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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
George Grote (1794–1871)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
IT is a coincidence so striking as almost to put the English university system itself on the defensive, that neither Grote nor Gibbon owed anything to academic training. Gibbon indeed spent fourteen months at Oxford:—“the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life.” George Grote, the son of a London banker, ended his school days at sixteen, when he left the Charterhouse. He had been grounded in Latin by a devoted mother at five years, however, and he took with him to the bank little or no mathematics, and an enthusiastic love for metaphysics, classical literature, and history, which proved to be lifelong. From 1810 to 1820, under his father’s roof, he devoted his early mornings and evenings to study. His most important older friends were the political economists James Mill, Ricardo, and Bentham; but they did not divert him from his historical interests. Even during his long engagement, he guided by letter the education and reading of his future wife, with a constant view to his own far-reaching plans for study and creative work.  1
  With Grote’s marriage to the brilliant and devoted Harriet Lewin, in 1820, began a happier epoch. He had now his own home and a moderate income. Mrs. Grote drew him somewhat into society, travel, and a widened circle of friendship on the Continent as well as in London. These digressions only aided what would else have been too bookish and secluded a development. Mrs. Grote, however, was mistaken in her recollection that she herself first, in the autumn of 1823, suggested the subject of his chief life work: at least a year previous, the plan for the great ‘History of Greece’ had been formed. In 1830 his father’s death left Mr. Grote abundant wealth; nevertheless, the decade 1831–1841, which was spent in active political work as the leader in Parliament of the group known as philosophic radicals, did indeed reduce his systematic and untiring studies to mere desultory reading, and seemingly endangered his literary career. Yet ever this experience, as he himself declares, was of indispensable use to him in comprehending the fiercer democratic politics of ancient Athens.  2
  Returning early in 1842 from a brief stay in Italy, and severing altogether his relations with the bank the next year, he now first, in his fiftieth year, devoted his whole strength to his appointed task. His powerful review of Mitford’s ‘Greece’ in 1843 prepared the way for the enthusiastic welcome accorded in 1845 to the first two volumes of his ‘History of Greece.’ The twelfth and closing volume did not appear until 1856.  3
  Some adequate outlines of his life and character are essential to any fair appreciation of Mr. Grote’s chief work. Indefatigable as a student, a fearless lover of truth, widely familiar with men and affairs, a wise philanthropist and a far-sighted reformer, Mr. Grote’s noble personality gives weight to his every sentence, as an athlete’s whole frame and training goes into each blow he strikes. It seems a trifling criticism upon such a man, to say he was not a literary artist. This is true, indeed, as to his choice of idiom and phrase. He has not that “curious felicity” which makes us linger lovingly over the very words in which a Plato, a Montaigne, a Burke casts his thought. Even in the delineation of a great scene, like the defeat at Syracuse or the downfall of Athens, he is rarely picturesque. He does not appeal indeed to the youthful imagination, but to the mature judgment. We can well imagine that this calm, even-toned, judicious voice made itself heard effectively in the debates of the English Commons.  4
  Of course no one man can ever write an ideal history of that unique, creative, many-sided Hellenic race; but the work of Mr. Grote is still, a half-century after its creation, indispensable as an account of political institutions among the Greeks. Even here the thousands of newly discovered inscriptions, the fortunate reappearance of Aristotle’s treatise on the Athenian Constitution, and the ceaseless march of special investigation, make desirable some fresh annotation upon almost every page. The familiarity with Greek lands and folk which gives a charm to Professor Curtius’s work is missing from Mr. Grote’s. Still more do we miss any warm enthusiasm for Hellenic art, which was so indispensable an element in their life. Even their literature is to him less a beautiful organism quivering with life than a source for more or less accurate information. In this and in many other respects he is curiously like the Athenian student of history and of truth, Thucydides, who could write, in the day of Phidias and Sophocles, as if he had never heard of a myth or a statue. It is true also that Grote is always an English liberal, finding in every page of history fresh reason for hope and trust in modern democracy. This indeed we do not regard as adverse criticism at all. If a man be not actually blinded to truth by narrow prejudices, the more cordially his own convictions color his writings the greater will be their value and vitality. Posterity will bring more and more human experience to the interpretation of the remote past. They may yet understand Periclean Athens, out of their own similar life, infinitely better than our century could do. Like Chapman’s or Pope’s Homer, Grote’s Greece may yet have a value of its own, quite apart from the question of its truthfulness to Hellenic antiquity, as a monument of Victorian England. To us however it is still the largest, truest, most adequate general picture yet drawn of Hellas from the days of Homer to the time of Alexander.  5
  Hardly less intense was Mr. Grote’s interest in the Greek philosophy. The chapters on Socrates and on the Sophists are perhaps the ablest and the most original in the history. Moreover, as soon as that great work was completed, he began the series of treatises on the philosophic schools which was an indispensable portion of his task. The three volumes on ‘Plato and his Companions,’ however, did not appear until 1865; and of the great projected work on Aristotle, only a small segment took shape before death overtook the noble, generous old scholar. His wife long survived him, and her ‘Personal Life of George Grote,’ despite numerous minor lapses of memory, is one of the most valuable books in its class.  6
  The important article on Mr. Grote in the ‘Dictionary of National Biography,’ by Professor Robertson, is based in part on intimate personal acquaintance. Mr. Grote’s minor works are all mentioned there. Least known of all to the general public is a small volume of poems. These were printed privately by his widow in 1872, and were chiefly written during his courtship, which was unduly prolonged and embittered by parental opposition. We intentionally reserve for a final detail this especially appealing human experience of the statesman, metaphysician, and historian.  7

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