S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
It is the most agreeable talent of an historian to be able to draw up his armies and fight his battles in proper expressions, to set before our eyes the divisions, cabals, and jealousies of great men, to lead us step by step into the several actions and events of his history. We love to see the subject unfolding itself by just degrees, and breaking upon us insensibly, so that we may be kept in a pleasing suspense, and have time given us to raise our expectations, and to side with one of the parties concerned in the relation. I confess this shows more the art than the veracity of the historian; but I am only to speak of him as he is qualified to please the imagination; and in this respect Livy has, perhaps, excelled all who ever went before him or have written since his time. He describes everything in so lively a manner that his whole history is an admirable picture, and touches on such proper circumstances in every story that his reader becomes a kind of spectator, and feels in himself all the variety of passions which are correspondent to the several parts of the relation.
I have heard one of the greatest geniuses this age has produced, who had been trained up in all the polite studies of antiquity, assure me, upon his being obliged to search into records, that he at last took, an incredible pleasure in it.
The histories of ages past, or relations concerning foreign countries, wherein the manners of men are described, and their actions reported, afford us useful pleasure and pastime: thereby we may learn as much, and understand the world as well, as by the most curious inquiry into the present actions of men; there we may observe, we may scan, we may tax the proceedings of whom we please, without any danger or offence. There are extant numberless books, wherein the wisest and most ingenious of men have laid open their hearts and exposed their most secret cogitations unto us: in pursuing them we may sufficiently busy ourselves, and let our idle hours pass gratefully: we may meddle with ourselves, studying our own dispositions, examining our own principles and purposes, reflecting on our thoughts, words, and actions, striving thoroughly to understand ourselves: to do this we have an unquestionable right, and by it we shall obtain vast benefit.
The prodigious lies which have been published in this age in matters of fact, with unblushing confidence, even where thousands or multitudes of eye and ear witnesses knew all to be false, doth call men to take heed what history they believe, especially where power and violence affordeth that privilege to the reporter that no man dare answer him, or detect his fraud; or, if they do, their writings are all supprest. As long as men have liberty to examine and contradict one another, one may partly conjecture, by comparing their words, on which side the truth is like to lie. But when great men write history, or flatterers by their appointment, which no man dare contradict, believe it but as you are constrained.
Some [histories] are to be read, some to be studied, and some may be neglected entirely, not only without detriment, but with advantage. Some are the proper objects of one mans curiosity, some of anothers, and some of all mens; but all history is not an object of curiosity for any man. He who improperly, wantonly, and absurdly makes it so, indulges a kind of canine appetite: the curiosity of the one, like the hunger of the other, devours ravenously, and without distinction, whatever falls in its way, but neither of them digests. They heap crudity upon crudity, and nourish and improve nothing but their distemper. Some such characters I have known, though it is not the most common extreme into which men are apt to fall.
Lord Bolingbroke: Letters on the Study and Use of History.
We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history. On the contrary, without care it may be used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness. In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in Church and State, and supplying the means of keeping alive or reviving dissensions and animosities and adding fuel to civil fury. History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same
These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good.
Under the green foliage and blossoming fruit-trees of to-day there lie, rotting slower or faster, the forests of all other yews and bays. Some have rotted fast, plants of annual growth, and are long since quite gone to inorganic mould; others are like the aloe, growths that last a thousand or three thousand years.
You will find them in all stages of decay and preservation; down deep to the beginning of the History of Man. Think where our Alphabetic Letters came from, where our Speech itself came from; the Cookeries we live by, the Masonries we lodge under! You will find fibrous roots of this days occurrences among the dust of Cadmus and Trismegistus, of Tubalcain and Triptolemus; the tap-roots of them are with Father Adam himself and the cinders of Eves first fire! At the bottom there is no perfect history; there is none such conceivable. All past centuries have rotted down, and gone confusedly dumb and quiet, even as that Seventeenth is now threatening to do. Histories are as perfect as the Historian is wise, and it is gifted with an eye and a soul! For the leafy, blossoming Present Time springs from the whole Past remembered and unrememberable, so confusedly as we say:and truly the Art of History, the grand difference between a Dryasdust and a sacred Poet, is very much even this:To distinguish well what does still reach to the surface, and is alive and frondent for us; and what reaches no longer to the surface, but moulders safe under ground, never to send forth leaves or fruit for mankind anymore: of the former we shall rejoice to hear; to hear of the latter will be an affliction to us; of the latter only Pedants and Dullards, and disastrous male-factor to the world, will find good to speak. By wise memory and by wise oblivion; it lies all there! Without oblivion there is no remembrance possible. When both oblivion and memory are wise, when the general soul of man is clear, melodious, true, there may come a modern Iliad as memorial of the Past; when both are foolish and the general soul is overclouded with confusions, with unveracities and discords, here is a Rushworthian Chaos.
Some historians, like Tacitus, Burnet, and the Abbé Raynal, are never satisfied without adding to their detail of events the secret springs and causes that have produced them. But both heroes and statesmen, amid the din of arms, and the hurry of business, are often necessitated to invert the natural order of things; to fight before they deliberate, and to decide before they consult. A statesman may regulate himself by events; but it is seldom that he can cause events to regulate themselves by him. It often happens, too, both in courts and in cabinets, that there are two things going on together, a main plot and an under plot; and he that understands only one of them will, in all probability, be the dupe of both.
The page of the historian, whether ancient or modern, presents to our view little more than revolting details of ambitious conquerors carrying ruin and devastation in their train, of proud despots trampling on the rights of mankind, of cities turned into ruinous heaps, of countries desolated, of massacres perpetrated with infernal cruelty, of nations dashing one against another, of empires wasted and destroyed, of political and religious dissensions, and of the general progress of injustice, immorality, and crime. Compared with the details on these subjects, all the other facts which have occurred in the history of mankind are considered by the historian as mere interludes in the great drama of the world, and almost unworthy of being recorded.
Dr. Thomas Dick: Philos. of a Future State, Part I., Sect. viii.
The laws of history, in general, are truth of matter, method, and clearness of expression. The first property is necessary to keep our understanding from the impositions of falsehood; for history is an argument framed from many particular examples or inductions: if these examples are not true, then those measures of life which we take from them will be false, and deceive us in their consequence. The second is grounded on the former: for if the method be confused, if the words or expressions of thought are any way obscure, then the ideas which we receive must be imperfect; and if such, we are not taught by them what to elect or what to shun. Truth, therefore, is required as the foundation of history to inform us, disposition and perspicuity as the manner to inform us plainly: one is the being, the other the well-being of it.
To be entirely just in our estimate of other ages is not only difficultit is impossible. Even what is passing in our presence we see but through a glass darkly. The mind as well as the eye adds something of its own, before an image, even of the clearest object, can be painted upon it; and in historical inquiries the most instructed thinkers have but a limited advantage over the most illiterate. Those who know the most approach least to agreement. The most careful investigations are diverging roads; the further men travel upon them, the greater the interval by which they are divided. In the eyes of David Hume, the history of the Saxon princes is the scuffling of kites and crows. Father Newman would mortify the conceit of a degenerate England by pointing to the sixty saints and the hundred confessors who were trained in her royal palaces for the calendar of the blessed. How vast a chasm between these two conceptions of the same era! Through what common term can the student pass from one into the other? Or, to take an instance yet more noticeable, the history of England scarcely interests Mr. Macaulay before the revolution of the seventeenth century. To Lord John Russell the Reformation was the first outcome from centuries of folly and ferocity; and Mr. Hallams more temperate language softens without concealing a similar conclusion. The writers have all studied what they describe. Mr. Carlyle has studied the same subject with powers at least equal to theirs, and to him the greatness of English character was waning with the dawn of English literature; the race of heroes was already falling: the era of action was yielding before the era of speech.
In history such stories alone should be laid before them as might catch the imagination; instead of this, they are too frequently obliged to toil through the four empires, as they are called, where their memories are burdened by a number of disgusting names, that destroy all their future relish for our best historians, who may be termed the truest teachers of wisdom.
History, being a collection of facts which are multiplying without end, is obliged to adopt arts of abridgment,to retain the more material events, and to drop all the minute circumstances which are only interesting during the time, or to the persons engaged in the transactions.
Nothing is more delusive, or at least more woefully imperfect, than the suggestions of authentic history, as it is generally or rather universally written; and nothing more exaggerated than the impressions it conveys of the actual state and condition of those who live in its most agitated periods. The great public events of which alone it takes cognizance have but little direct influence upon the body of the people; and do not, in general, form the principal business or happiness or misery even of those who are in some measure concerned in them. Even in the worst and most disastrous timesin periods of civil war and revolution, and public discord and oppression, a great part of the time of a great people is spent in making love and moneyin social amusement or professional industryin schemes for worldly advancement or personal distinction, just as in periods of general peace and prosperity. Men court and marry very nearly as much in the one season as in the other, and are as merry at weddings and christeningsas gallant at balls and racesas busy in their studies and counting-houseseat as heartily, in short, and sleep as soundlyprattle with their children as pleasantlyand thin their plantations and scold their servants as zealously, as if their contemporaries were not furnishing materials thus abundantly for the tragic muse of history. The quiet undercurrent of life, in short, keeps its deep and steady course in its eternal channels, unaffected, or but slightly disturbed, by the storms that agitate its surface; and while long tracts of time in the history of every country seem to the distant student of its annals to be darkened over with one thick and oppressive cloud of unbroken misery, the greater part of those who have lived through the whole acts of the tragedy, will be found to have enjoyed a fair average share of felicity, and to have been much less affected by the shocking events of their day than those who know nothing else of it than that such events took place in its course.
The philosopher has the works of omniscience to examine; and is therefore engaged in disquisitions to which finite intellects are utterly unequal. The poet trusts to his invention, and is not only in danger of those inconsistencies to which every one is exposed by departure from truth, but may be censured as well for deficiencies of matter as for irregularity of disposition or impropriety of ornament. But the happy historian has no other labour than of gathering what tradition pours down before him, or records treasure for his use . Yet even with these advantages, very few in any age have been able to raise themselves to reputation by writing histories.
There is no part of history so generally useful as that which relates the progress of the human mind, the gradual improvement of reason, the successive advances of science, the vicissitudes of learning and ignorance, which are the light and darkness of thinking beings, the extinction and resuscitation of arts, and the revolution of the intellectual world. If accounts of battles and invasions are peculiarly the business of princes, the useful and elegant arts are not to be neglected: those who have kingdoms to govern have understandings to cultivate.
The stories of Alexander and Cæsar, farther than they instruct us in the art of living well and furnish us with observations of wisdom and prudence, are not one jot to be preferred to the history of Robin Hood or the Seven Wise Masters. I do not deny but history is very useful, and very instructive of human life; but if it be studied only for the reputation of being a historian, it is a very empty thing; and he that can tell all the particulars of Herodotus and Plutarch, Curtius and Livy, without making any other use of them, may be an ignorant man with a good memory, and with all his pains hath only filled his head with Christmas tales. And, which is worse, the greatest part of history being made up of wars and conquests, and their style, especially the Romans, speaking of valour as the chief if not the only virtue, we are in danger to be misled by the general current and business of history; and, looking on Alexander and Cæsar, and such like heroes, as the highest instances of human greatness, because they each of them caused the death of several hundred thousand men, and the ruin of a much greater number, overran a great part of the earth, and killed the inhabitants to possess themselves of their countries, we are apt to make butchery and rapine the chief marks and very essence of human greatness.
Mr. Mitford has remarked, with truth and spirit, that any history perfectly written, but especially a Grecian history perfectly written, should be a political institute for all nations. It has not occurred to him that a Grecian history, perfectly written, should also be a complete record of the rise and progress of poetry, philosophy, and the arts. Here his book is extremely deficient. Indeed, though it may seem a strange thing to say of a gentleman who has published so many quartos, Mr. Mitford seems to entertain a feeling bordering on contempt for literary and speculative pursuits. The talents of action almost exclusively attract his notice; and he talks with very complacent disdain of the idle learned. Homer, indeed, he admires; but principally, I am afraid, because he is convinced that Homer could neither read nor write. He could not avoid speaking of Socrates; but he has been far more solicitous to trace his death to political causes, and to deduce from it consequences unfavourable to Athens, and to popular governments, than to throw light on the character and doctrines of the wonderlul man
He does not seem to be aware that Demosthenes was a great orator; he represents him sometimes as an aspirant demagogue, sometimes as an adroit negotiator, and always as a great rogue. But that in which the Athenian excelled all men of all ages, that irresistible eloquence, which at the distance of more than two thousand years stirs our blood and brings tears into our eyes, he passes by with a few phrases of commonplace commendation. The origin of the drama, the doctrines of the sophists, the course of Athenian education, the state of the arts and sciences, the whole domestic system of the Greeks, he has almost completely neglected. Yet these things will appear to a reflecting man scarcely less worthy of attention than the taking of Sphacteria or the discipline of the targeteers of Iphicrates.
This, indeed, is a deficiency by no means peculiar to Mr. Mitford. Most people seem to imagine that a detail of public occurrences,the operations of sieges,the changes of administrations,the treaties,the conspiracies,the rebellions,is a complete history. Differences of definition are logically unimportant; but practically they sometimes produce the most momentous effects. Thus it has been in the present case. Historians have almost without exception confined themselves to the public transactions of states, and have left to the negligent administration of writers of fiction a province at least equally extensive and valuable.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On Mitfords History of Greece, Nov. 1824.
All wise statesmen have agreed to consider the prosperity or adversity of nations as made up of the happiness or misery of individuals, and to reject as chimerical all notions of a public interest of the community distinct from the interest of the component parts. It is therefore strange that those whose office it is to supply statesmen with examples and warnings should omit, as too mean for the dignity of history, circumstances which exert the most extensive influence on the state of society. In general, the under current of human life flows steadily on, unruffled by the storms which agitate the surface. The happiness of the many commonly depends on causes independent of victories and defeats, of revolutions or restorations,causes which can be regulated by no laws, and which are recorded in no archives. These causes are the things which it is of main importance to us to know, not how the Lacedæmonian phalanx was broken at Leuctra,not whether Alexander died of poison or of disease. History without these is a shell without a kernel; and such is almost all the history which is extant in the world. Paltry skirmishes and plots are reported with absurd and useless minuteness; but improvements the most essential to the comfort of human life extend themselves over the world, and introduce themselves into every cottage, before any annalist can condescend, from the dignity of writing about generals and ambassadors, to take the least notice of them. Thus the progress of the most salutary inventions and discoveries is buried in impenetrable mystery; mankind are deprived of a most useful species of knowledge, and their benefactors of their honest fame. In the mean time every child knows by heart the dates and adventures of a long line of barbarian kings. The history of nations, in the sense in which I use the word, is often best studied in works not professedly historical. Thucydides, as far as he goes, is an excellent writer; yet he affords us far less knowledge of the most important particulars relating to Athens than Plato or Aristophanes. The little treatise of Xenophon on Domestic Economy contains more historical information than all the seven books of his Hellenics. The same may be said of the Satires of Horace, of the letters of Cicero, of the novels of Le Sage, of the memoirs of Marmontel. Many others might be mentioned; but these sufficiently illustrate my meaning.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On Mitfords History of Greece.
I would hope that there may yet appear a writer who may despise the present narrow limits, and assert the rights of history over every part of her natural domain. Should such a writer engage in that enterprise, in which I cannot but consider Mr. Mitford as having failed, he will record, indeed, all that is interesting and important in military and political transactions; but he will not think anything too trivial for the gravity of history which is not too trivial to promote or diminish the happiness of man. He will portray in vivid colours the domestic society, the manners, the amusements, the conversation, of the Greeks. He will not disdain to discuss the state of agriculture, of the mechanical arts, and of the conveniences of life. The progress of painting, of sculpture, and of architecture, will form an important part of his plan. But, above all, his attention will be given to the history of that splendid literature from which has sprung all the strength, the wisdom, the freedom, and the glory of the western world.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On Mitfords History of Greece.
The History [of Florence, by Machiavelli] does not appear to be the fruit of much industry or research. It is unquestionably inaccurate. But it is elegant, lively, and picturesque, beyond any other in the Italian language. The reader, we believe, carries away from it a more vivid and a more faithful impression of the national character and manners than from more correct accounts. The truth is, that the book belongs rather to ancient than to modern literature. It is in the style, not of Davila and Clarendon, but of Herodotus and Tacitus. The classical histories may almost be called romances founded in fact. The relation is, no doubt, in all its principal points, strictly true. But the numerous little incidents which heighten the interest, the words, the gestures, the looks, are evidently furnished by the imagination of the author. The fashion of later times is different. A more exact narrative is given by the writer. It may be doubted whether more exact notions are conveyed to the reader. The best portraits are perhaps those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature; and we are not certain that the best histories are not those in which a little of the exaggeration of fictitious narrative is judiciously employed. Something is lost in accuracy; but much is gained in effect. The fainter lines are neglected; but the great characteristic features are imprinted on the mind forever.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Machiavelli, March, 1827.
To write history respectably,that is, to abbreviate despatches, and make extracts from speeches, to intersperse in due proportion epithets of praise and abhorrence, to draw up antithetical characters of great men, setting forth how many contradictory virtues and vices they united, and abounding in withs and withouts,all this is very easy. But to be a really great historian is perhaps the rarest of intellectual distinctions. Many scientific works are, in their kind, absolutely perfect. There are poems which we should be inclined to designate as faultless, or as disfigured only by blemishes which pass unnoticed in the general blaze of excellence. There are speeches, some speeches of Demosthenes particularly, in which it would be impossible to alter a word without altering it for the worse. But we are acquainted with no history which approaches to our notion of what a history ought to be,with no history which does not widely depart, either on the right hand or on the left, from the exact line.
The cause may easily be assigned. This province of literature is a debatable land. It lies on the confines of two distinct territories. It is under the jurisdiction of two hostile powers; and, like other districts similarly situated, it is ill defined, ill cultivated, and ill regulated. Instead of being equally shared between its two rulers, the Reason and the Imagination, it falls alternately under the sole and absolute dominion of each. It is sometimes fiction. It is sometimes theory.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: History, May, 1828.
Some capricious and discontented artists have affected to consider portrait-painting as unworthy a man of genius. Some critics have spoken in the same contemptuous manner of history. Johnson puts the case thus: The historian tells either what is false or what is true: in the former case he is no historian; in the latter he has no opportunity for displaying his abilities: for truth is one: and all who tell the truth must tell it alike.
It is not difficult to elude both the horns of this dilemma. We will recur to the analogous art of portrait-painting. Any man with eyes and hands may be taught to take a likeness. The process, up to a certain point, is merely mechanical. If this were all, a man of talents might justly despise the occupation. But we could mention portraits which are resemblances,but not mere resemblances; faithful,but much more than faithful; portraits which condense into one point of time, and exhibit at a single glance, the whole history of turbid and eventful livesin which the eye seems to scrutinize us, and the mouth to command usin which the brow menaces, and the lip almost quivers with scornin which every wrinkle is a comment on some important transaction. The account which Thucydides has given of the retreat from Syracuse is, among narratives, what Vandykes Lord Strafford is among paintings.
Diversity, it is said, implies error: truth is one, and admits of no degrees. We answer, that this principle holds good only in abstract reasonings. When we talk of the truth of imitation in the fine arts, we mean an imperfect and a graduated truth. No picture is exactly like the original; nor is a picture good in proportion as it is like the original. When Sir Thomas Lawrence paints a handsome peeress, he does not contemplate her through a powerful microscope, and transfer to the canvas the pores of the skin, the blood-vessels of the eye, and all the other beauties which Gulliver discovered in the Brobdignaggian maids of honour. If he were to do this, the effect would be not merely unpleasant, but, unless the scale of the picture were proportionably enlarged, would be absolutely false. And, after all, a microscope of greater power than that which he employed would convict him of innumerable omissions. The same may be said of history. Perfectly and absolutely true it cannot be: for, to be perfectly and absolutely true, it ought to record all the slightest particulars of the slightest transactions,all the things done and all the words uttered during the time of which it treats. The omission of any circumstance, however insignificant, would be a defect. If history were written thus, the Bodleian Library would not contain the occurrences of a week. What is told in the fullest and most accurate annals bears an infinitely small proportion to that which is suppressed. The difference between the copious work of Clarendon and the account of the civil wars in the abridgment of Goldsmith vanishes when compared with the immense mass of facts about which both are equally silent.
No picture, then, and no history, can present us with the whole truth: but those are the best pictures and the best histories which exhibit such parts of the truth as most nearly produce the effect of the whole. He who is deficient in the art of selection may, by showing nothing but the truth, produce all the effect of the grossest falsehood. It perpetually happens that one writer tells less truth than another, merely because he tells more truths. In the imitative arts we constantly see this. There are lines in the human face, and objects in landscape, which stand in such relations to each other that they ought either to be all introduced into a painting together or all omitted together. A sketch into which none of them enters may be excellent; but if some are given and others left out, though there are more points of likeness there is less likeness. An outline scrawled with a pen, which seizes the marked features of a countenance, will give a much stronger idea of it than a bad painting in oils. Yet the worst painting in oils that ever hung in Somerset House resembles the original in many more particulars. A bust of white marble may give an excellent idea of a blooming face. Colour the lips and cheeks of the bust, leaving the hair and eyes unaltered, and the similarity, instead of being more striking, will be less so.
History has its foreground and its background; and it is principally in the management of its perspective that one artist differs from another. Some events must be represented on a large scale, others diminished; the great majority will be lost in the dimness of the horizon; and a general idea of their joint effect will be given by a few slight touches.
But narration, though an important part of the business of a historian, is not the whole. To append a moral to a work of fiction is either useless or superfluous. A fiction may give a more impressive effect to what is already known, but it can teach nothing new. If it presents to us characters and trains of events to which our experience furnishes us with nothing similar, instead of deriving instruction from it we pronounce it unnatural. We do not form our opinions from it; but we try it by our preconceived opinions. Fiction, therefore, is essentially imitative. Its merit consists in its resemblance to a model with which we are already familiar, or to which at least we can instantly refer. Hence it is that the anecdotes which interest us most strongly in authentic narrative are offensive when introduced into novels; that what is called the romantic part of history is in fact the least romantic. It is delightful as history, because it contradicts our previous notions of human nature and of the connection of causes and effects. It is on that very account shocking and incongruous in fiction. In fiction, the principles are given, to find the facts: in history, the facts are given, to find the principles; and the writer who does not explain the phenomena as well as state them, performs only one-half of his office. Facts are the mere dross of history. It is from the abstract truth which interpenetrates them, and lies latent among them like gold in the ore, that the mass derives its whole value: and the precious particles are generally combined with the baser in such a manner that the separation is a task of the utmost difficulty.
The best historians of later times have been seduced from truth, not by their imagination, but by their reason. They far excel their predecessors in the art of deducing general principles from facts. But unhappily they have fallen into the error of distorting facts to suit general principles. They arrive at a theory from looking at some of the phenomena; and the remaining phenomena they strain or curtail to suit the theory. For this purpose it is not necessary that they should assert what is absolutely false; for all questions in morals and politics are questions of comparison and degree. Any proposition which does not involve a contradiction in terms may by possibility be true; and, if all the circumstances which raise a probability in its favour be stated and enforced, and those which lead to an opposite conclusion be omitted or lightly passed over, it may appear to be demonstrated. In every human character and transaction there is a mixture of good and evil: a little exaggeration, a little suppression, a judicious use of epithets, a watchful and searching scepticism with respect to the evidence on one side, a convenient credulity with respect to every report or tradition on the other, may easily make a saint of Laud, or a tyrant of Henry the Fourth.
This species of misrepresentation abounds in the most valuable works of modern historians. Herodotus tells his story like a slovenly witness, who, heated by partialities and prejudices, unacquainted with the established rules of evidence, and uninstructed as to the obligations of his oath, confounds what he imagines with what he has seen and heard, and brings out facts, reports, conjectures, and fancies, in one mass. Hume is an accomplished advocate. Without positively asserting much more than he can prove, he gives prominence to all the circumstances which support his case; he glides lightly over those which are unfavourable to it; his own witnesses are applauded and encouraged; the statements which seem to throw discredit on them are controverted; the contradictions into which they fall are explained away; a clear and connected abstract of their evidence is given. Everything that is offered on the other side is scrutinized with the utmost severity; every suspicious circumstance is a ground for comment and invective; what cannot be denied is extenuated, or passed by without notice; concessions are even sometimes made: but this insidious candour only increases the effect of the vast mass of sophistry.
The modern historians of Greece had been in the habit of writing as if the world had learned nothing new during the last sixteen hundred years. Instead of illustrating the events which they narrated by the philosophy of a more enlightened age, they judged of antiquity by itself alone. They seemed to think that notions long driven from every other corner of literature had a prescriptive right to occupy this last fastness. They considered all the ancient historians as equally authentic. They scarcely made any distinction between him who related events at which he had himself been present and him who five hundred years after composed a philosophic romance for a society which had in the interval undergone a complete change. It was all Greek, and all true! The centuries which separated Plutarch from Thucydides seemed as nothing to men who lived in an age so remote. The distance of time produced an error similar to that which is sometimes produced by distance of place. There are many good ladies who think that all the people of India live together, and who charge a friend setting out for Calcutta with kind messages to Bombay. To Rollin and Barthelemi, in the same manner, all the classics were contemporaries.
While our historians are practising all the arts of controversy, they miserably neglect the art of narration, the art of interesting the affections and presenting pictures to the imagination. That a writer may produce these effects without violating truth is sufficiently proved by many excellent biographical works. The immense popularity which well-written books of this kind have acquired deserves the serious consideration of historians. Voltaires Charles the Twelfth, Marmontels Memoirs, Boswells Life of Johnson, Southeys account of Nelson, are perused with delight by the most frivolous and indolent. Whenever any tolerable book of the same description makes its appearance, the circulating libraries are mobbed; the book societies are in commotion; the new novel lies uncut, the magazines and newspapers fill their columns with extracts. In the mean time, histories of great empires, written by men of eminent ability, lie unread on the shelves of ostentatious libraries.
The writers of history seem to entertain an aristocratical contempt for the writers of memoirs. They think it beneath the dignity of men who describe the revolutions of nations to dwell on the details which constitute the charm of biography. They have imposed on themselves a code of conventional decencies as absurd as that which has been the bane of the French drama. The most characteristic and interesting circumstances are softened down, because, we are told, they are too trivial for the majesty of history. The majesty of history seems to resemble the majesty of the poor king of Spain who died a martyr to ceremony because the proper dignitaries were not at hand to render him assistance.
That history would be more amusing if this etiquette were relaxed will, we suppose, be acknowledged. But would it be less dignified or less useful? What do we mean when we say that one past event is important and another insignificant? No past event has any intrinsic importance. The knowledge of it is valuable only as it leads us to form just calculations with respect to the future. A history which does not serve this purpose, though it may be filled with battles, treaties, and commotions, is as useless as the series of turnpike-tickets collected by Sir Matthew Mite.
Let us suppose that Lord Clarendon, instead of filling hundreds of folio pages with copies of state papers, in which the same assertions and contradictions are repeated till the reader is overpowered with weariness, had condescended to be the Boswell of the Long Parliament. Let us suppose that he had exhibited to us the wise and lofty self-government of Hampden, leading while he seemed to follow, and propounding unanswerable arguments in the strongest forms with the modest air of an inquirer anxious for information; the delusions which misled the noble spirit of Vane; the coarse fanaticism which concealed the yet loftier genius of Cromwell, destined to control a mutinous army and a factious people, to abase the flag of Holland, to arrest the victorious arms of Sweden, and to hold the balance firm between the rival monarchies of France and Spain. Let us suppose that he had made his Cavaliers and Roundheads talk in their own style; that he had reported some of the ribaldry of Ruperts pages, and some of the cant of Harrison and Fleetwood. Would not his work in that case have been more interesting? Would it not have been more accurate?
A history in which every particular incident may be true may on the whole be false. The circumstances which have most influence on the happiness of mankind, the changes of manners and morals, the transition of communities from poverty to wealth, from ignorance to knowledge, from ferocity to humanity,these are, for the most part, noiseless revolutions. Their progress is rarely indicated by what historians are pleased to call important events. They are not achieved by armies, or enacted by senates. They are sanctioned by no treaties, and recorded in no archives. They are carried on in every school, in every church, behind ten thousand counters, at ten thousand firesides. The upper current of society presents no certain criterion by which we can judge of the direction in which the under current flows. We read of defeats and victories. But we know that many nations may be miserable amidst victories, and prosperous amidst defeats. We read of the fall of wise ministers and of the rise of profligate favourites. But we must remember how small a proportion of the good or evil effected by a single statesman can bear to the good or evil of a great social system.
Bishop Watson compares a geologist to a gnat mounted on an elephant and laying down theories as to the whole internal structure of the vast animal from the phenomena of the hide. The comparison is unjust to the geologists, but is very applicable to those historians who write as if the body politic were homogeneous, who look only on the surface of affairs, and never think of the mighty and various organization which lies deep below.
The perfect historian is he in whose work the character and spirit of an age is exhibited in miniature. He relates no fact, he attributes no expression to his characters, which is not authenticated by sufficient testimony. But, by judicious selection, rejection, and arrangement, he gives to truth those attractions which have been usurped by fiction. In his narrative a due subordination is observed; some transactions are prominent; others retire. But the scale on which he represents them is increased or diminished, not according to the dignity of the persons concerned in them, but according to the degree in which they elucidate the condition of society and the nature of man. He shows us the court, the camp, and the senate. But he shows us also the nation. He considers no anecdote, no peculiarity of manner, no familiar saying, as too insignificant for his notice which is not too insignificant to illustrate the operation of laws, of religion, and of education, and to mark the progress of the human mind. Men will not merely be described, but will be made intimately known to us. The changes of manners will be indicated, not merely by a few general phrases or a few extracts from statistical documents, but by appropriate images presented in every line.
If a man, such as we are supposing, should write the history of England, he would assuredly not omit the battles, the sieges, the negotiations, the seditions, the ministerial changes. But with these he would intersperse the details which are the charm of historical romances. At Lincoln Cathedral there is a beautiful painted window, which was made by an apprentice out of the pieces of glass which had been rejected by his master. It is so far superior to every other in the church, that, according to the tradition, the vanquished artist killed himself from mortification. Sir Walter Scott, in the same manner, has used those fragments of truth which historians have scornfully thrown behind them in a manner which may well excite their envy. He has constructed out of their gleanings works which, even considered as histories, are scarcely less valuable than theirs.
A truly great historian would reclaim those materials which the novelist has appropriated. The history of the government, and the history of the people, would be exhibited in that mode in which alone they can be exhibited justly, in inseparable conjunction and intermixture. We should not then have to look for the wars and votes of the Puritans in Clarendon, and for their phraseology in Old Mortality; for one-half of King James in Hume, and for the other half in the Fortunes of Nigel. The early part of our imaginary history would be rich with colouring from romance, ballad, and chronicle. We should find ourselves in the company of knights such as those of Froissart, and of pilgrims such as those who rode with Chaucer from the Tabard. Society would be shown from the highest to the lowest,from the royal cloth of state to the den of the outlaw; from the throne of the legate to the chimney-corner where the begging friar regaled himself. Palmers, minstrels, crusaders,the stately monastery, with the good cheer in its refectory and the high mass in its chapel,the manor-house, with its hunting and hawking,the tournament, with the heralds and ladies, the trumpets and the cloth of gold,would give truth and life to the representation. We should perceive, in a thousand slight touches, the importance of the privileged burgher, and the fierce and haughty spirit which swelled under the collar of the degraded villain. The revival of letters would not merely be described in a few magnificent periods. We should discern, in innumerable particulars, the fermentation of mind, the eager appetite for knowledge, which distinguished the sixteenth from the fifteenth century. In the Reformation we should see, not merely a schism which changed the ecclesiastical constitution of England and the mutual relations of the European powers, but a moral war which raged in every family, which set the father against the son, and the son against the father, the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother. Henry would be painted with the skill of Tacitus. We should have the change of his character from his profuse and joyous youth to his savage and imperious old age. We should perceive the gradual progress of selfish and tyrannical passions in a mind not naturally insensible or ungenerous; and to the last we should detect some remains of that open and noble temper which endeared him to a people whom he oppressed, struggling with the hardness of despotism and the irritability of disease.
We should see Elizabeth in all her weakness and in all her strength, surrounded by the handsome favourites whom she never trusted, and the wise old statesmen whom she never dismissed, uniting in herself the most contradictory qualities of both her parents,the coquetry, the caprice, the petty malice of Anne,the haughty and resolute spirit of Henry. We have no hesitation in saying that a great artist might produce a portrait of this remarkable woman at least as striking as that in the novel of Kenilworth, without employing a single trait not authenticated by ample testimony. In the mean time, we should see arts cultivated, wealth accumulated, the conveniences of life improved.
We should see the keeps, where nobles, insecure themselves, spread insecurity around them, gradually giving place to the halls of peaceful opulence, to the oriels of Longleat, and the stately pinnacles of Burleigh. We should see towns extended, deserts cultivated, the hamlets of fishermen turned into wealthy havens, the meal of the peasant improved, and his hut more commodiously furnished. We should see those opinions and feelings which produced the great struggle against the House of Stuart slowly growing up in the bosom of private families before they manifested themselves in parliamentary debates. Then would come the civil war. Those skirmishes on which Clarendon dwells so minutely would be told, as Thucydides would have told them, with perspicuous conciseness.
They are merely connecting links. But the great characteristics of the age, the loyal enthusiasm of the brave English gentry, the fierce licentiousness of the swearing, dicing, drunken reprobates whose excesses disgraced the royal cause,the austerity of the Presbyterian Sabbaths in the city, the extravagance of the Independent preachers in the camp, the precise garb, the severe countenance, the petty scruples, the affected accent, the absurd names and phrases, which marked the Puritans,the valour, the policy, the public spirit, which lurked beneath these ungraceful disguises,the dreams of the raving Fifth-monarchy man, the dreams, scarcely less wild, of the philosophic republican,all these would enter into the representation, and render it at once more exact and more striking.
The instruction derived from history thus written would be of a vivid and practical character. It would be received by the imagination as well as by the reason. It would be not merely traced on the mind, but branded into it. Many truths, too, would be learned, which can be learned in no other manner. As the history of states is generally written, the greatest and most momentous revolutions seem to come upon them like supernatural inflictions, without warning or cause. But the fact is, that such revolutions are almost always the consequences of moral changes which have gradually passed on the mass of the community, and which originally proceed far before their progress is indicated by any public measure. An intimate knowledge of the domestic history of nations is therefore absolutely necessary to the prognosis of political events. A narrative deficient in this respect is as useless as a medical treatise which should pass by all the symptoms attendant on the early stage of a disease and mention only what occurs when the patient is beyond the reach of remedies.
A historian such as we have been attempting to describe would indeed be an intellectual prodigy. In his mind powers scarcely compatible with each other must be tempered into an exquisite harmony. We shall sooner see another Shakspeare or another Homer. The highest excellence to which any single faculty can be brought would be less surprising than such a happy and delicate combination of qualities. Yet the contemplation of imaginary models is not an unpleasant or useless employment of the mind. It cannot indeed produce perfection; but it produces improvement and nourishes that generous and liberal fastidiousness which is not inconsistent with the strongest sensibility to merit, and which, while it exalts our conceptions of the art, does not render us unjust to the artist.
History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy. It impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents. But, in fact, the two hostile elements of which it consists have never been known to form a perfect amalgamation; and, at length, in our own time, they have been completely and professedly separated. Good histories, in the proper sense of the word, we have not. But we have good historical romances, and good historical essays. The imagination and the reason, if we may use a legal metaphor, have made partition of a province of literature of which they were formerly seised per my et per tout; and now they hold their respective portions in severalty, instead of holding the whole in common.
To make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the society of a great man or on the eminence which overlooks the field of a mighty battle, to invest with the reality of human flesh and blood beings whom we are too much inclined to consider as personified qualities in an allegory, to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners, and garb, to show us over their houses, to seat us at their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the uses of their ponderous furniture, these parts of the duty which properly belongs to the historian have been appropriated by the historical novelist. On the other hand, to extract the philosophy of history, to direct our judgment of events and men, to trace the connection of causes and effects, and to draw from the occurrences of former times general lessons of moral and political wisdom, has become the business of a distinct class of writers.
Of the two kinds of composition into which history has been thus divided, the one may be compared to a map, the other to a painted landscape. The picture, though it places the country before us, does not enable us to ascertain with accuracy the dimensions, the distances, and the angles. The map is not a work of imitative art. It presents no scene to the imagination; but it gives us exact information as to the bearings of the various points, and is a more useful companion to the traveller or the general than the painted landscape could be, though it were the grandest that ever Rosa peopled with outlaws, or the sweetest over which Claude ever poured the mellow effulgence of a setting sun.
It is remarkable that the practice of separating the two ingredients of which history is composed has become prevalent on the Continent as well as in this country. Italy has already produced a historical novel, of high merit and of still higher promise. In France the practice has been carried to a length somewhat whimsical. M. Sismondi publishes a grave and stately history of the Merovingian Kings, very valuable, and a little tedious. He then sends forth as a companion to it a novel, in which he attempts to give a lively representation of characters and manners. This course, as it seems to us, has all the disadvantages of a division of labour, and none of its advantages. We understand the expediency of keeping the functions of cook and coachman distinct. The dinner will be better dressed, and the horses better managed. But where the two situations are united, as in the Maître Jacques of Molière, we do not see that the matter is much mended by the solemn form with which the pluralist passes from one of his employments to the other.
We manage these things better in England. Sir Walter Scott gives us a novel; Mr. Hallam, a critical and argumentative history. Both are occupied with the same matter. But the former looks at it with the eye of a sculptor. His intention is to give an express and lively image of its external form. The latter is an anatomist. His task is to dissect the subject to its inmost recesses, and to lay bare before us all the springs of motion and all the causes of decay.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Hallams Constit. Hist., Sept. 1828.
History was, in his [Johnsons] opinion, to use the fine expression of Lord Plunkett, an old almanack: historians could, as he conceived, claim no higher dignity than that of almanack makers; and his favourite historians were those who, like Lord Hailes, aspired to no higher dignity. He always spoke with contempt of Robertson. Hume he would not even read. He affronted one of his friends for talking to him about Catilines conspiracy, and declared that he never desired to hear of the Punic war again as long as he lived.
Assuredly one fact which does not directly affect our own interests, considered in itself, is no better worth knowing than another fact. The fact that there is a snake in a pyramid, or the fact that Hannibal crossed the Alps, are in themselves as unprofitable to us as the fact that there is a green blind in a particular house in Threadneedle Street, or the fact that a Mr. Smith comes into the city every morning on the top of one of the Blackwall stages. But it is certain that those who will not crack the shell of history will not get at the kernel. Johnson, with hasty arrogance, pronounced the kernel worthless, because he saw no value in the shell. The real use of travelling to distant countries and of studying the annals of past times is to preserve men from the contraction of mind which those can hardly escape whose whole communion is with one generation and one neighbourhood, who arrive at conclusions by means of an induction not sufficiently copious, and who therefore constantly confound exceptions with rules, and accidents with essential properties. In short, the real use of travelling and of studying history is to keep men from being what Tom Dawson was in fiction, and Samuel Johnson in reality.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Boswells Life of Johnson, Sept. 1831.
There is a vile phrase of which bad historians are very fond, The dignity of history. One writer is in possession of some anecdotes which would illustrate most strikingly the operation of the Mississippi scheme on the manners and morals of the Parisians. But he suppresses those anecdotes, because they are too low for the dignity of history. Another is strongly tempted to mention some facts indicating the horrible state of the prisons of England two hundred years ago. But he hardly thinks that the sufferings of a dozen felons, pigging together on bare bricks in a hole fifteen feet square, would form a subject suited to the dignity of history. Another, from respect for the dignity of history, publishes an account of the reign of George the Second without ever mentioning Whitefields preaching in Moorfields. How should a writer who can talk about senates, and congresses of sovereigns, and pragmatic sanctions, and ravelines, and counterscarps, and battles where ten thousand men are killed and six thousand men with fifty stand of colours and eighty guns taken, stoop to the Stock Exchange, to Newgate, to the theatre, to the tabernacle?
Tragedy has its dignity, as well as history: and how much the tragic art has owed to that dignity any man may judge who will compare the majestic Alexandrines in which the Seigneur Oreste and Madame Andromaque utter their complaints with the chattering of the fool in Lear and of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Sir William Temple, Oct. 1838.
That a historian should not record trifles, that he should confine himself to what is important, is perfectly true. But many writers seem never to have considered on what the historical importance of an event depends. They seem not to be aware that the importance of a fact when that fact is considered with reference to its immediate effects, and the importance of the same fact when that fact is considered as part of the materials for the construction of a science, are two very different things. The quantity of good or evil which a transaction produces is by no means necessarily proportioned to the quantity of light which that transaction affords as to the way in which good or evil may hereafter be produced. The poisoning of an emperor is in one sense a far more serious matter than the poisoning of a rat. But the poisoning of a rat may be an era in chemistry; and an emperor may be poisoned by such ordinary means, and with such ordinary symptoms, that no scientific journal would notice the occurrence. An action for a hundred thousand pounds is in one sense a more momentous affair than an action for fifty pounds. But it by no means follows that the learned gentlemen who report the proceedings of the courts of law ought to give a fuller account of an action for a hundred thousand pounds than of an action for fifty pounds. For a cause in which a large sum is at stake may be important only to the particular plaintiff and the particular defendant. A cause, on the other hand, in which a small sum is at stake may establish some great principle interesting to half the families in the kingdom. The case is exactly the same with that class of subjects of which historians treat.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Sir William Temple.
If a man puts himself on his own opinions, or his wit, between us and the things, he does us harm. I believe that Shakspeare has done this less than most of those whom we call historians: therefore, though I am willing to profit by their corrections of his mistakes, I think on the whole he has set us on a better track of investigation than the most popular of them have done.
As he [Sallust] in the beginning of his Catilinarian War asserted that there was the greatest difficulty in historical composition, because the style should correspond with the nature of the narrative, you ask me how a writer of history may best attain that excellence. My opinion is that he who would describe actions and events in a way suited to their dignity and importance might to write with a mind endued with a spirit, and enlarged by an experience, as extensive as the actors in the scene, that he may have a capacity properly to comprehend and to estimate the most momentous affairs, and to relate them, when comprehended, with energy and distinctness, with purity and perspicuity of diction. The decorations of style I do not greatly heed: for I require an historian, and not a rhetorician. I do not want frequent interspersions of sentiment, or prolix dissertations on transactions, which interrupt the series of events, and cause the historian to intrench on the office of the politician, who, if, in explaining counsels and explaining facts, he follows truth rather than his own partialities and conjectures, excites the disgust or the aversion of his party. I will add a remark of Sallust, and which was one of the excellencies of Cato, that he should be able to say much in a few words: a perfection which I think no one can attain without the most discriminating judgment and a peculiar degree of moderation. There are many in whom you have not to regret either elegance of diction or copiousness of narrative, who have yet united copiousness with brevity. And among these Sallust is, in my opinion, the chief of the Latin writers.
John Milton: Letter to Lord Henry De Bras, July 15, 1657.
When the esteem of science and liberal study waxes low in the commonwealth, we may presume that also there all civil virtue and worthy action is grown as low to a decline: and then eloquence, as it were consorted in the same destiny, with the decrease and fall of virtue, corrupts also and fades; at least resigns her office of relating to illiterate and frivolous historians, such as the persons themselves both deserve and are best pleased with; whilst they want either the understanding to choose better, or the innocence to dare invite the examining and searching style of an intelligent and faithful writer to the survey of their unsound exploits, better befriended by obscurity than fame.
But withall, let my governour remember to what end his instructions are principally directed, and that he do not so much imprint in his pupils memory the date of the ruins of Carthage, as the manners of Hannibal and Scipio; nor so much where Marcellus dyd, as why it was unworthy of his duty that he died there. That he do not teach him so much the narrative part, as the business of history. The reading of which, in my opinion, is a thing that of all others we apply ourselves unto with the most differing and uncertain measures. I have read an hundred things in Livy that another has not, or not taken notice of at least, and Plutarch has read an hundred more than ever I could find, or than peradventure that author ever wrote. To some it is merely a grammar study, to others the very anatomy of philosophy, by which the most secret and abstruse parts of our human nature are penetrated into.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. xxv.
The more excellent sort of historians have judgment to pick out what is most worthy to be known; and of two reports, to examine which is the most likely to be true: from the condition of princes, and their humours, they conclude the counsels, and attribute to them words proper for the occasion; and such have title to assume the authority of regulating our belief to what they themselves believe; but certainly this privilege belongs not to every one. For the middle sort of historians (of which the most part are) they spoil all: they will chew our meat for us,they take upon them to judge of, and, consequently, to incline the history to their own liking: for if the judgment partially lean to one side, a man cannot avoid wrestling and writhing his narrative to that byass. They undertake to chuse things worthy to be known, and yet very oft conceal from us such a word, such a private action, as would much better instruct us; omit, as incredible, such things as they do not understand, and peradventure some because they cannot express them well in good French or Latin. Let them display their eloquence, and judge according to their own fancy; but let them, withal, leave us something to judge of after them, and neither alter, nor disguise, by their abridgments, and at their own choice, anything of the substance of the matter; but deliver it to us pure and entire in all its dimensions . The only good histories are those that have been writ by the persons themselves who commanded in the affairs whereof they write, or who have participated in the conduct of them, or, at least, who have had the conduct of others of the same nature. Such almost are all the Greek and Roman; for several eye-witnesses having writ of the same subject (in the time when grandeur and learning frequently met in the same person), if there happen to be an errour, it must of necessity be a very slight one, and upon a very doubtful accident. What can a man expect from a physician who will undertake to write of war; or from a meer scholar treating upon the designs of princes?
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. lxvii.
The great events of Greek and Roman fable and history, which early education and the usual course of reading have made familiar and interesting to all Europe, without being degraded by the vulgarism of ordinary life in any country.
In reference to the study of history, I have elsewhere remarked upon the importance, among the intellectual qualifications for such a study, of a vivid imagination,a faculty which, consequently, a skilful narrator must himself possess, and to which he must be able to furnish excitement in others. Some may, perhaps, be startled at this remark, who have been accustomed to consider imagination as having no other office than to feign and to falsify. Every faculty is liable to abuse and misdirection, and imagination among the rest; but it is a mistake to suppose that it necessarily tends to pervert the truth of history and to mislead the judgment. On the contrary, our view of any transaction, especially one that is remote in time or place, will necessarily be imperfect, generally incorrect, unless it embrace something more than the bare outline of the occurrences,unless we have before the mind a lively idea of the scenes in which the events took place, the habits of thought and of feeling of the actors, and all the circumstances connected with the transaction; unless, in short, we can in a considerable degree transport ourselves out of our own age, and country, and persons, and imagine ourselves the agents or spectators. It is from consideration of all these circumstances that we are enabled to form a right judgment as to the facts which history records, and to derive instruction from it.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Studies.
To study history is to study literature. The biography of a nation embraces all its works. No trifle is to be neglected. A mouldering medal is a letter of twenty centuries. Antiquities, which have been beautifully called history defaced, composed its fullest commentary. In these wrecks of many storms, which time washes to the shore, the scholar looks patiently for treasures. The painting round a vase, the scribble on a wall, the wrath of a demagogue, the drollery of a farce, the point of an epigrameach possesses its own interest and value. A fossil court of law is dug out of an orator; and the Pompeii of Greece is discovered in the Comedies of Aristophanes.
Various writers have undertaken to build romance upon history; but few, except those who have occupied themselves with researches into its sources, are aware how much of history itself is nothing more than legend and romance.