But Toynbee does not stand alone in this respect. Even more complex and more remarkable is the case of Tocqueville who is generally admitted by the academic historians to be one of the great historians of the nineteenth century. Yet Tocqueville is not only an historian and a sociologist: he is also a metahistorian, and his metahistory is religious as well as philosophical. He opens his greatest work by a bold profession of faith in the religious meaning of history and the religious vocation of the historian. “The whole book,” he writes, “which is here offered to the public has been written under the impression of a kind of religious dread produced in the author’s mind by the contemplation of the irresistible revolution that has advanced for centuries in spite of such amazing obstacles, and which is still proceeding in the midst of the ruins it has made. It is not necessary that God Himself should speak in order to disclose to us the unquestionable signs of His will; we can discern them in the habitual course of nature and in the invariable tendency of events.” The modern reader may dismiss such utterances as mere conventional rhetoric. But if he does so he will be profoundly mistaken, for Tocqueville was expressing his deepest convictions. As he wrote to a friend, he regarded his work as “a holy task and one in which one must spare neither one’s money nor one’s time, nor one’s life.”
If the metahistorical approach is inconsistent with historical subjectivity, if, as Mr. Bullock writes, history will not “bear the weight of the systems of moral absolutism after which so many people hanker,” then Tocqueville’s preface to Democracy in America is enough to condemn his book from the start as morally pretentious and historically worthless. Yet, somehow he gets away with it, and his two great works still stand today as classical examples of the art of the historian. And he succeeds not in spite of his principles but because of them. If we compare his work with that of his contemporaries who wrote good, straight narrative history like Mignet or Thiers, one must admit that Tocqueville is incomparably the greater historian; he is greater because he is more profound and his profundity is due to the breadth of his spiritual vision and to the strength of his religious faith.
The only conclusion that I can draw from this is that metahistory is not the enemy of true history but its guide and friend, provided always that it is good metahistory. There are other historians of Tocqueville’s generation who also conceived of their task in metahistorical terms—for example, Michelet and Carlyle, but the metahistory of the one consists of superficial generalizations and that of the other is a bombastic and interminable sermonizing. Better an antiquary or an annalist than a minor historian who writes like a minor prophet. The academic historian is perfectly right in insisting on the importance of the techniques of historical criticism and research. But the mastery of these techniques will not produce great history, any more than a mastery of metrical technique will produce great poetry. For this something more is necessary—intuitive understanding, creative imagination, and finally a universal vision transcending the relative limitations of the particular field of historical study. The experience of the great historians such as Tocqueville and Ranke leads me to believe that a universal metahistorical vision of this kind, partaking more of the nature of religious contemplation than of scientific generalization, lies very close to the sources of their creative power.
~Christopher Dawson: from The Problems of Metahistory. (1951)