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Egyptian books of Ebers, may approach the tamest record of the facts; if artistic, like those of Walter Scott, it may be almost a work of pure imagination. But the historical interest is always there, and it may be doubted whether the story of any invented being, formally divorced from the annals of known men, will ever excite the keen and permanent interest which the history of such a man as Alexander of Macedon or Napoleon will always command. The mass of fiction which gathered round the name of the former all pretends to be history; the vast libraries of Napoleonic books contain plenty of fiction; but the fiction is of little interest in comparison with the real history of that wonderful life.
As history in the widest sense therefore embraces the greater part of literature, we must here confine ourselves to what is strictly such-the efforts made by many writers in many nations for the last 3000 years either to ascertain the history of men who lived before them, who live away from them, or else to give us a picture of the society in which they themselves have lived.
So long as the belief in a golden age, in a heroic past, dominated the imagination of men, so long both epic poems and annals were occupied with the uncertain and legendary past. The history of Herodotus is justly regarded as the masterpiece in a new line, the attempt to narrate a great struggle which was still in the memory of old men, and also to show how the earlier conditions of Greece and of Asia led up to this struggle. And here for the first time the literary side of such a work was made important in contrast to the dry annals or mere enumeration of events, which was the earlier method of escaping from the fables of the romancers into the domain of real facts. The antagonism to the ornamental or poetical treatment was too strong in these annals. Sober men then made the mistake which sober men do now; they imagined that if we could only ascertain the bare facts, we should have before us the true history of the past. Such a notion is chimerical; unless we have living men reproduced with their passions and the logic of their feeling, we have no real human history. The historical novel gives us a far closer approximation to the whole truth than the chronological table. Hence the genius of Herodotus,
like the genius of the Old Testament historians, hit upon the great truth that every worthy portrait is a character-portrait, and that the perfection of such a portrait depends as much upon the painter as upon the subject of the painting. Herodotus' individual men and women, nay, his individual city-states, live in our imagination. He has done most of all men to make the history of Greece a subject of eternal interest. Plutarch is his only rival in this respect. Had these two authors been lost, the educated public in all the European nations would long since have lost touch with the Greeks, and the interest in Greek things might have been confined to the lesser audience of artists and scholars.
If it be felt that Herodotus has still the obscure feeling of making history an epic poem, that he has too many digressions and halting-places-yet how precious they are!-the Greeks have supplied us with a strong antidote. By reason of that curious law, which forbids literary genius to appear sporadically (as in the exceptional case of Dante), but rather in clusters (as in the Periclean, Elizabethan, and Napoleonic epochs), we have as a great rival and contemporary of Herodotus the historian Thucydides. In deliberate antagonism to the free and easy gossiping of the old school traveller, who often delays the great march of his immortal epic by refreshing his readers with posies from the flowery fields of anecdote, this other literary genius lets us know clearly, without condescending to say it oftener than in one brief sentence, that the permanent value of history (in his opinion) lies not in the social or artistic side, but in the progress of political movements, in the conflicts of great principles, which mould the character and condition of nations. To him the war between Athens and Sparta, even down to its petty and monotonous raids, is far more important than the sculpture of Phidias, the poetry of Sophocles, the buildings of Ictinus and Mnesicles. With him, as with a great school of modern historians, from Macchiavelli to Seeley, politics dominate the world, and therefore political history exceeds all other in value and in interest.
But is it possible for any thoughtful man, living and taking part in the political controversies of his day, to give us an objective
record of his own time? This is what Thucydides professes to do; and so well has he concealed his partialities by his seriousness and his affected accuracy, that his literary genius has imposed upon the world of scholars from that day up to the present critical age. We know now that his subjectivity was no less dominating than that of Herodotus. But it was disguised, as the subjectivity of a great painter is disguised from the vulgar by the accuracy of the likeness he paints. The contemporaries of Rembrandt may have insisted upon the fidelity with which he reproduced his Burgomasters, his old women, and his Jews. We now value his portraits not as likenesses, but as expressions of the painter's genius; and that is the real value of the history of Thucydides. If Herodotus be the Vandyck who gives us a gallery of the grandees of Hellas and of Asia, Thucydides is the Rembrandt who expresses his own people, be they coarse or even ugly, with the force and spirit of his gloomy genius.
These are the two immortal types, even among our masters the Greeks, for all their successors seem weak beside them. Xenophon has all the technique of a historical artist, but he wants the strong character, the subjectivity which produces the harmony of a great work. Polybius has the subjectivity, the strong character of a historian, but he is so deficient in the technique that he is neglected by the world.
It cannot but be interesting to inquire how far these eternal contrasts are manifested in the great writers who have kept alive the torch of artistic history in modern times, but the subject is too vast to allow us here more than some general reflections. The solidarity of Europe, the myriad relations of great kingdoms in constant communication, have made the task so vast that no human mind can fill the whole canvas of contemporary history with an adequate and harmonious picture. Thus Alison's Europe must have been a failure as a great work of art, nor would it have been attempted by any true historical genius. The subject was too vast, and the events too close to the writer to admit of his producing a κTμa és deí. The only contemporary history which can κτῆμα ἀεί. claim a high place in art is in the form of memoirs such as those
of St. Simon, or of Boswell, which reflect the surface of an interesting society from day to day. The men who have shown a true genius for history in modern times have selected epochs from past centuries, in which the characters and the events were of such importance that they maintained their interest in the minds of civilised men.
Foremost among those of English race comes Gibbon, the Herodotus of modern times in the wide range of his subject, in the clearness of his grasp, in the wealth of his imagination, but inferior to Herodotus as an artist, in that the artificial pomp of style is too prominent, and often distracts the reader's attention from the narrative; whereas the old Greek had attained that higher stage in which art seems to be nature in its apparent simplicity and the total absence of affectation. Still Gibbon's history is a great and enduring work of art, which will never be superseded by the more pragmatic writing of modern men. He held fast to the old classical principle, that the historian must be rich in imagination, and not wanting in eloquence. Next to Gibbon's Decline and Fall, among the histories written in English, comes (in my opinion) Grote's History of Greece. Like Thucydides in his seriousness, his exclusive attention to politics, his decently veiled desire to refute the views of his predecessors, Grote was wanting in rhetorical skill, still more in that pathetic terseness which makes the narrative of Thucydides so impressive. It is in fact in paraphrasing his ancient models that Grote shows to the greatest advantage. But though his history has been called a huge political pamphlet in support of philosophical radicalism, his breadth, his learning, his thoroughness in working out his sources, make his History of Greece stand out ahead of the many shorter histories furnished by European scholars. For he was not only a scholar, but a politician; he knew how theoretical contradictions in a constitution are avoided by practical compromises, and if he neglected art, archæology, and, in general, the picturesqueness of his subject, he can still be used to rectify the want of insight in politics which the professorial historians of France and Germany are wont to display.
The research of Germany and the brilliancy of France have not produced any masterpieces which can rank with those of Gibbon or Grote. But they have, of course, produced many excellent and even great contributions to history. Two among the Germans impress me as greater than the rest-Mommsen's Roman History, and Histories of Medieval Athens, and of Rome, by Gregorovius. Both are written with far more finish of style than is usual in Germany, and both are monuments of great and accurate learning. In Mommsen's book this learning is as it were disguised by an absence of foot-notes, and still more by a certain petulance of style which suggests a mind prejudiced upon certain leading political questions. The suspicion thus raised by the style of this remarkable book may be confirmed by careful criticism of its authorities. On the other hand, a knowledge of Mommsen's special studies shows his gigantic power in gathering the materials for history. The greatest of all the predecessors of these men, Niebuhr, though the originator of a new method, was not great enough as a writer to maintain his position against modern competition. Yet his snccessors, with the exception of Mommsen, are rather respectable than great as artists. Many of them are first-rate scholars, but that is not our business here.
As might be expected from a nation that produces such excellent prose, the French have given us a whole series of eminent historians, but it is perhaps the high level of their style that has hindered any one of them from holding any primacy over his fellows. Guizot, Taine, Thiers, Renan, Montalembert, Henri Martin, and many others, have given us brilliant expositions of sundry periods in European history, but there is seldom absent from them that subjectivity which marks a Frenchman, and which mars his authority among other nations as a judge of historical evidence. There is also, in most of them, an over-attention to style, an anxiety to say brilliant things, which rather dazzle the
1 The English reader is fortunate in this case to have an unusually excellent English translation (that of Dr. Dickson) to his hand. The translation of Gregorovius' History of Rome, which is now in progress, is not sufficiently known to me to warrant any opinion upon it.