CHAPTER XXIX. THE HISTORICAL TRIAD IN THE SCEPTICAL AGE.
The Sceptical Age. David Hume. History of England. Metaphysics. Essay
on Miracles. Robertson. Histories. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall.
THE SCEPTICAL AGE.
History presents itself to the student in two forms: The first is chronicle, or a simple relation of facts and statistics; and the second, philosophical history, in which we use these facts and statistics in the consideration of cause and effect, and endeavor to extract a moral from the actions and events recorded. From pregnant causes the philosophic historian traces, at long distances, the important results; or, conversely, from the present condition of things—the good and evil around him—he runs back, sometimes remotely, to the causes from which they have sprung. Chronicle is very pleasing to read, and the reader may be, to some extent, his own philosopher; but the importance of history as a study is found in its philosophy.
As far down as the eighteenth century, almost everything in history partakes of the nature of chronicle. In that century, in obedience to the law of human progress, there sprang up in England and on the Continent the men who first made chronicle material for philosophy, and used philosophy to teach by example what to imitate and what to shun.
What were the circumstances which led, in the eighteenth century, to the simultaneous appearance of Hume, Gibbon, and Robertson, as the originators of a new school of history? Some of them have been already mentioned in treating of the antiquarian age. We have endeavored to show how the English literati—novelists, essayists, and poets—have been in part unconscious historians. It will also appear that the professed historians themselves have been, in a great measure, the creatures of English history. The fifteenth century was the period when the revival of letters took place, and a great spur was given to mental activity; but the world, like a child, was again learning rudiments, and finding out what it was, and what it possessed at that present time: it received the new classical culture presented to it at the fall of the lower empire, and was content to learn the existing, without endeavoring to create the new, or even to recompose the scattered fragments of the past. The eighteenth century saw a new revival: the world had become a man; great progress was reported in arts, in inventions, and in discoveries; science began to labor at the arduous but important task of classification; new theories of government and laws were propounded; the past was consulted that its experience might be applied; the partisan chronicles needed to be united and compared that truth might be elicited; the philosophic historian was required, and the people were ready to learn, and to criticize, what he produced.
I have ventured to call this the Sceptical Age. It had other characteristics: this was one. We use the word sceptical in its etymological sense: it was an age of inquiry, of doubt to be resolved. Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, D'Alembert, and Diderot had founded a new school of universal inquiry, and from their bold investigations and startling theories sprang the society of the illuminati, and the race of thinkers. They went too far: they stabbed the truth as it lay in the grasp of error. From thinkers they became free-thinkers: from philosophers they became infidels, and some of them atheists. This was the age which produced “the triumvirate of British historians who,” in the words of Montgomery, “exemplified in their very dissimilar styles the triple contrast of simplicity, elegance, and splendor.”
Imbued with this spirit of the time, Hume undertook to write a History of England, which, with all its errors and faults, still ranks among the best efforts of English historians. Like the French philosophers, Hume was an infidel, and his scepticism appears in his writings; but, unlike them—for they were stanch reformers in government as well as infidels in faith—he who was an infidel was also an aristocrat in sentiment, and a consistent Tory his life long. In his history, with all the artifices of a philosopher, he takes the Jacobite side in the civil war.
HUME.—David Hume was born in Edinburgh on the 26th of April (O.S.), 1711. His life was without many vicissitudes of interest, but his efforts to achieve an enduring reputation on the most solid grounds, mark him as a notable example of patient industry, study, and economy. He led a studious, systematic, and consistent life.
Although of good family,—being a descendant of the Earl of Home,—he was in poor circumstances, and after some study of the law, and some unsuccessful literary ventures, he was obliged to seek employment as a means of livelihood. Thus he became tutor or keeper to the young Marquis of Annandale, who was insane. Abandoning this position in disgust, he was appointed secretary to General St. Clair in various embassies,—to Paris, Vienna, and Turin; everywhere hoarding his pay, until he became independent, “though,” he says, “most of my friends were inclined to smile when I said so; in short, I was master of a thousand pounds.”
His earliest work was a Treatise on Human Nature, published in 1738, which met with no success. Nothing discouraged thereat, in 1741 he issued a volume of Essays Moral and Political, the success of which emboldened him to publish, in 1748, his Inquiry Concerning the Human Understanding. These and other works were preparing his pen for its greater task, the material for which he was soon to find.
In 1752 he was appointed librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, not for the emolument, but with the real purpose of having entire control of the books and material in the library; and then he determined to write the History of England.
HISTORY OF ENGLAND.—He began with the accession of the Stuarts, in 1603, the period when the popular element, so long kept tranquil by the power and sex of Queen Elizabeth, was ready first to break out into open assertion. Hume's self-deception must have been rudely discovered to him; for he tells us, in an autobiography fortunately preserved, that he expected so dispassionately to steer clear of all existent parties, or, rather, to be so just to all, that he should gain universal approbation. “Miserable,” he adds, “was my disappointment. I was assailed by one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation. English, Scotch, Irish, Whig and Tory, churchman and sectary, free-thinker and religionist, patriot and courtier, united, in their rage, against the man who had presumed to shed a generous tear for the fate of Charles I. and the Earl of Strafford.” How far, too, this was ignorant invective, may be judged from the fact that in twelve months only forty-five copies of his work were sold.
However, he patiently continued his labor. The first volume, containing the reigns of James I. and Charles I, had been issued in 1754; his second, published in 1756, and containing the later history of the Commonwealth, of Charles II., and James II., and concluding with the revolution of 1688, was received with more favor, and “helped to buoy up its unfortunate brother.” Then he worked backward: in 1759 he produced the reigns of the house of Tudor; and in 1761, the earlier history, completing his work, from the earliest times to 1688. The tide had now turned in his favor; the sales were large, and his pecuniary rewards greater than any historian had yet received.
The Tory character of his work is very decided: he not only sheds a generous tear for the fate of Charles I., but conceals or glosses the villanies of Stuarts far worse than Charles. The liberties of England consist, in his eyes, of wise concessions made by the sovereign, rather than as the inalienable birthright of the English man.
He has also been charged with want of industry and honesty in the use of his materials—taking things at second-hand, without consulting original authorities which were within his reach, and thus falling into many mistakes, while placing in his marginal notes the names of the original authors. This charge is particularly just with reference to the Anglo-Saxon period, since so picturesquely described by Sharon Turner.
The first in order of the philosophical historians, he is rather a collector of facts than a skilful diviner with them. His style is sonorous and fluent, but not idiomatic. Dr. Johnson said, “His style is not English; the structure of his sentences is French,”—an opinion concurred in by the eminent critic, Lord Jeffrey.
But whatever the criticism, the History of Hume is a great work. He did what was never done before. For a long time his work stood alone; and even now it has the charm of a clear, connected narrative, which is still largely consulted by many who are forewarned of its errors and faults. And however unidiomatic his style, it is very graceful and flowing, and lends a peculiar charm to his narrative.
METAPHYSICS.—Of Hume as a philosopher, we need not here say much. He was acute, intelligent, and subtle; he was, in metaphysical language, “a sceptical nihilist.” And here a distinction must be made between his religious tenets and his philosophical views,—a distinction so happily stated by Sir William Hamilton, that we present it in his words: “Though decidedly opposed to one and all of Hume's theological conclusions, I have no hesitation in asserting of his philosophical scepticism, that this was not only beneficial in its results, but, in the circumstances of the period, even a necessary step in the progress of Philosophy towards Truth.” And again he says, “To Hume we owe the philosophy of Kant, and therefore also, in general, the later philosophy of Germany.” “To Hume, in like manner, we owe the philosophy of Reid, and, consequently, what is now distinctively known in Europe as the Philosophy of the Scottish School.” Great praise this from one of the greatest Christian philosophers of this century, and it shows Hume to have been more original as a philosopher than as an historian.
He is also greatly commended by Lord Brougham as a political economist. “His Political Discourses,” says his lordship, “combine almost every excellence which can belong to such a performance.... Their great merit is their originality, and the new system of politics and political economy which they unfold.”
MIRACLES.—The work in which is most fairly set forth his religious scepticism is his Essay on Miracles. In it he adopts the position of Locke, who had declared “that men should not believe any proposition that is contrary to reason, on the authority either of inspiration or of miracle; for the reality of the inspiration or of the miracle can only be established by reason.” Before Hume, assaults on the miracles recorded in Scripture were numerous and varied. Spinoza and the Pantheistic School had started the question, “Are miracles possible?” and had taken the negative. Hume's question is, “Are miracles credible?” And as they are contrary to human experience, his answer is essentially that it must be always more probable that a miracle is false than that it is true; since it is not contrary to experience that witnesses are false or deceived. With him it is, therefore, a question of the preponderance of evidence, which he declares to be always against the miracle. This is not the place to discuss these topics. Archbishop Whately has practically illustrated the fallacy of Hume's reasoning, in a little book called Historic Doubts, relative to Napoleon Bonaparte, in which, with Hume's logic, he has proved, that the great emperor never lived; and Whately's successor in the archbishopric of Dublin, Dr. Trench, has given us some thoughtful words on the subject: “So long as we abide in the region of nature, miraculous and improbable, miraculous and incredible may be allowed to remain convertible terms; but once lift up the whole discussion into a higher region, once acknowledge aught higher than nature—a kingdom of God, and men the intended denizens of it—and the whole argument loses its strength and the force of its conclusions.”
Hume's death occurred on the 25th of August, 1776. His scepticism, or philosophy as he called it, remained with him to the end. He even diverted himself with the prospect of the excuses he would make to Charon as he reached the fatal river, and is among the few doubters who have calmly approached the grave without that concern which the Christian's hope alone is generally able to dispel.
WILLIAM ROBERTSON.—the second of the great historians of the eighteenth century, although very different from the others in his personal life and in his creed,—was, like them, a representative and creature of the age. They form, indeed, a trio in literary character as well as in period; and we have letters from each to the others on the appearance of their works, showing that they form also what in the present day is called a “Mutual Admiration Society.” They were above common envy: they recognized each other's excellence, and forbore to speak of each other's faults. As a philosopher, Hume was the greatest of the three; as an historian, the palm must be awarded to Gibbon. But Robertson surprises us most from the fact that a quiet Scotch pastor, who never travelled, should have attempted, and so gracefully treated, subjects of such general interest as those he handled.
William Robertson was the son of a Scottish minister, and was born at Borthwick, in Scotland, on September 19th, in the year 1721. He was a precocious child, and, after attending school at Dalkeith, he entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of twelve. At the age of twenty he was licensed to preach. He published, in 1755, a sermon on The Situation of the World at the Time of Christ's Appearance, which attracted attention; but he astonished the world by issuing, in 1759, his History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary, and of James VI. until his Accession to the Crown of England. This is undoubtedly his best work, but not of such general interest as his others. His materials were scanty, and he did not consult such as were in his reach with much assiduity. The invaluable records of the archives of Simancas were not then opened to the world, but he lived among the scenes of his narrative, and had the advantage of knowing all the traditions and of hearing all the vehement opinions pro and con upon the subjects of which he treated. The character of Queen Mary is drawn with a just but sympathetic hand, and his verdict is not so utterly denunciatory as that of Mr. Froude. Such was the popularity of this work, that in 1764 its author was appointed to the honorable office of Historiographer to His Majesty for Scotland. In 1769 he published his History of Charles V. Here was a new surprise. Whatever its faults, as afterwards discerned by the critics, it opened a new and brilliant page to the uninitiated reader, and increased his reputation very greatly. The history is preceded by a View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century. The best praise that can be given to this View is, that students have since used it as the most excellent summary of that kind existing. Of the history itself it may be said that, while it is greatly wanting in historic material in the interest of the narrative and the splendor of the pageantry of the imperial court, it marked a new era in historical delineations.
HISTORY OF AMERICA.—In 1777 appeared the first eight books of his History of America, to which, in 1778, he appended additions and corrections. The concluding books, the ninth and tenth, did not appear until 1796, when, three years after his death, they were issued by his son. As a connected narrative of so great an event in the world's history as the discovery of America, it stood quite alone. If, since that time, far better and fuller histories have appeared, we should not withhold our meed of praise from this excellent forerunner of them all. One great defect of this and the preceding work was his want of knowledge of the German and Spanish historians, and of the original papers then locked up in the archives of Simancas; later access to which has given such great value to the researches of Irving and Prescott and Sterling. Besides, Robertson lacked the life-giving power which is the property of true genius. His characters are automata gorgeously arrayed, but without breath; his style is fluent and sometimes sparkling, but in all respects he has been superseded, and his works remain only as curious representatives of the age to the literary student. One other work remains to be mentioned, and that is his Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India, and the Progress of Trade with that Country Prior to the Discovery of the Passage to it by the Cape of Good Hope. This is chiefly of value as it indicates the interest felt in England at the rise of the English Empire in India; but for real facts it has no value at all.
GIBBON.—Last in order of time, though far superior as an historian to Hume and Robertson, stands Edward Gibbon, the greatest historian England has produced, whether we regard the dignity of his style—antithetic and sonorous; the range of his subject—the history of a thousand years; the astonishing fidelity of his research in every department which contains historic materials; or the symmetry and completeness of his colossal work.
Like Hume, he has left us a sketch of his own life and labors, simple and dispassionate, from which it appears that he was born in London on the 27th of April, 1737; and, being of a good family, he had every advantage of education. Passing a short time at the University of Oxford, he stands in a small minority of those who can find no good in their Alma Mater. “To the University of Oxford,” he says, “I acknowledge no obligation, and she will as cheerfully renounce me for a son as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother. I spent fourteen months at Magdalen College. They proved to be fourteen of the most idle and unprofitable months of my whole life.” This singular experience may be contrasted with that of hundreds, but may be most fittingly illustrated by stating that of Dr. Lowth, a venerable contemporary of the historian. He speaks enthusiastically of the place where the student is able “to breathe the same atmosphere that had been breathed by Hooker and Chillingworth and Locke; to revel in its grand and well-ordered libraries; to form part of that academic society where emulation without envy, ambition without jealousy, contention without animosity, incited industry and awakened genius.”
Gibbon, while still in his boyhood, had read with avidity ancient and modern history, and had written a juvenile paper on The Age of Sesostris, which was, at least, suggested by Voltaire's Siecle de Louis XIV.
Early interested, too, in the history of Christianity, his studies led him to become a Roman Catholic; but his belief was by no means stable. Sent by his father to Lausanne, in Switzerland, to be under the religious training of a Protestant minister, he changed his opinions, and became again a Protestant. His convictions, however, were once more shaken, and, at the last, he became a man of no creed, a sceptic of the school of Voltaire, a creature of the age of illumination. Many passages of his history display a sneering unbelief, which moves some persons more powerfully than the subtlest argument. This modern Platonist, beginning with sensation, evolves his philosophy from within,—from the finite mind; whereas human history can only be explained in the light of revelation, which gives to humanity faith, but which educes all science from the infinite—the mind of God.
The history written by Gibbon, called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, begins with that empire in its best days, under Hadrian, and extends to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, under Mohammed II., in 1453.
And this marvellous scope he has treated with a wonderful equality of research and power;—the world-absorbing empire, the origin and movements of the northern tribes and the Scythian marauders, the fall of the Western Empire, the history of the civil law, the establishment of the Gothic monarchies, the rise and spread of Mohammedanism, the obscurity of the middle age deepening into gloom, the crusades, the dawning of letters, and the inauguration of the modern era after the fall of Constantinople,—the detailed history of a thousand years. It is difficult to conceive that any one should suggest such a task to himself; it is astonishing to think that, with a dignified, self-reliant tenacity of purpose, it should have been completely achieved. It was an historic period, in which, in the words of Corneille, “Un grand destin commence un grand destin s'acheve.” In many respects Gibbon's work stands alone; the general student must refer to Gibbon, because there is no other work to which he can refer. It was translated by Guizot into French, the first volume by Wenck into German (he died before completing it); and it was edited by Dean Milman in England.
The style of Gibbon is elegant and powerful; at first it is singularly pleasing, but as one reads it becomes too sonorous, and fatigues, as the crashing notes of a grand march tire the ear. His periods are antithetic; each contains a surprise and a witty point. His first two volumes have less of this stately magnificence, but in his later ones, in seeking to vindicate popular applause, he aims to shine, and perpetually labors for effect. Although not such a philosopher as Hume, his work is quite as philosophical as Hume's history, and he has been more faithful in the use of his materials. Guizot, while pointing out his errors, says he was struck, after “a second and attentive perusal,” with “the immensity of his researches, the variety of his knowledge, and, above all, with that truly philosophical discrimination which judges the past as it would judge the present.”
The danger to the unwary reader is from the sceptical bias of the author, which, while he states every important fact, leads him, by its manner of presentation, to warp it, or put it in a false light. Thus, for example, he has praise for paganism, and easy absolution for its sins; Mohammed walks the stage with a stately stride; Alaric overruns Europe to a grand quickstep; but Christianity awakens no enthusiasm, and receives no eulogium, although he describes its early struggles, its martyrdoms, its triumphs under Constantine, its gentle radiance during the dark ages, and its powerful awakening. Because he cannot believe, he cannot even be just.
In his special chapter on the rise and spread of Christianity, he gives a valuable summary of its history, and of the claims of the papacy, with perhaps a leaning towards the Latin Church. Gibbon finished his work at Lausanne on the 27th of June, 1787.
Its conception had come to his mind as he sat one evening amid the ruins of the Capitol at Rome, and heard the barefooted friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter. He had then thought of writing the decline and fall of the city of Rome, but soon expanded his view to the empire. This was in 1764. Nearly thirteen years afterwards, he wrote the last line of the last page in his garden-house at Lausanne, and reflected joyfully upon his recovered freedom and his permanent fame. His second thought, however, will fitly close this notice with a moral from his own lips: “My pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatever might be the future fate of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.”
OTHER CONTRIBUTORS TO HISTORY.
James Boswell, 1740-1795: he was the son of a Scottish judge called Lord Auchinleck, from his estate. He studied law, and travelled, publishing, on his return, Journal of a Tour in Corsica. He appears to us a simple-hearted and amiable man, inquisitive, and exact in details. He became acquainted with Dr. Johnson in 1763, and conceived an immense admiration for him. In numerous visits to London, and in their tour to the Hebrides together, he noted Johnson's speech and actions, and, in 1791, published his life, which has already been characterized as the greatest biography ever written. Its value is manifold; not only is it a faithful portrait of the great writer, but, in the detailed record of his life, we have the wit, dogmatism, and learning of his hero, as expressing and illustrating the history of the age, quite as fully as the published works of Johnson. In return for this most valuable contribution to history and literature, the critics, one and all, have taxed their ingenuity to find strong words of ridicule and contempt for Boswell, and have done him great injustice. Because he bowed before the genius of Johnson, he was not a toady, nor a fool; at the worst, he was a fanatic, and a not always wise champion. Johnson was his king, and his loyalty was unqualified.
Horace Walpole, the Right Honorable, and afterwards Earl of Orford, 1717-1797: he was a wit, a satirist, and a most accomplished writer, who, notwithstanding, affected to despise literary fame. His paternity was doubted; but he enjoyed wealth and honors, and, by the possession of three sinecures, he lived a life of elegant leisure. He transformed a small house on the bank of the Thames, at Twickenham, into a miniature castle, called Strawberry Hill, which he filled with curiosities. He held a very versatile pen, and wrote much on many subjects. Among his desultory works are: Anecdotes of Painting in England, and AEdes Walpoliana, a description of the pictures at Houghton Hall, the seat of Sir Robert Walpole. He also ranks among the novelists, as the author of The Castle of Otranto, in which he deviates from the path of preceding writers of fiction—a sort of individual reaction from their portraitures of existing society to the marvellous and sensational. This work has been variously criticized; by some it has been considered a great flight of the imagination, but by most it is regarded as unnatural and full of “pasteboard machinery.” He had immediate followers in this vein, among whom are Mrs. Aphra Behn, in her Old English Baron; and Ann Radcliffe, in The Romance of the Forest, and The Mysteries of Udolpho. Walpole also wrote a work entitled Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III. But his great value as a writer is to be found in his Memoirs and varied Correspondence, in which he presents photographs of the society in which he lives. Scott calls him “the best letter-writer in the language.” Among the series of his letters, those of the greatest historical importance are those addressed to Sir Horace Mann, between 1760 and 1785. Of this series, Macaulay, who is his severest critic, says: “It forms a connected whole—a regular journal of what appeared to Walpole the most important transactions of the last twenty years of George II.'s reign. It contains much new information concerning the history of that time, the portion of English history of which common readers know the least.”
John Lord Hervey, 1696-1743: he is known for his attempts in poetry, and for a large correspondence, since published; but his chief title to rank among the contributors to history is found in his Memoirs of the Court of George II. and Queen Caroline, which were not published until 1848. They give an unrivalled view of the court and of the royal household; and the variety of the topics, combined with the excellence of description, render them admirable as aids to understanding the history.
Sir William Blackstone, 1723-1780: a distinguished lawyer, he was an unwearied student of the history of the English statute law, and was on that account made Professor of Law in the University of Oxford. Some time a member of Parliament, he was afterwards appointed a judge. He edited Magna Charta and The Forest Charter of King John and Henry III. But his great work, one that has made his name famous, is The Commentaries on the Laws of England. Notwithstanding much envious criticism, it has maintained its place as a standard work. It has been again and again edited, and perhaps never better than by the Hon. George Sharswood, one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Adam Smith, 1723-1790: this distinguished writer on political economy, the intelligent precursor of a system based upon the modern usage of nations, was educated at Glasgow and Oxford, and became in turn Professor of Logic and of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow. His lecture courses in Moral Science contain the germs of his two principal works: 1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and 2.An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The theory of the first has been superseded by the sounder views of later writers; but the second has conferred upon him enduring honor. In it he establishes as a principle that labor is the source of national wealth, and displays the value of division of labor. This work—written in clear, simple language, with copious illustrations—has had a wonderful influence upon the legislation and the commercial system of all civilized states since its issue, and has greatly conduced to the happiness of the human race. He wrote it in retirement, during a period of ten years. He astonished and instructed his period by presenting it with a new and necessary science.