The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39
The Meaning of History. — Lecture I. — The Use of History
The Meaning of History.
The Use of History.
The question for which we are about to seek an answer is this :—What is the use of historical knowledge? Is an acquaintance with the events, with the men, with the ideas of the past, of any real use to us in these days? has it any practical bearing upon the happiness and conduct of each of us in life?
Now, it must strike us at once, that two very different, nay, contradictory answers may be given, in fact, are very frequently given, to this question. But, opposite as they are, I hardly know from which I more thoroughly dissent. Some persons tell you roundly, that there is no use at all. We are, they would say with Bacon, the mature age of the world; with us lies the gathered wisdom of ages. To waste our time in studying exploded fallacies, in reproducing worn-out forms of society, or in recalling men who were only conspicuous because they lived amidst a crowd of ignorant or benighted barbarians, is to wander from the path of progress, and to injure and not to improve our understandings. What can be the good to us, they ask, of the notions of men who thought that the sun went round the earth; who would have taken a steam-engine for a dragon or a hippogriff, and had never even heard of the rights of man? On the other hand, the other class of page 2 persons would say of historical knowledge, that it has fifty different uses. It is very amusing to hear what curious things they did in by-gone times. It is highly entertaining to know about forefathers of our own who were nearly as funny as Chinese. Then, again, it is very instructive as a study of character; we see in history the working of the human mind and will. Besides, it is necessary to avoid the blunders they committed in past days: there we collect a store of moral examples, and of political maxims; we learn to watch the signs of the times, and to be prepared for situations whenever they return. And it cannot be doubted, they add, that it is a branch of knowledge, and all knowledge is good. To know history, they conclude, is to be well-informed, is to be familiar with some of the finest examples of elegant and brilliant writing.
Now, between the two, those who tell us plainly that history is of no use, and those who tell us vaguely that history is of fifty uses, I do not see much to choose. I thoroughly disagree with them both, and of the two I would rather deal with the former. Their opposition, at any rate, is concentrated into a single point, and may be met by a single and a direct answer. To them I would say, Are you consistent? Do you not in practice follow another course? In rejecting all connection with the facts and ideas of the past, are you not cutting the ground from under your own feet? You are an active politician and a staunch friend of the principles of the liberal party. What are the traditional principles of a party but a fraction, small, no doubt, but a sensible fraction of history? You are a warm friend of free trade. Well, but free trade has a history of its own; its strength lies in the traditions of a great victory achieved by right over might. You believe in the cause of progress. But what is the cause of progress but the extension of that civilization, of that change for the better which we have all witnessed or have learned to recognize as an established fact? Your voice is always page 3 heard for freedom. Well, hut do you never appeal to Magna Charta, to the Bill of Rights, to the Reform Bill, to American Independence, or the French Revolution? You will suffer no outrage on the good name of England. You are ready to cover the seas with armaments to uphold the national greatness. But what is the high name of England if it is not the memory of all the deeds by which, in peace or war, on sea or land, England has held her own amongst the foremost of the earth? Nor is it true that you show no honours to the men of the past, are not guided by their ideas, and do not dwell upon their lives, their work, and their characters. The most turbulent revolutionary that ever lived, the most bitter hater of the past, finds many to admire. It may be Cromwell, it may be Rousseau, or Voltaire, it may be Robert Owen, it may be Thomas Paine, but some such leader each will have; his memory he will revere, his influence he will admit, his principles he will contend for. Thus it will be in every sphere of active life. No serious politician can fail to recognize that, however strongly he repudiates antiquity, and rebels against the tyranny of custom, still he himself only acts freely and consistently when he is following the path trodden by earlier leaders, and is working with the current of the principles in which he throws himself, and in which he has confidence. For him, then, it is not true that he rejects all common purpose with what has gone before. It is a question only of selection and of degree. To some he clings, the rest he rejects. Some history he does study, and finds in it both profit and enjoyment.
Or, again, let us suppose such a man to be interested in any study whatever, either in promoting general education, or eager to acquire knowledge for himself. Well, he will find, at every step he takes, that he is appealing to the authority of the past, is using the ideas of former ages, and carrying out principles established by ancient, but not forgotten thinkers. If he studies geometry he will find page 4 the first text hook put into his hand was written by a Greek two thousand years ago. If he takes up grammar, he will be only repeating rules taught by Roman schoolmasters and professors. Or is he interested in art? He will find the same thing in a far greater degree. He goes to the Museum to see the stuffed birds or the fossil reptiles, and he walks into a building which is a good imitation of a Greek temple. He goes to the Houses of Parliament to hear a debate, and he enters a building which is a bad imitation of a mediæval town-hall. Or, again, I might say to him, does he never read his Shakespeare or Milton; feel no respect for the opinions of Bacon or of Hume, or Adam Smith? I know that he does. I know that such a man the moment he takes a warm interest in anything—in politics, in education, in science, in art, or in social improvement—the moment that his intelligence is kindled, and his mind begins to work, that moment he is striving to throw himself into the stream of some previous human efforts, to identify himself with others, and to try to understand and to follow the path of future progress which has been traced out for him by the leaders of his own party or school. Therefore, I say that such a man is not consistent when he says that history is of no use to him. He does direct his action by what he believes to be the course laid out before him; he does follow the guidance of certain teachers whom he respects.
I have then only to ask him on what grounds he rests his selection; why he chooses some and rejects all others; how he knows for certain that no other corner of the great field of history will reward the care of the ploughman, or bring forth good seed. In spite of himself, he will find himself surrounded in every act and thought of life by a power which is too strong for him. If he chooses simply to stagnate, he may, perhaps, dispense with any actual reference to the past; but the moment he begins to act, to live, or to think, he must use the materials presented to him, and, page 5 so far as he is a member of a civilized community, so far as he is an Englishman, so far as he is a rational man, he can as little free himself from the influence of former generations as he can free himself from his personal identity; unlearn all that he has learnt; cease to be what his previous life has made him, and blot out of his memory all recollection whatever.
Let us suppose for a moment that any set of men could succeed in sweeping away from them all the influences of past ages, and everything that they had not themselves discovered or produced. Suppose that all knowledge of the gradual steps of civilization, of the slow process of perfecting the arts of life and the natural sciences were blotted out; suppose all memory of the efforts and struggles of earlier generations, and of the deeds of great men, were gone; all the landmarks of history; all that has distinguished each country, race, or city, in past times from others; all notion of what man had done, or could do; of his many failures, of his successes, of his hopes; suppose, for a moment, all the books, all the traditions, all the buildings of past ages, to vanish off the face of the earth, and with them the institutions of society, all political forms, all principles of politics, all systems of thought, all daily customs, all familiar arts; suppose the most deep-rooted and most sacred of all our institutions gone; suppose that the family and home, property, and justice, were strange ideas without meaning—in a word, that all the customs which surround us each from birth to death—aye, and beyond death, in the grave—were blotted out; suppose a race of men whose minds, by a paralytic stroke of fate had suddenly been deadened to every recollection, to whom the whole world was new—can we imagine, if we can imagine it, a condition of such utter helplessness, confusion, and misery—such a race might retain their old powers of mind and of activity, nay, both might be increased tenfold, and yet what would it profit them? Can we conceive such a page 6 race acting together, living together, for one hour? They would have everything to create. Would any two agree to adopt the same custom, and could they live without any? They would have all the arts, all the sciences, to reconstruct anew; and how would their tenfold intellect help them there? Even with minds of the highest order it would be impossible to think, for the world would present one vast chaos; even with the most amazing powers of activity, they would fall back exhausted from the task of reconstructing, reproducing everything around them. Had they the wisest teachers or the highest social or moral purposes, they would all be lost and wasted in an interminable strife, and continual difference; for family, town, property, society, country, nay, why not language itself, would be things which each would be left to create for himself, and each would create in a different manner. It would realize, indeed, the old fable of the tower of Babel; and the insane pride of self be followed by shameful confusion and dispersion, and a race with ten times the intellect, twenty times the powers, and fifty times the virtues of any race that ever lived on earth would end, within a generation, in a state of hopeless barbarism; the earth would return to the days of primeval forests and swamps, and man descend almost to the level of the monkey and the beaver.
Now, if this be true, if we are so deeply indebted and so indissolubly bound to preceding ages, if all our hopes of the future depend on a sound understanding of the past, I cannot fancy any knowledge more important, nay, so important, as the knowledge of the way in which this civilization has been built up. If at once the destiny of our race and the daily action of each of us are so completely directed by it, surely the useful existence of each depends much upon a right estimate of that which has so constant an influence over him, will be advanced as he works with the working of that civilization, above him, and around him, will be checked as he opposes it; it depends upon this that he mistakes none page 7 of the elements that go to make up that civilization as a whole, and sees them in their due relation and harmony.
And now this brings me to that second class of objectors of whom I spoke; those who, far from denying the interest of the events of the past, far from seeing no use at all in their study, are only too ready in discovering a multitude of reasons for it, and at seeing in it a variety of incongruous purposes. If they tell us that it furnishes us with parallels when similar events occur, I should say that similar events never do and never can occur in history. The history of man offers one unbroken chain of constant progress and change, in which no single situation is ever reproduced. The story of the world is played out like a drama in many acts and scenes, not like successive games of chess, in which the pieces meet, combat, and manœuvre for a time, and then the board is cleared for another trial, and they are replaced in their original positions. Political maxims drawn crudely from history may do more harm than good. You may justify anything by a pointed example in history. It will show you instances of triumphant tyranny and triumphant tyrannicide. You may find in it excuses for any act or any system. What is true of one country is wholly untrue of another. What led to a certain result in one age, leads to a wholly opposite result in another. Then as to character, if the sole object of studying history is to see in it the workings of the human heart, why that is far better studied in the fictitious creations of the great masters of character, in Shakespeare, in Molière, in Fielding, and Scott. Macbeth and Richard are as true to nature as any name in history, and give us an impression of desperate ambition more vivid than the tale of any despot in ancient or modern times. Besides, if we read history only to find in it picturesque incident or subtle shades of character, we run as much chance of stumbling on the worthless and the curious as the noble and the great. A Hamlet is a study in interest perhaps exceeding page 8 all others in fiction or in fact, but we shall hardly find that Hamlets have stamped their trace very deep in the history of mankind. There are few lives in all human story more romantic than that of Alcibiades, and none more base. Some minds find fascination in the Popish plots of Titus Oates, where the interest centres round a dastardly ruffian. The bullies, the fops, the cut-throats, and the Jezebels who crowded the courts of the Stuarts and the Georges, have been consigned to permanent infamy in libraries of learned and of brilliant works. Brilliant and ingenious writing, alas, has been the bane of history; it has degraded its purpose, and perverted many of its uses. Histories, aye, famous histories, have been written, which are little but minute pictures of scoundrelism and folly triumphant. Wretches, who if alive now would be consigned to the gallows or the hulks, have only to take, as it is said, a place in history, and generations after generations of learned men will pore over their lives, collect their letters, their portraits, or their books, search out every vile fact in their lives with prurient inquisitiveness, and chronicle their rascalities in twenty volumes. Such stories, some may say, have a human interest! Well, so has the Newgate Calendar a human interest of a certain kind. Why, I should like to ask, is it supposed to show a low taste to enjoy the exploits of Dick Turpin and Jonathan Wild, and yet it should be thought a highly refined and useful pursuit to be deep in the mysteries of all the masquerades in which some crowned wretch like Charles II. or Louis XV. passed his nothingness? Brilliant writing, indeed, is a most delusive guide. In search of an effective subject for a telling picture, men have wandered into strange and dismal haunts. We none of us choose our friends on such a plan. Why, then, should we choose thus the friends round whom our recollections are to centre? We none of us wish to be intimate with a man simply because he is a picturesque-looking villain, nor do we bring to our firesides men who page 9 have the reputation of being the loudest braggarts or keenest sharpers of their time. Well, let it be the same in our reading. Let us drive out from about us those whose only merit is that they are strange or picturesque. Let not our histories be polluted by their presence, let not these unholy figures intrude into the worthy fellowship of the good and great of former days, who we may almost fancy sit "holding high converse" in grave and solemn conclave together. No, history read upon such a plan is worse than nothing. You are quite right if you pass by untouched these piles of memoirs of the unmemorable—these lives of those who never can be said to have lived. Pass them all by in contempt and pity—these riotings and intrigues, and affectations of worthless men and worthless ages. Better to know nothing of the past than to know only its follies, though set forth in eloquent language and with attractive anecdote. What good can come of such a knowledge? What can it profit you in your daily life, how are you a better or a happier man, because you know the names of all the kings that ever lived, or let me say rather existed, and the catalogue of all their whims and vices, and a minute list of their particular weaknesses, with all their fools, buffoons, mistresses, and valets? You had better learn the Peerage by heart, and know the names of the grandfathers and grandmothers of our hereditary rulers. Why not be able to repeat the Court Circular? Why is not such knowledge just as human, and just as valuable, and far more harmless than, that contained in histories in which the foreground is filled by any villain that wore a crown or a coronet, and the brightest colours of the palette are lavished on a pantaloon whose buffooneries have attracted the eyes of a crowd? Or, again, some odd incident becomes the subject of the labour of lives, and fills volume after volume of ingenious trifling. Some wretched little squabble is exhumed, utterly unimportant in itself, utterly unimportant page 10 for the persons that were engaged in it, utterly trivial in its results. Lives are spent in raking up old letters to show why or how some parasite like Sir T. Overbury was murdered, or to unravel some plot about a maid of honour, or a diamond necklace, or some conspiracy to turn out a minister, or to detect some court impostor. Why, libraries could be filled with all the dreary wrangling as to who was the Man in the Iron Mask, or who was the author of Junius, or who was Pope Joan? Who in the world wants to know? Why do men not exercise their ingenuity on something worth knowing? Why not discover the author of the last mysterious murder, or unveil the secrets of some public job? There are plenty of things to find out, or if people are afflicted with a morbid curiosity, there are surely Chinese puzzles or chess problems left for them to make out without ransacking the public records and libraries to find out which out of a nameless crowd was the most unmitigated scoundrel, or who it is that must have the credit of being the author of some peculiarly venomous or filthy pamphlet? Why need we have six immense volumes to prove to the world that you have found the villain, and ask them to read all about him, and explain in brilliant language how some deed of darkness, or some deed of folly really was done? Why all this? Let it be unknown—let the dark thing remain dark—let them all rot together.
And they call this history. This goodly serving up in spiced dishes of the clean and the unclean, the wholesome and the noxious; this plunging down, without a lamp to guide them, into the charnel-house of the great graveyard of the past, and stirring up the decaying carcases of the outcasts and malefactors of the race. What good can conic of such a work? Without plan, without purpose, without breadth of view, and without method; with nothing but a vague desire to amuse, and a morbid craving for novelty. Do you suppose such a knowledge page 11 can teach yon anything? Do you think it can touch the heart? Do you gather from it incentive to action? Do you not feel you might as well be reading bad novels or trashy newspapers? Would you not learn as much from a trial for murder or a trial of divorce? I would call all such, not histories, but police reports. I would call such writers, not historians, but paragraph writers. Have nothing to do with such. If there is one common purpose running through the whole history of the past, if that history is the story of man's growth by one unceasing progress in dignity, and power, and goodness, if the gathered knowledge and the gathered conscience of past ages does control us, support us, inspire us, then is this trifling with the blots and flaws of this great whole, this commemorating these parasites and offscourings of the human race worse than pedantry or folly. It is filling us with an unnatural contempt for the greatness of the past, it distorts our conception of that greatness, it is committing towards our spiritual forefathers the same crime which Ham committed against his father Noah. Is it not a kind of sacrilege to the memory of the great men to whom we owe all we prize, that we waste our lives in poring over the acts of the puny creatures who only encumbered their path, who were traitors to them, to us, and to our kind? Is it not the most wanton ingratitude and meanness to feel no thought for, no reverence for, those long labours, those great deeds of daring, endurance, magnanimity, and genius, by which the earth has been smoothed for us, and civilization age after age wrought out for us, and to think only of some puerile wrangle which has dishonoured or retarded the great work? Men on the battle-field or in their study, by the labour of their brains or of their hands, have given us what we have, and made us what we are; a noble army who have done battle with evil barbarism and the powers of nature, martyrs often to their duty; yet are we to turn with indifference from page 12 the story of their long march and many victories, and find amusement amidst the very camp followers and sutlers who hang upon their rear. If history has any lessons, any unity, any plan, let us turn to it for this and for this alone. Let this be our test of what is history and what is not, that it teach us something of the great advance of human progress, that it tells us of some of those mighty spirits who have left their mark on all time, that it shows us the nations of the earth woven together in one purpose, or is lit up with those great ideas and those great purposes which have kindled the conscience of mankind. If not, we shall be like him in the Pilgrim's Progress, who is seen raking amidst straw and litter, whilst an angel is offering him a crown he will not reach forth his hand to take.
It is in a very different spirit, I know, that you are prepared to look at history. You want to see how it may be made a part of education—the moral training of a rational man. About the importance, the meaning, and duty of education we surely shall all agree. It is to a wise education to which men turn in the break up of all old systems, creeds, and parties. Why else are we here to-night? You have not come here to pass an idle hour. I have not the wish if I had the power to make it pass pleasantly, unless we both came with a purpose. Your presence, then, our presence together in a place of education, a place designed to extend the benefit of wider popular education, witnesses that this is the end to which we look. Why are we here, except it is that we all share the conviction which grows stronger day by day, that only as education grows amongst us, wider, more universal, more sound, more moral, with higher aims and broader foundations, will true progress in public or private life be won. Have you not all, in the failure of your most ardent hopes, in the baffling of your best efforts, in the consciousness of want of true knowledge and guidance, in despair over social miseries and social wrongs, have you not often, I page 13 say, turned back and felt within you that, until better and truer knowledge was spread abroad to all, all hopes were deceitful and all efforts in vain? Has not every one of you who ever believed in or laboured for a political cause or a public measure, who has stood by some principle of social good, some temperance movement, some sanitary scheme, some educational plan, who has ever longed for or worked for a happier feeling to spring up between the classes of employers and employed, or rich and poor, still more each one of you who has ever thought to see old superstitions fall, and the strife of sects, churches, and creeds end in a fraternal union of men in one common work; has not every one who has ever done or felt this, had from time to time the bitterness of seeing that his political principles made no way, that misunderstanding still abounded, that bigotry, spite, intolerance, ignorance, brutal ignorance or coarseness, old prejudices, new jealousies, and general apathy, divergence, and confusion were not so easily to be done away? Has he not felt that acts of parliament, movements, plans, and societies of all sorts were paralyzed and helpless until a truer knowledge could bring men to closer agreement, until a higher moral standard had set in, until the principles both of those who sought to change and of those who sought to retain could be tested by some system of truer science and philosophy, until, in short, education became general, and sound, and moral and universal.
I have felt this, and therefore only am I here. In this spirit, for this purpose only, do I suppose that you have come. In this spirit, and this spirit only, let us seek to comprehend the use and meaning of history.
Now, if this is what we mean when we speak of education, let us consider how a knowledge of history forms any part of it, otherwise it will be better to leave it alone. Do we ever ask ourselves why knowledge of any kind is useful? It is not so very easy a matter to give a satisfac- page 14 tory answer after all. It is certainly not true that a knowledge of facts, as facts, is desirable. Facts are infinite, and it is not the millionth part of them that is worth knowing. What some people call the pure love of truth is after all a very poor affair if we come to think of it. It often means only a pure love of intellectual fussiness. A statement may be true, and yet wholly worthless. It cannot be all facts which are the subject of knowledge. For instance, a man might learn by heart the Post-Office Directory, and a very remarkable mental exercise it would be; but he would hardly venture to call himself a well-informed man. No; we want the facts only which add to our power, or will enable us to act. They only give us knowledge—they only are a part of education. For instance, you begin the study of mathematics; of algebra, or geometry. What do you do this for? You hardly expect to turn it to practical account. You are not like Hudibras, who could "tell the clock by algebra," nor do you find Euclid's geometry help you to take the shortest cut to your own house. No, this is not your object. Your object is to know something of the simplest principles which underlie all the sciences. You want to understand practically what mathematical demonstration means. You want to bring home to your minds the conception of scientific axioms. All men count—all men work out calculations—all men measure something. Well, you want to know what this counting means; what rules will serve all calculation and all measurements. You want to know what they call the abstract laws of the human understanding. You want, in short, to improve the mind. Again, you study some of the physical laws of nature; you read or hear plain facts about gravitation, or heat, or light. Well, you don't expect to be able to become a practical discoverer, or to take out a patent for a new balloon, or a new stove, or a new lamp. No, what you want is to be able to know something of what our modern philosophers are talking about. You page 15 want to know why Faraday is a great teacher. You want to know what it is which seems to affect all nature equally; which brings you down heavily upon the earth if you stumble, and keeps the planets in their orbits. You want to understand what are laws of nature. Again, you want to improve your mind. You take up such pursuits as botany or geology; but then, again, you don't expect to discover a new medicine, or a gold-field, or a coal-mine. No, you want to know something of the mystery around you. You want to see intelligible structure, consistent unity, and common laws in the earth on which we live, with the view, I presume, of feeling more at home in it, of becoming more attached to it, of living in it more happily. Some of you, again, study physiology—that is, you take interest in the structure of the human body, especially of the human brain, and its relation to the body, and its relation to the mind and will. Well, why is this? Again, you do not expect to discover the elixir of life, like an eminent novelist of the clay, and you hardly expect to dispense with the aid of the surgeon. Is not the interest you take in all this, that you want to get a glimpse of that marvellous framework of the human form, some notion of the laws of its existence, some idea of the powers which affect it, which depress or develope it, some knowledge of the relation of the thinking and feeling process, and the thinking and feeling organ. Well, then, you seek to know something of the influences to which all human nature is subject, to be able to understand what people mean when they tell you about laws of health, or laws of life, or laws of thought. You want to be in a position to decide for yourself as to the trustworthiness of men upon whose judgment you depend for bodily existence.
Now, in this list of the subjects of a rational education, does it not strike you that something is wanting? Is it not like the old saying about the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out?page 16
"The proper study of mankind is man."
And where in this outline is Man? Does it not strike yon that whilst this object is wanting, all the rest remains vague and incomplete, and aimless? For instance, when you are learning arithmetic or geometry, you are not seeking to perform feats of memory. You do not want to turn yourself into one of Babbage's calculating machines. Mathematics would indeed be only a jumble of figures if it ended in itself. But the moment you come to learn the influence which some great discovery has had on the destinies of man; the moment you see, for instance, how all human thought was lighted up when Galileo saw that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of our world; the moment you feel that the demonstrations of Euclid are things in which all human minds must agree—indeed, are almost the only things in which all do agree—that moment the science has a meaning, and a clue, and a plan. It had none so long as it was disconnected with the history and the destiny of man—the past and the future. It is the same with every other science. What would be the meaning of laws of nature unless by them man could act on nature? What would be the use of knowing the laws of health, unless we supposed that a sounder knowledge of them would ameliorate the condition of men? What, indeed, is the use of the improvement of the mind? It is far from obvious that mere exercise of the intellectual faculties alone is a good. A nation of Hamlets (to take a popular conception of that character) would be more truly miserable, perhaps more truly despicable, than a nation of Bushmen. What, then, is it that we mean when we say a cultivated mind, a mental training, a sound education. We mean, if we mean anything good, a state of mind by which we shall become more clear of our condition, of our powers, of our duties towards our fellows, of our true happiness, by which we may make ourselves better citizens and better men, more forbearing to others, more loyal page 17 towards true teachers, more zealous for social harmony, more civilized, in short. Well, then, all these preceding studies have been but a preparation, as it were. They have been only to strengthen the mind, and give it material for the true work of education—the inculcation of human duty.
All knowledge, then is imperfect, we may almost say meaningless, unless it tends to give us sounder notions of our human and social interests. And how, then, are we to prepare ourselves for this? What we need, are clear principles about the moral nature of man as a social being; about the elements of human society; about the nature and capacities of the understanding. We want safe landmarks to guide us in our search after worthy guides, or true principles for social or political action. We want, in short, a general clue to public and private conduct. Few here, I imagine, will expect to learn this in any other method than by an acquaintance with human nature. Bat human nature is unlike physical nature in this, that its varieties are infinitely greater, and that it shows continual change. The earth rolls round the sun in the same orbit now as in infinite ages past; but man moves forward in a straight line of progress. Ago after age developes into new phases. It is a study of life, of growth, of variety. One generation shows one faculty of human nature in a striking degree; the next exhibits one different to it. All, it is true, leave their mark upon all succeeding generations, and civilization flows on like a vast river, gathering up the waters of its tributary streams. Hence it is that civilization, being not a fixed or lifeless thing, cannot be studied as a fixed or lifeless subject. We can see it only in its movement and its growth. One year is as good as another to the astronomer, but it is not so to the political observer. He must watch successions, and a wide field, and compare a long series of events. Hence it is that in all political, all social, all human questions whatever, his- page 18 tory is the main resource of the inqnirer. To know what is most really natural to man as a social being, man must be looked at as he appears in a succession of ages, and in very various conditions. To learn the strength or scope of all his capacities together, he must be judged in those successive periods in which each in turn were best brought out. Can any one suppose that he will find all the human institutions and faculties equally well developed, and all in their due proportion and order, by simply looking at the state of civilization now actually around us? Is it not a monstrous assumption that this world of to-day, so full of misery and discontent, strife and despair, ringing with cries of pain, and cries for aid, can really embody forth to us complete and harmonious man? Are there no faculties within him yet fettered, no good instincts stifled, no high yearnings marred? Have we in this year reached the pinnacle of human perfection, lost nothing that we once had, gained all that we can gain? Surely, by the hopes within us, No! And where are they to be found if not in the history of the past? There, in the long struggle of man upwards, we may watch him in his every mood, and see in him often some now forgotten power, capacity, or art yet destined to good service in the future. One by one we may light on the missing links in the chain which connects all races and all ages in one, or gather up the broken threads that must yet be woven into the complex fabric of life.
But there is another side on which history is still more necessary as a guide to consistent and rational action. We not merely need to know what the essential qualities of civilization and of our social nature really are; but we require to know the general course in which they are tending. The more closely we look at it the more distinctly we see that progress moves in a clear and definite path; the development of man is not a casual or arbitrary motion : it moves in a regular and consistent plan. Each part is unfolded page 19 in due order,—the whole expanding like a single frame. More and more steadily we see each age working out the gifts of the last and transmitting its labours to the next. More and more certain is our sense of being strong only as we wisely use the materials and follow in the track provided by the efforts of mankind. Is it possible to mistake how completely that influence surrounds us. Take our material existence alone. Well, the earth's surface has been made, as we know it, mainly by man. It would be uninhabitable but for the long labours of those who cleared its primeval forests, drained its swamps, first tilled its rank soil. All the inventions on which we depend for existence, the instruments we use were slowly worked out by the necessities of the childhood of the race. We can only modify or add to these. We could not discard all existing machines and construct an entirely new set of industrial implements. Take our political existence. There again we are equally confined in limits. Our country as a political whole has been formed for us by a long series of wars, struggles, and common efforts. We could not refashion England, or divide it in half, if we tried for a century. Our great towns, our great roads, the very local administrations of our counties, were formed for us by the Romans fifteen centuries since. Could we undo it if we tried and make London a country village, or turn Birmingham into the metropolis? Some people think they could abolish some great institution, such as the House of Lords, for instance, if they tried very hard indeed; but few reformers in this country have proposed to abolish the entire British Constitution. Most people look with repugnance on our existing system of the law of real property. Such as it is it was made for us by our feudal ancestors misreading Roman texts. Well, incubus as it is, we must endure it and attempt to improve it. Few people would expect to sweep it away at once as a whole. Turn which ever way you will, we shall find our political systems, laws, and administrations to have been provided for us. page 20 And is not this the case more strongly in all moral and intellectual questions? Are we to suppose that whilst our daily life, our industry, our laws, our customs, are controlled by the traditions and materials of the past, our thoughts our habits of mind, our beliefs, our moral sense, our ideas of right and wrong, our hopes and aspirations, are not just as truly formed by the civilization in which we have been reared? We are indeed able to transform it, to develope it, and to give it new life and action; but we can only do so as we understand it. Without this all efforts, reforms, and revolutions are in vain. A change is made, but a few years pass over, and all the old causes reappear. There was some unnoticed power which was not touched, and returns in full force. Take an instance from our own history. Cromwell and his Ironsides, who made the great English Revolution, swept Monarchy, and Church, and peers away, and thought they were gone for ever. Their great chief dead, the old system returned like a tide, and ended in the orgies of Charles and James. The Catholic Church has been, as it were, staggering in its last agonies now for many centuries. Luther believed he had crushed it. Long before his time it seemed nothing but a lifeless mass of corruption. Pope after Pope has been driven into exile. Four or five times has the Church seemed utterly crushed. And yet here in this nineteenth century, it puts forth all its old pretensions, and covers its old territory. In the great French Revolution it seemed, for once, that all actual institutions had been swept away. That devouring fire seemed to have burnt the growth of ages to the very root. Yet a few years pass, and all reappear,—Monarchy, and Church, peers, Jesuits, and Praetorian guards. Again and again they are overthrown. Again and again, after seventy years, they rise in greater pomp and pride. Turn to the memory of many of us here. They who, with courage, energy, and enthusiasm, too seldom imitated, once carried the Reform of Parliament and swept away with a strong hand the stronghold of page 21 abuse and privilege, believed that a new era was opening for their country. What would they think, what do they think, now? When they abolished rotten boroughs, and test acts, and curtailed expenditure, did they think that thirty years would find their descendants wrangling about the purchased votes of some miserable constituency, about church rates, and acts of uniformity, and spending soventy millions a year. Does not the experience of every one who was ever engaged in any public movement whatever remind him that every step made in advance seems too often wrung out from him by some silent and unnoticed power? Has he not felt enthusiasm give way to despair, and hopes become nothing but recollections? What is this unseen power which seems to baffle and undo the best and strongest human efforts, that seems to be an overbearing weight against which no man can long struggle? What is this overacting force which seems to revive the dead, to restore what we destroy, to renew forgotten watchwords, exploded fallacies, discredited doctrines, and condemned institutions; against which enthusiasm, intellect, truth, high purpose, and self-devotion seem to beat themselves to death in vain, which breaks the heart of the warm, turns strong brains into peevish criticism, and scatters popular union in angry discord. It is the past. It is the accumulated wills and works of all mankind around us and before us. It is civilization. It is that power which to understand is strength, to repudiate which is weakness. Let us not think that there can be any real progress made which is not based on a sound knowledge of the living institutions, and the active wants of mankind. If we can only act on nature so far as we know its laws, we can only influence society so far as we understand its elements and ways. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking that new principles of policy or social action can be created by themselves or can reconstruct society about us. Those rough maxims, which we are wont to dignify by the name of principles, may be, after page 22 all, only crude formulas and phrases without life or power. Only when they have been tested, analysed, and compared with other phases of social life, can we be certain that they are immutable truths. Nothing but a thorough knowledge of the social system, based upon a regular study of its growth, can give us the power we require to affect it. For this end we need one thing above all,—we need history.
But perhaps I may be told : Yes, all this may be very useful for statesmen, or philosophers, or politicians; but what is the use of this to the bulk of the people? They are not engaged in solving political questions, or devising schemes to improve society. Well, I am not sure of that. The bulk of the people, if they are seeking to live the lives of rational and useful citizens, if they have any self-respect and self-reliance, if they only wish to do their duty by their neighbours, are really and truly politicians and reformers. They are solving political problems, and are affecting society very deeply. A man does not need even to be a vestryman, be need not even have one out of the 20,000 votes for Marylebone in order to exercise very great political influence. A man, provided he lives like an honest, thoughtful, truth-speaking citizen, is a power in the state. He is helping to form that which rules the state, which rules statesmen, and is above kings, parliaments, or ministers. He is forming public opinion. It is on this, a public opinion, wise, thoughtful, and consistent, that the destinies of our country rest, and not on acts of parliament, or movements, or institutions, useful as these often are. He who is forming this is really contributing to the greatness of his country, though timid statesmen dare not trust him with a vote, and ignorant agitators may tell him he is a slave. Every one of us may do this, every one of us may boldly form and utter his opinion. Every one of us may read his newspaper, and may give his voice for the right and against the wrong, a voice which is not lost, though it be not registered on the hustings, or deposited in a ballot-box. Many page 23 around us are doing this. Many, in a quiet way, not useless, though unseen, are working out some useful social scheme, and supporting some well-meant effort. Many are straggling like men through darkness, through superstition, cant, and intolerance, towards some more wholesome way of truth and life, to find something they can believe, something they can trust, and understand, and live by.
Are there not many amongst us, many here whose lives are spent in searching for light, in battling with old forms of error, in looking for some sound bond of union amongst men? If there are such, I would ask them, how they can hope to succeed unless they start armed with some knowledge of the efforts that men have made towards this end age after age; unless they know something of the systems of faith which, in turn, have flourished and fallen, and know why they flourished and why they failed, and what good end they served, and what evil they produced; unless they know something of the moral and spiritual history of mankind? The very condition of success is to recognize the difficulty of the task. The work is half done when men see how much is required to begin. Is it not a sort of presumption to attempt to remodel existing institutions, without the least knowledge how they were formed, or whence they grew; to deal with social questions without a thought how society arose; to construct a social creed without a dream of fifty creeds which have risen and vanished before? Few men would, intentionally, attempt so much; but many do it unconsciously. They think they are not statesmen, or teachers, or philosophers; but, in one sense, they arc. In all human affaire there is this peculiar quality. They are the work of the combined labours of many. No statesman or teacher can do anything alone. He must have the minds of those he is to guide prepared for him. They must concur, or he is powerless. In reality, he is but the expression of their united wills and thoughts. Hence it is, I say, that all men need, in some page 24 sense, the knowledge and the judgment of the statesman and the social teacher. Progress is hut the result of our joint public opinion; and for progress that opinion must be enlightened. "He only destroys who can replace." All other progress than this—one based on the union of many minds and purposes, and a true conception of the future and the past—is transitory and delusive. Those who defy this power, the man, the party, or the class who forget it, will be beating themselves in vain against a wall; changing, but not improving; moving, but not advancing; rolling, as the poet says of a turbulent city, like a sick man on the restless bed of pain.
And now, if the value of some knowledge of past history is granted, and I am asked how it is to be acquired, whence it is to come, I admit the difficulty of the question. I know the sea of facts, the libraries of books it opens to the view, yet I do not despair. After all I have said none will suppose I recommend a lifeless catalogue of names, or a dry table of dates. No; it is possible to know something of history without a pedantic erudition. Let a man ask himself always what he wants to know. Something of man's social nature; something of the growth of civilization. He needs only to understand something of the character of the great races and systems of mankind. Let him ask himself what the long ages of early empires did for mankind; whether they established or taught anything; if fifty centuries of human skill, labour, and thought were wasted like an autumn leaf. Let him ask himself what the Greeks taught or discovered. Why the Romans were a noble race, and how they printed their footmarks so deeply on the earth. Let him ask what was the original meaning and life of those great feudal institutions of chivalry and Church, of which we see only the rotting carcases. Let him ask what was the strength, the weakness, and the meaning of the great revolution of Cromwell, or the great revolution in France. A man may learn much page 25 true history by a little thinking, without any very ponderous books. Let him go to the Museums and see the pictures, the statues, and buildings of Egyptian and Assyrian times, and ask himself what was the state of society under which men in the far East reached so high a pitch of industry, knowledge, and culture, three thousand years before our savage ancestors had learned to use the plough. A man may go to one of our Gothic cathedrals, and seeing there the stupendous grandeur of its outline, the exquisite grace of its design, the solemn and touching expression upon the faces of its old carved or painted saints, kings, and priests; may ask himself if the men who built that could be utterly barbarous, false-hearted, and tyrannical; or if the power which could bring out such noble qualities of the human mind and heart must not have left its trace upon mankind. Indeed, it does not need many books to know something of the life of the past. A man who has enjoyed the best lives in old Plutarch knows not a little of Greek and Roman history. A man who has caught the true spirit of Walter Scott's novels knows something of feudalism and chivalry. But is this enough? Far from it. These desultory thoughts must be connected. These need to be combined into a whole, and combined and used for a purpose. Above all, we must look on history as a whole, trying to find what each age and race has contributed to the common stock, and how and why each followed in its place. Looked at separately, all is confusion and contradiction; looked at as a whole, a common purpose appears. The history of the human race is the history of a growth. It can no more be taken to pieces than the human frame can be taken to pieces. Who would think of making anything of the body without knowing whether it possessed a circulation, a nervous system, or a skeleton. History is a living whole. If one organ be removed, it is nothing but a lifeless mass. What you have to find in it is the relation and connection of the parts. You must learn how age developes into age, how page 26 country reacts upon country, Low thought inspires action, and action modifies thought. Once conceive that all the greater periods of history have had a real and necessary part to fulfil in creating the whole, and you will have done more to understand it than if you had studied some portion of it with a microscope. Once feel that all the parts are needed for the whole, and the difficulty of the mass of materials vanishes. You will come to regard it as a composition or a work of art which cannot be broken up into fragments at pleasure. You would as soon think of dividing it as of taking a figure out of a great picture, or a passage out of a piece of music. Most of you have listened to one of those noble choruses of Handel, such as that "Unto us a son is born," and have heard the opening notes begin simple, subdued, and slow, until they are echoed back in deeper tones, choir answering to choir, voice joining in with voice, growing fuller and stronger with new and varying bursts of melody, until the whole stream of song swells into one vast tide of harmony, and rolls on exulting, wave upon wave in majestic unity and power. Something like this complex harmony is seen in the gathering parts of human history, age taking up the falling notes from ago, race joining with race in answering strain, until the separate parts are mingled in one, and pour on in one movement together. Let us shrink from breaking this whole into fragments, nor lose all sense of harmony in attending to the separate notes.
Lastly, if I may give a word of practical advice, there is one mode in which I think history may be most easily and most usefully approached. Let him who desires to find profit in it, begin by knowing something of the lives of great men. Not, I mean, of those most talked about, not of names chosen at hazard; but of the real great ones who can be shown to have left their mark upon distant ages. Know their-lives, I mean, not merely as interesting studies of character, or as persons seen in a drama, but page 27 solely as they represent and influence their age. Not for themselves only must we know them, but as the expression and types of all that is noblest around them. Let us know, then, those whom all men cannot fail to recognize as great—the Cæsars, the Charlemagnes, the Alfreds, the Cromwells, great in themselves, but greater as the centre of the hearts of thousands.
We have done much towards understanding the past when we have learned to value and to honour such men truly. Better to know nothing of history than to know with the narrow coldness of a pedant a record which ought to fill us with emotion and reverence. Of all the faults of the character, surely none is so base as heartless indifference to benefactors. And have we any benefactors like these men? Our closest friends, our earliest teachers, our parents themselves, are not more truly our benefactors than they. To them we owe what we prize most—country, freedom, peace, knowledge, art, thought, and higher sense of right and wrong. Have we received from any services like these; not we only, but all equally in common : and have any services been given at so great a cost? What a long tale of patience, courage, sacrifice, and martyrdom is the history of human progress! Should it not affect us as if we were reading in the diary of a parent the record of his struggles for his children. For us they toiled, endured, bled, and died; that we by their labour might have rest, by their thought might know, by their death might live happily. We know the devotion with which the believers in every creed have felt for the authors of their faith. Intolerant and narrow as this has often been, it yet bears witness to a sense of one of the deepest and best of our emotions. The feeling may become too often partial and bigoted; yet let us beware of neglecting it. Let us dread, above bigotry itself, a temper of irreverence and ingratitude. For whom did these men work, if not for us? Not for themselves, when they gave up peace, honour, life, page 28 reputation itself—as when the great French republican exclaimed, "May my name be accursed, so that France be free;" not for themselves they worked, but for their cause, for their fellows, for us. Not that they might have fame, but that they might leave the world better than they found it; that there might be more good, less evil, abroad in it; that the good time might come. What else but this supported Milton in his old age, blind, poor, and dishonoured, when he poured out his spirit in solitude, full of grace, tenderness, and hope, amidst the ruin of all he loved and the obscene triumph of all he despised? Or what else supported Dante, the poet of Florence, when an outlaw and an exile he was cast off by friends and countrymen, and wandered about begging his bread from city to city, pondering the great thoughts which live throughout all Europe? Was not this spirit, too, in one, the noblest victim of the French Revolution, the great philosopher Condorcet; who, condemned, hunted to death, dying of hunger and suffering, devoted the last few hours of his life to the service of mankind; and, whilst the pursuers were on his track, wrote in his hiding-place that noble sketch of the progress of the human race.
It would be base indeed to sec in this nothing but a selfish love of fame. It was at bottom in them all a native love for right, an inborn desire for the good, the instinct of duty, which possessed them. To us, indeed, no similar powers are given, nor on us are similar tasks imposed. Our path is smooth, because theirs was so rough; our work is easy, because theirs was so hard; yet the work of civilization, of progress, and truth, begun by them, must be carried on by us; by all, not by some; for all, not for some; and will best be carried on by knowing what they have done for us, what they could not do, and why and where they failed.