James Bryce Bryce.

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

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Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 20 of 24)
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of natural phenomena. No scrutiny we can apply to
them can possibly be exhaustive, nor can those
methods of counting, measuring and weighing by which
exactitude is secured in chemistry and physics be
employed. Most observers are prone, since they
cannot possibly exhaust the facts, to fix their atten-
tion on, and give prominence to, those facts which
happen to fit in with their preconceived notions, and


use them to support the broad generalizations they
seek to draw. Many a man, when he has gone a
little way into a subject, thinks it easy to sum up in a
generalization the facts he sees. No habit is more
seductive. But it is a dangerous habit, because ample
knowledge and an experience that engenders caution
are needed to recognize the pitfalls that lie round the
enquirer's path. So one may say that the longer a
man studies either a given country or a given period, the
fewer, the more cautious, and the more carefully limited
and guarded in statement will his generalizations be.
Some fifty years ago the late Mr. H. T. Buckle
published a book entitled a History of Civilization.
Its vigorous style and bold generalizations gave it
popularity at the tune. But though Buckle had read
widely and done a good deal of thinking, his knowledge
was altogether insufficient to qualify him for the task
he was attempting, and he had not been trained to
apply adequate criticism to the authorities he
used. There were in the book some true things
forcibly stated and fitted to stimulate reflection, but
it made no really important contribution to knowl-
edge ; and some of his generalizations, as for instance
the well-known parallel between Scotland and Spain,
were ludicrous. Of most of the other writers who
have followed in the same path much the same may
be said. The foundations have been weak, so the
structures of ambitious theory raised upon them have
been flimsy and unstable. These writers have seldom


realized the extreme complexity of the data to be
dealt with, the number of the hidden forces at work,
the variability of human beings under different condi-
tions, the important part played by individual men
whose appearance has disturbed all calculations and
overthrown all predictions.

Suppose that a philosopher had hi the middle of the
second century of our era addressed himself to the task
of writing a history of civilization and moral progress.
He would have had nearly nine centuries of tolerably
authentic history behind him, a period as long as that
which separates us from Pope Gregory the Seventh
and William the Conqueror, and he might have pleased
himself by drawing out and dedicating to the Em-
peror Marcus Aurelius, as a monarch of philosophic
tastes, a generalized statement of the laws governing
human development which, being proved from an
observation of the past, would evidently continue to
determine human progress in the centuries to come.
The materials might have seemed abundant, and the
interpretation of the causes of progress a simple
matter. But our philosopher would have left out of
account the two factors which 'were destined to have
most influence on that progress, Christianity, which
the Emperor was trying to repress as a dangerous
secret society, and the barbarian foes of civilization
with whom he was warring on the Danube.

The more recent writers of this school its Cory-
phaeus was the late Mr. Herbert Spencer, but it has


representatives in Continental Europe also have
not (so far as I know) contributed to history either
any sound theories, or any illuminative suggestions
which competent historians did not know already,
and did not know better, because they were known
as the result of a wide and critical mastery of
details. What the school has given is a mass of general
propositions couched in what sounds like scientific
language, but the contents and substance of which are
either threadbare truths so dressed up in solemn
phraseology as to appear to be novelties, or theories
too vague and abstract to be serviceable either as
interpretations or as summaries of the facts. Some-
tunes the propositions are not true as stated, i.e. they
contain a germ of truth, but are misleading unless
many qualifications be added. This faith in phrases
and formulae is an instance of that recurring pro-
pensity of the human mind to impose upon facts in
general its own notions drawn from a few facts
hastily gathered, notions which gain authority from
being clothed in elaborate pseudo-technical termi-
nology. It was a like propensity which in the Middle
Ages retarded the progress of the sciences of nature
by embodying crude conceptions of phenomena in
terms and theories to which there was nothing cor-
responding in reality, as when men talked about
"phlogiston" and "animal spirits" and thought they
had explained things by saying that "nature abhors


Mr. Spencer was a most painstaking and earnest
thinker, and the efforts of his school to impress
upon their contemporaries the value of an arrange-
ment and synthesis of knowledge deserve all recogni-
tion. Of what services the school has rendered to
subjects other than history I will not venture to
speak, but as respects the results attained in history
and subjects cognate thereto, the view I have tried to
convey to you is, I believe, that pretty generally held
by historical students both here and in England.
Perhaps the disappointment one feels in perusing
books where one seeks for bread and seems to receive
only stones may perhaps bias those of us who were
trained in another school. Judge therefore for your-
selves and see if you can extract new and profit-
able truths where we have not been able to discover

Needless to say that every historical scholar
recognizes that there are certain general principles
to be applied to the investigation of human society
and to the elucidation of the forces by which the
institutions and arts of life have advanced, and
reognizes also that though the movement which
has made history more scientific had an independent
origin, the historian may profit by a knowledge of the
methods employed in the sciences of nature. In the
first place there is to be studied Human Nature itself,
which presents certain fundamental qualities and habits
present in all more or less civilized communities, quali-


ties whose existence we may everywhere assume as social
factors. These factors are in their outlines familiar
to us all. They have been dwelt upon by philosophers
and historians from Plato downwards. They do
furnish a basis for what may be called a general treat-
ment of political and social institutions, but it is only
a basis, because the phenomena differ so much accord-
ing to race and environment that the general propo-
sitions we can lay down as positive and practically
certain are but few.

Secondly, there are certain general tendencies which
can be traced through the annals of mankind, certain
lines along which human progress has moved. To dis-
cover and trace and illustrate these is the province of
what is usually called the Philosophy of History, a
subject with which some famous writers have dealt,
beginning with the Arab Ibn Khaldun, and coming
down through the Italian Vico to the German Hegel.
There is no branch of historical enquiry that better
deserves your thoughts. But it is more modest in its
pretensions than is the school of Buckle and Spencer,
for it does not attempt to lay down general proposi-
tions about all men and all communities, but only to
explain the past by showing what were the most
potent forces and tendencies at work, and how the
growth of the human mind expressed itself in the
moulding and perfecting of institutions.

The facts which History presents chronologically
may also be treated as materials for a systematic


study of any special branch of human activity, just as
the events in the annals of the Greeks recorded by
Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and others may be
used for a treatise, like that of Aristotle, concerning
Greek politics. History may hand over the phenom-
ena she records to be made the basis of books on
political science, or economic science, or what is called
Sociology, in which the phenomena are arranged and
analyzed, and are so correlated and explained as to
enable us to draw from them general conclusions.
But the materials belong to History. It is she that
has gathered them. It is to her that he who would
handle them systematically must go in order to know
the authenticity and the value of each part of them.

Let me try to sum up as follows what I have sought
to convey to you.

There is no incompatibility between the scientific
treatment and the literary treatment of history. Un-
due attention to the latter will tend to make a writer
less accurate and thorough in investigation, just as
complete absorption in the investigation of facts will
tend to make his presentation of the facts less attrac-
tive. But there is nothing to-day, any more than in
bygone days, to prevent him from being both a careful
investigator and an agreeable writer. As between
Lingard and Froude, choose Lingard, but the combina-
tion of qualities which you have in Macaulay or
Green or Parkman or Lea is better than either. No
historians were more accurate and exact than Ranke


and Mommsen, but every page in the writings of both
has a literary quality.

There is no incompatibility between the use of
critical methods and a careful study of details on the
one hand and a grasp of broad general principles on
the other. Rather is it true that the man who knows
the details best is also the fittest to educe and explain
the general principles. Many a student can master the
details who cannot expound the principles, but the
man of wide grasp is always the better for knowing
the details also, for in them lies Reality.

That which is misleading and unfruitful is the ten-
dency to disjoin the mastery of details from the so-
called " sociological " study of general principles, i.e. to
think you can have the latter without the former.
To re-create any period of the Past for our own minds,
to understand it as it was, unlike what went before it,
unlike what came after it, this is the chief aim of
history, and for this purpose one must study not only
the masses of men but also individual men, their ideas
and beliefs, their enjoyments and aspirations. Espe-
cially important is it for any one who would explain
the course of events that he should understand those
individuals who by force of thought or will dominated
their own time and turned the course of events. Not
only has the study of striking figures the greatest
fascination for the ordinary reader as well as the
student, it has also an importance for the compre-
hension of events which the Buckle and Spencer


school do not seem to realize. The individual doubt-
less counts for less to-day in most countries than he
did in either the republics or the monarchies of the
past. But if you wish to realize how much he still
counts for, think of how different Europe would have
been to-day had there been no Napoleon Bonaparte,
no Mazzini, no Cavour, no Bismarck ; or what it
would have meant in your Revolutionary War if
Clive, who died in 1774, had lived to lead the troops of
George the Third and there had been no Washington
to oppose him, or how different the course of events
in the Civil War if Seward instead of Lincoln had been
nominated at Chicago for the Presidency.

The writer or teacher of history begins by a
critical investigation of the facts. This is science, and
one of the most difficult branches of science. When
you have ascertained the facts so far as ascertainable,
try to connect them and arrange them in the order
of their importance and educe general conclusions
from them. This also is science. Then set them forth
in the best order and the best words you can find.
This is literature. Literary skill crowns the work, and
makes it more useful because it makes the work
spread farther, and better accomplish its end. But it
is worthless if the two other processes have not gone

For the highest kind of historical work four gifts
are needed; unwearied diligence in investigation, a
penetrating judgment which can fasten on the more


essential points, an imagination which can vivify the
past, and that power over language which we call
Style. So the greatest historians have been those who
combined a wide sweep of vision with a thorough
mastery of details, and who have known how to set
forth both the details and the principles in a way
which makes them enrich the reader's thought, touch
his emotions, and live in his memory.






IT has been often said that books do for us to-day
what universities did in earlier ages. The knowledge
that could five centuries ago have been obtained only
from the lips of a teacher, can now be gathered from the
printed page. Nevertheless, since it is only the most
active and most diligent and most discerning minds
that can dispense with the help and guidance of teachers
to show them what to read and how to read, univer-
sities and colleges are scarcely less useful if not quite
so indispensable to-day as they were before the inven-
tion of printing. It is, therefore, not unfitting that in
your college I should be asked to talk to you about
books, the way to choose them, and the way to draw
most profit from them. The very abundance of books
in our days a stupefying and terrifying abundance
has made it more important to know how to choose
promptly and judiciously among them if one is not to
spend as much time in the mere choice as in the use.
Here you have the help of your professors. But here
you are only beginning the process of education which
will go on during the rest of your life. By far the



largest part of that process will, after you have left
college, consist in your independent reading, so the
sooner you form habits of choice and methods of use,
the better.

The first piece of advice I will venture to give you
is this : Read only , the best books. There are
plenty of them, far more than you will ever find time
to read, and when they are to be had it is a pity to
waste time on any others.

You may ask what I mean by the Best books.
Passing by for the moment those which in each of
the great world-languages we call its classics, for to
these we shall return presently, I mean by the Best
those from which you receive most, and can carry
most away, in the form either of knowledge or of
stimulation. When you want to learn something
about a subject, do not fall upon the first book
which you have heard named or which professes
by its title to deal with that subject. Consult your
teacher, or any well-read friend, or the librarian of
the nearest public library. (One of the greatest services
public libraries render is that they provide librarians
usually competent, and I believe always willing, to
advise those who apply to them.) Be content with
nothing less than the very best you can get. Time
will be saved in the end.

There is no waste more pitiable than that so often
seen when some zealous student has, for want of
guidance, spent weeks or months of toil in trying to


obtain from a second- or third-rate book what he
might have found sooner and better in a first-rate one.
So try to read only what is good. And by "good"
you will not suppose me to mean what used to be
called "improving books," books written hi a sort of
Sunday School spirit for the moral benefit of the
reader. A book may be excellent hi its ethical tone,
and full of solid information, and yet be unprofitable,
that is to say, dull, heavy, uninspiring, wearisome.
Contrariwise, a book is good when it is bright and
fresh, when it rouses and enlivens the mind, when
it provides materials on which the mind can pleasur-
ably work, when it leaves the reader not only knowing
more but better able to use the knowledge he has
received from it.

Seventy years ago people, or at least those who used
then to be called the preceptors of youth, talked as if there
lay a certain virtue in dry books, or at any rate a moral
merit in the process of plodding through them. It
was a dismal mistake, which inflicted upon youth many
a dreary hour. The dull book is not better than the
lively book. Other things being equal, it is worse, be-
cause it requires more expenditure of effort to master
such of its contents as are worth remembering. If the
edge of the tool is blunt, one must put forth more
strength, and as there is never too much strength, none
of it should be wasted. It may be asked, "But is not
the mental discipline wholesome ? " Yes, effort crowned
with victory is a fine thing, but since there is plenty of


such discipline to be had from the better books why go
to the worse books for it ?

Sometimes it happens that what you want to learn can-
not be had except from dry or even from dull treatises.
Dryness and duhiess are not the same thing, for the
former quality may be due to the nature of the subject,
but the latter is the fault of the author. Well, if there
is no other book to be found, you must make the best
of the dry and even of the dull. But first make quite
sure that there are none better to be had, for though in
many a subject the really satisfactory book has not yet
been written, still in most subjects there is a large choice
between the better and the worse.

Every book ought to be so composed as to be capable
of being read with enjoyment by those who bring
interest and capacity to it. One cannot be playfully
various and graphically picturesque upon every kind
of subject. Once, in a distant British colony, a friend
of mine was asked by a person who knew that he came
from the University of Oxford, " What do you think of
Euclid?" My friend replied that Euclid's "Elements
of Geometry" if that was what the question referred
to was a valuable treatise, whose reputation had
been established for many centuries. "Yes," said the
questioner, "but what do you think of Euclid's style?"
My friend answered that he had always thought more
about the substance than about the style of Euclid,
but would be glad to know his questioner's opinion.
"Well," said the latter, "I consider it quite a good


style, but too systematic." Eloquence, variety, and wit
are not the particular merits we look for in a scientific
treatise, but however dry geometry or any other
subject may appear, there is all the difference between
a book which is well arranged and well expressed, a
book which takes a grip of the mind and affords the
pleasure of following out a line of logical thought,
and a book which tumbles out facts and ideas in a
confused and shapeless heap.

To you undergraduates life now seems a long vista
with infinite possibilities. But, if you love learning,
you will soon find that life is altogether too short for
reading half the good books from which you would
like to cull knowledge. Let not an hour of it be
wasted on third-rate or second-rate stuff if first-rate
stuff can be had. Goethe once said of some one he
knew, " He is a dull man. If he were a book, I
would not read him." When you find that a book is
poor, and does not give you even the bare facts you
are in search of, waste no more time upon it.

The immensity of the field of reading suggests
another question. Ought a man to read widely, trying
to keep abreast of the progress of knowledge and
thought in the world at large, or is it better that he
should confine himself to a very few subjects, and to
proceed not discursively but upon some regular
system ?

Each alternative has its advantages, but considering
how rapidly knowledge is extending itself in all direc-


tions, and how every branch of it is becoming special-
ized, we must recognize that the range of attainment
possible three or even two centuries ago is now un-
attainable even by the most powerful and most
industrious minds. To-day the choice lies between su-
perficiality in a larger, and some approach to thorough-
ness in a smaller, number of topics. Between these
alternatives there can be no doubt as to your choice.
Every man ought to be thorough in at least one thing,
ought to know what exactness and accuracy mean,
ought to be capable by his mastery of some one topic
of having an opinion that is genuinely his own. So
my advice to you would be to direct your reading
chiefly to a few subjects, in one at least of which
you may hope to make yourself proficient, and as re-
gards other subjects, to be content with doing what
you can to follow the general march of knowledge.
You will find it hard indeed impossible to
follow that march in the physical sciences, unless you
start with some special knowledge of one or more of
them. Many of the branches into which they have
been diverging are now so specialized that the ordinary-
reader can hardly comprehend the technical terms which
modern treatises employ. But as respects travel and
history and biography, and similarly as respects econom-
ics, the so-called "sociological subjects," art, and lit-
erary criticism, it is possible for a man who husbands his
time and spends little of it on newspapers or magazines,
to find leisure for the really striking books that are


published on some of these topics which lie outside
his special tastes. Do not, however, attempt to cover
even the striking books on all of such topics. You
will only dissipate your forces. Now and then a book
appears which everybody ought to read, no matter
how far it lies out of his range of study. It may be
a brilliant poem. It may be a treatise throwing new
light on some current question of home or foreign
politics, about which every citizen, because he is a
citizen, ought to try to have an opinion. It may be
the record of some startling discovery in the realms of
archaeology, for instance, or in some branch of natural
science. But such books are rare ; and in particular
the epoch-making scientific discoveries are seldom
known at the time when the world first hears of them
to be really epoch-making.

Two questions may, however, have presented them-
selves to you. One is this : Are there not some indis-
pensable books which everyone is bound to read on
pain of being deemed to be not an educated man?
Certainly there are. Every language has its classics
which those who speak the language ought to have
read as part of a liberal education. In our own tongue
we have, say, a score of great authors it would be
easy to add another dozen, but I wish to be moderate
and put the number as low as possible of whose works
every one of us is bound to have read enough to enable
him to appreciate the author's peculiar quality.
These of course you must read, though not necessarily


all or nearly all they have written. Spenser, for
instance, is an English classic, but even so voracious
a reader as Macaulay admitted that few could be
expected to persevere to the end of the "Faery
Queene." Even smaller is the percentage of Dryden's
works which a man may feel bound to read. Do not
look for an opinion as to the percentage in the case of
Robert Browning. The sooner you begin to read
those who belong to this score, the better, for most of
them are poets, and youth is the season in which to
learn to love poetry. If you do not care for it then,
you will hardly do so later.

The other question is, What about fiction? I can
just recall an austere time, more than sixty years ago,
when in Britain not a few moralists and educators
were disposed to ban novel-reading altogether to
young people and to treat it even among their elders
as an indulgence almost as dangerous as the use of
cards, dice, and tobacco. Exceptions, however, were
made even by the sternest of these authorities.
I recollect that one of them gave his imprimatur to

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Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 20 of 24)