August 05, 2008

Nineteenth Century: An Age of Historians

The essay which is being reproduced for being a classic essay on philosophy of history, was a part of inaugural address to the students of King's College for Women, University of London, October 8, 1909 and delivered by Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall.

I have intentionally borrowed a phrase from the essay itself to make it title of this post. That actually sums up my understanding of this essay. However, on further criticism and elaboration, any reader, interested in philosophy of history, may find many more points.

The essay follows:

Since I have accepted, at the request of your Warden, the honour of delivering an inaugural address on this occasion, it has appeared to me appropriate to choose, for such an audience, some literary subject. And I propose, with some diffidence, to offer a few observations on the reading of history, because in these latter days, when education has come in upon us like a flood, rising higher and spreading wider every year among our people, no part of literature is more sedulously studied than the field of history. On the other hand, this field is being very rapidly enlarged. It has been said that the output of histories during the nineteenth century has exceeded in bulk and volume the production of all previous centuries. And in all the countries now standing in the forefront of civilisation, the chief product of their serious literature is at this time historical and biographical—for I take authentic biography to be a kind of handmaid of history. It has been reported that during the ten years ending 1907 there were published in England 5498 books under the head of history, and 1059 biographies. Moreover, of those who are not actually writing history, an important number are occupied in criticising the historians.

Now the first observation that I submit to you is that the production of all history has been almost entirely the work of Europeans, among whom I reckon the American writers, as belonging by language and culture to Europe. So far as the African continent has any trustworthy history, it is in some European language. In Asia there have been annalists, chroniclers, and genealogists, mostly Mohammedan, who narrate the wars and exploits of great conquerors, the succession of kings, and the rise and fall of dynasties. And I believe that in China official record of public events and transactions has been kept up from very early ages. But if we measure these Asiatic narratives by the standard of literary merit and the demand for authentication of facts, I fear that they will be found wanting; though they may be relied upon to give the general course of important events, and an outline of the result of battles and the upsetting of thrones.

When these Asiatic chroniclers wrote of the times in and near which they were living, they were fairly trustworthy. But whenever they attempted to write of times long past and of countries unknown to them personally, their narratives became for the most part fabulous and romantic, confused and improbable, with some grains of truth here and there. Our best information regarding the earlier ages of Asia is derived, I think, from Greek and Latin literature, and latterly from the researches of quite modern scholars and archæologists. So that it may be affirmed that authentic history began in Europe, and that to Europe it has ever since been practically confined. At this day the history of all parts of the world is being written by Europeans. The result has been that for the last 2500 years historical material, collected from and relating to all parts of the world, has been accumulating in Europe.

Such masses of records and monuments necessarily require methodical treatment by men of trained intelligence and of untiring industry, learned, and accurate. Their systematic labours, their acute and intelligent criticism, have created what is now usually termed the Science of History, which abstracts general conclusions from the mass of particulars. And so, I think, we may agree with Renan, who has declared that to the nineteenth century may be accorded the title of the Age of Historians, and that this has been the special distinction of that century's literature.

Now I believe that the question, whether history is an art or a science, is not yet universally settled. But whatever may be the case in these modern days, I submit that in earlier times, and certainly when history began to be written, it was mainly an art. Indeed, it could hardly have been otherwise. In all ages and countries, from the time when men first attained to some stage of elementary culture, they have been curious about the past, they have enjoyed hearing of the deeds and fame of their ancestors, of far-off things and battles long ago. But the primitive chronicler had very slight material for his stories of bygone times—he had few, if any, documents—he was himself creating the documentary evidence for those who came after him; he could only compile his narratives from tradition, legends, anecdotes of heroic ancestors, from information picked up by travel to famous places, and so on. Yet from sources of this kind he composed tales of inestimable value as representing the ideas, habits, and social condition of preceding generations that were very like his own. Herodotus, who is our best example of the class, reconstructs, revives, and relates conversations that neither he nor his informants could have actually heard; but he does this in order to give a dramatic version of great events. In the opening sentence of his first book he says that he has written in order that the actions of men may not be effaced by time, nor great and wondrous deeds be deprived of renown. And one may notice the same style and method in the historical books of the Old Testament. In both these ancient histories the narratives represent life, action, speech, situations.

It is futile, I may suggest, to subject work of this sort to critical analysis by attempting to sift out what is probably true from what is certainly false. You only break up the picture, you destroy the artistic effect, which is at least a true reflection of real life. Moreover, it is dangerous for learned men sitting in libraries to regard as incredible facts stated by these old writers. The legend of Romulus and Remus having been suckled by a wolf has been dismissed as a childish fable. Yet it is certain that this very thing has happened more than once in the forests of India within the memory of living men. You cannot be particular about details, you must take the story as a whole.

From this standpoint we may agree, I think, that in illiterate times, and, indeed, throughout the middle ages of Europe, history-writing was practised as an art. The unlearned chronicler wrote in no fear of critics or sceptics; he drew striking scenes and portraits; he described warlike exploits; he related characteristic sayings and dialogues which completely satisfied his audience or his readers. The society in which he lived was not far different, in morals and manners, from that which he portrayed, so that he can have committed very few anachronisms or incongruities; and in sentiments and character-drawing he could not go far astray. He produced, at any rate, vivid impressions of reality, just as Shakespeare's historical plays have stamped upon the English mind the figures of Hotspur or Richard III., which have been thus set up in permanent type for all subsequent ages. At any rate portraits of this kind have not been modernised to suit the taste of a later age, as has been done with King Arthur in Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King.' And when work of this sort has been finely executed, the question whether the details are untrustworthy or even fictitious is immaterial, particularly in cases where the precise facts can never be recovered. We do not know exactly how the battle of Marathon, or, indeed, the battle of Hastings, was fought, but we have in the chronicles something of great value—a true outline of the general situation, and some stirring narratives of the clash and wrestling of armed men, compiled either at first hand from the recollections of those who were actually on the field, or else taken at second hand from others who made notes of what had been told them by those present at the battles. This, then, is what I meant when I said that in early times history was an art. Its method was picturesque.

Now my next observation is that, although the science of history has since been invented, we have, among quite modern English writers, men of singular genius, who have to some extent followed the example, adopted the manner, of the ancient annalist. Like him, they are artists, their aim has been to depict famous men, to reproduce striking incidents and scenes dramatically. Their technical methods, so to speak, are entirely different from those of the old chronicler, who sketched with a free hand, and trusted largely to his inspirations, to his own experience of what was likely to have been said or done, or to popular tradition, which is always animated and distinct. The modern historian, of what I may call the school of impressionists, has no such experience, he knows nothing personally of violent scenes or fierce deeds; he composes his picture of things that happened long ago from a mass of papers, books, memoirs, that have come down to us. Yet although style and substance are quite different, the chief aim, the design, of the ancient and modern artist in history is the same. They both strive to set before their reader a vision of certain scenes and figures at moments of energetic action—not only to tell him a story, but to make him see it. Let me give an example. Every one here may remember the story in the Old Testament (2nd Book of Kings) of Jehu driving furiously into Jezreel, how on his way he smote Ahaziah, king of Judah, with an arrow, and how Jezebel, the Phœnician Queen, was hurled down out of her palace window to be devoured by dogs in the street. And some of you may have read in Froude's History of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth his description of the murder of David Rizzio by the fierce Scotch nobles, how he was killed clinging to Queen Mary's knees in her chamber in Holyrood Palace. Now the manner, the artistic presentation of ferocious action, are in both cases alike; we have the words spoken and the deeds done; we can look on at the bloody tragedy; we have a dramatic version of the story. The ancient writer of the Old Testament probably did his work naturally, instinctively; he tells the story as he received it by word of mouth, briefly—laying stress only on the things that cut into the imagination of an eye-witness, and remain in the memory of those to whom they were related. He troubles us with no moral reflections, but goes on quietly to the next chapter of incidents. The modern historian has composed his picture from details collected by study of documents; he puts in adjectives as a painter lays on colour; yet the effect, the impression, is of the same quality: it is artistic.

Now the principal English historians of the modern school, who revived what one may call the dramatic presentation of history, I take to be Macaulay, Froude, and Carlyle. They all worked upon genuine material, upon authentic records of the period which they were writing about. Lord Acton mentions that Froude spoke of having consulted 100,000 papers in manuscript, at home and abroad, for one of his histories. Macaulay was industrious and indefatigable. Yet Ranke, the great German historian, said of Macaulay that he could hardly be called a historian at all, judged by the strict tests of German criticism. And Freeman, the English historian, brought violent charges against Froude of deliberately twisting his facts and misquoting his authorities; though I believe that Freeman's bitter jealousies led him into grave exaggerations. Then take Carlyle. His Cromwell is a fine portrait by an eminent literary artist. But is it a genuine delineation of the man himself, of his motives, of the working of his mind in speech and action? Later investigation, minute scrutiny of old and new material, suggest doubts, different interpretations of conduct and character. Take, again, his description of the battle of Dunbar, Cromwell's great victory. Carlyle explains to us the nature of the ground, the movements of the troops, the tactics, the points of attack, with admirable force and clearness—it is a marvellous specimen of literary execution. Yet recent and very careful examination of the locality, and a comparison of the evidence of eye-witnesses, have proved beyond doubt that Carlyle had not studied the ground, had made some important errors. He was, in fact, giving a dramatic representation of the battle, which, if it had come down to us from some mediæval annalist, would have been universally accepted as genuine. In short, these three artists have all suffered damage under scientific treatment.

Now I am not here to disparage Macaulay, Froude, or Carlyle. They were all, in my opinion, authors of rare genius, whose places in the forefront of the literature of the nineteenth century are permanently secure. Yet I fear that the tendency of the twentieth century is unfavourable to the artistic historian. It seems to me probable, much to my personal regret, that the scientific writing of history, based upon exhaustive research, accumulation and minute sifting of all available details, relentless verification of every statement, will gradually discourage and supersede the art of picturesque composition. In the first place the spirit of doubt and distrust is abroad, every statement is scrutinised and tested. The imaginative historian cannot lay on his colours, or fill up his canvas, by effective and lively touches without finding his work placed under the microscope of erudite analysts, some of whom, like Iago, are nothing if not critical, are not only exact but very exacting. In these days a writer who endeavours to illuminate some scene of ages past, to show us, as by a magic lantern, the moving figures brought out in relief against the surrounding darkness, is liable to be set down as an illusionist, possibly even as a charlatan or conjurer. Yet one feels the charm of the splendid vision, though it may fade into the light of common day when it falls under relentless scrutiny, and one is haunted by the doubt whether the scientific historian, with all his conscientious accuracy, is after all much nearer the reality than the literary artist. For it is seriously questionable whether the precise truth about bygone events and men long dead can ever actually be discovered, whether, by piecing together what has come down to us in documents, we can resuscitate from the dust-heap of records the state of society many centuries ago. And in regard to historical portrait painting Lord Acton has warned intending historians to seek no unity of character—to remember that allowance must always be made for human inconsistencies; that a man is never all of one piece. But cautious conclusions, nice weighing of evidence, do not satisfy the ordinary reader. The vivid impressions that are stamped on his mind by the power of style are what he mostly requires and retains; and these we are all reluctant to lose. We must concede to the writer, as to the painter, some indulgence of his imaginative faculty. Otherwise we must leave the battle scenes and the national portrait gallery to the poets and romancers of genius—to Shakespeare and Walter Scott, whose art had nothing to gain from accuracy, who have only to give us the types, the right colouring and strong outline of life and character in days bygone.

However, I think we shall be compelled to accept the change from the artistic to the scientific school of historians, though we may regret it as unavoidable. It is the vast enlargement of the field of historical study, the strong critical searchlight that is turned on all the dark corners and outlying tracts of this field, that is irresistibly affecting the work of writers, enforcing the need of caution, of scrutinising every point, of weighing evidence in the finest scales, of assaying its precise value. The contemporary writer has to deal with the huge accumulation of material to which I have already referred; he must ransack archives, hunt through records piled up, public and private, must decipher ancient manuscript, must follow the labours of the wandering collector of inscriptions and the excavator of old tombs. He has to make extracts from correspondence, diaries, and notes of travel which are coming for the first time to the light; he must keep abreast of foreign literature and criticism. The mass and multiplicity of documentary evidence now at his disposal, most of which may not have been available to his predecessors, is enormous. Some twelve years ago Lord Acton wrote: 'The honest student has to hew his way through multitudinous transactions, periodicals and official publications, where it is difficult to sweep the horizon or to keep abreast. The result has been that the classics of historical literature are found inadequate, are being re-written, and the student has to be warned that they have been superseded by later discoveries.'
What has been the effect of this altered situation upon the writer of history at the present time? On such an extensive field of operations, which has to be cultivated so intensely, he finds himself compelled to contract the scope of his operations; he can only take up very narrow ground. So in many instances he limits himself to a period, or even to a single reign, to a particular class of historical personage, or to some special department of human activity. He looks about for a plot that he can work thoroughly; he concentrates his attention upon some line or aspect of a subject in which he may hope that he has not been anticipated by others. Lord Acton has laid down that 'every student ought to know that mastery is acquired by acknowledged limitation'—he must peg out his small holding and keep within its bounds. Histories are now written by many and various hands—as in the case of the Cambridge Modern History, which already counts numerous volumes—and so the general area is divided and subdivided among experts, each of whom dips deeply into his particular allotment, and takes heavy crops off his ground. Yet the productiveness of the field at large seems still inexhaustible, for there is always some new theory to be established, some fresh vein of facts to be opened, some corrections or additions to be made. Moreover, the experts, while they toil at their own special work, while they attack a difficult problem from different sides, must nevertheless co-operate with each other. Sir William Ramsay, a noted archæologist, tells us that for a new study of history there is needed a group of scholars working in unison; that the solitary historian is doomed to failure. He adds that the history of the Roman empire has still to be re-written. The late Lord Acton, when as Professor of Modern History at Cambridge he drew out his plan for a modern history that would satisfy the scientific demand for completeness and exactitude, proposed to distribute the work among more than a hundred writers. He observed that the entire bulk of new matter which the last forty years have supplied amounts to many thousand volumes. When history becomes the product of many hands and various minds the artistic element is likely to disappear.
One obvious result of this state of things is that we hear no more of the old-fashioned histories embracing vast subjects, the work of a single author—of histories of the world, or a history of Europe like Alison's in thirty volumes. Indeed it is not long since Buckle found his History of European Civilisation unmanageable; he died before he could finish it. At the present time historical subjects are divided and subdivided by classes, periods, or even single events. Art, literature, philosophy, war, diplomacy, receive separate treatment. We have colonial histories in numerous thick volumes; though no English colony has a long past. We have histories of the queens who have reigned in their own right, like Queen Elizabeth, and of Queens Consort: we have even a book on the bachelor kings of England, written by a lady who proves undeniably that these unlucky bachelors—there were only three of them—all came to a bad or sad end. As to military historians, Kinglake's History of the Crimean War takes up, I think, some eight volumes. The whole course of the recent Boer War has been related in five substantial volumes. Neither of these wars lasted more than two years, yet both histories are many times larger than Schiller's History of the Thirty Years' War in Germany. The only edition of Schiller's work that I have found in the library of this University is in four small volumes.
Now, the drawback to the composition of histories on this ample and elaborate scale is obviously this—that the ordinary man or woman can hardly be expected to read them, or at most to read more than two or three of them. So there has sprung up a natural demand for something lighter and shorter; the amplification has produced a supply of abbreviation. The massive volumes, the heaps of material, are taken in hand by very capable writers with a clear eye for the main points, for striking incidents and personalities. The big books are sliced up into convenient portions, and served up in attractive form and manageable quantities. The work is often done with admirable skill and judgment. You thus obtain a bird's-eye view of the past; you have the loftier prominences and bold outlines of the historic landscape.
In these serials, which are deservedly popular, you can read short biographies, for example, of English Men of Letters, of English Men of Action, of famous Scotsmen, Rulers of India, Heroes of the Nation. You have also a story of all the nations in series, and thus you can limit your mental survey to separate periods, events, countries, and figures. You are carried swiftly and adroitly over the dry interspaces which lie between startling incidents or between supremely interesting epochs.
Now I have no doubt that these series, which contain much sound information very skilfully condensed, have been of real service in the propagation of historical knowledge. On the other hand, we have to consider that this kind of reading is disconnected in style and subject. The reader can make a long jump from one period to another, or from the statesman of one century to another who flourished in a very different country and age. And the handling of these diverse subjects is not uniform; the points of view or lines of thought are various, and may be contradictory. It may be expedient to warn those who use these excellent summaries against the habit of neglecting the great English classics for short biographies or compendious sketches of periods and personages, as if one could learn enough of Edmund Burke, or Milton, or Oliver Cromwell, or master the events of some important period, from a well-written serial in some two hundred pages.
The demand for these historical handbooks has evidently been created by the spread of general education, which stimulates the laudable desire to learn something about subjects of which it is hardly respectable, in these days, to be ignorant. Such knowledge is very useful to those who have no leisure for more; and it is far superior to mere desultory reading, to the habit of picking out amusing bits here and there. Yet I hope it is unnecessary to impress on earnest students of history that they must go further; must push up as near as possible to the fountain heads of the rivers of knowledge; must make acquaintance with the masterpieces of literature—that their reading must be continuous and consecutive.
Now those among you who are studying for University honours have no need for any advice from me; they are well aware that the wide expansion, in these days, of the field of history has raised the standard of examinations, and that they must be prepared for questions testing a candidate's critical acumen, the breadth and depth of his reading, much more closely than was required formerly. But there must also be many here present who have no examinations in front of them, who have no ardent inclination or even leisure for abstruse labours. And I presume that all of you read history for a clear understanding of past ages, of the acts and thoughts of the great men who illustrate those times. You all desire to comprehend the sequence and significance of events. You feel the intellectual pleasure of appreciating rightly the character and motive of the men and women who stand in the foreground of our country's annals, and also of those who are famous in other countries, to know how and why they rose or fell, whether they deserved the success that they won, or won it without deserving it. Moreover, for us English folk, who live at the centre of an empire containing races and communities in various stages of political development, the lessons of history have a special value. They teach us to judge leniently of acts and opinions that appear to us irrational and even iniquitous as we see them in other backward countries at the present day. We learn that manners and morals may not be unchangeable in a nation; that fallacies and prejudices are not ineradicable; that even cruelty, tyranny, reckless bloodshed, are not incurable vices. For history tells us that some of the nations now foremost in the ranks of civilisation have passed through the stages of society in which such things are possible. And thus we can study the circumstances and conditions of political existence which have retarded the upward progress of certain nations and accelerated the advance of others. Such inquiries belong to the philosophy of history. When we read, for example, the history of England in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, we find that our ancestors, born and bred in this same island, kindly men in private life and sincerely religious, intellectually not our inferiors, yet, when they took sides in politics or Church questions, did things which appear to us utterly cruel, against reason, justice, and humanity. To remember this helps us to realise the difficulty of passing fair judgment not only on the conduct of our forefathers, but upon the actions and character of other peoples and governments that are doing very similar things at the present time in other parts of the world. We shall find it an arduous task to assign motives, to weigh considerations, to acquit or condemn. So that, to the politician of to-day, history ought to be an invaluable guide and monitor for taking an impartial measure of the difficulties of government in troubled or perilous circumstances. Yet one sometimes wishes that the record of the fierce and bitter struggles of former days had been forgotten, for it still breeds rancour and resentment among the descendants of the people that fought for lost causes, and suffered the penalty of defeat. The remembrance keeps alive grievances, and the ancient tale of wrongs that have long been remedied survives to perpetuate national antipathies. Moreover, in some of the most celebrated cases known to our own annals, we are never sure that we have the whole case before us, for the historians give doubtful help, since the best authorities often take opposite views, as, for instance, on the question whether Mary Queen of Scots was her husband's murderess, or a much injured and calumniated lady. The admitted facts are valued differently, interpreted variously, and made to support contradictory conclusions. The latest historian of Rome, Signor Ferrero, sums up a long and elaborate dissertation on the acts and character of Julius Cæsar by a judgment which differs emphatically from the views of all preceding historians. On some of these disputed questions we may make up our minds after studying the evidence; but many historical problems are in truth insoluble; the evidence is imperfect and untrustworthy.
These, then, are some of the warnings we may take from history. We must not be hasty about condemning misdeeds of past generations, whether of the rulers or their people. The times were hard, so were the men; they were encompassed by dangers, while we who criticise them live in ease and safety. And when we hear at the present day of misrule and strife and bloodshed among other races—in Asia, for example—we may remember our own story, and we may trust that they also will work their way upward to peace and concord.
But the truth is that, as our knowledge of the past is very imperfect, so also our predictions of the future are very fallible. The best observers can see only a very short way ahead. History shows us how frequently the course of affairs has taken quite unexpected turns, for good or for ill, forward or backward. On the whole, we may believe that the main direction is certainly toward the gradual betterment of the world at large, though the theory of progress is quite modern, for the ancients looked behind them for the Golden Age. Nowadays we trumpet the glory of our British empire; yet at intervals our confidence in its fortunes is shaken by some sharp panic; the decline and fall of England is predicted. It is, indeed, perilous to be overconfident, to live in a fool's paradise, for some of us have seen in our lifetime the sudden catastrophes that have overtaken great empires. But history may comfort us when we read how often the downfall of England has been predicted, how we have been on the brink of shooting down Niagara, as Carlyle declared, or threatened with imminent invasion, with total loss of commerce and colonies, with defeat abroad and bankruptcy at home. And yet our country is still fairly prosperous and free, and as for invasions, we may still trust that, as Coleridge has written:

'Ocean 'mid the uproar wild
Speaks safety to his island child.'

But on the whole history gives political prophets little encouragement—we cannot foretell the future from the past. Nevertheless, there is some truth in the saying that history is like an old almanac, if we may take this to mean that, although the same events never happen again in the same way, yet in the great movements of the tide of the world's affairs a sort of periodical recurrence, an ebb and flow, may be noticed. For example, we know that from the fifteenth until near the end of the seventeenth century the Asiatic armies of the Turkish Sultans were invading and conquering South-Eastern Europe—they reached the gates of Vienna. Then followed a swing backward of the pendulum, and from the eighteenth to the end of the nineteenth century the European Powers, Russia and England, were each extending a great dominion over Asia. Again, up to a few years ago, the Turkish empire was a barbarous despotism, and we all believed that it must break up and be extinguished. Yet it has now revived in a new form, which may possibly restore its power and prosperity. To search for and distinguish the operating causes, the powers that underlie these incalculable changes, is a task for the student of history.
There must be many of you for whom these high problems have a strong attraction, who enjoy rapid flights over the broad surface of history, wide outlooks over the past and future. Now, I admit that bold generalisations are hazardous, unless founded upon very solid knowledge; but in historical as well as in physical science they are needed to sum up results, to bring facts into focus. They enable us, so the late Lord Acton has said, to fasten on abiding issues, to distinguish the temporary from the transient.
The late Lord Acton, who, as you may remember, was Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, is reckoned by general consent to have surpassed all his contemporaries, at least in England, by his encyclopædic, accurate, and profound knowledge of history. His reading was vast, his learning prodigious, his industry never slackened. Yet the literary production of his life is contained in three volumes of essays, lectures, and articles; he has left us no complete book. Indeed, his writing is so disproportionate to his reading that one is tempted to liken his luminous intellect to a fire on which too much fuel had been heaped; the ardent mind glowed and shot up its streaks of radiance through the weight of erudition that overlaid it. Among Lord Acton's published papers is a 'Note of Advice to Persons about to Write History,' of which the first word is Don't. But he then proceeds to jot down some hints and maxims, brief and caustic, for the benefit of those who nevertheless persist in writing; and to some of these I commend the attention of readers, since upon readers as well as upon writers lies the duty of forming careful opinions, of judging impartially, in working out their conclusions upon the events and personages of past times. For Lord Acton was an indefatigable researcher after truth; his standard of public morality was austere, lofty, and uncompromising. I myself venture to think that he was too rigid; he admitted no excuse for breaches of the moral law on the pretext, however urgent, of political necessity; he refused to allow extenuation of violence or bloodshed even in times of great emergency. 'The inflexible integrity of the moral code,' he said, 'is to me the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history.' Now this is hard doctrine for most of us to follow when we set ourselves, as students, to condemn or acquit, to blame or to praise the prominent actors in the drama of our national history. On that stage, as we all know, the real tragedies that stand on record were sanguinary enough, and the parts occasionally played in them by our ancestors were of a sort that now appear most unnatural and indefensible to their descendants. Yet most of us are disposed to regard with some leniency even the crimes of a violent and lawless age.
But however this may be, some of Lord Acton's counsels are undoubtedly valuable as warnings or for guidance, either as lamps to show the right road, or as lighthouses to keep us from going wrong. His inaugural lecture at Cambridge on the Study of History is full of precepts, maxims, warnings, injunctions, all of which may be pondered by students with advantage. We are enjoined, for example, to beware of permitting our historic judgment to be warped by influences, whether of Country, Class, Church, College, or Party; and it is said, by way of driving home the warning, that the most respectable of these influences is the most dangerous. But very few writers, and, I suspect, not many readers, can hold their mental balance quite steadily, can weigh testimony on either side of a question quite dispassionately, when our Church, or our Country, perhaps even our University, is concerned. Nor is it easy for students to find historians who are entirely unmoved by bias of these kinds, who have neither a theory to prove, nor a cause to support, nor a hero to be exalted, nor a sinner to be whitewashed. Indeed, the wicked men of history have always found some ingenious advocate to defend them by attempting to justify bad acts on the ground of excellent motives and intentions, of the exigencies of the situation, or other excuses and explanations. It is certain that some of the worst crimes on record, assassinations and savage persecutions, have been defended on pretexts of this kind, by allegations of patriotism or devotion to a faith. Not many weeks have passed since a dastardly murder was perpetrated in London, close to this spot, by a crazy wretch who declared himself a patriot.
So we may profitably lay to mind Lord Acton's stern denunciation, not only of criminals in high places, but of all, high or low, who pretend that foul deeds may be justified by asserting pure motives. Let me quote again from Lord Acton. He has said: 'Of killing, from private motives or from public, eadem est ratio, there is no difference. Morally, the worst is the last; the fanatic assassin, the cruel inquisitor, are the worst of all; they are more, not less, infamous, because they use religion or political expediency as a cloak for their crimes.' He affirms elsewhere that crimes by constitutional authorities—by Popes and Kings—are more indefensible than those committed by private malefactors. And he holds that the theorist is more guilty than the actual assassin; that the worst use of theory is to make men insensible to fact, to the real complexion and true quality of conduct. He would probably have insisted that journalists and others who instigate political crimes are at least quite as bad as the actual criminal. Herein, at any rate, we may thoroughly agree with him, though the question whether the intercourse of nations and their Governments can be strictly regulated by the same moral standard which rules among individuals, does raise difficult points for the conscientious student of history. We have to remember that no power exists to enforce international laws or police, so that every Government has to rely upon its own strength for the defence of its people and the preservation of its rights.
On the whole, I do not know any recent works that may be more profitable for advice and guidance in reading history than these three volumes of Lord Acton's. They contain the essence of his unceasing labours in collecting, comparing, and testing an immense quantity of historic material. They are particularly valuable for the flashes of insight into the deeper relations of events, for brief, sententious observations in which he sums up his judgments upon men and their doings. They are not to be taken lightly; they demand all your attention, for the style is compressed and packed with meaning; and the author seems to expect his readers to be prepared with more knowledge than, I think, most of us possess. His allusions take for granted so much learning that they occasionally puzzle the average man. For example, in one of his essays he makes a passing reference to 'those who in the year 1348 shared the worst crimes that Christian nations have committed.' What these crimes were he does not say; and how many of us could answer the question off-hand? Certainly I could not. But the lectures and essays abound in far-ranging ideas, and show profound penetration into historic causes and consequences. Some of the essays, written in comparative youth, betray here and there a natural leaning towards the Church of Rome, in which he was born, and against Protestantism; yet his hatred of intolerance and despotism, spiritual or temporal, was sincere and intense. In politics he was a Liberal, yet he saw that Liberal institutions, representative government, are by no means a sure and speedy remedy for misrule in all times and countries, as in our day simple folk are apt to suppose. In writing of the condition of Europe during the earlier middle ages he observes: 'To bring order out of chaotic mire, to rear a new civilisation and blend hostile and unequal races into a nation, the thing wanted was not Liberty, but Force.'
Here is a bold and clear-sighted deduction from the lessons of history, which revolutionary politicians in Asia, where no nationalities have yet been formed, may well take to heart. Parliamentary institutions, as Lord Acton has well said, presuppose unity of a people.
Scattered through these volumes may be found, indeed, certain brief paragraphs which, as they contain the essence of much learning and deep thought, may well set us all thinking. In a remarkable essay on the historical relations of Church and State Lord Acton observes: 'The State is so closely linked with religion, that no nation that has changed its religion has ever survived in its old political form.' Here again is a striking generalisation which a student might set himself to verify by careful examination of the facts.
And now I will make an end of my address by quoting one more remark of Lord Acton, in which he gives his definition of history taken as a whole. 'By universal history,' he says, 'I understand that which is distinct from the combined history of all countries, which is not a rope of sand, but a continuous development, and is not a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul. It moves in a succession to which the nations are subsidiary. Their story will be told, not for their own sake, but in subordination to a higher series, according to the time and the degree in which they contribute to the common fortunes of mankind.'

Post Script:
The above essay, being a part of the Philosophy of History and especially the Cambridge School of History which is the core of Colonial History, will be referred to again and again in this blog at appropriate places.

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