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The Rise of Historical Criticism

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The Rise of Historical Criticism

CHAPTER I

HISTORICAL criticism nowhere occurs as an isolated fact in the
civilisation or literature of any people. It is part of that
complex working towards freedom which may be described as the
revolt against authority. It is merely one facet of that
speculative spirit of an innovation, which in the sphere of action
produces democracy and revolution, and in that of thought is the
parent of philosophy and physical science; and its importance as a
factor of progress is based not so much on the results it attains,
as on the tone of thought which it represents, and the method by
which it works.

Being thus the resultant of forces essentially revolutionary, it is
not to be found in the ancient world among the material despotisms
of Asia or the stationary civilisation of Egypt. The clay
cylinders of Assyria and Babylon, the hieroglyphics of the
pyramids, form not history but the material for history.

The Chinese annals, ascending as they do to the barbarous forest
life of the nation, are marked with a soberness of judgment, a
freedom from invention, which is almost unparalleled in the
writings of any people; but the protective spirit which is the
characteristic of that people proved as fatal to their literature
as to their commerce. Free criticism is as unknown as free trade.
While as regards the Hindus, their acute, analytical and logical
mind is directed rather to grammar, criticism and philosophy than
to history or chronology. Indeed, in history their imagination
seems to have run wild, legend and fact are so indissolubly mingled
together that any attempt to separate them seems vain. If we
except the identification of the Greek Sandracottus with the Indian
Chandragupta, we have really no clue by which we can test the truth
of their writings or examine their method of investigation.

It is among the Hellenic branch of the Indo-Germanic race that
history proper is to be found, as well as the spirit of historical
criticism; among that wonderful offshoot of the primitive Aryans,
whom we call by the name of Greeks and to whom, as has been well
said, we owe all that moves in the world except the blind forces of
nature.

For, from the day when they left the chill table-lands of Tibet and
journeyed, a nomad people, to AEgean shores, the characteristic of
their nature has been the search for light, and the spirit of
historical criticism is part of that wonderful Aufklarung or
illumination of the intellect which seems to have burst on the
Greek race like a great flood of light about the sixth century B.C.

L’ESPRIT D’UN SIECLE NE NAIT PAS ET NE MEURT PAS E JOUR FIXE, and
the first critic is perhaps as difficult to discover as the first
man. It is from democracy that the spirit of criticism borrows its
intolerance of dogmatic authority, from physical science the
alluring analogies of law and order, from philosophy the conception
of an essential unity underlying the complex manifestations of
phenomena. It appears first rather as a changed attitude of mind
than as a principle of research, and its earliest influences are to
be found in the sacred writings.

For men begin to doubt in questions of religion first, and then in
matters of more secular interest; and as regards the nature of the
spirit of historical criticism itself in its ultimate development,
it is not confined merely to the empirical method of ascertaining
whether an event happened or not, but is concerned also with the
investigation into the causes of events, the general relations
which phenomena of life hold to one another, and in its ultimate
development passes into the wider question of the philosophy of
history.

Now, while the workings of historical criticism in these two
spheres of sacred and uninspired history are essentially
manifestations of the same spirit, yet their methods are so
different, the canons of evidence so entirely separate, and the
motives in each case so unconnected, that it will be necessary for
a clear estimation of the progress of Greek thought, that we should
consider these two questions entirely apart from one another. I
shall then in both cases take the succession of writers in their
chronological order as representing the rational order – not that
the succession of time is always the succession of ideas, or that
dialectics moves ever in the straight line in which Hegel conceives
its advance. In Greek thought, as elsewhere, there are periods of
stagnation and apparent retrogression, yet their intellectual
development, not merely in the question of historical criticism,
but in their art, their poetry and their philosophy, seems so
essentially normal, so free from all disturbing external
influences, so peculiarly rational, that in following in the
footsteps of time we shall really be progressing in the order
sanctioned by reason.

CHAPTER II

AT an early period in their intellectual development the Greeks
reached that critical point in the history of every civilised
nation, when speculative invades the domain of revealed truth, when
the spiritual ideas of the people can no longer be satisfied by the
lower, material conceptions of their inspired writers, and when men
find it impossible to pour the new wine of free thought into the
old bottles of a narrow and a trammelling creed.

From their Aryan ancestors they had received the fatal legacy of a
mythology stained with immoral and monstrous stories which strove
to hide the rational order of nature in a chaos of miracles, and to
mar by imputed wickedness the perfection of God’s nature – a very
shirt of Nessos in which the Heracles of rationalism barely escaped
annihilation. Now while undoubtedly the speculations of Thales,
and the alluring analogies of law and order afforded by physical
science, were most important forces in encouraging the rise of the
spirit of scepticism, yet it was on its ethical side that the Greek
mythology was chiefly open to attack.

It is difficult to shake the popular belief in miracles, but no man
will admit sin and immorality as attributes of the Ideal he
worships; so the first symptoms of a new order of thought are shown
in the passionate outcries of Xenophanes and Heraclitos against the
evil things said by Homer of the sons of God; and in the story told
of Pythagoras, how that he saw tortured in Hell the ‘two founders
of Greek theology,’ we can recognise the rise of the Aufklarung as
clearly as we see the Reformation foreshadowed in the INFERNO of
Dante.

Any honest belief, then, in the plain truth of these stories soon
succumbed before the destructive effects of the A PRIORI ethical
criticism of this school; but the orthodox party, as is its custom,
found immediately a convenient shelter under the aegis of the
doctrine of metaphors and concealed meanings.

To this allegorical school the tale of the fight around the walls
of Troy was a mystery, behind which, as behind a veil, were hidden
certain moral and physical truths. The contest between Athena and
Ares was that eternal contest between rational thought and the
brute force of ignorance; the arrows which rattled in the quiver of
the ‘Far Darter’ were no longer the instruments of vengeance shot
from the golden bow of the child of God, but the common rays of the
sun, which was itself nothing but a mere inert mass of burning
metal.

Modern investigation, with the ruthlessness of Philistine analysis,
has ultimately brought Helen of Troy down to a symbol of the dawn.
There were Philistines among the Greeks also who saw in the [Greek
text which cannot be reproduced] a mere metaphor for atmospheric
power.

Now while this tendency to look for metaphors and hidden meanings
must be ranked as one of the germs of historical criticism, yet it
was essentially unscientific. Its inherent weakness is clearly
pointed out by Plato, who showed that while this theory will no
doubt explain many of the current legends, yet, if it is to be
appealed to at all, it must be as a universal principle; a position
he is by no means prepared to admit.

Like many other great principles it suffered from its disciples,
and furnished its own refutation when the web of Penelope was
analysed into a metaphor of the rules of formal logic, the warp
representing the premises, and the woof the conclusion.

Rejecting, then, the allegorical interpretation of the sacred
writings as an essentially dangerous method, proving either too
much or too little, Plato himself returns to the earlier mode of
attack, and re-writes history with a didactic purpose, laying down
certain ethical canons of historical criticism. God is good; God
is just; God is true; God is without the common passions of men.
These are the tests to which we are to bring the stories of the
Greek religion.

‘God predestines no men to ruin, nor sends destruction on innocent
cities; He never walks the earth in strange disguise, nor has to
mourn for the death of any well-beloved son. Away with the tears
for Sarpedon, the lying dream sent to Agamemnon, and the story of
the broken covenant!’ (Plato, REPUBLIC, Book ii. 380; iii. 388,
391.)

Similar ethical canons are applied to the accounts of the heroes of
the days of old, and by the same A PRIORI principles Achilles is
rescued from the charges of avarice and insolence in a passage
which may be recited as the earliest instance of that ‘whitewashing
of great men,’ as it has been called, which is so popular in our
own day, when Catiline and Clodius are represented as honest and
far-seeing politicians, when EINE EDLE UND GUTE NATUR is claimed
for Tiberius, and Nero is rescued from his heritage of infamy as an
accomplished DILETTANTE whose moral aberrations are more than
excused by his exquisite artistic sense and charming tenor voice.

But besides the allegorising principle of interpretation, and the
ethical reconstruction of history, there was a third theory, which
may be called the semi-historical, and which goes by the name of
Euhemeros, though he was by no means the first to propound it.

Appealing to a fictitious monument which he declared that he had
discovered in the island of Panchaia, and which purported to be a
column erected by Zeus, and detailing the incidents of his reign on
earth, this shallow thinker attempted to show that the gods and
heroes of ancient Greece were ‘mere ordinary mortals, whose
achievements had been a good deal exaggerated and misrepresented,’
and that the proper canon of historical criticism as regards the
treatment of myths was to rationalise the incredible, and to
present the plausible residuum as actual truth.

To him and his school, the centaurs, for instance, those mythical
sons of the storm, strange links between the lives of men and
animals, were merely some youths from the village of Nephele in
Thessaly, distinguished for their sporting tastes; the ‘living
harvest of panoplied knights,’ which sprang so mystically from the
dragon’s teeth, a body of mercenary troops supported by the profits
on a successful speculation in ivory; and Actaeon, an ordinary
master of hounds, who, living before the days of subscription, was
eaten out of house and home by the expenses of his kennel.

Now, that under the glamour of myth and legend some substratum of
historical fact may lie, is a proposition rendered extremely
probable by the modern investigations into the workings of the
mythopoeic spirit in post-Christian times. Charlemagne and Roland,
St. Francis and William Tell, are none the less real personages
because their histories are filled with much that is fictitious and
incredible, but in all cases what is essentially necessary is some
external corroboration, such as is afforded by the mention of
Roland and Roncesvalles in the chronicles of England, or (in the
sphere of Greek legend) by the excavations of Hissarlik. But to
rob a mythical narrative of its kernel of supernatural elements,
and to present the dry husk thus obtained as historical fact, is,
as has been well said, to mistake entirely the true method of
investigation and to identify plausibility with truth.

And as regards the critical point urged by Palaiphatos, Strabo, and
Polybius, that pure invention on Homer’s part is inconceivable, we
may without scruple allow it, for myths, like constitutions, grow
gradually, and are not formed in a day. But between a poet’s
deliberate creation and historical accuracy there is a wide field
of the mythopoeic faculty.

This Euhemeristic theory was welcomed as an essentially
philosophical and critical method by the unscientific Romans, to
whom it was introduced by the poet Ennius, that pioneer of
cosmopolitan Hellenicism, and it continued to characterise the tone
of ancient thought on the question of the treatment of mythology
till the rise of Christianity, when it was turned by such writers
as Augustine and Minucius Felix into a formidable weapon of attack
on Paganism. It was then abandoned by all those who still bent the
knee to Athena or to Zeus, and a general return, aided by the
philosophic mystics of Alexandria, to the allegorising principle of
interpretation took place, as the only means of saving the deities
of Olympus from the Titan assaults of the new Galilean God. In
what vain defence, the statue of Mary set in the heart of the
Pantheon can best tell us.

Religions, however, may be absorbed, but they never are disproved,
and the stories of the Greek mythology, spiritualised by the
purifying influence of Christianity, reappear in many of the
southern parts of Europe in our own day. The old fable that the
Greek gods took service with the new religion under assumed names
has more truth in it than the many care to discover.

Having now traced the progress of historical criticism in the
special treatment of myth and legend, I shall proceed to
investigate the form in which the same spirit manifested itself as
regards what one may term secular history and secular historians.
The field traversed will be found to be in some respects the same,
but the mental attitude, the spirit, the motive of investigation
are all changed.

There were heroes before the son of Atreus and historians before
Herodotus, yet the latter is rightly hailed as the father of
history, for in him we discover not merely the empirical connection
of cause and effect, but that constant reference to Laws, which is
the characteristic of the historian proper.

For all history must be essentially universal; not in the sense of
comprising all the synchronous events of the past time, but through
the universality of the principles employed. And the great
conceptions which unify the work of Herodotus are such as even
modern thought has not yet rejected. The immediate government of
the world by God, the nemesis and punishment which sin and pride
invariably bring with them, the revealing of God’s purpose to His
people by signs and omens, by miracles and by prophecy; these are
to Herodotus the laws which govern the phenomena of history. He is
essentially the type of supernatural historian; his eyes are ever
strained to discern the Spirit of God moving over the face of the
waters of life; he is more concerned with final than with efficient
causes.

Yet we can discern in him the rise of that HISTORIC SENSE which is
the rational antecedent of the science of historical criticism, the
[Greek text which cannot be reproduced], to use the words of a
Greek writer, as opposed to that which comes either [Greek text
which cannot be reproduced].

He has passed through the valley of faith and has caught a glimpse
of the sunlit heights of Reason; but like all those who, while
accepting the supernatural, yet attempt to apply the canons of
rationalism, he is essentially inconsistent. For the better
apprehension of the character of this historic sense in Herodotus
it will be necessary to examine at some length the various forms of
criticism in which it manifests itself.

Such fabulous stories as that of the Phoenix, of the goat-footed
men, of the headless beings with eyes in their breasts, of the men
who slept six months in the year ([Greek text which cannot be
reproduced]), of the wer-wolf of the Neuri, and the like, are
entirely rejected by him as being opposed to the ordinary
experience of life, and to those natural laws whose universal
influence the early Greek physical philosophers had already made
known to the world of thought. Other legends, such as the suckling
of Cyrus by a bitch, or the feather-rain of northern Europe, are
rationalised and explained into a woman’s name and a fall of snow.
The supernatural origin of the Scythian nation, from the union of
Hercules and the monstrous Echidna, is set aside by him for the
more probable account that they were a nomad tribe driven by the
Massagetae from Asia; and he appeals to the local names of their
country as proof of the fact that the Kimmerians were the original
possessors.

But in the case of Herodotus it will be more instructive to pass on
from points like these to those questions of general probability,
the true apprehension of which depends rather on a certain quality
of mind than on any possibility of formulated rules, questions
which form no unimportant part of scientific history; for it must
be remembered always that the canons of historical criticism are
essentially different from those of judicial evidence, for they
cannot, like the latter, be made plain to every ordinary mind, but
appeal to a certain historical faculty founded on the experience of
life. Besides, the rules for the reception of evidence in courts
of law are purely stationary, while the science of historical
probability is essentially progressive, and changes with the
advancing spirit of each age.

Now, of all the speculative canons of historical criticism, none is
more important than that which rests on psychological probability.

Arguing from his knowledge of human nature, Herodotus rejects the
presence of Helen within the walls of Troy. Had she been there, he
says, Priam and his kinsmen would never have been so mad ([Greek
text which cannot be reproduced]) as not to give her up, when they
and their children and their city were in such peril (ii. 118); and
as regards the authority of Homer, some incidental passages in his
poem show that he knew of Helen’s sojourn in Egypt during the
siege, but selected the other story as being a more suitable motive
for an epic. Similarly he does not believe that the Alcmaeonidae
family, a family who had always been the haters of tyranny ([Greek
text which cannot be reproduced]), and to whom, even more than to
Harmodios and Aristogeiton, Athens owed its liberty, would ever
have been so treacherous as to hold up a shield after the battle of
Marathon as a signal for the Persian host to fall on the city. A
shield, he acknowledges, was held up, but it could not possibly
have been done by such friends of liberty as the house of Alcmaeon;
nor will he believe that a great king like Rhampsinitus would have
sent his daughter [Greek text which cannot be reproduced].

Elsewhere he argues from more general considerations of
probability; a Greek courtesan like Rhodopis would hardly have been
rich enough to build a pyramid, and, besides, on chronological
grounds the story is impossible (ii. 134).

In another passage (ii. 63), after giving an account of the
forcible entry of the priests of Ares into the chapel of the god’s
mother, which seems to have been a sort of religious faction fight
where sticks were freely used ([Greek text which cannot be
reproduced]), ‘I feel sure,’ he says, ‘that many of them died from
getting their heads broken, notwithstanding the assertions of the
Egyptian priests to the contrary.’ There is also something
charmingly naive in the account he gives of the celebrated Greek
swimmer who dived a distance of eighty stadia to give his
countrymen warning of the Persian advance. ‘If, however,’ he says,
‘I may offer an opinion on the subject, I would say that he came in
a boat.’

There is, of course, something a little trivial in some of the
instances I have quoted; but in a writer like Herodotus, who stands
on the borderland between faith and rationalism, one likes to note
even the most minute instances of the rise of the critical and
sceptical spirit of inquiry.

How really strange, at base, it was with him may, I think, be shown
by a reference to those passages where he applies rationalistic
tests to matters connected with religion. He nowhere, indeed,
grapples with the moral and scientific difficulties of the Greek
Bible; and where he rejects as incredible the marvellous
achievements of Hercules in Egypt, he does so on the express
grounds that he had not yet been received among the gods, and so
was still subject to the ordinary conditions of mortal life ([Greek
text which cannot be reproduced]).

Even within these limits, however, his religious conscience seems
to have been troubled at such daring rationalism, and the passage
(ii. 45) concludes with a pious hope that God will pardon him for
having gone so far, the great rationalistic passage being, of
course, that in which he rejects the mythical account of the
foundation of Dodona. ‘How can a dove speak with a human voice?’
he asks, and rationalises the bird into a foreign princess.

Similarly he seems more inclined to believe that the great storm at
the beginning of the Persian War ceased from ordinary atmospheric
causes, and not in consequence of the incantations of the MAGIANS.
He calls Melampos, whom the majority of the Greeks looked on as an
inspired prophet, ‘a clever man who had acquired for himself the
art of prophecy’; and as regards the miracle told of the AEginetan
statues of the primeval deities of Damia and Auxesia, that they
fell on their knees when the sacrilegious Athenians strove to carry
them off, ‘any one may believe it,’ he says, ‘who likes, but as for
myself, I place no credence in the tale.’

So much then for the rationalistic spirit of historical criticism,
as far as it appears explicitly in the works of this great and
philosophic writer; but for an adequate appreciation of his
position we must also note how conscious he was of the value of
documentary evidence, of the use of inscriptions, of the importance
of the poets as throwing light on manners and customs as well as on
historical incidents. No writer of any age has more vividly
recognised the fact that history is a matter of evidence, and that
it is as necessary for the historian to state his authority as it
is to produce one’s witnesses in a court of law.

While, however, we can discern in Herodotus the rise of an historic
sense, we must not blind ourselves to the large amount of instances
where he receives supernatural influences as part of the ordinary
forces of life. Compared to Thucydides, who succeeded him in the
development of history, he appears almost like a mediaeval writer
matched with a modern rationalist. For, contemporary though they
were, between these two authors there is an infinite chasm of
thought.

The essential difference of their methods may be best illustrated
from those passages where they treat of the same subject. The
execution of the Spartan heralds, Nicolaos and Aneristos, during
the Peloponnesian War is regarded by Herodotus as one of the most
supernatural instances of the workings of nemesis and the wrath of
an outraged hero; while the lengthened siege and ultimate fall of
Troy was brought about by the avenging hand of God desiring to
manifest unto men the mighty penalties which always follow upon
mighty sins. But Thucydides either sees not, or desires not to
see, in either of these events the finger of Providence, or the
punishment of wicked doers. The death of the heralds is merely an
Athenian retaliation for similar outrages committed by the opposite
side; the long agony of the ten years’ siege is due merely to the
want of a good commissariat in the Greek army; while the fall of
the city is the result of a united military attack consequent on a
good supply of provisions.

Now, it is to be observed that in this latter passage, as well as
elsewhere, Thucydides is in no sense of the word a sceptic as
regards his attitude towards the truth of these ancient legends.

Agamemnon and Atreus, Theseus and Eurystheus, even Minos, about
whom Herodotus has some doubts, are to him as real personages as
Alcibiades or Gylippus. The points in his historical criticism of
the past are, first, his rejection of all extra-natural
interference, and, secondly, the attributing to these ancient
heroes the motives and modes of thought of his own day. The
present was to him the key to the explanation of the past, as it
was to the prediction of the future.

Now, as regards his attitude towards the supernatural he is at one
with modern science. We too know that, just as the primeval coal-
beds reveal to us the traces of rain-drops and other atmospheric
phenomena similar to those of our own day, so, in estimating the
history of the past, the introduction of no force must be allowed
whose workings we cannot observe among the phenomena around us. To
lay down canons of ultra-historical credibility for the explanation
of events which happen to have preceded us by a few thousand years,
is as thoroughly unscientific as it is to intermingle preternatural
in geological theories.

Whatever the canons of art may be, no difficulty in history is so
great as to warrant the introduction of a spirit of spirit [Greek
text which cannot be reproduced], in the sense of a violation of
the laws of nature.

Upon the other point, however, Thucydides falls into an
anachronism. To refuse to allow the workings of chivalrous and
self-denying motives among the knights of the Trojan crusade,
because he saw none in the faction-loving Athenian of his own day,
is to show an entire ignorance of the various characteristics of
human nature developing under different circumstances, and to deny
to a primitive chieftain like Agamemnon that authority founded on
opinion, to which we give the name of divine right, is to fall into
an historical error quite as gross as attributing to Atreus the
courting of the populace ([Greek text which cannot be reproduced])
with a view to the Mycenean throne.

The general method of historical criticism pursued by Thucydides
having been thus indicated, it remains to proceed more into detail
as regards those particular points where he claims for himself a
more rational method of estimating evidence than either the public
or his predecessors possessed.

‘So little pains,’ he remarks, ‘do the vulgar take in the
investigation of truth, satisfied with their preconceived
opinions,’ that the majority of the Greeks believe in a Pitanate
cohort of the Spartan army and in a double vote being the
prerogative of the Spartan kings, neither of which opinions has any
foundation in fact. But the chief point on which he lays stress as
evincing the ‘uncritical way with which men receive legends, even
the legends of their own country,’ is the entire baselessness of
the common Athenian tradition in which Harmodios and Aristogeiton
were represented as the patriotic liberators of Athens from the
Peisistratid tyranny. So far, he points out, from the love of
freedom being their motive, both of them were influenced by merely
personal considerations, Aristogeiton being jealous of Hipparchos’
attention to Harmodios, then a beautiful boy in the flower of Greek
loveliness, while the latter’s indignation was aroused by an insult
offered to his sister by the prince.

Their motives, then, were personal revenge, while the result of
their conspiracy served only to rivet more tightly the chains of
servitude which bound Athens to the Peisistratid house, for
Hipparchos, whom they killed, was only the tyrant’s younger
brother, and not the tyrant himself.

To prove his theory that Hippias was the elder, he appeals to the
evidence afforded by a public inscription in which his name occurs
immediately after that of his father, a point which he thinks shows
that he was the eldest, and so the heir. This view he further
corroborates by another inscription, on the altar of Apollo, which
mentions the children of Hippias and not those of his brothers;
‘for it was natural for the eldest to be married first’; and
besides this, on the score of general probability he points out
that, had Hippias been the younger, he would not have so easily
obtained the tyranny on the death of Hipparchos.

Now, what is important in Thucydides, as evinced in the treatment
of legend generally, is not the results he arrived at, but the
method by which he works. The first great rationalistic historian,
he may be said to have paved the way for all those who followed
after him, though it must always be remembered that, while the
total absence in his pages of all the mystical paraphernalia of the
supernatural theory of life is an advance in the progress of
rationalism, and an era in scientific history, whose importance
could never be over-estimated, yet we find along with it a total
absence of any mention of those various social and economical
forces which form such important factors in the evolution of the
world, and to which Herodotus rightly gave great prominence in his
immortal work. The history of Thucydides is essentially one-sided
and incomplete. The intricate details of sieges and battles,
subjects with which the historian proper has really nothing to do
except so far as they may throw light on the spirit of the age, we
would readily exchange for some notice of the condition of private
society in Athens, or the influence and position of women.

There is an advance in the method of historical criticism; there is
an advance in the conception and motive of history itself; for in
Thucydides we may discern that natural reaction against the
intrusion of didactic and theological considerations into the
sphere of the pure intellect, the spirit of which may be found in
the Euripidean treatment of tragedy and the later schools of art,
as well as in the Platonic conception of science.

History, no doubt, has splendid lessons for our instruction, just
as all good art comes to us as the herald of the noblest truth.
But, to set before either the painter or the historian the
inculcation of moral lessons as an aim to be consciously pursued,
is to miss entirely the true motive and characteristic both of art
and history, which is in the one case the creation of beauty, in
the other the discovery of the laws of the evolution of progress:
IL NE FAUT DEMANDER DE L’ART QUE L’ART, DU PASSE QUE LE PASSE.

Herodotus wrote to illustrate the wonderful ways of Providence and
the nemesis that falls on sin, and his work is a good example of
the truth that nothing can dispense with criticism so much as a
moral aim. Thucydides has no creed to preach, no doctrine to
prove. He analyses the results which follow inevitably from
certain antecedents, in order that on a recurrence of the same
crisis men may know how to act.

His object was to discover the laws of the past so as to serve as a
light to illumine the future. We must not confuse the recognition
of the utility of history with any ideas of a didactic aim. Two
points more in Thucydides remain for our consideration: his
treatment of the rise of Greek civilisation, and of the primitive

condition of Hellas, as well as the question how far can he be said
really to have recognised the existence of laws regulating the
complex phenomena of life.

CHAPTER III

THE investigation into the two great problems of the origin of
society and the philosophy of history occupies such an important
position in the evolution of Greek thought that, to obtain any
clear view of the workings of the critical spirit, it will be
necessary to trace at some length their rise and scientific
development as evinced not merely in the works of historians
proper, but also in the philosophical treatises of Plato and
Aristotle. The important position which these two great thinkers
occupy in the progress of historical criticism can hardly be over-
estimated. I do not mean merely as regards their treatment of the
Greek Bible, and Plato’s endeavours to purge sacred history of its
immorality by the application of ethical canons at the time when
Aristotle was beginning to undermine the basis of miracles by his
scientific conception of law, but with reference to these two wider
questions of the rise of civil institutions and the philosophy of
history.

And first, as regards the current theories of the primitive
condition of society, there was a wide divergence of opinion in
Hellenic society, just as there is now. For while the majority of
the orthodox public, of whom Hesiod may be taken as the
representative, looked back, as a great many of our own day still
do, to a fabulous age of innocent happiness, a BELL’ ETE DELL’
AURO, where sin and death were unknown and men and women were like
Gods, the foremost men of intellect such as Aristotle and Plato,
AEschylus and many of the other poets (1) saw in primitive man ‘a
few small sparks of humanity preserved on the tops of mountains
after some deluge,’ ‘without an idea of cities, governments or
legislation,’ ‘living the lives of wild beasts in sunless caves,’
‘their only law being the survival of the fittest.’

And this, too, was the opinion of Thucydides, whose ARCHAEOLOGIA as
it is contains a most valuable disquisition on the early condition
of Hellas, which it will be necessary to examine at some length.

Now, as regards the means employed generally by Thucydides for the
elucidation of ancient history, I have already pointed out how
that, while acknowledging that ‘it is the tendency of every poet to
exaggerate, as it is of every chronicler to seek to be attractive
at the expense of truth; he yet assumes in the thoroughly
euhemeristic way, that under the veil of myth and legend there does
yet exist a rational basis of fact discoverable by the method of
rejecting all supernatural interference as well as any
extraordinary motives influencing the actors. It is in complete
accordance with this spirit that he appeals, for instance, to the
Homeric epithet of [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], as
applied to Corinth, as a proof of the early commercial prosperity
of that city; to the fact of the generic name HELLENES not
occurring in the ILIAD as a corroboration of his theory of the
essentially disunited character of the primitive Greek tribes; and
he argues from the line ‘O’er many islands and all Argos ruled,’ as
applied to Agamemnon, that his forces must have been partially
naval, ‘for Agamemnon’s was a continental power, and he could not
have been master of any but the adjacent islands, and these would
not be many but through the possession of a fleet.’

Anticipating in some measure the comparative method of research, he
argues from the fact of the more barbarous Greek tribes, such as
the AEtolians and Acarnanians, still carrying arms in his own day,
that this custom was the case originally over the whole country.
‘The fact,’ he says, ‘that the people in these parts of Hellas are
still living in the old way points to a time when the same mode of
life was equally common to all.’ Similarly, in another passage, he
shows how a corroboration of his theory of the respectable
character of piracy in ancient days is afforded by ‘the honour with
which some of the inhabitants of the continent still regard a
successful marauder,’ as well as by the fact that the question,
‘Are you a pirate?’ is a common feature of primitive society as
shown in the poets; and finally, after observing how the old Greek
custom of wearing belts in gymnastic contests still survived among
the more uncivilised Asiatic tribes, he observes that there are
many other points in which a likeness may be shown between the life
of the primitive Hellenes and that of the barbarians to-day.’

As regards the evidence afforded by ancient remains, while adducing
as a proof of the insecure character of early Greek society the
fact of their cities (2) being always built at some distance from
the sea, yet he is careful to warn us, and the caution ought to be
borne in mind by all archaeologists, that we have no right to
conclude from the scanty remains of any city that its legendary
greatness in primitive times was a mere exaggeration. ‘We are not
justified,’ he says, ‘in rejecting the tradition of the magnitude
of the Trojan armament, because Mycenae and the other towns of that
age seem to us small and insignificant. For, if Lacedaemon was to
become desolate, any antiquarian judging merely from its ruins
would be inclined to regard the tale of the Spartan hegemony as an
idle myth; for the city is a mere collection of villages after the
old fashion of Hellas, and has none of those splendid public
buildings and temples which characterise Athens, and whose remains,
in the case of the latter city, would be so marvellous as to lead
the superficial observer into an exaggerated estimate of the
Athenian power.’ Nothing can be more scientific than the
archaeological canons laid down, whose truth is strikingly
illustrated to any one who has compared the waste fields of the
Eurotas plain with the lordly monuments of the Athenian acropolis.
(3)

On the other hand, Thucydides is quite conscious of the value of
the positive evidence afforded by archaeological remains. He
appeals, for instance, to the character of the armour found in the
Delian tombs and the peculiar mode of sepulture, as corroboration
of his theory of the predominance of the Carian element among the
primitive islanders, and to the concentration of all the temples
either in the Acropolis, or in its immediate vicinity, to the name
of [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] by which it was still
known, and to the extraordinary sanctity of the spring of water
there, as proof that the primitive city was originally confined to
the citadel, and the district immediately beneath it (ii. 16). And
lastly, in the very opening of his history, anticipating one of the
most scientific of modern methods, he points out how in early
states of civilisation immense fertility of the soil tends to
favour the personal aggrandisement of individuals, and so to stop
the normal progress of the country through ‘the rise of factions,
that endless source of ruin’; and also by the allurements it offers
to a foreign invader, to necessitate a continual change of
population, one immigration following on another. He exemplifies
his theory by pointing to the endless political revolutions that
characterised Arcadia, Thessaly and Boeotia, the three richest
spots in Greece, as well as by the negative instance of the
undisturbed state in primitive time of Attica, which was always
remarkable for the dryness and poverty of its soil.

Now, while undoubtedly in these passages we may recognise the first
anticipation of many of the most modern principles of research, we
must remember how essentially limited is the range of the
ARCHAEOLOGIA, and how no theory at all is offered on the wider
questions of the general conditions of the rise and progress of
humanity, a problem which is first scientifically discussed in the
REPUBLIC of Plato.

And at the outset it must be premised that, while the study of
primitive man is an essentially inductive science, resting rather
on the accumulation of evidence than on speculation, among the
Greeks it was prosecuted rather on deductive principles.
Thucydides did, indeed, avail himself of the opportunities afforded
by the unequal development of civilisation in his own day in
Greece, and in the places I have pointed out seems to have
anticipated the comparative method. But we do not find later
writers availing themselves of the wonderfully accurate and
picturesque accounts given by Herodotus of the customs of savage
tribes. To take one instance, which bears a good deal on modern
questions, we find in the works of this great traveller the gradual
and progressive steps in the development of the family life clearly
manifested in the mere gregarious herding together of the
Agathyrsi, their primitive kinsmanship through women in common, and
the rise of a feeling of paternity from a state of polyandry. This
tribe stood at that time on that borderland between umbilical
relationship and the family which has been such a difficult point
for modern anthropologists to find.

The ancient authors, however, are unanimous in insisting that the
family is the ultimate unit of society, though, as I have said, an
inductive study of primitive races, or even the accounts given of
them by Herodotus, would have shown them that the [Greek text which
cannot be reproduced] of a personal household, to use Plato’s
expression, is really a most complex notion appearing always in a
late stage of civilisation, along with recognition of private
property and the rights of individualism.

Philology also, which in the hands of modern investigators has
proved such a splendid instrument of research, was in ancient days
studied on principles too unscientific to be of much use.
Herodotus points out that the word ERIDANOS is essentially Greek in
character, that consequently the river supposed to run round the
world is probably a mere Greek invention. His remarks, however, on
language generally, as in the case of PIROMIS and the ending of the
Persian names, show on what unsound basis his knowledge of language
rested.

In the BACCHAE of Euripides there is an extremely interesting
passage in which the immoral stories of the Greek mythology are
accounted for on the principle of that misunderstanding of words
and metaphors to which modern science has given the name of a
disease of language. In answer to the impious rationalism of
Pentheus – a sort of modern Philistine – Teiresias, who may be
termed the Max Muller of the Theban cycle, points out that the
story of Dionysus being inclosed in Zeus’ thigh really arose from
the linguistic confusion between [Greek text which cannot be
reproduced] and [Greek text which cannot be reproduced].

On the whole, however – for I have quoted these two instances only
to show the unscientific character of early philology – we may say
that this important instrument in recreating the history of the
past was not really used by the ancients as a means of historical
criticism. Nor did the ancients employ that other method, used to
such advantage in our own day, by which in the symbolism and
formulas of an advanced civilisation we can detect the unconscious
survival of ancient customs: for, whereas in the sham capture of
the bride at a marriage feast, which was common in Wales till a
recent time, we can discern the lingering reminiscence of the
barbarous habit of exogamy, the ancient writers saw only the
deliberate commemoration of an historical event.

Aristotle does not tell us by what method he discovered that the
Greeks used to buy their wives in primitive times, but, judging by
his general principles, it was probably through some legend or myth
on the subject which lasted to his own day, and not, as we would
do, by arguing back from the marriage presents given to the bride
and her relatives. (4)

The origin of the common proverb ‘worth so many beeves,’ in which
we discern the unconscious survival of a purely pastoral state of
society before the use of metals was known, is ascribed by Plutarch
to the fact of Theseus having coined money bearing a bull’s head.
Similarly, the Amathusian festival, in which a young man imitated
the labours of a woman in travail, is regarded by him as a rite
instituted in Ariadne’s honour, and the Carian adoration of
asparagus as a simple commemoration of the adventure of the nymph
Perigune. In the first of these WE discern the beginning of
agnation and kinsmanship through the father, which still lingers in
the ‘couvee’ of New Zealand tribes: while the second is a relic of
the totem and fetish worship of plants.

Now, in entire opposition to this modern inductive principle of
research stands the philosophic Plato, whose account of primitive
man is entirely speculative and deductive.

The origin of society he ascribes to necessity, the mother of all
inventions, and imagines that individual man began deliberately to
herd together on account of the advantages of the principle of
division of labour and the rendering of mutual need.

It must, however, be borne in mind that Plato’s object in this
whole passage in the REPUBLIC was, perhaps, not so much to analyse
the conditions of early society as to illustrate the importance of
the division of labour, the shibboleth of his political economy, by
showing what a powerful factor it must have been in the most
primitive as well as in the most complex states of society; just as
in the LAWS he almost rewrites entirely the history of the
Peloponnesus in order to prove the necessity of a balance of power.
He surely, I mean, must have recognised himself how essentially
incomplete his theory was in taking no account of the origin of
family life, the position and influence of women, and other social
questions, as well as in disregarding those deeper motives of
religion, which are such important factors in early civilisation,
and whose influence Aristotle seems to have clearly apprehended,
when he says that the aim of primitive society was not merely life
but the higher life, and that in the origin of society utility is
not the sole motive, but that there is something spiritual in it
if, at least, ‘spiritual’ will bring out the meaning of that
complex expression [Greek text which cannot be reproduced].
Otherwise, the whole account in the REPUBLIC of primitive man will
always remain as a warning against the intrusion of A PRIORI
speculations in the domain appropriate to induction.

Now, Aristotle’s theory of the origin of society, like his
philosophy of ethics, rests ultimately on the principle of final
causes, not in the theological meaning of an aim or tendency
imposed from without, but in the scientific sense of function
corresponding to organ. ‘Nature maketh no thing in vain’ is the
text of Aristotle in this as in other inquiries. Man being the
only animal possessed of the power of rational speech is, he
asserts, by nature intended to be social, more so than the bee or
any other gregarious animal.

He is [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], and the national
tendency towards higher forms of perfection brings the ‘armed
savage who used to sell his wife’ to the free independence of a
free state, and to the [Greek text which cannot be reproduced],
which was the test of true citizenship. The stages passed through
by humanity start with the family first as the ultimate unit.

The conglomeration of families forms a village ruled by that
patriarchal sway which is the oldest form of government in the
world, as is shown by the fact that all men count it to be the
constitution of heaven, and the villages are merged into the state,
and here the progression stops.

For Aristotle, like all Greek thinkers, found his ideal within the
walls of the [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], yet perhaps
in his remark that a united Greece would rule the world we may
discern some anticipation of that ‘federal union of free states
into one consolidated empire’ which, more than the [Greek text
which cannot be reproduced], is to our eyes the ultimately perfect
polity.

How far Aristotle was justified in regarding the family as the
ultimate unit, with the materials afforded to him by Greek
literature, I have already noticed. Besides, Aristotle, I may
remark, had he reflected on the meaning of that Athenian law which,
while prohibiting marriage with a uterine sister, permitted it with
a sister-german, or on the common tradition in Athens that before
the time of Cecrops children bore their mothers’ names, or on some
of the Spartan regulations, could hardly have failed to see the
universality of kinsmanship through women in early days, and the
late appearance of monandry. Yet, while he missed this point, in
common, it must be acknowledged, with many modern writers, such as
Sir Henry Maine, it is essentially as an explorer of inductive
instances that we recognise his improvement on Plato. The treatise
[Greek text which cannot be reproduced], did it remain to us in its
entirety, would have been one of the most valuable landmarks in the
progress of historical criticism, and the first scientific treatise
on the science of comparative politics.

A few fragments still remain to us, in one of which we find
Aristotle appealing to the authority of an ancient inscription on
the ‘Disk of Iphitus,’ one of the most celebrated Greek
antiquities, to corroborate his theory of the Lycurgean revival of
the Olympian festival; while his enormous research is evinced in
the elaborate explanation he gives of the historical origin of
proverbs such as [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], of
religious songs like the [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] of
the Botticean virgins, or the praises of love and war.

And, finally, it is to be observed how much wider than Plato’s his
theory of the origin of society is. They both rest on a
psychological basis, but Aristotle’s recognition of the capacity
for progress and the tendency towards a higher life shows how much
deeper his knowledge of human nature was.

In imitation of these two philosophers, Polybius gives an account
of the origin of society in the opening to his philosophy of
history. Somewhat in the spirit of Plato, he imagines that after
one of the cyclic deluges which sweep off mankind at stated periods
and annihilate all pre-existing civilisation, the few surviving
members of humanity coalesce for mutual protection, and, as in the
case with ordinary animals, the one most remarkable for physical
strength is elected king. In a short time, owing to the workings
of sympathy and the desire of approbation, the moral qualities
begin to make their appearance, and intellectual instead of bodily
excellence becomes the qualification for sovereignty.

Other points, as the rise of law and the like, are dwelt on in a
somewhat modern spirit, and although Polybius seems not to have
employed the inductive method of research in this question, or
rather, I should say, of the hierarchical order of the rational
progress of ideas in life, he is not far removed from what the
laborious investigations of modern travellers have given us.

And, indeed, as regards the working of the speculative faculty in
the creation of history, it is in all respects marvellous how that
the most truthful accounts of the passage from barbarism to
civilisation in ancient literature come from the works of poets.
The elaborate researches of Mr. Tylor and Sir John Lubbock have
done little more than verify the theories put forward in the
PROMETHEUS BOUND and the DE NATURA RERUM; yet neither AEschylus nor
Lucretias followed in the modern path, but rather attained to truth
by a certain almost mystic power of creative imagination, such as
we now seek to banish from science as a dangerous power, though to
it science seems to owe many of its most splendid generalities. (5)

Leaving then the question of the origin of society as treated by
the ancients, I shall now turn to the other and the more important
question of how far they may he said to have attained to what we
call the philosophy of history.

Now at the outset we must note that, while the conceptions of law
and order have been universally received as the governing
principles of the phenomena of nature in the sphere of physical
science, yet their intrusion into the domain of history and the
life of man has always been met with a strong opposition, on the
ground of the incalculable nature of two great forces acting on
human action, a certain causeless spontaneity which men call free
will, and the extra-natural interference which they attribute as a
constant attribute to God.

Now, that there is a science of the apparently variable phenomena
of history is a conception which WE have perhaps only recently
begun to appreciate; yet, like all other great thoughts, it seems
to have come to the Greek mind spontaneously, through a certain
splendour of imagination, in the morning tide of their
civilisation, before inductive research had armed them with the
instruments of verification. For I think it is possible to discern
in some of the mystic speculations of the early Greek thinkers that
desire to discover what is that ‘invariable existence of which
there are variable states,’ and to incorporate it in some one
formula of law which may serve to explain the different
manifestations of all organic bodies, MAN INCLUDED, which is the
germ of the philosophy of history; the germ indeed of an idea of
which it is not too much to say that on it any kind of historical
criticism, worthy of the name, must ultimately rest.

For the very first requisite for any scientific conception of
history is the doctrine of uniform sequence: in other words, that
certain events having happened, certain other events corresponding
to them will happen also; that the past is the key of the future.

Now at the birth of this great conception science, it is true,
presided, yet religion it was which at the outset clothed it in its
own garb, and familiarised men with it by appealing to their hearts
first and then to their intellects; knowing that at the beginning
of things it is through the moral nature, and not through the
intellectual, that great truths are spread.

So in Herodotus, who may be taken as a representative of the
orthodox tone of thought, the idea of the uniform sequence of cause
and effect appears under the theological aspect of Nemesis and
Providence, which is really the scientific conception of law, only
it is viewed from an ETHICAL standpoint.

Now in Thucydides the philosophy of history rests on the
probability, which the uniformity of human nature affords us, that
the future will in the course of human things resemble the past, if
not reproduce it. He appears to contemplate a recurrence of the
phenomena of history as equally certain with a return of the
epidemic of the Great Plague.

Notwithstanding what German critics have written on the subject, we
must beware of regarding this conception as a mere reproduction of
that cyclic theory of events which sees in the world nothing but
the regular rotation of Strophe and Antistrophe, in the eternal
choir of life and death.

For, in his remarks on the excesses of the Corcyrean Revolution,
Thucydides distinctly rests his idea of the recurrence of history
on the psychological grounds of the general sameness of mankind.

‘The sufferings,’ he says, ‘which revolution entailed upon the
cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always
will occurs as long as human nature remains the same, though in a
severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms according to
the variety of the particular cases.

‘In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better
sentiments, because they are not confronted with imperious
necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of men’s wants, and
so proves a hard taskmaster, which brings most men’s characters to
a level with their fortunes.’

CHAPTER IV

IT is evident that here Thucydides is ready to admit the variety of
manifestations which external causes bring about in their workings
on the uniform character of the nature of man. Yet, after all is
said, these are perhaps but very general statements: the ordinary
effects of peace and war are dwelt on, but there is no real
analysis of the immediate causes and general laws of the phenomena
of life, nor does Thucydides seem to recognise the truth that if
humanity proceeds in circles, the circles are always widening.

Perhaps we may say that with him the philosophy of history is
partly in the metaphysical stage, and see, in the progress of this
idea from Herodotus to Polybius, the exemplification of the Comtian
Law of the three stages of thought, the theological, the
metaphysical, and the scientific: for truly out of the vagueness
of theological mysticism this conception which we call the
Philosophy of History was raised to a scientific principle,
according to which the past was explained and the future predicted
by reference to general laws.

Now, just as the earliest account of the nature of the progress of
humanity is to be found in Plato, so in him we find the first
explicit attempt to found a universal philosophy of history upon
wide rational grounds. Having created an ideally perfect state,
the philosopher proceeds to give an elaborate theory of the complex
causes which produce revolutions, of the moral effects of various
forms of government and education, of the rise of the criminal
classes and their connection with pauperism, and, in a word, to
create history by the deductive method and to proceed from A PRIORI
psychological principles to discover the governing laws of the
apparent chaos of political life.

There have been many attempts since Plato to deduce from a single
philosophical principle all the phenomena which experience
subsequently verifies for us. Fichte thought he could predict the
world-plan from the idea of universal time. Hegel dreamed he had
found the key to the mysteries of life in the development of
freedom, and Krause in the categories of being. But the one
scientific basis on which the true philosophy of history must rest
is the complete knowledge of the laws of human nature in all its
wants, its aspirations, its powers and its tendencies: and this
great truth, which Thucydides may be said in some measure to have
apprehended, was given to us first by Plato.

Now, it cannot be accurately said of this philosopher that either
his philosophy or his history is entirely and simply A PRIORI. ON
EST DE SON SIECLE MEME QUAND ON Y PROTESTE, and so we find in him
continual references to the Spartan mode of life, the Pythagorean
system, the general characteristics of Greek tyrannies and Greek
democracies. For while, in his account of the method of forming an
ideal state, he says that the political artist is indeed to fix his
gaze on the sun of abstract truth in the heavens of the pure
reason, but is sometimes to turn to the realisation of the ideals
on earth: yet, after all, the general character of the Platonic
method, which is what we are specially concerned with, is
essentially deductive and A PRIORI. And he himself, in the
building up of his Nephelococcygia, certainly starts with a [Greek
text which cannot be reproduced], making a clean sweep of all
history and all experience; and it was essentially as an A PRIORI
theorist that he is criticised by Aristotle, as we shall see later.

To proceed to closer details regarding the actual scheme of the
laws of political revolutions as drawn out by Plato, we must first
note that the primary cause of the decay of the ideal state is the
general principle, common to the vegetable and animal worlds as
well as to the world of history, that all created things are fated
to decay – a principle which, though expressed in the terms of a
mere metaphysical abstraction, is yet perhaps in its essence
scientific. For we too must hold that a continuous redistribution
of matter and motion is the inevitable result of the nominal
persistence of Force, and that perfect equilibrium is as impossible
in politics as it certainly is in physics.

The secondary causes which mar the perfection of the Platonic ‘city
of the sun’ are to be found in the intellectual decay of the race
consequent on injudicious marriages and in the Philistine elevation
of physical achievements over mental culture; while the
hierarchical succession of Timocracy and Oligarchy, Democracy and
Tyranny, is dwelt on at great length and its causes analysed in a
very dramatic and psychological manner, if not in that sanctioned
by the actual order of history.

And indeed it is apparent at first sight that the Platonic
succession of states represents rather the succession of ideas in
the philosophic mind than any historical succession of time.

Aristotle meets the whole simply by an appeal to facts. If the
theory of the periodic decay of all created things, he urges, be
scientific, it must be universal, and so true of all the other
states as well as of the ideal. Besides, a state usually changes
into its contrary and not to the form next to it; so the ideal
state would not change into Timocracy; while Oligarchy, more often
than Tyranny, succeeds Democracy. Plato, besides, says nothing of
what a Tyranny would change to. According to the cycle theory it
ought to pass into the ideal state again, but as a fact one Tyranny
is changed into another as at Sicyon, or into a Democracy as at
Syracuse, or into an Aristocracy as at Carthage. The example of
Sicily, too, shows that an Oligarchy is often followed by a
Tyranny, as at Leontini and Gela. Besides, it is absurd to
represent greed as the chief motive of decay, or to talk of avarice
as the root of Oligarchy, when in nearly all true oligarchies
money-making is forbidden by law. And finally the Platonic theory
neglects the different kinds of democracies and of tyrannies.

Now nothing can be more important than this passage in Aristotle’s
POLITICS (v. 12.), which may he said to mark an era in the
evolution of historical criticism. For there is nothing on which
Aristotle insists so strongly as that the generalisations from
facts ought to be added to the data of the A PRIORI method – a
principle which we know to be true not merely of deductive
speculative politics but of physics also: for are not the residual
phenomena of chemists a valuable source of improvement in theory?

His own method is essentially historical though by no means
empirical. On the contrary, this far-seeing thinker, rightly
styled IL MAESTRO DI COLOR CHE SANNO, may be said to have
apprehended clearly that the true method is neither exclusively
empirical nor exclusively speculative, but rather a union of both
in the process called Analysis or the Interpretation of Facts,
which has been defined as the application to facts of such general
conceptions as may fix the important characteristics of the
phenomena, and present them permanently in their true relations.
He too was the first to point out, what even in our own day is
incompletely appreciated, that nature, including the development of
man, is not full of incoherent episodes like a bad tragedy, that
inconsistency and anomaly are as impossible in the moral as they
are in the physical world, and that where the superficial observer
thinks he sees a revolution the philosophical critic discerns
merely the gradual and rational evolution of the inevitable results
of certain antecedents.

And while admitting the necessity of a psychological basis for the
philosophy of history, he added to it the important truth that man,
to be apprehended in his proper position in the universe as well as
in his natural powers, must be studied from below in the
hierarchical progression of higher function from the lower forms of
life. The important maxim, that to obtain a clear conception of
anything we must ‘study it in its growth from the very beginning,’
is formally set down in the opening of the POLITICS, where, indeed,
we shall find the other characteristic features of the modern
Evolutionary theory, such as the ‘Differentiation of Function’ and
the ‘Survival of the Fittest’ explicitly set forth.

What a valuable step this was in the improvement of the method of
historical criticism it is needless to point out. By it, one may
say, the true thread was given to guide one’s steps through the
bewildering labyrinth of facts. For history (to use terms with
which Aristotle has made us familiar) may be looked at from two
essentially different standpoints; either as a work of art whose
[Greek text which cannot be reproduced] or final cause is external
to it and imposed on it from without; or as an organism containing
the law of its own development in itself, and working out its
perfection merely by the fact of being what it is. Now, if we
adopt the former, which we may style the theological view, we shall
be in continual danger of tripping into the pitfall of some A
PRIORI conclusion – that bourne from which, it has been truly said,
no traveller ever returns.

The latter is the only scientific theory and was apprehended in its
fulness by Aristotle, whose application of the inductive method to
history, and whose employment of the evolutionary theory of
humanity, show that he was conscious that the philosophy of history
is nothing separate from the facts of history but is contained in
them, and that the rational law of the complex phenomena of life,
like the ideal in the world of thought, is to be reached through
the facts, not superimposed on them – [Greek text which cannot be
reproduced].

And finally, in estimating the enormous debt which the science of
historical criticism owes to Aristotle, we must not pass over his
attitude towards those two great difficulties in the formation of a
philosophy of history on which I have touched above. I mean the
assertion of extra-natural interference with the normal development
of the world and of the incalculable influence exercised by the
power of free will.

Now, as regards the former, he may be said to have neglected it
entirely. The special acts of providence proceeding from God’s
immediate government of the world, which Herodotus saw as mighty
landmarks in history, would have been to him essentially disturbing
elements in that universal reign of law, the extent of whose
limitless empire he of all the great thinkers of antiquity was the
first explicitly to recognise.

Standing aloof from the popular religion as well as from the deeper
conceptions of Herodotus and the Tragic School, he no longer
thought of God as of one with fair limbs and treacherous face
haunting wood and glade, nor would he see in him a jealous judge
continually interfering in the world’s history to bring the wicked
to punishment and the proud to a fall. God to him was the
incarnation of the pure Intellect, a being whose activity was the
contemplation of his own perfection, one whom Philosophy might
imitate but whom prayers could never move, to the sublime
indifference of whose passionless wisdom what were the sons of men,
their desires or their sins? While, as regards the other
difficulty and the formation of a philosophy of history, the
conflict of free will with general laws appears first in Greek
thought in the usual theological form in which all great ideas seem
to be cradled at their birth.

It was such legends as those of OEdipus and Adrastus, exemplifying
the struggles of individual humanity against the overpowering force
of circumstances and necessity, which gave to the early Greeks
those same lessons which we of modern days draw, in somewhat less
artistic fashion, from the study of statistics and the laws of
physiology.

In Aristotle, of course, there is no trace of supernatural
influence. The Furies, which drive their victim into sin first and
then punishment, are no longer ‘viper-tressed goddesses with eyes
and mouth aflame,’ but those evil thoughts which harbour within the
impure soul. In this, as in all other points, to arrive at
Aristotle is to reach the pure atmosphere of scientific and modern
thought.

But while he rejected pure necessitarianism in its crude form as
essentially a REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM of life, he was fully conscious
of the fact that the will is not a mysterious and ultimate unit of
force beyond which we cannot go and whose special characteristic is
inconsistency, but a certain creative attitude of the mind which
is, from the first, continually influenced by habits, education and
circumstance; so absolutely modifiable, in a word, that the good
and the bad man alike seem to lose the power of free will; for the
one is morally unable to sin, the other physically incapacitated
for reformation.

And of the influence of climate and temperature in forming the
nature of man (a conception perhaps pressed too far in modern days
when the ‘race theory’ is supposed to be a sufficient explanation
of the Hindoo, and the latitude and longitude of a country the best
guide to its morals(6)) Aristotle is completely unaware. I do not
allude to such smaller points as the oligarchical tendencies of a
horse-breeding country and the democratic influence of the
proximity of the sea (important though they are for the
consideration of Greek history), but rather to those wider views in
the seventh book of his POLITICS, where he attributes the happy
union in the Greek character of intellectual attainments with the
spirit of progress to the temperate climate they enjoyed, and
points out how the extreme cold of the north dulls the mental
faculties of its inhabitants and renders them incapable of social
organisation or extended empire; while to the enervating heat of
eastern countries was due that want of spirit and bravery which
then, as now, was the characteristic of the population in that
quarter of the globe.

Thucydides has shown the causal connection between political
revolutions and the fertility of the soil, but goes a step farther
and points out the psychological influences on a people’s character
exercised by the various extremes of climate – in both cases the
first appearance of a most valuable form of historical criticism.

To the development of Dialectic, as to God, intervals of time are
of no account. From Plato and Aristotle we pass direct to
Polybius.

The progress of thought from the philosopher of the Academe to the
Arcadian historian may be best illustrated by a comparison of the
method by which each of the three writers, whom I have selected as
the highest expression of the rationalism of his respective age,
attained to his ideal state: for the latter conception may be in a
measure regarded as representing the most spiritual principle which
they could discern in history.

Now, Plato created his on A PRIORI principles; Aristotle formed his
by an analysis of existing constitutions; Polybius found his
realised for him in the actual world of fact. Aristotle criticised
the deductive speculations of Plato by means of inductive negative
instances, but Polybius will not take the ‘Cloud City’ of the
REPUBLIC into account at all. He compares it to an athlete who has
never run on ‘Constitution Hill,’ to a statue so beautiful that it
is entirely removed from the ordinary conditions of humanity, and
consequently from the canons of criticism.

The Roman state had attained in his eyes, by means of the mutual
counteraction of three opposing forces, (7) that stable equilibrium
in politics which was the ideal of all the theoretical writers of
antiquity. And in connection with this point it will be convenient
to notice here how much truth there is contained in the accusation
often brought against the ancients that they knew nothing of the
idea of Progress, for the meaning of many of their speculations
will be hidden from us if we do not try and comprehend first what
their aim was, and secondly why it was so.

Now, like all wide generalities, this statement is at least
inaccurate. The prayer of Plato’s ideal City – [Greek text which
cannot be reproduced], might be written as a text over the door of
the last Temple to Humanity raised by the disciples of Fourier and
Saint-Simon, but it is certainly true that their ideal principle
was order and permanence, not indefinite progress. For, setting
aside the artistic prejudices which would have led the Greeks to
reject this idea of unlimited improvement, we may note that the
modern conception of progress rests partly on the new enthusiasm
and worship of humanity, partly on the splendid hopes of material
improvements in civilisation which applied science has held out to
us, two influences from which ancient Greek thought seems to have
been strangely free. For the Greeks marred the perfect humanism of
the great men whom they worshipped, by imputing to them divinity
and its supernatural powers; while their science was eminently
speculative and often almost mystic in its character, aiming at
culture and not utility, at higher spirituality and more intense
reverence for law, rather than at the increased facilities of
locomotion and the cheap production of common things about which
our modern scientific school ceases not to boast. And lastly, and
perhaps chiefly, we must remember that the ‘plague spot of all
Greek states,’ as one of their own writers has called it, was the
terrible insecurity to life and property which resulted from the
factions and revolutions which ceased not to trouble Greece at all
times, raising a spirit of fanaticism such as religion raised in
the middle ages of Europe.

These considerations, then, will enable us to understand first how
it was that, radical and unscrupulous reformers as the Greek
political theorists were, yet, their end once attained, no modern
conservatives raised such outcry against the slightest innovation.
Even acknowledged improvements in such things as the games of
children or the modes of music were regarded by them with feelings
of extreme apprehension as the herald of the DRAPEAU ROUGE of
reform. And secondly, it will show us how it was that Polybius
found his ideal in the commonwealth of Rome, and Aristotle, like
Mr. Bright, in the middle classes. Polybius, however, is not
content merely with pointing out his ideal state, but enters at
considerable length into the question of those general laws whose
consideration forms the chief essential of the philosophy of
history.

He starts by accepting the general principle that all things are
fated to decay (which I noticed in the case of Plato), and that ‘as
iron produces rust and as wood breeds the animals that destroy it,
so every state has in it the seeds of its own corruption.’ He is
not, however, content to rest there, but proceeds to deal with the
more immediate causes of revolutions, which he says are twofold in
nature, either external or internal. Now, the former, depending as
they do on the synchronous conjunction of other events outside the
sphere of scientific estimation, are from their very character
incalculable; but the latter, though assuming many forms, always
result from the over-great preponderance of any single element to
the detriment of the others, the rational law lying at the base of
all varieties of political changes being that stability can result
only from the statical equilibrium produced by the counteraction of
opposing parts, since the more simple a constitution is the more it
is insecure. Plato had pointed out before how the extreme liberty
of a democracy always resulted in despotism, but Polybius analyses
the law and shows the scientific principles on which it rests.

The doctrine of the instability of pure constitutions forms an
important era in the philosophy of history. Its special
applicability to the politics of our own day has been illustrated
in the rise of the great Napoleon, when the French state had lost
those divisions of caste and prejudice, of landed aristocracy and
moneyed interest, institutions in which the vulgar see only
barriers to Liberty but which are indeed the only possible defences
against the coming of that periodic Sirius of politics, the [Greek
text which cannot be reproduced].

There is a principle which Tocqueville never wearies of explaining,
and which has been subsumed by Mr. Herbert Spencer under that
general law common to all organic bodies which we call the
Instability of the Homogeneous. The various manifestations of this
law, as shown in the normal, regular revolutions and evolutions of
the different forms of government, (8) are expounded with great
clearness by Polybius, who claimed for his theory, in the
Thucydidean spirit, that it is a [Greek text which cannot be
reproduced], not a mere [Greek text which cannot be reproduced],
and that a knowledge of it will enable the impartial observer (9)
to discover at any time what period of its constitutional evolution
any particular state has already reached and into what form it will
be next differentiated, though possibly the exact time of the
changes may be more or less uncertain. (10)

Now in this necessarily incomplete account of the laws of political
revolutions as expounded by Polybius enough perhaps has been said
to show what is his true position in the rational development of
the ‘Idea’ which I have called the Philosophy of History, because
it is the unifying of history. Seen darkly as it is through the
glass of religion in the pages of Herodotus, more metaphysical than
scientific with Thucydides, Plato strove to seize it by the eagle-
flight of speculation, to reach it with the eager grasp of a soul
impatient of those slower and surer inductive methods which
Aristotle, in his trenchant criticism of his greater master, showed
were more brilliant than any vague theory, if the test of
brilliancy is truth.

What then is the position of Polybius? Does any new method remain
for him? Polybius was one of those many men who are born too late
to be original. To Thucydides belongs the honour of being the
first in the history of Greek thought to discern the supreme calm
of law and order underlying the fitful storms of life, and Plato
and Aristotle each represents a great new principle. To Polybius
belongs the office – how noble an office he made it his writings
show – of making more explicit the ideas which were implicit in his
predecessors, of showing that they were of wider applicability and
perhaps of deeper meaning than they had seemed before, of examining
with more minuteness the laws which they had discovered, and
finally of pointing out more clearly than any one had done the
range of science and the means it offered for analysing the present
and predicting what was to come. His office thus was to gather up
what they had left, to give their principles new life by a wider
application.

Polybius ends this great diapason of Greek thought. When the
Philosophy of history appears next, as in Plutarch’s tract on ‘Why
God’s anger is delayed,’ the pendulum of thought had swung back to
where it began. His theory was introduced to the Romans under the
cultured style of Cicero, and was welcomed by them as the
philosophical panegyric of their state. The last notice of it in
Latin literature is in the pages of Tacitus, who alludes to the
stable polity formed out of these elements as a constitution easier
to commend than to produce and in no case lasting. Yet Polybius
had seen the future with no uncertain eye, and had prophesied the
rise of the Empire from the unbalanced power of the ochlocracy
fifty years and more before there was joy in the Julian household
over the birth of that boy who, born to power as the champion of
the people, died wearing the purple of a king.

No attitude of historical criticism is more important than the
means by which the ancients attained to the philosophy of history.
The principle of heredity can be exemplified in literature as well
as in organic life: Aristotle, Plato and Polybius are the lineal
ancestors of Fichte and Hegel, of Vico and Cousin, of Montesquieu
and Tocqueville.

As my aim is not to give an account of historians but to point out
those great thinkers whose methods have furthered the advance of
this spirit of historical criticism, I shall pass over those
annalists and chroniclers who intervened between Thucydides and
Polybius. Yet perhaps it may serve to throw new light on the real
nature of this spirit and its intimate connection with all other
forms of advanced thought if I give some estimate of the character
and rise of those many influences prejudicial to the scientific
study of history which cause such a wide gap between these two
historians.

Foremost among these is the growing influence of rhetoric and the
Isocratean school, which seems to have regarded history as an arena
for the display either of pathos or paradoxes, not a scientific
investigation into laws.

The new age is the age of style. The same spirit of exclusive
attention to form which made Euripides often, like Swinburne,
prefer music to meaning and melody to morality, which gave to the
later Greek statues that refined effeminacy, that overstrained
gracefulness of attitude, was felt in the sphere of history. The
rules laid down for historical composition are those relating to
the aesthetic value of digressions, the legality of employing more
than one metaphor in the same sentence, and the like; and
historians are ranked not by their power of estimating evidence but
by the goodness of the Greek they write.

I must note also the important influence on literature exercised by
Alexander the Great; for while his travels encouraged the more
accurate research of geography, the very splendour of his
achievements seems to have brought history again into the sphere of
romance. The appearance of all great men in the world is followed
invariably by the rise of that mythopoeic spirit and that tendency
to look for the marvellous, which is so fatal to true historical
criticism. An Alexander, a Napoleon, a Francis of Assisi and a
Mahomet are thought to be outside the limiting conditions of
rational law, just as comets were supposed to be not very long ago.
While the founding of that city of Alexandria, in which Western and
Eastern thought met with such strange result to both, diverted the
critical tendencies of the Greek spirit into questions of grammar,
philology and the like, the narrow, artificial atmosphere of that
University town (as we may call it) was fatal to the development of
that independent and speculative spirit of research which strikes
out new methods of inquiry, of which historical criticism is one.

The Alexandrines combined a great love of learning with an
ignorance of the true principles of research, an enthusiastic
spirit for accumulating materials with a wonderful incapacity to
use them. Not among the hot sands of Egypt, or the Sophists of
Athens, but from the very heart of Greece rises the man of genius
on whose influence in the evolution of the philosophy of history I
have a short time ago dwelt. Born in the serene and pure air of
the clear uplands of Arcadia, Polybius may be said to reproduce in
his work the character of the place which gave him birth. For, of
all the historians – I do not say of antiquity but of all time -
none is more rationalistic than he, none more free from any belief
in the ‘visions and omens, the monstrous legends, the grovelling
superstitions and unmanly craving for the supernatural’ ([Greek
text that cannot be reproduced](11)) which he himself is compelled
to notice as the characteristics of some of the historians who
preceded him. Fortunate in the land which bore him, he was no less
blessed in the wondrous time of his birth. For, representing in
himself the spiritual supremacy of the Greek intellect and allied
in bonds of chivalrous friendship to the world-conqueror of his
day, he seems led as it were by the hand of Fate ‘to comprehend,’
as has been said, ‘more clearly than the Romans themselves the
historical position of Rome,’ and to discern with greater insight
than all other men could those two great resultants of ancient
civilisation, the material empire of the city of the seven hills,
and the intellectual sovereignty of Hellas.

Before his own day, he says, (12) the events of the world were
unconnected and separate and the histories confined to particular
countries. Now, for the first time the universal empire of the
Romans rendered a universal history possible. (13) This, then, is
the august motive of his work: to trace the gradual rise of this
Italian city from the day when the first legion crossed the narrow
strait of Messina and landed on the fertile fields of Sicily to the
time when Corinth in the East and Carthage in the West fell before
the resistless wave of empire and the eagles of Rome passed on the
wings of universal victory from Calpe and the Pillars of Hercules
to Syria and the Nile. At the same time he recognised that the
scheme of Rome’s empire was worked out under the aegis of God’s
will. (14) For, as one of the Middle Age scribes most truly says,
the [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] of Polybius is that
power which we Christians call God; the second aim, as one may call
it, of his history is to point out the rational and human and
natural causes which brought this result, distinguishing, as we
should say, between God’s mediate and immediate government of the
world.

With any direct intervention of God in the normal development of
Man, he will have nothing to do: still less with any idea of
chance as a factor in the phenomena of life. Chance and miracles,
he says, are mere expressions for our ignorance of rational causes.
The spirit of rationalism which we recognised in Herodotus as a
vague uncertain attitude and which appears in Thucydides as a
consistent attitude of mind never argued about or even explained,
is by Polybius analysed and formulated as the great instrument of
historical research.

Herodotus, while believing on principle in the supernatural, yet
was sceptical at times. Thucydides simply ignored the
supernatural. He did not discuss it, but he annihilated it by
explaining history without it. Polybius enters at length into the
whole question and explains its origin and the method of treating
it. Herodotus would have believed in Scipio’s dream. Thucydides
would have ignored it entirely. Polybius explains it. He is the
culmination of the rational progression of Dialectic. ‘Nothing,’
he says, ‘shows a foolish mind more than the attempt to account for
any phenomena on the principle of chance or supernatural
intervention. History is a search for rational causes, and there
is nothing in the world – even those phenomena which seem to us the
most remote from law and improbable – which is not the logical and
inevitable result of certain rational antecedents.’

Some things, of course, are to be rejected A PRIORI without
entering into the subject: ‘As regards such miracles,’ he says,
(15) ‘as that on a certain statue of Artemis rain or snow never
falls though the statue stands in the open air, or that those who
enter God’s shrine in Arcadia lose their natural shadows, I cannot
really be expected to argue upon the subject. For these things are
not only utterly improbable but absolutely impossible.’

‘For us to argue reasonably on an acknowledged absurdity is as vain
a task as trying to catch water in a sieve; it is really to admit
the possibility of the supernatural, which is the very point at
issue.’

What Polybius felt was that to admit the possibility of a miracle
is to annihilate the possibility of history: for just as
scientific and chemical experiments would be either impossible or
useless if exposed to the chance of continued interference on the
part of some foreign body, so the laws and principles which govern
history, the causes of phenomena, the evolution of progress, the
whole science, in a word, of man’s dealings with his own race and
with nature, will remain a sealed book to him who admits the
possibility of extra-natural interference.

The stories of miracles, then, are to be rejected on A PRIORI
rational grounds, but in the case of events which we know to have
happened the scientific historian will not rest till he has
discovered their natural causes which, for instance, in the case of
the wonderful rise of the Roman Empire – the most marvellous thing,
Polybius says, which God ever brought about (16) – are to be found
in the excellence of their constitution ([Greek text which cannot
be reproduced]), the wisdom of their advisers, their splendid
military arrangements, and their superstition ([Greek text which
cannot be reproduced]). For while Polybius regarded the revealed
religion as, of course, objective reality of truth, (17) he laid
great stress on its moral subjective influence, going, in one
passage on the subject, even so far as almost to excuse the
introduction of the supernatural in very small quantities into
history on account of the extremely good effect it would have on
pious people.

But perhaps there is no passage in the whole of ancient and modern
history which breathes such a manly and splendid spirit of
rationalism as one preserved to us in the Vatican – strange
resting-place for it! – in which he treats of the terrible decay of
population which had fallen on his native land in his own day, and
which by the general orthodox public was regarded as a special
judgment of God sending childlessness on women as a punishment for
the sins of the people. For it was a disaster quite without
parallel in the history of the land, and entirely unforeseen by any
of its political-economy writers who, on the contrary, were always
anticipating that danger would arise from an excess of population
overrunning its means of subsistence, and becoming unmanageable
through its size. Polybius, however, will have nothing to do with
either priest or worker of miracles in this matter. He will not
even seek that ‘sacred Heart of Greece,’ Delphi, Apollo’s shrine,
whose inspiration even Thucydides admitted and before whose wisdom
Socrates bowed. How foolish, he says, were the man who on this
matter would pray to God. We must search for the rational causes,
and the causes are seen to be clear, and the method of prevention
also. He then proceeds to notice how all this arose from the
general reluctance to marriage and to bearing the expense of
educating a large family which resulted from the carelessness and
avarice of the men of his day, and he explains on entirely rational
principles the whole of this apparently supernatural judgment.

Now, it is to be borne in mind that while his rejection of miracles
as violation of inviolable laws is entirely A PRIORI – for
discussion of such a matter is, of course, impossible for a
rational thinker – yet his rejection of supernatural intervention
rests entirely on the scientific grounds of the necessity of
looking for natural causes. And he is quite logical in maintaining
his position on these principles. For, where it is either
difficult or impossible to assign any rational cause for phenomena,
or to discover their laws, he acquiesces reluctantly in the
alternative of admitting some extra-natural interference which his
essentially scientific method of treating the matter has logically
forced on him, approving, for instance, of prayers for rain, on the
express ground that the laws of meteorology had not yet been
ascertained. He would, of course, have been the first to welcome
our modern discoveries in the matter. The passage in question is
in every way one of the most interesting in his whole work, not, of
course, as signifying any inclination on his part to acquiesce in
the supernatural, but because it shows how essentially logical and
rational his method of argument was, and how candid and fair his
mind.

Having now examined Polybius’s attitude towards the supernatural
and the general ideas which guided his research, I will proceed to
examine the method he pursued in his scientific investigation of
the complex phenomena of life. For, as I have said before in the
course of this essay, what is important in all great writers is not
so much the results they arrive at as the methods they pursue. The
increased knowledge of facts may alter any conclusion in history as
in physical science, and the canons of speculative historical
credibility must be acknowledged to appeal rather to that
subjective attitude of mind which we call the historic sense than
to any formulated objective rules. But a scientific method is a
gain for all time, and the true if not the only progress of
historical criticism consists in the improvement of the instruments
of research.

Now first, as regards his conception of history, I have already
pointed out that it was to him essentially a search for causes, a
problem to be solved, not a picture to be painted, a scientific
investigation into laws and tendencies, not a mere romantic account
of startling incident and wondrous adventure. Thucydides, in the
opening of his great work, had sounded the first note of the
scientific conception of history. ‘The absence of romance in my
pages,’ he says, ‘will, I fear, detract somewhat from its value,
but I have written my work not to be the exploit of a passing hour
but as the possession of all time.’ (18) Polybius follows with
words almost entirely similar. If, he says, we banish from history
the consideration of causes, methods and motives ([Greek text which
cannot be reproduced]), and refuse to consider how far the result
of anything is its rational consequent, what is left is a mere
[Greek text which cannot be reproduced], not a [Greek text which
cannot be reproduced], an oratorical essay which may give pleasure
for the moment, but which is entirely without any scientific value
for the explanation of the future. Elsewhere he says that ‘history
robbed of the exposition of its causes and laws is a profitless
thing, though it may allure a fool.’ And all through his history
the same point is put forward and exemplified in every fashion.

So far for the conception of history. Now for the groundwork. As
regards the character of the phenomena to be selected by the
scientific investigator, Aristotle had laid down the general
formula that nature should be studied in her normal manifestations.
Polybius, true to his character of applying explicitly the
principles implicit in the work of others, follows out the doctrine
of Aristotle, and lays particular stress on the rational and
undisturbed character of the development of the Roman constitution
as affording special facilities for the discovery of the laws of
its progress. Political revolutions result from causes either
external or internal. The former are mere disturbing forces which
lie outside the sphere of scientific calculation. It is the latter
which are important for the establishing of principles and the
elucidation of the sequences of rational evolution.

He thus may be said to have anticipated one of the most important
truths of the modern methods of investigation: I mean that
principle which lays down that just as the study of physiology
should precede the study of pathology, just as the laws of disease
are best discovered by the phenomena presented in health, so the
method of arriving at all great social and political truths is by
the investigation of those cases where development has been normal,
rational and undisturbed.

The critical canon that the more a people has been interfered with,
the more difficult it becomes to generalise the laws of its
progress and to analyse the separate forces of its civilisation, is
one the validity of which is now generally recognised by those who
pretend to a scientific treatment of all history: and while we
have seen that Aristotle anticipated it in a general formula, to
Polybius belongs the honour of being the first to apply it
explicitly in the sphere of history.

I have shown how to this great scientific historian the motive of
his work was essentially the search for causes; and true to his
analytical spirit he is careful to examine what a cause really is
and in what part of the antecedents of any consequent it is to be
looked for. To give an illustration: As regards the origin of the
war with Perseus, some assigned as causes the expulsion of
Abrupolis by Perseus, the expedition of the latter to Delphi, the
plot against Eumenes and the seizure of the ambassadors in Boeotia;
of these incidents the two former, Polybius points out, were merely
the pretexts, the two latter merely the occasions of the war. The
war was really a legacy left to Perseus by his father, who was
determined to fight it out with Rome. (19)

Here as elsewhere he is not originating any new idea. Thucydides
had pointed out the difference between the real and the alleged
cause, and the Aristotelian dictum about revolutions, [Greek text
which cannot be reproduced], draws the distinction between cause
and occasion with the brilliancy of an epigram. But the explicit
and rational investigation of the difference between [Greek text
which cannot be reproduced], and [Greek text which cannot be
reproduced] was reserved for Polybius. No canon of historical
criticism can be said to be of more real value than that involved
in this distinction, and the overlooking of it has filled our
histories with the contemptible accounts of the intrigues of
courtiers and of kings and the petty plottings of backstairs
influence – particulars interesting, no doubt, to those who would
ascribe the Reformation to Anne Boleyn’s pretty face, the Persian
war to the influence of a doctor or a curtain-lecture from Atossa,
or the French Revolution to Madame de Maintenon, but without any
value for those who aim at any scientific treatment of history.

But the question of method, to which I am compelled always to
return, is not yet exhausted. There is another aspect in which it
may be regarded, and I shall now proceed to treat of it.

One of the greatest difficulties with which the modern historian
has to contend is the enormous complexity of the facts which come
under his notice: D’Alembert’s suggestion that at the end of every
century a selection of facts should be made and the rest burned (if
it was really intended seriously) could not, of course, be
entertained for a moment. A problem loses all its value when it
becomes simplified, and the world would be all the poorer if the
Sibyl of History burned her volumes. Besides, as Gibbon pointed
out, ‘a Montesquieu will detect in the most insignificant fact
relations which the vulgar overlook.’

Nor can the scientific investigator of history isolate the
particular elements, which he desires to examine, from disturbing
and extraneous causes, as the experimental chemist can do (though
sometimes, as in the case of lunatic asylums and prisons, he is
enabled to observe phenomena in a certain degree of isolation). So
he is compelled either to use the deductive mode of arguing from
general laws or to employ the method of abstraction, which gives a
fictitious isolation to phenomena never so isolated in actual
existence. And this is exactly what Polybius has done as well as
Thucydides. For, as has been well remarked, there is in the works
of these two writers a certain plastic unity of type and motive;
whatever they write is penetrated through and through with a
specific quality, a singleness and concentration of purpose, which
we may contrast with the more comprehensive width as manifested not
merely in the modern mind, but also in Herodotus. Thucydides,
regarding society as influenced entirely by political motives, took
no account of forces of a different nature, and consequently his
results, like those of most modern political economists, have to be
modified largely (20) before they come to correspond with what we
know was the actual state of fact. Similarly, Polybius will deal
only with those forces which tended to bring the civilised world
under the dominion of Rome (ix. 1), and in the Thucydidean spirit
points out the want of picturesqueness and romance in his pages
which is the result of the abstract method ([Greek text which
cannot be reproduced]) being careful also to tell us that his
rejection of all other forces is essentially deliberate and the
result of a preconceived theory and by no means due to carelessness
of any kind.

Now, of the general value of the abstract method and the legality
of its employment in the sphere of history, this is perhaps not the
suitable occasion for any discussion. It is, however, in all ways
worthy of note that Polybius is not merely conscious of, but dwells
with particular weight on, the fact which is usually urged as the
strongest objection to the employment of the abstract method – I
mean the conception of a society as a sort of human organism whose
parts are indissolubly connected with one another and all affected
when one member is in any way agitated. This conception of the
organic nature of society appears first in Plato and Aristotle, who
apply it to cities. Polybius, as his wont is, expands it to be a
general characteristic of all history. It is an idea of the very
highest importance, especially to a man like Polybius whose
thoughts are continually turned towards the essential unity of
history and the impossibility of isolation.

Farther, as regards the particular method of investigating that
group of phenomena obtained for him by the abstract method, he will
adopt, he tells us, neither the purely deductive nor the purely
inductive mode but the union of both. In other words, he formally
adopts that method of analysis upon the importance of which I have
dwelt before.

And lastly, while, without doubt, enormous simplicity in the
elements under consideration is the result of the employment of the
abstract method, even within the limit thus obtained a certain
selection must be made, and a selection involves a theory. For the
facts of life cannot be tabulated with as great an ease as the
colours of birds and insects can be tabulated. Now, Polybius
points out that those phenomena particularly are to be dwelt on
which may serve as a [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] or
sample, and show the character of the tendencies of the age as
clearly as ‘a single drop from a full cask will be enough to
disclose the nature of the whole contents.’ This recognition of
the importance of single facts, not in themselves but because of
the spirit they represent, is extremely scientific; for we know
that from the single bone, or tooth even, the anatomist can
recreate entirely the skeleton of the primeval horse, and the
botanist tell the character of the flora and fauna of a district
from a single specimen.

Regarding truth as ‘the most divine thing in Nature,’ the very ‘eye
and light of history without which it moves a blind thing,’
Polybius spared no pains in the acquisition of historical materials
or in the study of the sciences of politics and war, which he
considered were so essential to the training of the scientific
historian, and the labour he took is mirrored in the many ways in
which he criticises other authorities.

There is something, as a rule, slightly contemptible about ancient
criticism. The modern idea of the critic as the interpreter, the
expounder of the beauty and excellence of the work he selects,
seems quite unknown. Nothing can be more captious or unfair, for
instance, than the method by which Aristotle criticised the ideal
state of Plato in his ethical works, and the passages quoted by
Polybius from Timaeus show that the latter historian fully deserved
the punning name given to him. But in Polybius there is, I think,
little of that bitterness and pettiness of spirit which
characterises most other writers, and an incidental story he tells
of his relations with one of the historians whom he criticised
shows that he was a man of great courtesy and refinement of taste -
as, indeed, befitted one who had lived always in the society of
those who were of great and noble birth.

Now, as regards the character of the canons by which he criticises
the works of other authors, in the majority of cases he employs
simply his own geographical and military knowledge, showing, for
instance, the impossibility in the accounts given of Nabis’s march
from Sparta simply by his acquaintance with the spots in question;
or the inconsistency of those of the battle of Issus; or of the
accounts given by Ephorus of the battles of Leuctra and Mantinea.
In the latter case he says, if any one will take the trouble to
measure out the ground of the site of the battle and then test the
manoeuvres given, he will find how inaccurate the accounts are.

In other cases he appeals to public documents, the importance of
which he was always foremost in recognising; showing, for instance,
by a document in the public archives of Rhodes how inaccurate were
the accounts given of the battle of Lade by Zeno and Antisthenes.
Or he appeals to psychological probability, rejecting, for
instance, the scandalous stories told of Philip of Macedon, simply
from the king’s general greatness of character, and arguing that a
boy so well educated and so respectably connected as Demochares
(xii. 14) could never have been guilty of that of which evil rumour
accused him.

But the chief object of his literary censure is Timaeus, who had
been unsparing of his strictures on others. The general point
which he makes against him, impugning his accuracy as a historian,
is that he derived his knowledge of history not from the dangerous
perils of a life of action but in the secure indolence of a narrow
scholastic life. There is, indeed, no point on which he is so
vehement as this. ‘A history,’ he says, ‘written in a library
gives as lifeless and as inaccurate a picture of history as a
painting which is copied not from a living animal but from a
stuffed one.’

There is more difference, he says in another place, between the
history of an eye-witness and that of one whose knowledge comes
from books, than there is between the scenes of real life and the
fictitious landscapes of theatrical scenery. Besides this, he
enters into somewhat elaborate detailed criticism of passages where
he thought Timaeus was following a wrong method and perverting
truth, passages which it will be worth while to examine in detail.

Timaeus, from the fact of there being a Roman custom to shoot a
war-horse on a stated day, argued back to the Trojan origin of that
people. Polybius, on the other hand, points out that the inference
is quite unwarrantable, because horse-sacrifices are ordinary
institutions common to all barbarous tribes. Timaeus here, as was
common with Greek writers, is arguing back from some custom of the
present to an historical event in the past. Polybius really is
employing the comparative method, showing how the custom was an
ordinary step in the civilisation of every early people.

In another place, (21) he shows how illogical is the scepticism of
Timaeus as regards the existence of the Bull of Phalaris simply by
appealing to the statue of the Bull, which was still to be seen in
Carthage; pointing out how impossible it was, on any other theory
except that it belonged to Phalaris, to account for the presence in
Carthage of a bull of this peculiar character with a door between
his shoulders. But one of the great points which he uses against
this Sicilian historian is in reference to the question of the
origin of the Locrian colony. In accordance with the received
tradition on the subject, Aristotle had represented the Locrian
colony as founded by some Parthenidae or slaves’ children, as they
were called, a statement which seems to have roused the indignation
of Timaeus, who went to a good deal of trouble to confute this
theory. He does so on the following grounds:-

First of all, he points out that in the ancient days the Greeks had
no slaves at all, so the mention of them in the matter is an
anachronism; and next he declares that he was shown in the Greek
city of Locris certain ancient inscriptions in which their relation
to the Italian city was expressed in terms of the position between
parent and child, which showed also that mutual rights of
citizenship were accorded to each city. Besides this, he appeals
to various questions of improbability as regards their
international relationship, on which Polybius takes diametrically
opposite grounds which hardly call for discussion. And in favour
of his own view he urges two points more: first, that the
Lacedaemonians being allowed furlough for the purpose of seeing
their wives at home, it was unlikely that the Locrians should not
have had the same privilege; and next, that the Italian Locrians
knew nothing of the Aristotelian version and had, on the contrary,
very severe laws against adulterers, runaway slaves and the like.
Now, most of these questions rest on mere probability, which is
always such a subjective canon that an appeal to it is rarely
conclusive. I would note, however, as regards the inscriptions
which, if genuine, would of course have settled the matter, that
Polybius looks on them as a mere invention on the part of Timaeus,
who, he remarks, gives no details about them, though, as a rule, he
is over-anxious to give chapter and verse for everything. A
somewhat more interesting point is that where he attacks Timaeus
for the introduction of fictitious speeches into his narrative; for
on this point Polybius seems to be far in advance of the opinions
held by literary men on the subject not merely in his own day, but
for centuries after.

Herodotus had introduced speeches avowedly dramatic and fictitious.
Thucydides states clearly that, where he was unable to find out
what people really said, he put down what they ought to have said.
Sallust alludes, it is true, to the fact of the speech he puts into
the mouth of the tribune Memmius being essentially genuine, but the
speeches given in the senate on the occasion of the Catilinarian
conspiracy are very different from the same orations as they appear
in Cicero. Livy makes his ancient Romans wrangle and chop logic
with all the subtlety of a Hortensius or a Scaevola. And even in
later days, when shorthand reporters attended the debates of the
senate and a DAILY NEWS was published in Rome, we find that one of
the most celebrated speeches in Tacitus (that in which the Emperor
Claudius gives the Gauls their freedom) is shown, by an inscription
discovered recently at Lugdunum, to be entirely fabulous.

Upon the other hand, it must be borne in mind that these speeches
were not intended to deceive; they were regarded merely as a
certain dramatic element which it was allowable to introduce into
history for the purpose of giving more life and reality to the
narration, and were to be criticised, not as we should, by arguing
how in an age before shorthand was known such a report was possible
or how, in the failure of written documents, tradition could bring
down such an accurate verbal account, but by the higher test of
their psychological probability as regards the persons in whose
mouths they are placed. An ancient historian in answer to modern
criticism would say, probably, that these fictitious speeches were
in reality more truthful than the actual ones, just as Aristotle
claimed for poetry a higher degree of truth in comparison to
history. The whole point is interesting as showing how far in
advance of his age Polybius may be said to have been.

The last scientific historian, it is possible to gather from his
writings what he considered were the characteristics of the ideal
writer of history; and no small light will be thrown on the
progress of historical criticism if we strive to collect and
analyse what in Polybius are more or less scattered expressions.
The ideal historian must be contemporary with the events he
describes, or removed from them by one generation only. Where it
is possible, he is to be an eye-witness of what he writes of; where
that is out of his power he is to test all traditions and stories
carefully and not to be ready to accept what is plausible in place
of what is true. He is to be no bookworm living aloof from the
experiences of the world in the artificial isolation of a
university town, but a politician, a soldier, and a traveller, a
man not merely of thought but of action, one who can do great
things as well as write of them, who in the sphere of history could
be what Byron and AEschylus were in the sphere of poetry, at once
LE CHANTRE ET LE HEROS.

He is to keep before his eyes the fact that chance is merely a
synonym for our ignorance; that the reign of law pervades the
domain of history as much as it does that of political science. He
is to accustom himself to look on all occasions for rational and
natural causes. And while he is to recognise the practical utility
of the supernatural, in an educational point of view, he is not
himself to indulge in such intellectual beating of the air as to
admit the possibility of the violation of inviolable laws, or to
argue in a sphere wherein argument is A PRIORI annihilated. He is
to be free from all bias towards friend and country; he is to be
courteous and gentle in criticism; he is not to regard history as a
mere opportunity for splendid and tragic writing; nor is he to
falsify truth for the sake of a paradox or an epigram.

While acknowledging the importance of particular facts as samples
of higher truths, he is to take a broad and general view of
humanity. He is to deal with the whole race and with the world,
not with particular tribes or separate countries. He is to bear in
mind that the world is really an organism wherein no one part can
be moved without the others being affected also. He is to
distinguish between cause and occasion, between the influence of
general laws and particular fancies, and he is to remember that the
greatest lessons of the world are contained in history and that it
is the historian’s duty to manifest them so as to save nations from
following those unwise policies which always lead to dishonour and
ruin, and to teach individuals to apprehend by the intellectual
culture of history those truths which else they would have to learn
in the bitter school of experience,

Now, as regards his theory of the necessity of the historian’s
being contemporary with the events he describes, so far as the
historian is a mere narrator the remark is undoubtedly true. But
to appreciate the harmony and rational position of the facts of a
great epoch, to discover its laws, the causes which produced it and
the effects which it generates, the scene must be viewed from a
certain height and distance to be completely apprehended. A
thoroughly contemporary historian such as Lord Clarendon or
Thucydides is in reality part of the history he criticises; and, in
the case of such contemporary historians as Fabius and Philistus,
Polybius in compelled to acknowledge that they are misled by
patriotic and other considerations. Against Polybius himself no
such accusation can be made. He indeed of all men is able, as from
some lofty tower, to discern the whole tendency of the ancient
world, the triumph of Roman institutions and of Greek thought which
is the last message of the old world and, in a more spiritual
sense, has become the Gospel of the new.

One thing indeed he did not see, or if he saw it, he thought but
little of it – how from the East there was spreading over the
world, as a wave spreads, a spiritual inroad of new religions from
the time when the Pessinuntine mother of the gods, a shapeless mass
of stone, was brought to the eternal city by her holiest citizen,
to the day when the ship CASTOR AND POLLUX stood in at Puteoli, and
St. Paul turned his face towards martyrdom and victory at Rome.
Polybius was able to predict, from his knowledge of the causes of
revolutions and the tendencies of the various forms of governments,
the uprising of that democratic tone of thought which, as soon as a
seed is sown in the murder of the Gracchi and the exile of Marius,
culminated as all democratic movements do culminate, in the supreme
authority of one man, the lordship of the world under the world’s
rightful lord, Caius Julius Caesar. This, indeed, he saw in no
uncertain way. But the turning of all men’s hearts to the East,
the first glimmering of that splendid dawn which broke over the
hills of Galilee and flooded the earth like wine, was hidden from
his eyes.

There are many points in the description of the ideal historian
which one may compare to the picture which Plato has given us of
the ideal philosopher. They are both ‘spectators of all time and
all existence.’ Nothing is contemptible in their eyes, for all
things have a meaning, and they both walk in august reasonableness
before all men, conscious of the workings of God yet free from all
terror of mendicant priest or vagrant miracle-worker. But the
parallel ends here. For the one stands aloof from the world-storm
of sleet and hail, his eyes fixed on distant and sunlit heights,
loving knowledge for the sake of knowledge and wisdom for the joy
of wisdom, while the other is an eager actor in the world ever
seeking to apply his knowledge to useful things. Both equally
desire truth, but the one because of its utility, the other for its
beauty. The historian regards it as the rational principle of all
true history, and no more. To the other it comes as an all-
pervading and mystic enthusiasm, ‘like the desire of strong wine,
the craving of ambition, the passionate love of what is beautiful.’

Still, though we miss in the historian those higher and more
spiritual qualities which the philosopher of the Academe alone of
all men possessed, we must not blind ourselves to the merits of
that great rationalist who seems to have anticipated the very
latest words of modern science. Nor yet is he to be regarded
merely in the narrow light in which he is estimated by most modern
critics, as the explicit champion of rationalism and nothing more.
For he is connected with another idea, the course of which is as
the course of that great river of his native Arcadia which,
springing from some arid and sun-bleached rock, gathers strength
and beauty as it flows till it reaches the asphodel meadows of
Olympia and the light and laughter of Ionian waters.

For in him we can discern the first notes of that great cult of the
seven-hilled city which made Virgil write his epic and Livy his
history, which found in Dante its highest exponent, which dreamed
of an Empire where the Emperor would care for the bodies and the
Pope for the souls of men, and so has passed into the conception of
God’s spiritual empire and the universal brotherhood of man and
widened into the huge ocean of universal thought as the Peneus
loses itself in the sea.

Polybius is the last scientific historian of Greece. The writer
who seems fittingly to complete the progress of thought is a writer
of biographies only. I will not here touch on Plutarch’s
employment of the inductive method as shown in his constant use of
inscription and statue, of public document and building and the
like, because it involves no new method. It is his attitude
towards miracles of which I desire to treat.

Plutarch is philosophic enough to see that in the sense of a
violation of the laws of nature a miracle is impossible. It is
absurd, he says, to imagine that the statue of a saint can speak,
and that an inanimate object not possessing the vocal organs should
be able to utter an articulate sound. Upon the other hand, he
protests against science imagining that, by explaining the natural
causes of things, it has explained away their transcendental
meaning. ‘When the tears on the cheek of some holy statue have
been analysed into the moisture which certain temperatures produce
on wood and marble, it yet by no means follows that they were not a
sign of grief and mourning set there by God Himself.’ When Lampon
saw in the prodigy of the one-horned ram the omen of the supreme
rule of Pericles, and when Anaxagoras showed that the abnormal
development was the rational resultant of the peculiar formation of
the skull, the dreamer and the man of science were both right; it
was the business of the latter to consider how the prodigy came
about, of the former to show why it was so formed and what it so
portended. The progression of thought is exemplified in all
particulars. Herodotus had a glimmering sense of the impossibility
of a violation of nature. Thucydides ignored the supernatural.
Polybius rationalised it. Plutarch raises it to its mystical
heights again, though he bases it on law. In a word, Plutarch felt
that while science brings the supernatural down to the natural, yet
ultimately all that is natural is really supernatural. To him, as
to many of our own day, religion was that transcendental attitude
of the mind which, contemplating a world resting on inviolable law,
is yet comforted and seeks to worship God not in the violation but
in the fulfilment of nature.

It may seem paradoxical to quote in connection with the priest of
Chaeronea such a pure rationalist as Mr. Herbert Spencer; yet when
we read as the last message of modern science that ‘when the
equation of life has been reduced to its lowest terms the symbols
are symbols still,’ mere signs, that is, of that unknown reality
which underlies all matter and all spirit, we may feel how over the
wide strait of centuries thought calls to thought and how Plutarch
has a higher position than is usually claimed for him in the
progress of the Greek intellect.

And, indeed, it seems that not merely the importance of Plutarch
himself but also that of the land of his birth in the evolution of
Greek civilisation has been passed over by modern critics. To us,
indeed, the bare rock to which the Parthenon serves as a crown, and
which lies between Colonus and Attica’s violet hills, will always
be the holiest spot in the land of Greece: and Delphi will come
next, and then the meadows of Eurotas where that noble people lived
who represented in Hellenic thought the reaction of the law of duty
against the law of beauty, the opposition of conduct to culture.
Yet, as one stands on the [Greek text which cannot be reproduced]
of Cithaeron and looks out on the great double plain of Boeotia,
the enormous importance of the division of Hellas comes to one’s
mind with great force. To the north are Orchomenus and the Minyan
treasure-house, seat of those merchant princes of Phoenicia who
brought to Greece the knowledge of letters and the art of working
in gold. Thebes is at our feet with the gloom of the terrible
legends of Greek tragedy still lingering about it, the birthplace
of Pindar, the nurse of Epaminondas and the Sacred Band.

And from out of the plain where ‘Mars loved to dance,’ rises the
Muses’ haunt, Helicon, by whose silver streams Corinna and Hesiod
sang; while far away under the white aegis of those snow-capped
mountains lies Chaeronea and the Lion plain where with vain
chivalry the Greeks strove to check Macedon first and afterwards
Rome; Chaeronea, where in the Martinmas summer of Greek
civilisation Plutarch rose from the drear waste of a dying religion
as the aftermath rises when the mowers think they have left the
field bare.

Greek philosophy began and ended in scepticism: the first and the
last word of Greek history was Faith.

Splendid thus in its death, like winter sunsets, the Greek religion
passed away into the horror of night. For the Cimmerian darkness
was at hand, and when the schools of Athens were closed and the
statue of Athena broken, the Greek spirit passed from the gods and
the history of its own land to the subtleties of defining the
doctrine of the Trinity and the mystical attempts to bring Plato
into harmony with Christ and to reconcile Gethsemane and the Sermon
on the Mount with the Athenian prison and the discussion in the
woods of Colonus. The Greek spirit slept for wellnigh a thousand
years. When it woke again, like Antaeus it had gathered strength
from the earth where it lay; like Apollo it had lost none of its
divinity through its long servitude.

In the history of Roman thought we nowhere find any of those
characteristics of the Greek Illumination which I have pointed out
are the necessary concomitants of the rise of historical criticism.
The conservative respect for tradition which made the Roman people
delight in the ritual and formulas of law, and is as apparent in
their politics as in their religion, was fatal to any rise of that
spirit of revolt against authority the importance of which, as a
factor in intellectual progress, we have already seen.

The whitened tables of the Pontifices preserved carefully the
records of the eclipses and other atmospherical phenomena, and what
we call the art of verifying dates was known to them at an early
time; but there was no spontaneous rise of physical science to
suggest by its analogies of law and order a new method of research,
nor any natural springing up of the questioning spirit of
philosophy with its unification of all phenomena and all knowledge.
At the very time when the whole tide of Eastern superstition was
sweeping into the heart of the Capital the Senate banished the
Greek philosophers from Rome. And of the three systems which did
at length take some root in the city, those of Zeno and Epicurus
were used merely as the rule for the ordering of life, while the
dogmatic scepticism of Carneades, by its very principles,
annihilated the possibility of argument and encouraged a perfect
indifference to research.

Nor were the Romans ever fortunate enough like the Greeks to have
to face the incubus of any dogmatic system of legends and myths,
the immoralities and absurdities of which might excite a
revolutionary outbreak of sceptical criticism. For the Roman
religion became as it were crystallised and isolated from progress
at an early period of its evolution. Their gods remained mere
abstractions of commonplace virtues or uninteresting
personifications of the useful things of life. The old primitive
creed was indeed always upheld as a state institution on account of
the enormous facilities it offered for cheating in politics, but as
a spiritual system of belief it was unanimously rejected at a very
early period both by the common people and the educated classes,
for the sensible reason that it was so extremely dull. The former
took refuge in the mystic sensualities of the worship of Isis, the
latter in the Stoical rules of life. The Romans classified their
gods carefully in their order of precedence, analysed their
genealogies in the laborious spirit of modern heraldry, fenced them
round with a ritual as intricate as their law, but never quite
cared enough about them to believe in them. So it was of no
account with them when the philosophers announced that Minerva was
merely memory. She had never been much else. Nor did they protest
when Lucretius dared to say of Ceres and of Liber that they were
only the corn of the field and the fruit of the vine. For they had
never mourned for the daughter of Demeter in the asphodel meadows
of Sicily, nor traversed the glades of Cithaeron with fawn-skin and
with spear.

This brief sketch of the condition of Roman thought will serve to
prepare us for the almost total want of scientific historical
criticism which we shall discern in their literature, and has,
besides, afforded fresh corroboration of the conditions essential
to the rise of this spirit, and of the modes of thought which it
reflects and in which it is always to be found. Roman historical
composition had its origin in the pontifical college of
ecclesiastical lawyers, and preserved to its close the uncritical
spirit which characterised its fountain-head. It possessed from
the outset a most voluminous collection of the materials of
history, which, however, produced merely antiquarians, not
historians. It is so hard to use facts, so easy to accumulate
them.

Wearied of the dull monotony of the pontifical annals, which dwelt
on little else but the rise and fall in provisions and the eclipses
of the sun, Cato wrote out a history with his own hand for the
instruction of his child, to which he gave the name of Origines,
and before his time some aristocratic families had written
histories in Greek much in the same spirit in which the Germans of
the eighteenth century used French as the literary language. But
the first regular Roman historian is Sallust. Between the
extravagant eulogies passed on this author by the French (such as
De Closset), and Dr. Mommsen’s view of him as merely a political
pamphleteer, it is perhaps difficult to reach the VIA MEDIA of
unbiassed appreciation. He has, at any rate, the credit of being a
purely rationalistic historian, perhaps the only one in Roman
literature. Cicero had a good many qualifications for a scientific
historian, and (as he usually did) thought very highly of his own
powers. On passages of ancient legend, however, he is rather
unsatisfactory, for while he is too sensible to believe them he is
too patriotic to reject them. And this is really the attitude of
Livy, who claims for early Roman legend a certain uncritical homage
from the rest of the subject world. His view in his history is
that it is not worth while to examine the truth of these stories.

In his hands the history of Rome unrolls before our eyes like some
gorgeous tapestry, where victory succeeds victory, where triumph
treads on the heels of triumph, and the line of heroes seems never
to end. It is not till we pass behind the canvas and see the
slight means by which the effect is produced that we apprehend the
fact that like most picturesque writers Livy is an indifferent
critic. As regards his attitude towards the credibility of early
Roman history he is quite as conscious as we are of its mythical
and unsound nature. He will not, for instance, decide whether the
Horatii were Albans or Romans; who was the first dictator; how many
tribunes there were, and the like. His method, as a rule, is
merely to mention all the accounts and sometimes to decide in
favour of the most probable, but usually not to decide at all. No
canons of historical criticism will ever discover whether the Roman
women interviewed the mother of Coriolanus of their own accord or
at the suggestion of the senate; whether Remus was killed for
jumping over his brother’s wall or because they quarrelled about
birds; whether the ambassadors found Cincinnatus ploughing or only
mending a hedge. Livy suspends his judgment over these important
facts and history when questioned on their truth is dumb. If he
does select between two historians he chooses the one who is nearer
to the facts he describes. But he is no critic, only a
conscientious writer. It is mere vain waste to dwell on his
critical powers, for they do not exist.

In the case of Tacitus imagination has taken the place of history.
The past lives again in his pages, but through no laborious
criticism; rather through a dramatic and psychological faculty
which he specially possessed.

In the philosophy of history he has no belief. He can never make
up his mind what to believe as regards God’s government of the
world. There is no method in him and none elsewhere in Roman
literature.

Nations may not have missions but they certainly have functions.
And the function of ancient Italy was not merely to give us what is
statical in our institutions and rational in our law, but to blend
into one elemental creed the spiritual aspirations of Aryan and of
Semite. Italy was not a pioneer in intellectual progress, nor a
motive power in the evolution of thought. The owl of the goddess
of Wisdom traversed over the whole land and found nowhere a
resting-place. The dove, which is the bird of Christ, flew
straight to the city of Rome and the new reign began. It was the
fashion of early Italian painters to represent in mediaeval costume
the soldiers who watched over the tomb of Christ, and this, which
was the result of the frank anachronism of all true art, may serve
to us as an allegory. For it was in vain that the Middle Ages
strove to guard the buried spirit of progress. When the dawn of
the Greek spirit arose, the sepulchre was empty, the grave-clothes
laid aside. Humanity had risen from the dead.

The study of Greek, it has been well said, implies the birth of
criticism, comparison and research. At the opening of that
education of modern by ancient thought which we call the
Renaissance, it was the words of Aristotle which sent Columbus
sailing to the New World, while a fragment of Pythagorean astronomy
set Copernicus thinking on that train of reasoning which has
revolutionised the whole position of our planet in the universe.
Then it was seen that the only meaning of progress is a return to
Greek modes of thought. The monkish hymns which obscured the pages
of Greek manuscripts were blotted out, the splendours of a new
method were unfolded to the world, and out of the melancholy sea of
mediaevalism rose the free spirit of man in all that splendour of
glad adolescence, when the bodily powers seem quickened by a new
vitality, when the eye sees more clearly than its wont and the mind
apprehends what was beforetime hidden from it. To herald the
opening of the sixteenth century, from the little Venetian printing
press came forth all the great authors of antiquity, each bearing
on the title-page the words [Greek text which cannot be
reproduced]; words which may serve to remind us with what wondrous
prescience Polybius saw the world’s fate when he foretold the
material sovereignty of Roman institutions and exemplified in
himself the intellectual empire of Greece.

The course of the study of the spirit of historical criticism has
not been a profitless investigation into modes and forms of thought
now antiquated and of no account. The only spirit which is
entirely removed from us is the mediaeval; the Greek spirit is
essentially modern. The introduction of the comparative method of
research which has forced history to disclose its secrets belongs
in a measure to us. Ours, too, is a more scientific knowledge of
philology and the method of survival. Nor did the ancients know
anything of the doctrine of averages or of crucial instances, both
of which methods have proved of such importance in modern
criticism, the one adding a most important proof of the statical
elements of history, and exemplifying the influences of all
physical surroundings on the life of man; the other, as in the
single instance of the Moulin Quignon skull, serving to create a
whole new science of prehistoric archaeology and to bring us back
to a time when man was coeval with the stone age, the mammoth and
the woolly rhinoceros. But, except these, we have added no new
canon or method to the science of historical criticism. Across the
drear waste of a thousand years the Greek and the modern spirit
join hands.

In the torch race which the Greek boys ran from the Cerameician
field of death to the home of the goddess of Wisdom, not merely he
who first reached the goal but he also who first started with the
torch aflame received a prize. In the Lampadephoria of
civilisation and free thought let us not forget to render due meed
of honour to those who first lit that sacred flame, the increasing
splendour of which lights our footsteps to the far-off divine event
of the attainment of perfect truth.

The Rise of Historical Criticism was last modified: March 14th, 2010 by Oscar Wilde

One Response to "The Rise of Historical Criticism"

  1. Susanne Nippert  Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 18:24

    Im grateful for the article.Much thanks again. Want more.

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