« PreviousContinue »
and seems only careful to embellish his story by interesting narrative and flowing language. When such were the limited bounds of this
species of writing, history was an art, the design of which was to please ; not a science, the purpose of which was to instruct. It was, as Quintilian says, proxima poetis; and critical rules were laid down for its composition, similar to those for the structure of an epic poem. To select a subject, the recital of which might be interesting; to arrange and distribute the several parts with skill; to embellish by forcible and picturesque description; to enliven by characteristic and animated speeches, and to clothe the whole in beautiful and flowing language; formed all the necessary and essential parts of the composition. In these the ancients held the highest excellence and perfection of history to consist; and so little did their views reach any farther, that Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a critic of taste and acuteness, says, that the first object of a person about to write history ought to be, 'to select a subject striking and pleasing, and such as may not only affect, but overpower the minds of the readers with pleasure.' And he condemns Thucydides for his choice of the Peloponnesian war; 'because it was neither honourable nor prosperous, nor erer should have been engaged in, or at least should have been buried in silence and oblivion, that posterity might be ignorant of it.'
Thus confirmed were the ideas of the ancients with regard to the objects of history. But while we may regret this, we are not to ascribe it to any defect of genius: it arose from causes which a little reflection may render sufficiently obvious, and from the circumstances in which they were unavoidably placed.
In ancient times, mankind had before their eyes but a very limited field of observation, and but a short experience of the revolutions of nations. Their
memorials of former events too were scanty and imperfect, being little more than traditions, involved in uncertainty and disfigured by fable. They possessed not that extensive experience, nor that large collection of facts, which can alone lead to general reasonings, or can suggest the idea of philosophical history. Nothing farther could occur to them as the object of history, but to delight the imagination and improve the heart ; and accordingly they chose subjects that made the strongest impression on their own minds, and might most interest the passions of others. To explain the immediate motives and springs of actions, was necessary even for connecting their narrative; but to proceed farther and trace the remote causes, and to perceive how much public events were affected by the degree of advancement, which a nation had reached in government, in manners, and in arts, were discoveries yet hid from their
The ancient world wanted that communication and intercourse of one nation with another, which, of all circumstances, has the greatest effect in generalizing and enlarging the views of an historian. It is with nations as with individuals; no family knowledge, no domestic study, can ever afford that large and extended information which mixing with other men, which commerce with the world will bestow. In the time of the Grecian republics, man consisted but of two divisions, Greeks and Barbarians; though the subdivision of the former into smaller states promoted the spirit of philosophic research considerably more than when to the name of Roman was confined every science, every art, every privilege and dignity of man. In modern times, the nearly equal rank and cultivation ’of different European kingdoms, gives much more opportunity than was enjoyed by the ancient world, for the comparison of facts, and the construction of system in the history of mankind; while at the same time the literary intercourse of those different kingdoms gives to such researches at once the force of union and the spur of emulation.
In short, the opposite situation and circumstances of the present age have bestowed on history its most signal improvement, and have given it a form before unknown. The many and various revolutions which an experience of more than three thousand years bas exhibited to mankind, and the contemplation of the rise, progress, and decline of successive empires, have led to the discovery, that all human events are guided and directed by certain general causes which must be every where the same. It has come to be perceived that nations, like individuals, have their infancy, maturity, decline, and extinction; and that in their gradual establishment and various revolutions, immediate causes springing from the actions and characters of individuals, and even all the wisdom and foresight of man have had but a very slender share, in comparison of the influence of general and unavoidable circumstances.
These reflections, which the experience of many ages could alone suggest, and to which the great improvements of the present age in reasoning and philosophy have much contributed, have led men to view the history of nations in a new light. To investigate the general causes and the true sources of the advancement, the prosperity, and the fall of empires, has become the useful and important object of the historian. While he relates the memorable transactions of each different period, and describes the conduct and characters of the persons principally engaged in them, he at the same time unfolds the remote as well as immediate causes of events, and imparts the most valuable knowledge and information. He marks the advancement of mankind in society, the rise and progress of arts and sciences, the successive improvements of law and government, and the gradual refinement of manners; all of them not only curious objects of contemplation, but intimately connected with a narration of civil transactions, and without which the events of no particular period can be fully accounted for.
The few who have treated history in this manner form the second of the two classes into which I have divided historians; and it is to the present age we owe this union of philosophy with history, and the production of a new and more perfect species of historical composition. President Montesquieu was perhaps the first who attempted to show how much the history of mankind may be explained from great and general causes. Mr. de Voltaire's Essay on General History, with all its imperfections, is a work of uncommon merit; and with the usual vivacity of its author, it unites great and enlarged views on the general progress of civilization and advancement of society. The same track has been pursued by other writers of reputation, particularly by the late Mr. Hume, who in his History of England has gone farther in investigating general causes, and in marking the progress of laws, government, arts, and manners, than any of his predecessors. Much, however, yet remains to be done ; for it is a field but just begun to be cultivated; and if it be true, as the last-mentioned historian observed, that the worl is still too young to fix many general truths in politics, we have to fear that it is reserved for some still distant age to see philosophical history attain its highest perfection.
No. 6. SATURDAY, MARCH 12, 1785.
A few mornings ago I was agreeably surprised with a very early call from my newly-acquired friend Co. lonel Caustic, 'Tis on a foolish piece of business,' said he, “I give you the trouble of this visit. You must know I had an appointment with your friend S-to go to the play this evening, which a particular affair that has come across him will prevent his keeping; and as a man, after making such an arrangement, feels it irksome to be disappointed (at least it is so with an old methodical fellow like me), I have taken the liberty of calling, to ask if you
will supply his place: I might have had one or two other conductors; but it is only with certain people I choose to go to such places. Seeing a play, or indeed any thing else, won't do at my time of life, either alone, or in company not quite to one's mind. 'Tis like drinking a bottle of claret; the liquor is something; but nine-tenths of the bargain is in the companion with whom one drinks it. As he spoke this, he gave me his hand with such an air of cordiality--methought we had been acquainted these forty years ;- I took it with equal warmth, and assured him, truly, it would give me infinite pleasure to attend him.
When we went to the theatre in the evening, and while I was reading the box list, to determine where we should endeavour to find a place, a lady of the colonel's acquaintance happening to come in, begged our acceptance of places in her box. We entered accordingly; and I placed my old friend in a situation where I thought he could most conveniently