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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Importance of the Imagination
By Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776–1831)
 
From an Undated Letter in the ‘Life and Letters’ by Chevalier Bunsen

I ENVY you the recollections of your Italian journey. It is a hard thought to me, that I shall never see the land that was the theatre of deeds with which I may perhaps claim a closer acquaintance than any of my contemporaries. I have studied the Roman history with all the effort of which my mind has been capable in its happiest moments, and believe that I may assume that acquaintance without vanity. This history will also, if I write, form the subject of most of my works….  1
  The sight of the works of art, particularly the paintings, would have delighted me as it did you. Statues have little effect upon me; my sight is too weak, and cannot be strengthened by glasses for a surface of one color, as it can for pictures. Then too a picture, when I have once seen it, becomes my property; I never lose it out of my imagination. Music is in general positively disagreeable to me, because I cannot unite it in one point, and everything fragmentary oppresses my mind. Hence also I am no mathematician, but a historian; for from the single features preserved I can form a complete picture, and know where groups are wanting, and how to supply them. I think this is the case with you also; and I wish you would, like me, apply your reflections on past events to fix the images on the canvas, and then employ your imagination, working only with true historical tints, to give them coloring. Take ancient history as your subject: it is an inexhaustible one, and no one would believe how much that appears to be lost, might be restored with the clearest evidence. Modern history ne vaut pas le diable [is utterly worthless]. Above all, read Livy again and again. I prefer him infinitely to Tacitus, and am glad to find that Voss is of the same opinion. There is no other author who exercises such a gentle despotism over the eyes and ears of his readers, as Livy among the Romans and Thucydides among the Greeks. Quinctilian calls Livy’s fullness “sweet as milk,” and his eloquence “indescribable”; in my judgment, too, it equals and often even surpasses that of Cicero. The latter … possessed infinite acuteness, intellect, wit;… but he attempted a richness of style for which he lacked that heavenly repose of the intellect, which Livy like Homer must have possessed, and among the moderns, Fénelon and Garve in no common degree. Very different was Demosthenes, who was always concise like Thucydides. And to rise to conciseness and vigor of style is the highest that we moderns can well attain; for we cannot write from our whole soul: and hence we cannot expect another perfect epic poem. The quicker beats the life-pulse of the world, the more each one is compelled to move in epicycles, the less can calm, mighty repose of the spirit be ours. I am writing to you as if I were actually living in this better world; and nothing is further from the truth.  2
 
  NOTE.—For fuller treatment of these topics we refer the reader to Niebuhr’s letters, and especially to the epistle to a young philologist, ‘Life and Letters,’ pages 423–430.  3
 
 
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