Thoughts On History

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Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Historical and Political Essays, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky (published 1908).

I do not propose in this paper to enter into any general inquiry about the best method of writing history. Such inquiries appear to me to be of no real value, for there are many different kinds of history which should be written in many different ways. A diplomatic, a military, or a parliamentary history, dealing with a short period or a particular episode, must evidently be treated in a very different spirit from an extended history where the object of the historian should be to describe the various aspects of the national life, and to trace through long periods of time the ultimate causes of national progress and decay. The history of religion, of art, of literature, of social and industrial development, of scientific progress, have all their different methods. A writer who treats of some great revolution that has transformed human affairs should deal largely in retrospect, for the most important part of his task is to explain the long course of events that prepared and produced the catastrophe; while a writer who treats of more normal times will do well to plunge rapidly into his theme.

Historians, too, differ widely in their special talents, and these talents are never altogether combined. The power of vividly realising and portraying men, or societies or modes of thought that have long since passed away; the power of arranging and combining great multitudes of various facts; the power of judging with discrimination, accuracy, and impartiality conflicting arguments or evidence; the power of tracing through the long course of events the true chain of cause and effect, selecting the facts that are most valuable and significant and explaining the relation between general causes and particular effects, are all very different and belong to different types of mind. It is idle to expect a writer with the gifts of a Clarendon, a Kinglake, or a Froude to write history in the spirit of a Hallam or a Grote. Writers who are eminently distinguished for wide, patient, and accurate research have sometimes little power either of describing or interpreting the facts which they collect. All that can be said with any profit is that each writer will do best if he follows the natural bent of his genius, and that he should select those kinds or periods of history in which his special gifts have most scope and the qualities in which he is deficient are least needed.

It is the fashion of a modern school of historical writers to deplore what they call the intrusion of literature into history. History, in their judgment, should be treated as science and not as literature, and the kind of intellect they most value is not unlike that of a skilful and well-trained attorney. To collect documents with industry; to compare, classify, interpret and estimate them is the main work of the historian. It is no doubt true that there are some fields of history where the primary facts are so little known, so much contested or so largely derived from recondite[1] manuscript sources, that a faithful historian will be obliged in justice to his readers to sacrifice both proportion and artistic charm to the supreme importance of analysing evidence, reproducing documents and accumulating proofs; but in general the depreciation of the literary element in history seems to me essentially wrong. It is only necessary to recall the names of Herodotus and Thucydides, of Livy and Tacitus, of Gibbon and Macaulay, and of the long line of great masters of style who have related the annals of France. It may, indeed, be confidently asserted that there is no subject in which rarer literary qualities are more demanded than in the higher forms of history. The art of portraying characters; of describing events; of compressing, arranging, and selecting great masses of heterogeneous facts, of conducting many different chains of narrative without confusion or obscurity; of preserving in a vast and complicated subject the true proportion and relief, will tax the highest literary skill, and no one who does not possess some, at least, of these gifts in an unusual measure is likely to attain a permanent place among the great masters of history. It is a misfortune when some stirring and momentous period falls into the hands of the mere compiler, for he occupies the ground and a really great writer will hesitate to appropriate and plagiarise the materials his predecessor has collected. There are books of great research and erudition which one would have wished to have been all re-written by some writer of real genius who could have given order, meaning and vividness to a mere chaos of accurate and laboriously sifted learning. The great prominence which it is now the fashion to ascribe to the study of diplomatic documents, is very apt to destroy the true value and perspective of history. It is always the temptation of those who are dealing with manuscript materials to overrate the small personal details which they bring to light, and to give them much more than their due space in their narrative. This tendency the new school powerfully encourages. It is quite right that the treasure-houses of diplomatic correspondence which have of late years been thrown open should be explored and sifted, but history written chiefly from these materials, though it has its own importance, is not likely to be distinguished either by artistic form or by philosophical value. Those who are immersed in these studies are very apt to overrate their importance and the part which diplomacy and statesmanship have borne in the great movement of human affairs.

A true and comprehensive history should be the life of a nation. It should describe it in its larger and more various aspects. It should be a study of causes and effects, of distant as well as proximate causes, and of the large, slow and permanent evolution of things. It should include, as Buckle and Macaulay saw, the social, the industrial, the intellectual life of the nation as well as mere political changes, and it should be pre-eminently marked by a true perspective dealing with subjects at a length proportioned to their real importance. All this requires a powerful and original intellect quite different from that of a mere compiler. It requires too, in a high degree, the kind of imagination which enables a man to reproduce not only the acts but the feelings, the ideals, the modes of thought and life of a distant past, and pierce through the actions and professions of men to their real characters. Insight into character is one of the first requisites of a historian. It is therefore, much to be desired that he should possess a wide knowledge of the world, the knowledge of different types of character, foreign as well as English, which travel and society and practical experience of business can give, and it will also be of no small advantage to him if he has passed through more than one intellectual or religious phase, widening the area of his appreciation and realisations. He should also have enough of the dramatic element to enable him to throw himself into ways of reasoning or feeling very different from his own. One of the most valuable of all forms of historical imagination is that which enables a writer to place himself in the point of view of the best men on different sides, and to bring out the full sense of opposing arguments. All these gifts or qualities are never in a high degree united, but they are all essential to a great historian, and a true school of history should widen instead of narrowing our conception of it.

The supreme virtue of the historian is truthfulness, and it may be violated in many different degrees. The worst form is when a writer deliberately falsifies facts or deliberately excludes from his picture qualifying circumstances. But there are other and much more subtle ways in which party spirit continually and often quite unconsciously distorts history. All history is necessarily a selection of facts, and a writer who is animated by a strong sympathy with one side of a question or a strong desire to prove some special point will be much tempted in his selection to give an undue prominence to those that support his view, or, even where neither facts nor arguments are suppressed, to give a party character to his work by an unfair distribution of lights and shades. The strong and vivid epithets are chiefly reserved for the good or bad deeds on one side, the vague, general and comparatively colourless epithets for the corresponding deeds on the other side; and in this way very similar facts are brought before the reader with such different degrees of illumination and relief that they make a wholly different impression on his mind. In the history of Macaulay this defect may, I think, be especially traced. The characteristic defect of that great and in most respects admirable writer, both as historian and artist, was the singular absence of graduation in his mind. The neutral tints which are essential to the accurate shading of character seemed almost wanting, and a love of strong contrasted lights and shades, coupled with his supreme command of powerful epithets, continually misled him. But no attentive reader can fail to observe how unequally those epithets are distributed and how clearly this inequality discloses the strong bias under which he wrote.

The truth of an historical picture lies mainly in its judicious and accurate shading, and it is this art which the historian should especially cultivate. He will scarcely do so with success unless it becomes to him not merely a matter of duty, but also a pleasure and a pride. The kind of interest which he takes in his narrative should be much less that of a politician and an advocate than of a painter, who, now darkening and now lightening the picture, seeks by many delicate touches to catch with exact fidelity the tone and hue of the object he represents.

The degree of certainty that it is possible to attain in history varies greatly in different departments. The growth of institutions and laws, military events, changes in manners and in creeds, can be described with much confidence, and although it is more difficult to depict the inner moral life of nations, the influences that form their characters and prepare them for greatness or decay, yet when the materials for our induction are sufficiently large this field of history may be studied with great profit. Diplomatic history and the more secret springs of political history can only be fully disclosed when the archives relating to them have been explored and when the confidential correspondence of the chief actors in them has been published. The biographical element in history is always the most uncertain. Even among contemporaries the judgment of character and motives depends largely on indications so slight and subtle that they rarely pass into books and are only fully felt by direct personal contact, and the smallest knowledge of life shows how quickly anecdotes and sayings are distorted, coloured, and misplaced when they pass from lip to lip. Most of the ‘good sayings’ of history are invention, and most of them have been attributed to different persons. A history which is plainly written under the influence of party bias has the value of an advocate’s speech giving one side of the question. When our only materials for the knowledge of a period are derived from such histories, the saying of Voltaire should be remembered—that we can confidently believe only the evil which a party writer tells of his own side and the good which he recognises in his opponents. In judging the historian we must consider his nearness to the events he relates, his probable means of information and the internal evidence in his narrative of accuracy, honesty, and judgment, and we must also consider the standard of proof and the methods of historical writing prevailing in his time. A modern writer who placed in the mouths of his personages speeches which he himself invented would be justly discredited, but in antiquity it was a recognised custom for a historian to embody in fictitious speeches the reflections suggested by his narrative and the motives which he believed to have actuated his heroes.

Different ages differ enormously in the severity of proof which they exact, in the degree of accuracy which they attain. The credibility of a statement also depends not only on the amount of its evidence, but also on its own inherent probability. Everyone will feel that an amount of testimony that would be quite sufficient to persuade him that a butcher’s boy had been seen driving along a highway is wholly different from that which would be required to persuade him that a ghost had been met there. The same rule applies to the history of the past, and it is complicated by the great difference in different ages of the measure of probability, or, in other words, by the strong predisposition in certain stages of knowledge to accept statements or explanations of facts which in later stages we know to be incredible or in a high degree improbable. Few subjects in history are more difficult than the laws of evidence in dealing with the supernatural and the extent to which the authority of historians in relating credible and probable facts is invalidated by the presence of a mythical element in their narratives.

Connected with this subject is also the question how far it is possible by merely internal evidence to decompose an ancient document, resolving it into its separate elements, distinguishing its different dates and its different degrees of credibility. The reader is no doubt aware with what a rare skill this method of inquiry has been pursued in the present century, chiefly by great German and Dutch scholars, in dealing with the early Jewish writings. At the same time, without disputing the value of their work or the importance of many of the results at which they have arrived, I may be pardoned for expressing my belief that this kind of investigation is often pursued with an exaggerated confidence. Plausible conjecture is too frequently mistaken for positive proof. Undue significance is attached to what may be mere casual coincidences, and a minuteness of accuracy is professed in discriminating between the different elements in a narrative which cannot be attained by mere internal evidence. In all writings, but especially in the writings of an age when criticism was unknown, there will be repetitions, contradictions, inconsistencies and diversities of style which do not necessarily indicate different authorship or dates.

I have spoken of the uncertainty of the biographical element in history. It must, however, be said that when a historian is dealing with men who have played a very prominent part on the stage of life, the general acceptance of his judgment is a strong corroboration of its truth. It may be added that the later judgment of men is not unfrequently more true than the contemporary judgment. The wisdom of a teaching or of a policy is shown by its results, and these results are in most cases very gradually disclosed. Great men are like great mountains which are surrounded by lower peaks that often obscure their grandeur and seem to a near observer to equal or even to overtop them. It is only when seen from far off that their true dimensions are fully realised and they soar to heaven above all rivals. In the page of history men are judged mainly by the net result of their lives, by the broad lines of their characters and achievements. Many injudicious words, many minor weaknesses of conduct, are forgotten. Faults of manner, deficiencies of tact, awkwardnesses of appearance, which tell so largely upon the judgments of contemporaries, are no longer seen. The conversational nimbleness and versatility of intellect, the charm or assurance or magnetism of manner, the weight of social position, all of which tend to secure to an inferior man a pre-eminence in the circle in which he moves, are equally evanescent, and the shy, rugged, and tactless recluse often emerges on the strength of his genuine and abiding performances to a position in the eyes of the world which he never attained during his lifetime.

That fine saying of Cardan, ‘Tempus mea possessio, tempus ager meus,’ might be the motto of the historian. Time is the field which he cultivates, and a true sense of space and distance should be one of the chief characteristics of his work. Few things are more difficult to attain than a just perspective in history. The most dramatic incidents are not the most important, and in weighing the joys and sorrows of the past our measures of judgment are almost hopelessly false. The most humane man cannot emancipate himself from the law of his nature, according to which he is more affected by some tragic circumstance which has taken place in his own house or in his own street than by a catastrophe which has carried anguish and desolation over enormous areas in a distant continent. In history, too, there are vast tracts which are almost necessarily unrealised. We judge a period mainly by its great men, by its brilliant or salient incidents, by the fortunes of a small class; and the great mass of obscure, suffering, inarticulate humanity, whose happiness is often so profoundly affected by political and military events, almost escapes our notice. It should be the object of history to bring before us past events in their true proportion and significance, and one of the greatest improvements in modern history is the increased attention which is paid to the social, industrial, and moral history of the poor. The paucity of our information and the difficulty of realising the conditions of obscure multitudes will always make this branch of history very imperfect, but it is one of the most essential to the just judgment of the past.

Another task which lies before the historian is that of distinguishing proximate from ultimate causes. Our first natural impulse is to attribute a great change to the men who effected it and to the period in which it took place, and to neglect or underrate the long train of causes which had been, often through many generations, preparing its advent. A faithful historian must especially guard against this error. He must study the slow process of growth as well as the moment of efflorescence, the long progress of decay as well as the final catastrophe. He will probably find that the part played by statesmen and legislatures is less than he had imagined, and that the causes of the movements he relates must be sought over a wider area and through a longer period.

Moral, intellectual, or economical movements very slightly connected with political life are often those which have most largely contributed to the good or evil fortunes of a nation; and even in the sphere of politics it is not the events which attract the most vivid contemporary interest that have the most enduring influence. Few things contribute so much to the formation of the social type as the laws regulating the succession of property and especially the agglomeration or division of landed property. The growth of militarism in a nation, besides its direct and obvious consequences, forms a type of character which will sooner or later show itself in almost every department of legislation, and the tendency of politics to enlarge or narrow the sphere of individual liberty or of government control, will affect most deeply the habits of the people. Laws regulating private enterprises, substituting State control or initiative for individual action, encouraging or discouraging thrift, and above all interfering with free contracts, have much more than an immediate influence, for they become the prolific parents of many further extensions. In the words of an excellent observer, it will be found ‘that our legislative interference is but the first link of a long chain of repetitions, every subsequent interference being naturally produced by the effects of the preceding.’ It is by studying such tendencies through long periods of time that their good or evil influences may be best discovered, and this should be one of the great tasks of the historian.

But, however large a part may be given to the impersonal influences in history, he will still be largely concerned with the record of individual achievements, and the great men of the past will form the most conspicuous landmarks of his narrative. I have often thought, however, that nations are judged too much by the great men they have produced and not sufficiently by the way in which they have discriminated among them and appreciated them. Genius is like the wind that bloweth where it listeth, and it often appears in strangely uncongenial quarters. The true nobility of a nation is shown by the men they choose, by the men they follow, by the men they admire, by the ideals of character and conduct they place before them. Tried by such tests, there is often much that is profoundly saddening in the history of countries that have been far from poor in the number of their great men.

In the judgment of historical characters there are two cautions on which it may not be useless to dwell. There is a large class of public men who show little capacity in dealing with or directing the present conditions of their time, but who see clearly the bourne[2] to which existing forces or tendencies are moving and who, judged by their distant forecasts, will appear much wiser than their contemporaries. It is the natural bias of the historian to place them perhaps higher than they deserve. This power of just speculative foresight is no very rare gift, and in public affairs it is often as much a hindrance as a help. Forms of government and other great religious or political institutions, like the products of nature, have their times of immaturity, of growth, of ripeness and of decay, and it by no means follows because they at last become indefensible, that they have not during many generations discharged useful functions and that those who first assailed and condemned them are deserving of praise. Not unfrequently, indeed, a public man must take his choice whether by fully identifying himself with the existing conditions around him and employing them to the best advantages he will lead a useful and practical life, or whether as an advanced thinker he will associate himself with the cause that is one day to conquer, place himself in the van of progress and at the sacrifice of much present influence deserve the credit of foresight.

Historians will probably always judge men and policies by their net results, by their final consequences, and this judgment is on the whole the most sure that we can attain. It is not, however, altogether infallible. Apart from the question of the moral character of the methods employed which a good historian should never omit from his consideration, success is not always a decisive proof of sagacity. Chance and the unexpected play a great part in human affairs, and a judgment founded on a perfectly just estimate of probabilities will often prove wrong. The result which was the least probable will come true, some wholly unforeseen and unforeseeable occurrence will scatter dangers that were very real and give a new complexion to events. The rise of some pre-eminently great or of some pre-eminently mischievous personage among the guiding influences of a nation will derange the most sagacious calculations, and the reckless gambler or the obtuse obstructionist may prove more right than the most cautious, the most skilful, the most farseeing statesman.

A fatal and very common error is that of judging the actions of the past by the moral standard of our own age. This is especially the error of novices in history and of those who without any wide and general culture devote themselves exclusively to a single period. While the primary and essential elements of right and wrong remain unchanged, nothing is more certain than that the standard or ideal of duty is continually altering. A very humane man in another age may have done things which would now be regarded as atrociously barbarous. A very virtuous man may have done things which would now indicate extreme profligacy. We seldom indeed make sufficient allowance for the degree in which the judgments and dispositions of even the best man are coloured by the moral tone of the time or society in which they live. And what is true of individuals is equally true of nations. In order to judge equitably the legislation of any people, we must always consider corresponding contemporary legislations and ideas. When this is neglected our judgments of the past become wholly false. How often, for example, has such a subject as the history of the penal laws against Irish Catholics been treated without the smallest reference to the contemporary laws against Protestants that existed in every Catholic nation and the contemporary laws against Catholics that existed in almost every Protestant country in Europe. How often have the English commercial restrictions on the American colonies been treated as if they were instances of extreme and exceptional tyranny, while a more extended knowledge would show that they were simply the expression of ideas of commercial policy and about the relation of dependencies to the mother-country which then almost universally prevailed.

It is not merely the moral standard that changes. A corresponding change takes place in the moral type, or, in other words, in the class of virtues which is especially cultivated and especially valued. To know an age aright we should above all things seek to understand its ideal, the direction in which the stream of its self-sacrifice and moral energy naturally flowed. Few things in history are more interesting and more valuable than a study of the causes that produced and modified these successive ideals. Thus in the moral type of pagan antiquity the civic virtues occupied incomparably the foremost place. The idea of a supremely good man was essentially that of a man of action, of a man whose whole life was devoted to the service of his country. The life and death of Cato were for generations the favourite model. He was deemed, in the words of an old Latin historian, to be of all men the one ‘most like to virtue.’ This pattern retained its force till the softening influence of the Greek spirit, permeating Roman life, made the stoical ideal seem too hard and unsympathising; till the corruption and despotism of the Empire had withdrawn the best men from political life and attached a certain taint or stigma to public employment; till new religions arose in the East, bringing with them new ideals to govern the world. Gradually we may trace the contemplative virtues rising to the foremost place until, about the fifth century, the ideal had totally changed. The heroic type was replaced by the saintly type. The supremely good man was now the ascetic. The first condition of sanctity was a complete abandonment of secular duties and cares and a complete subjugation of the body. A vast literature of legends arose reflecting and glorifying the prevailing ideal and holding up the hermit life as the supreme pattern of perfection, and this literature occupies a place in mediævalism very similar to that held by the ‘Lives’ of Plutarch in antiquity.

Ancient art was essentially the glorification of the body, a representation of the full strength and beauty of developed manhood. The saint of the mediæval mosaic represents the body in its extreme maceration and humiliation. The rhetorician, Dio Chrysostom, in a somewhat whimsical passage, which was suggested by a remark of Plato, found a special moral significance in the fact that Homer, though he places his heroes on the the banks of what he calls ‘the fishy Hellespont,’ never makes them eat fish, but always flesh and the flesh of oxen, for this, as he says, is ‘strength-producing food’ and is therefore suited for the formation of heroes and the proper diet for men of virtue. Compare this judgment with the protracted, and indeed incredible, fasts which the monkish writers delighted in attributing to the saints of the desert, and we have a vivid picture of the change that had passed over the ideal.

But as time moved on the ascetic ideal gradually declined and was replaced by the very different ideal of chivalry. It consisted chiefly of three new elements. The first element was a spirit of gallantry which gave women a wholly new place in the imaginations of men. It was in part a reaction against the extreme austerity of the saints, and this reaction was much intensified after the cessation of the panic which had risen at the close of the tenth century about the approaching end of the world. It was in part produced by the softer and more epicurean civilisation which grew up in the country bordering on the Pyrenees. It was especially represented in the romances and poems of the Troubadours, and the new tendency even received some assistance from the Church when the Council of Clermont, which originated the Crusades, imposed on the knight the religious obligation of defending all widows and orphans.

The second element was an increased reverence for secular rank, which grew out of the feudal system, when a great hereditary aristocracy arose and all European society was moulded into a compact hierarchy, of which the serf was the basis and the emperor the apex. The principle of subordination and obedience ran through the whole edifice, and a respect for rank was universally diffused. Men came to associate their ideal of greatness with regal or noble authority, and they were therefore prepared to idealise any great sovereign who might arise. Such a sovereign appeared in Charlemagne, who exercised upon Christendom a fascination not less powerful than that which Alexander had once exercised upon Greece, and he accordingly soon became the centre of a whole literature of romance.

The third element was the fusion of religious enthusiasm with the military spirit. Christianity in its first phases was utterly opposed to the military spirit; but this opposition was naturally mitigated when the Church triumphed under Constantine and became associated with governments and armies. The hostility was still further qualified when many tribes of warlike barbarians embraced the faith, and the military obligation which was an essential element of feudalism acted in the same direction. But, above all, the rise and conquests of Mohammedanism awoke the military energies of Christendom and determined the direction it should take. In the Crusades the two great streams of military enthusiasm and of religious enthusiasm met, and the result was the formation of a new ideal which for a long period mainly governed the imagination of Christendom.

It for a time absorbed, eclipsed, and transformed all purely national ideals. No poet was ever more intensely English in his character and sympathies than Chaucer, and he wrote when the dazzling glories of Crécy and Poitiers were still very recent. Yet it is not on these fields, but in the long wars with the Moslems, that his pattern knight had won his renown. The military expeditions of Charlemagne were directed almost exclusively against the Saxons and against Slavonic tribes. With the Spanish Mohammedans he came but very slightly in contact. He made in person but one expedition against them, and that expedition was both insignificant and unsuccessful. But in the Karlovingian romances, which were written when the crusading enthusiasm was at its height, the figure of the great emperor underwent a strange and most significant transformation. The German wars were scarcely noticed. Charlemagne is surrounded with the special glory that ought to have belonged to Charles Martel. He is represented as having passed his entire life in a victorious struggle with the Mohammedans of Europe, and is even gravely credited with a triumphant expedition to Jerusalem. The three romances of the Crusades which are believed to be the oldest were all written by monks, and they all make Charlemagne their hero. Even geography was transformed by the new enthusiasm, and old maps sometimes represent Jerusalem as the centre of the world.

In few periods has there been so great a difference between the ideals created by the popular imagination and the realities that are recognised by history. Few wars have been accompanied by more cruelty, more outrage, and more licentiousness than the Crusades or have brought a blacker cloud of disasters in their train. Yet the idea that inspired them was a lofty one, and they were so speedily transfigured by the imaginations of men that in combination with the other influences I have mentioned they created an ideal which is one of the most beautiful in the history of the world. We may trace it clearly in the romances of Arthur and Charlemagne and of the “Cid;” in the “Red-Cross Knight” of Tasso and Spenser; in the old ballads which paint so vividly the hero of chivalry, ever ready to draw his sword for his faith and his lady-love and in the cause of the feeble and the oppressed. The glorification of military courage and self-sacrifice which had been so prominent in antiquity was again in the ascendant, but it was combined with a new kind of honour and with a new vein of courtesy, modesty, and gentleness. When we apply the epithet ‘chivalrous’ to a modern gentleman, this is no unmeaning term. There is even now an element in that character which may be distinctly traced to the ideal of chivalry which the Crusades made dominant in Europe.

I do not propose to follow the history of other ideals that have in turn prevailed. What I have written will, I trust, be sufficient to illustrate a kind of history which appears to me to possess much interest and value. It will show, too, that a faithful historian is very largely concerned with the fictions as well as with the facts of the past. Legends which have no firm historical basis are often of the highest historical value as reflecting the moral sentiments of their time. Nor do they merely reflect them. In some periods they contribute perhaps more than any other influence to mould and colour them and to give them an enduring strength. The facts of history have been largely governed by its fictions. Great events often acquire their full power over the human mind only when they have passed through the transfiguring medium of the imagination, and men as they were supposed to be have even sometimes exercised a wider influence than men as they actually were. Ideals ultimately rule the world, and each before it loses its ascendancy bequeaths some moral truth as an abiding legacy to the human race.

William E.H. Lecky (1838-1903)


[1] Difficult or impossible for one of ordinary understanding or knowledge to comprehend. (Merriam-Webster).
[2] Boundary, limit. (Merriam-Webster).

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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