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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83

Ranke's Universal History

Ranke's Universal History.

Readers of Macaulay's essays are acquainted with that on "Ranke's History of the Popes." The venerable Leopold von Ranke finishes his career with a Universal History, imagined in the spirit of Humboldt's "Cosmos," which attempted a grasp of all natural phenomena, as Ranke does of the human.

Truly this is a grand idea. Where is history to begin? The stone age, the iron age? We suppose no one commences with Adam and Eve.

In the dim nebulæ we have those relics of baby civilisation traceable in North America, Cambodia, Easter Island, and other mysteriously varied spots. A foothold is first obtained in Egypt. Even there we know not where to fix a beginning. The civilisation of Egypt six thousand years ago must have been the outcome of long ages of development. It has been shown how the wondrous Nile brought this growth into luxuriant richness. But the Mississippi and the Amazon did not create civilisations.

From the Egyptian quarry we proceed to that of India, still puzzled and, indeed, lost in the maze. Asia furnished the Aryan household, spreading from the "Roof of the World." Here are the progenitors of that civilisation under whose butterfly phase we have been warmed to life. For, in a view of the Universal, what is a thousand years but a day? There is no such thing as time, no such thing as size. All is relative to our animalculæ conceptions.

Ranke, on the same basis as Rawlinson's hurried sketch of ancient history, treats of Chaldea, Babylonia, Assyria, Media and Persia. Rawlinson, in his "Ancient Monarchies," expanded this division. We take up Grote, of course, for Greece, with a glance at Thirlwall and Mitford. Alexander the Great appears as the first of the eminent modern soldiers, may we say? His successors were Hannibal, Cæsar, and Napoleon. We may as well think on grand lines while we are about it.

Over Rome we linger, and burnish out our knowledge, for here begins that which is truly valuable. The period of the page 6 Kings interests us little, but our affection curls around the centuries of the Republic. Yet there is no worthy history, none possible of this era. Very few traces are to be found in Rome of its most glorious age, that of the Republic. The haggard beauty of the Coliseum, the fragments of the Forum, the Baths, the Arches, the Appian Way, and the other antique objects of our worship, are wreckage from the decadence of the empire which Gibbon has historised.

The hub and pivot of the history of the world is that period which casts up the names of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Cæsar, and Augustus. This is the nucleus and head of the comet, the tail of which effulgently streams away in Tiberius, Aurelius, Trajan, Severus and the glamour of the Emperors. We admire Gibbon and study Mommsen.

From Rome is derived the vertebral part of Western civilisation. Our law rests on the buttresses and foundations of Justinian, who coded what had grown up before. Republican Rome, barring its slavery, is modern—more truly modern than the Italian States of the Dark and Middle ages, or even such as have been quenched in our own generation. In geology an old formation may inexplicably be superimposed on a newer one. When called upon to swallow mythologies we say, "The men of the Roman Republic had the same common sense as we have. We can shake hands with them, talk coolly, and find that order, method, and law rule the universe."

The history of Rome leads right on to that of England. "Laboremus!" exclaimed the Emperor Severus, as he lay dying at York. There was but a brief interval betwixt sunset and dawn. We can view history as we may view the earth—in imagination. The distance may be fixed anywhere. There is a distance from which the historical globe will show the continents Rome—England.

Ranke's Universal History, like that conceived by any one of us, must perforce be one-sided, and the side only that of a polygon. It is a matter of predilection. The thing amounts to little more than a chronicle of the military affairs of men. Even thus-wise it is mostly made up of the old "fable agreed on"—a romance elevating to the mind, like a musical overture, but no more satisfying. What is the impulsion that has produced England, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, China, Australia? Here we have more than Ranke can afford, indeed, more than the mind of any man can hold. Your Rollins and Rankes are instructive writers, but we must recognise what a mere pocket-handkerchief laid on a field is the effort of a man to write universal history, unless he possesses all the treasures of science, potential as well as actual. "Universal Chronicle" would rather be the title for Von Ranke's work. It fails just as Humboldt's "Cosmos" failed, page 7 and as this article fails—commencing with the fireworks of generalisation, but soon reaching our own little patch of back garden.