Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library
  PREVIOUSNEXT  

CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · QUICK INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHIES
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · PORTRAITS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Scientific Method Applied to History
By James Anthony Froude (1818–1894)
 
From ‘Short Studies on Great Subjects’

HISTORICAL facts can only be verified by the skeptical and the inquiring, and skepticism and inquiry nip like a black frost the eager credulity in which legendary biographies took their rise. You can watch such stories as they grew in the congenial soil of belief. The great saints of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, who converted Europe to Christianity, were as modest and unpretending as true, genuine men always are. They claimed no miraculous powers for themselves. Miracles might have been worked in the days of their fathers. They for their own parts relied on nothing but the natural powers of persuasion and example. Their companions, who knew them personally in life, were only a little more extravagant. Miracles and portents vary in an inverse ratio with the distance of time. St. Patrick is absolutely silent about his own conjuring performances. He told his followers, perhaps, that he had been moved by his good angel to devote himself to the conversion of Ireland. The angel of metaphor becomes in the next generation an actual seraph. On a rock in the county of Down there is, or was, a singular mark, representing rudely the outline of a foot. From that rock, where the young Patrick was feeding his master’s sheep, a writer of the sixth century tells us that the angel Victor sprang back to heaven after delivering his message, and left behind him the imprinted witness of his august visit. Another hundred years pass, and legends from Hegesippus are imported into the life of the Irish apostle. St. Patrick and the Druid enchanter contend before King Leogaire on Tara Hill, as Simon Magus and St. Peter contended before the Emperor Nero. Again a century, and we are in a world of wonders where every human lineament is lost. St. Patrick, when a boy of twelve, lights a fire with icicles; when he comes to Ireland he floats thither upon an altar-stone which Pope Celestine had blessed for him. He conjures a Welsh marauder into a wolf, makes a goat cry out in the stomach of a thief who had stolen him, and restores dead men to life, not once or twice but twenty times. The wonders with which the atmosphere is charged gravitate towards the largest concrete figure which is moving in the middle of them, till at last, as Gibbon says, the sixty-six lives of St. Patrick which were extant in the twelfth century must have contained at least as many thousand lies. And yet of conscious lying there was very little; perhaps nothing at all. The biographers wrote in good faith and were industrious collectors of material, only their notions of probability were radically different from ours. The more marvelous a story, the less credit we give to it; warned by experience of carelessness, credulity, and fraud, we disbelieve everything for which we cannot find contemporary evidence, and from the value of that evidence we subtract whatever may be due to prevalent opinion or superstition. To the mediæval writer, the more stupendous the miracle the more likely it was to be true; he believed everything which he could not prove to be false, and proof was not external testimony, but inherent fitness.  1
  So much for the second period of what is called human history. In the first or mythological there is no historical groundwork at all. In the next or heroic we have accounts of real persons, but handed down to us by writers to whom the past was a world of marvels, whose delight was to dwell upon the mighty works which had been done in the old times, whose object was to elevate into superhuman proportions the figures of the illustrious men who had distinguished themselves as apostles or warriors. They thus appear to us like their portraits in stained-glass windows, represented rather in a transcendental condition of beatitude than in the modest and checkered colors of real life. We see them not as they were, but as they appeared to an adoring imagination, and in a costume of which we can only affirm with certainty that it was never worn by any child of Adam on this plain, prosaic earth. For facts as facts there is as yet no appreciation; they are shifted to and fro, dropped out of sight, or magnified, or transferred from owner to owner,—manipulated to suit or decorate a preconceived and brilliant idea. We are still in the domain of poetry, where the canons of the art require fidelity to general principles, and allow free play to fancy in details. The Virgins of Raphael are no less beautiful as paintings, no less masterpieces of workmanship, though in no single feature either of face or form or costume they resemble the historical mother of Christ, or even resemble one another.  2
  At the next stage we pass with the chroniclers into history proper. The chronicler is not a poet like his predecessor. He does not shape out consistent pictures with a beginning, a middle, and an end. He is a narrator of events, and he connects them together on a chronological string. He professes to be relating facts. He is not idealizing, he is not singing the praises of the heroes of the sword or the crosier; he means to be true in the literal and commonplace sense of that ambiguous word. And yet in his earlier phases, take him in what part of the world we please,—take him in ancient Egypt or Assyria, in Greece or in Rome, or in modern Europe,—he is but a step in advance of his predecessor. He is excellent company. He never moralizes, never bores you with philosophy of history or political economy. He never speculates about causes. But on the other hand, he is uncritical. He takes unsuspectingly the materials which he finds ready to his hand,—the national ballads, the romances, and the biographies. He transfers to his pages whatever catches his fancy. The more picturesque an anecdote, the more unhesitatingly he writes it down, though in the same proportion it is the less likely to be authentic. Romulus and Remus suckled by the wolf; Curtius jumping into the gulf; our English Alfred spoiling the cakes; or Bruce watching the leap of the spider,—stories of this kind he relates with the same simplicity with which he records the birth in his own day, in some outlandish village, of a child with two heads, or the appearance of the sea-serpent or the flying dragon. Thus the chronicle, however charming, is often nothing but poetry taken literally and translated into prose. It grows, however, and improves insensibly with the growth of the nation. Like the drama, it develops from poor beginnings into the loftiest art, and becomes at last perhaps the very best kind of historical writing which has yet been produced. Herodotus and Livy, Froissart and Hall and Holinshed, are as great in their own departments as Sophocles or Terence or Shakespeare. We are not yet entirely clear of portents and prodigies. Superstition clings to us as our shadow, and is to be found in the wisest as well as the weakest. The Romans, the most practical people that ever lived,—a people so pre-eminently effective that they have printed their character indelibly into the constitution of Europe,—these Romans, at the very time they were making themselves the world’s masters, allowed themselves to be influenced in the most important affairs of State by a want of appetite in the sacred chickens, or the color of the entrails of a calf. Take him at his best, man is a great fool. It is likely enough that we ourselves habitually say and practice things which a thousand years hence will seem not a jot less absurd. Cato tells us that the Roman augurs could not look one another in the face without laughing; and I have heard that bishops in some parts of the world betray sometimes analogous misgivings.  3
  In able and candid minds, however, stuff of this kind is tolerably harmless, and was never more innocent than in the case of the first great historian of Greece. Herodotus was a man of vast natural powers. Inspired by a splendid subject, and born at the most favorable time, he grew to manhood surrounded by the heroes of Marathon and Salamis and Platæa. The wonders of Egypt and Assyria were for the first time thrown open to the inspection of strangers. The gloss of novelty was not yet worn off, and the impressions falling fresh on an eager, cultivated, but essentially simple and healthy mind, there were qualities and conditions combined which produced one of the most delightful books which was ever written. He was an intense patriot; and he was unvexed with theories, political or moral. His philosophy was like Shakespeare’s,—a calm, intelligent insight into human things. He had no views of his own, which the fortunes of Greece or other countries were to be manipulated to illustrate. The world as he saw it was a well-made, altogether promising and interesting world; and his object was to relate what he had seen and what he had heard and learnt, faithfully and accurately. His temperament was rather believing than skeptical; but he was not idly credulous. He can be critical when occasion requires. He distinguishes always between what he had seen with his own eyes and what others told him. He uses his judgment freely, and sets his readers on their guard against uncertain evidence. And there is not a book existing which contains in the same space so much important truth,—truth which survives the sharpest test that modern discoveries can apply to it.  4
  The same may be said in a slightly less degree of Livy and of the best of the late European chroniclers: you have the same freshness, the same vivid perception of external life, the same absence of what philosophers call subjectivity,—the projection into the narrative of the writer’s own personality, his opinions, thoughts, and theories. Still, in all of them, however vivid, however vigorous the representation, there is a vein of fiction largely and perhaps consciously intermingled. In a modern work of history, when a statesman is introduced as making a speech, the writer at any rate supposes that such a speech was actually made. He has found an account of it somewhere either in detail or at least in outline or epitome. The boldest fabricator would not venture to introduce an entire and complete invention. This was not the case with the older authors. Thucydides tells us frankly that the speeches which he interweaves with his narrative were his own composition. They were intended as dramatic representations of the opinions of the factions and parties with which Greece was divided, and they were assigned to this person or to that, as he supposed them to be internally suitable. Herodotus had set Thucydides the example, and it was universally followed. No speech given by any old historian can be accepted as literally true unless there is a specific intimation to that effect. Deception was neither practiced nor pretended. It was a convenient method of exhibiting characters and situations, and it was therefore adopted without hesitation or reserve.  5
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.