James Bryce Bryce.

University and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain online

. (page 19 of 24)
Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 19 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

studies, high as one may rate their value, are indispen-
sable to one who would attain the best kind of culture
or produce the best kind of literature. To genius
nothing is indispensable. What others can absorb by
training and study, the most gifted minds can achieve
by their innate power :

Pauci, quos aequus amavit
lupiter, aut ardens evexit ad aethera virtus,
Dis geniti, potuere. 3

Some of our most brilliant writers, some of our
strongest thinkers, have had little in the way of literary

1 Hiad, XXII, 361. 2 Iliad, XH, 243. * jEneid, VI.



education. Yet even they might have gained from it
something in fineness without losing anything in strength.
Neither do I venture to suggest that you can expect
any large number of young men to throw themselves
into studies that seem so remote from the pursuits of
practical life. Comparatively few will see any use in
what they call dead languages, or will feel any taste for
them. But some students you must have, and those
not professors only. You must see to it that business
is not the whole life of all American business men,
but that room is made in the lives of some few
of them for the enjoyments of ancient literature.
The few are worth regarding, for it is always by
the few best and most cultivated minds that tra-
ditions are preserved and taste is maintained at a high
level. They tend and keep alive the sacred flame.

May it not be expected that the strain and stress of
commercial and industrial life which now forces the
American youth to sacrifice everything else to fitting
himself for practical life, and leaves the American busi-
ness man scarce any leisure for intellectual pleasures,
will before long abate? A time will come when
the development of the country's resources will have
been completed and the opportunities for making huge
fortunes will have become less frequent. If you can
keep classical studies from further declining during the
next fifty years, your battle will have been won.





NOWHERE in the world is the study of history
pursued with more zeal and assiduity than in the
universities and colleges of the United States. There
must be many hundreds of professors and instructors
engaged in teaching it, and many others are occupied
in various branches of research work. It seems to be
that one among the so-called "humanistic" subjects
which attracts the largest number of students, a num-
ber probably much greater than that of those who are
occupied with Greek and Latin. The methods of
teaching it and writing it have, therefore, presented
themselves to me as a fitting topic on which to ad-
dress to you those remarks which you expect from one
whom you have honoured by choosing him to be your

Eighty years ago there was no teaching of the subject
in American universities and practically none in
British. In Cambridge and in Oxford a professor was
allotted to it, but of these two one seldom lectured,
and the other not at all. In Scotland the universities



of St. Andrew's, Glasgow, and Aberdeen provided no
historical teaching, while at Edinburgh there was a
chair entitled that of Natural and Civil History,
you may smile at the title, but there is a connection
between the two departments. Here hi North
America the old established college curriculum had no
room for modern history and scarcely touched upon
ancient. Now, both in British and in American univer-
sities, the study has laid a strong hold upon the interest
of those who in growing numbers resort thither. Next
to that educational revolution which has given to the
sciences of nature their now predominant position in
the University curriculum, no change has been more
noteworthy. I may therefore safely assume that
many of you have followed with interest the course of
recent discussions as to how history should be taught
and written.

Before I come to this topic, let me offer one remark.
While admiring the untiring energy and patient care
with which you teach American history and investi-
gate all its details, and while desiring to express the
gratitude of British scholars for what you have done
and are doing for the history of England, I venture to
submit that scarcely enough attention is given either
here or in Britain to the history of the European
Continent, and above all to ecclesiastical history,
which is in a certain sense the central stream of all
intellectual and social movement, from the early days
of Christianity down to the eighteenth century, and


which reveals to us the working of so many of the
chief forces that have not only affected politics, but
moulded character and conduct among Christian
nations. Asking you to consider at your leisure this
one suggestion, I pass on to a subject which has
doubtless already presented itself to your minds, for it
has been much discussed both here and in Europe.
It is this : What do we mean by the scientific treat-
ment of history ? And is history a science ?

In its most elementary forms, history began in some
countries, as in Egypt and among the Celtic peoples,
with genealogies of chiefs and kings; in others, as
among the Norsemen of Iceland, with tales of adven-
ture describing the feats of famous men; and again in
other countries, as in Europe during the Dark Ages,
with entries in the rolls of monasteries of any events
which appeared specially remarkable to the monk who
acted as scribe. The picture records of Mexico, and
the ballads in which the Pacific Islanders still recall
the exploits of warriors of former days, would have
been a basis for history had the art of writing been
known, just as the Song of Deborah was an historical
source for the early annals of Israel, and as the ballad
of Chevy Chase would have been a similar source
did we not possess more authentic records of the fight
at Otterburn. But historical composition, as a dis-
tinct branch of literature, begins with the Greeks, and
begins with two famous writers, contemporaries of the
great Athenian dramatists and of the greatest among


Greek lyric poets. Herodotus and Thucydides were
the models for the Roman historians from the second
century B.C. onwards, and have been models for the
civilized world ever since.

Different as these two masters were, so different that
they have been taken as representing two dissimilar
types of historical writing, they were alike in possessing
literary gifts of a high order. In their hands History
is fascinating as well as instructive. That character,
as a branch of what used to be called "polite letters,"
History recovered in the days of the Renaissance, and in
that character it was cultivated with special diligence in
the eighteenth century both on the European continent
and in Britain. It was written not so much for the
sake of presenting an accurate record of what had
happened, as with a view to the pleasure or the moral
edification of the reader. All possible pains were
taken to make it attractive in style. It was embel-
lished with rhetorical ornaments and, especially in the
hands of the less skilful artists, copiously interspersed
with moral reflections. For thirty years after the
outbreak of the French Revolution it was treated by
English writers in what might be called a homiletic
spirit, being used to warn men against the excesses of
democracy. Though we had in Britain no man who
could rank, in respect of learning and services he ren-
dered to learning, with the Italian Muratori, we had
great writers who added to the charms of a stately and
impressive style wide knowledge and vigorous thought.


Such were Gibbon and Robertson, such, a generation
later, was Henry Hallam. These men, while they
never forgot that they were literary artists, felt
themselves to be also bound to the utmost care
in the collection and statement of their facts, and
devoted one sees the growth of the tendency in
Hallam as compared with his predecessors more
and more care to the study of original authorities.
Nevertheless the popular view that literary skill rather
than special capacity or painstaking investigation was
the quality which the historian needed was illustrated
by the fact that so many of the most successful books
were written by men who were litterateurs rather than
historians. Hume, Smollet, and Goldsmith, a meta-
physician, a novelist, and a dramatist, were the popu-
lar historians of their day. When, in the next genera-
tion, a history of Ireland was wanted for Lardner's
Cabinet Cyclopaedia, it was committed to Tom Moore,
the Irish poet, who brought patriotism and imagi-
nation and style, but little else, to a singularly difficult
task. So even in Germany, Schiller, withdrawn from
the service of poetry, wrote the history of the Thirty
Years' War. The tradition that the historian must be
eloquent lasted on for another half century. George
Bancroft and even Motley marred the effect of their
books by needless rhetoric. The thoroughness and
ingenuity with which E. A. Freeman worked out the
details of his Norman Conquest and his History of Sicily
would have been more fully appreciated but for his


tendency to grandiloquence. The case of J. A. Froude,
the last of the so-called literary historians, is not quite
the same. The others whom I have just named were
solid, hard-working, conscientious scholars; Froude
was a brilliant stylist, who had begun his career as a
writer of stories, and chose thereafter to display in the
field of history his gift of picturesque narration. His
ecclesiastical partisanship was usually evident enough
to enable a reader to discount it. A graver fault was
that superb indifference to truth which sometimes led
him to regard the facts he had to deal with chiefly as
so much material to be handled with a view to artistic
effect, putting on them such colouring as was needed
to secure the particular effect desired, and caring little
for accuracy in details which did not move his

A new spirit, however, had already been at work in
France and Germany, and in the first quarter of the nine-
teenth century it had begun to show itself in Great Brit-
ain also. The same intellectual movement which had
been producing discoveries in the field of physics and
chemistry, and was soon to produce discoveries in those
of geology and biology, revealed itself in the students of
philology, economics, and history. The half century
which covers Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestley
and Saussure and Cuvier and Humboldt covers also
the publication of F. A. Wolf's famous Prolegomena to
Homer, a period in which new critical methods began
to be applied by other scholars, as by Michaelis, to the


primitive literature and early records of other peoples
also. Even earlier they had been applied by Beaufort
to Roman history. Niebuhr in Germany and Guizot
in France were in the nineteenth century among the
first leaders of a new school who showed that they cared
more for the substance than for the form of their his-
torical writing, though both of them had the force and
finish which belong to powerful minds, Niebuhr bold
and brilliant in his suggestions, Guizot, lucid, acute,
and delicate in his handling of details. The men of
this school flung themselves into the investigation
of the sources of history with an ardour and assiduity
which in earlier days had been sometimes displayed
by patient and leisurely workers like the Benedictines
in France or the Magdeburg Centuriators in Germany,
but seldom by persons in the front rank either of
teachers or of writers known to the world at large.
Strict critical methods now began to be generally
applied to the original contemporaneous authorities.
Public and private archives and collections of books
or documents were ransacked for new materials.
Manuscripts were collated, edited, published in
such a series as that of the Recueil des Historiens
in France or that of the Monumenta Histories
Germanica in Germany. All the old views were
reexamined; many old fables or misconceptions were
exploded. For the loose phrases and flowing periods
of the school of "literary historians" there was sub-
stituted an exact and precise setting forth of what


could be ascertained from the sources, showing how
much was certain, how much doubtful, and how far
different sources agreed with or contradicted one
another. In the earlier stages of the movement the
more daring spirits attempted to reconstruct .the more
distant and darker periods of history from data which we
should now think too slender, and the tendency during
the last thirty years has been to discourage efforts to
rewrite the annals of a people in the light of any theory,
however plausible, and to be content with setting out
all that can be known, leaving the student to make the
best of it. Ranke and Mommsen are, in respect of
their immense productive power and massive learning,
the most illustrious representatives of this school, but
in our language, we may point to William Stubbs, to
E. A. Freeman, to Francis Parkman, to Samuel R.
Gardiner, and to F. W. Maitland as instances of the
way in which scholars writing in English have
absorbed and exemplified its methods.

It is sometimes said that this change in the way of
handling history is due to the influence of the sciences
of nature upon the minds of all classes of educated
men. Doubtless the rapid advance of those sciences
through the application of their exact experimental
methods has helped to strengthen among all kinds of
investigators a sense of the importance of precision,
accuracy, and caution in inference. Nevertheless it
will be seen, if the progress of the humanistic studies is
carefully examined, that the new tendencies which have


come to pervade the latter are not a result of the ad-
vance of the physical sciences, but rather part of a
parallel and independent though cognate change in the
intellectual tendencies and habits of mankind. The
beginning of a critical examination of ancient docu-
ments may be found in Spinoza, who was a con-
temporary of the group of Englishmen that founded
the Royal Society. The employment of exact methods
in historical investigation was visible in modern
Europe almost as soon as was the adoption of
experimental methods in physical science. Nor was
this critically exact spirit a wholly new thing. One
sees it emerging from time to time in superior minds
as far back as Thucydides and Aristotle.

Not only in Germany, France, and Italy, but also in
Britain and the United States the best men had been
writing history in a genuinely scientific way before
the term "scientific history" began to be used as a
technical expression somewhere about the year 1880.
If that term be taken to denote the systematic
application of strict tests to evidence and a single-
minded devotion to the ascertainment and the state-
ment of truth, and nothing but the truth, then all
will agree that it is an entirely laudable ideal, and that
whoever gives us a history which is scientific in this
sense, whatever else he gives or fails to give, renders a
real service.

The term seems, however, to be taken as connoting
some negative as well as some positive qualities. The


"scientific" historian must, it seems to be supposed,
renounce all literary graces and aim at dryness. His
style is to be plain and bald. Not only ornament,
but anything which can rouse emotion or appeal to
imagination is to be eschewed, for that way danger lies.
Romantic incidents and dramatic scenes are to be
excluded, or told in a business-like or even prosaic
way, lest the reader be diverted from the succession of
more important events; nor are any moral judgments
to be pronounced.

Our distinguished English authority, the late Pro-
fessor Seeley, himself a writer of singular force, with
a power of making his points tell which the most
accomplished forensic advocate might have envied, went
so far as to declare that in order to be scientifically
valuable, history must be dull or dry.

.Considered as a reaction against the habit of treat-
ing history as a part of polite letters, against the
superabundant rhetoric of Bancroft and the pic-
turesque carelessness of Froude, this view was a legiti-
mate reaction. It suited the practical and business-like
spirit of our time, and has been generally accepted by
the present generation. The truth of the facts is no
doubt far more important than any of the embellish-
ments which literary skill can add to a narrative, and
if the embellishments begin to be seductive, cast them
away. Excellent opportunities for working on these
lines were afforded by such large cooperative under-
takings as the Dictionary of National Biography


and the Cambridge Modern History, for as in these
compression was of the first importance, ornament was
very properly discarded. I remember how at a public
dinner given to celebrate the completion of the former
book, one speaker, deservedly popular among the
literary figures of London, delighted the audience by
observing that the maxim of the editors of that
stupendous work had been, "No flowers, by request."

The precept that style need not be regarded has the
advantage of being easy to follow, easier than most of
the counsels of asceticism. If the road into the
gardens of historic truth leads through the realm of
dulness, all may traverse the first part of it. We can
all of us be heavy, or slipshod, or merely level and
monotonous. And doubtless it is better to be tedious
and monotonous and dreary almost up to the verge
of unreadability than that our facts should be wrong
or that such of them as are right should be smothered
under festoons of florid verbiage. A somewhat tedious
history like Guicciardini's, or a level and rather arid one
like Lingard's, is serviceable in spite of its tameness.
But aridity raises no presumption of accuracy. There
is no necessary or natural connection between the two
things, and accuracy may be just as well combined
with animation. The things that have actually hap-
pened are as interesting as the things that might have
happened, but did not, just as picturesque, just as well
fitted to touch imagination and appeal to sentiment.
That some writers have, in their desire to produce


literary effect, forgotten that their first devotion was
due to truth, is a reason not for despising literary
effect, but for relegating it to the second place.

There are instances enough more recent than those
of Gibbon and Robertson, already noted, not to speak
of Thomas Carlyle, to show that there is no incom-
patibility between scientific and literary treatment.
Macaulay's amazing force and brilliance have drawn,
and continue to draw, thousands of people to his pages
who would have been attracted by no one with a
less fascinating style. But though his eminence and
pronounced political views exposed him in his lifetime
to a captiously minute and rather niggling criticism,
his work has, take it all in all, stood the test of
time as an authority. Lord Acton, one of the most
accurate as well as the most learned of recent English
historians, though sometimes obscure from the very-
pregnancy of his thought, lit up his narrative with
epigrammatic wisdom, and, more rarely, with descrip-
tions of concentrated glow. The style of Henry C.
Lea, the most learned as well as among the most
accurate of recent American historical writers, though
no doubt always plain and level, is always agreeable,
because he knew how to select from the vast material
at his command what was most illuminative. He has
always something interesting to tell, and he tells it
with lucid simplicity. Francis Parkman's laborious
researches did not wither the freshness of his mind.
John Richard Green, though sometimes heedless in


small things, was in essential matters a sound and
trustworthy writer, against whom few serious errors
have ever been proved, yet his Short History
of England is confessedly as fascinating as any

Thucydides himself, the greatest of them all, the
model of exactness and thoroughness hi his treatment
of the events of his time, Thucydides has given us
narrative passages like that describing the retreat of
the Athenian army from Syracuse, where every sentence
is charged with dramatic force, and reflective passages
which stir the depths of thought now as they did
twenty-four centuries ago. There is no ornament in
his writing, but there is not a dull page.

May not our friends of the neo-scientific school those
whom Walter Scott and after him Carlyle would have
called the Dryasdusts sometimes forget that history
has to be written not only for historical students who
bring their interest with them, so that the dry bones
are all they need, but also for those who bring no
such special interest, and who will be repelled by an
unattractive treatment of the theme ? That a knowl-
edge of the past should be more generally diffused
through the whole community, that the past should be
made to live as something real in their minds, that it
should help to form their tastes and enlarge their
horizons, is an object worth working for. Anything
can be made dull or lively by the way in which it is
told, and history more easily than most subjects,



because there are no difficulties of technical termi-
nology to overcome.

When we pronounce a book of history dull, why
do we find it so? Is it not because the leading
characters are not individualized, because the salient
facts are not brought into due relief, because the dra-
matic situations are missed, because the style does
not rise or fall in sympathy with the significance of the
events and their emotions they evoke ? The avoidance
of these defects, so far from injuring the truth and
precision of a record, will make it more vivid and more
readily remembered by the special student as well
as the lay reader.

Another school has arisen of late years which also
claims the name of Scientific, and its pretensions
have made so much noise both in Europe and here
as to require some consideration. This school seeks
to raise, or reduce, history to the level of an exact
science like those which deal with various departments
of physical enquiry. Conceiving that only through at-
taining an exactitude like theirs can history have any
real value, it ignores the individual, it regards the course
of human affairs as determined by general laws which
govern the action of men associated in communities,
much as the so-called "laws of nature" govern the in-
animate and animate external world. From a study of
racial characteristics, intellectual tendencies, and the
play of economic interests, this school believes itself able
to discover such laws, and it expounds them in elaborate


formulae, purporting to sum up the past, to explain the
present, to predict (perhaps less positively) the future.
The objection to this method and procedure as we
see it practised by the votaries of this school is that it
is not scientific. Nothing accords less with scientific
principles than to treat as similar things essentially
dissimilar. Now the phenomena of human society
which history deals with are altogether unlike the
phenomena of external nature, indeed, so unlike as to
suggest that the methods fit for the one can hardly be
fit for the other, or at any rate cannot promise like
results. Oxygen and hydrogen behave in the same
way in all countries. Their properties were, so far as
we know, the same ten thousand years ago as they are
now, and are apparently the same here on our earth
as they are in the sun and the other stars. But the
features of human society are wholly different in
different races and different countries. Even in the
same countries they were a thousand years ago unlike
what they are now. Their study is for this and other
reasons incomparably more difficult than is the study

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 22 23 24

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 19 of 24)