy would be publicly obliterated and the destiny of France in the hands of Robespierre? No one.
But historians, and people who read history, quickly lose their capacity for surprise as, indeed,we all tend to in our private lives. We can be shocked and astonished by the breakup of the marriage of close friends, or an adolescent’s sudden flight and desertion of his family, and yet, within days, if not hours, we see incompatibilities we had not noticed or instabilities we had shrugged off as having little importance. We settle for causes, accept the event as inevitable, and forget completely the shock of surprise we initially felt.
For the historian, who never, or very rarely, experiences the events about which they write, there is no initial shock, no immediate sense of surprise. By their very training a hunter of causes, they prefer not only to reduce chance to a minimum, but to plot the tides that sweep people and societies to their destined ends, forgetful that tides can suddenly break old barriers in a matter of hours and sweep through to new channels. And yet, unless we grasp that the historical process can always take men and women and their societies by surprise, we shall fail to understand our own immediate dangers, or, indeed, our opportunities.
There are some movements that are strange, unpredictable, and even when they surge into social dominance, not- if one is an honest student of the situation- easy to interpret and explain. This perhaps is most profoundly true of religion. The success of both Christianity and Islam borders on the miraculous, but their victories have been so large and so lasting that it is hard to grasp just how extraordinary their successes were. A small, heretical Jewish sect- inner directed, not wishing for entanglement with political power- a cult that for several generations attracted the lower classes of society rather than the rich and powerful, is a strange beginning for one of the most institutionalized, authoritarian churches the world has known.
Even stranger, perhaps, is the quick acceptance of martyrdom by the early Christians, for they lived in a society that was not only tolerant of belief but for centuries had placed intense value on the individual life in this world. No less surprising- indeed, more so- is that a world religion that could sweep to Indonesia in the East and to Spain in the West should flare up out of a tribal conflict in Arabia and, in an extraordinarily brief time, smash the polytheistic religions that had held communities together for centuries, replacing them with a simple, austere monotheism.