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[BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE, Dec. 1844]
MACHIAVEL was the first historian who seems to have formed a conception of the philosophy of history. Before his time, the narrative of human events was little more than a series of biographies, imperfectly connected together by a few slight sketches of the empires on which the actions of their heroes were exerted. In this style of history, the ancient writers were, and to the end of time probably will continue to be, altogether inimitable. Their skill in narrating a story, in developing the events of a life, in tracing the fortunes of a city or a state, as they were raised by a succession of illustrious patriots, or sunk by a series of oppressive tyrants, has never been approached in modern times. The histories of Xenophon and Thucydides, of Livy and Sallust, of Cæsar and Tacitus, are all more or less formed on this model ; and the more extended view of history, as embracing an account of the countries the transactions of which were narrated, originally formed, and to a great part executed, by the father of bistory, Herodotus, appears to have been, in an unaccountable manner, lost by his successors.
In these immortal works, however, human transactions are uniformly regarded as they have been affected by, or called forth the agency of, individual men.
We are never presented with the view of society in a mass; as influenced by a series of causes and effects independent of the agency of individual man ; or, to speak more correctly, in the development of which the agency is an unconscious, and often almost a passive, instrument. Constantly regarding history as an extensive species of biography, they not only did not withdraw the eye to the distance necessary to obtain
such a general view of the progress of things, but they did the reverse. Their great object was to bring the eye so close as to see the whole virtues or vices of the principal figures, which they exhibited on their moving panorama ; and in so doing, they rendered it incapable of perceiving, at the same time, the movement of the whole social body of which they formed a part. Even Livy, in his pictured narrative of Roman victories, is essentially biographical. His inimitable work owes its enduring celebrity to the charming episodes of individual history, or graphic pictures of particular events with which it abounds; scarcely any general views on the progress of society, or the causes to which its astonishing progress in the Roman state was owing, are to be found. In the introduction to the life of Catiline, Sallust has given, with unequalled power, a sketch of the causes which corrupted the republic ; and if his work had been pursued in the same style, it would indeed have been a philosophical history. But neither the Catiline nor the Jugurthine War are bistories : they are chapters of history, containing two interesting biographies. Scattered through the writings of Tacitus, are to be found numerous caustic and profound observations on human nature, and the increasing vices and selfishness of a corrupted age: but, like the maxims of Rochefoucault, it is rather to individual than general humanity that they refer; and they strike us as so admirably just because they do not descibe general causes operating upon society as a body—which often make little impression save on a few reflecting minds—but strike direct to the human heart in a way which comes home to the breast of every individual who reads them.
Never was a juster observation than that the human mind is never quiescent : it may not give the external symptoms of action, but it does not cease to have the internal action : it sleeps, but even then it dreams. Writers innumerable have declaimed on the night of the Middle Ages, on the deluge of barbarism which, under the Goths, flooded the world, on the torpor of the human mind under the combined pressure of savage violence and priestly superstition ; yet this was precisely the period when the minds of men, deprived of external vent, turned inwards on themselves; and that the learned and thoughtful, shut out from any
active part in society by the general prevalence of military violence, sought, in the solitude of the cloister, employment in reflecting on the mind itself, and the general causes which, under its guidance, operated upon society. The influence of this great change in the direction of thought at once appeared when knowledge, liberated from the monastery and the university, again took its place among the affairs of men. Machiavel in Italy and Bacon in England, for the first time in the annals of knowledge, reasoned upon human affairs as a subject of general laws. They spoke of the minds of meu as permanently governed by certain causes, and of known principles always leading to the same results ; they treated of politics as a science in which certain known laws existed, and could be discovered, as in mechanics and hydraulics. This was a great step in advance, and demonstrated that, the superior age of the world, and the wide sphere to which political observation had now been applied, had permitted the accumulation of such an increased store of facts, as permitted deductions, founded on experience, to be formed in regard to the affairs of nations. Still more, it showed that the attention of writers had been drawn to the general causes of human affairs ; that they reasoned on the actions of men as a subject of abstract thought ; regarded effects formerly produced as likely to recur from a similar combination of circumstances; and formed conclusions for the regulation of future conduct, from the results of past experience. This tendency is, in an especial manner, conspicuous in the Discorsi of Machiavel, where certain general propositions are stated, deduced, indeed, from the events of Roman story, but announced as lasting truths, applicable to every future generation and to all circumstances of men. In depth of view and justness of observation, these views of the Florentine statesman have never been surpassed. Bacon's essays
relate, for the most part, to subjects of morals, or domestic and private life ; but not upfrequently he touches on the general concerns of nations, and with the same profound observation of the past, and philosophic anticipation of the future.
Voltaire professed to elevate history in France from the jejune and trifling details of genealogy, courts, wars, and negotiations, in which it had hitherto, in his country, been involved, to the more general contemplation of arts and philosophy, and the progress of human affairs; and in some respects he certainly effected a great reformation on the ponderous annalists who had preceded him. But the foundation of his history was still biography: he regarded human events only as they were grouped round two or three great men, or as they were influenced by the speculations of men of letters and science. The history of France he stigmatised as savage and worthless till the reign of Louis XIV.; the Russians he looked upon as barbarians till the time of Peter the Great. He thought the philosophers alone all in all : till they arose, and a sovereign appeared who collected them round his throne, and shed on them the rays of royal favour, human events were not worth narrating; they were merely the contests of one set of savages plundering another. Religion, in his eyes, was a mere priestly delusion to enslave and benight mankind; from its oppression the greatest miseries of modern times had flowed; the first step in the emancipation of the human mind was to chase for ever from the earth those sacerdotal tyrants. The most free-thinking historian will now admit that these views are essentially erroneous : he will allow that, viewing Christianity merely as a human institution, its effect in restraining the violence of feudal anarchy was incalculable; long anterior to the date of the philosophers, he will look for the broad foundation on which national character and institutions, for good or for evil, have been formed. Voltaire was of great service to history, by turning it from courts and camps to the progress of literature, science, and the arts; to the delineation of manners, and the preparation of anecdotes descriptive of character: but, notwithstanding all his talent, he never got a glimpse of the general causes which influence society. He gave us the history of philosophy, but not the philosophy of history.
The ardent genius and pictorial eye of Gibbon rendered him an incomparable delineator of events; and his powerful mind made him seize the general and characteristic features of society and manners, as they appear in different parts of the world, as well as the traits of individual greatness. His descriptions of the Roman empire in the zenith of its power, as it existed in the time of Augustus ; of its decline and long protracted old age, under Constantine and his
successors on the Byzantine throne; of the manners of the pastoral nations, who, under different names, and for a succession of ages, pressed upon and at last overturned the empire; of the Saracens, who, issuing from the lands of Arabia, with the Koran in one hand and the cimeter in the other, urged on their resistless course, till they were arrested by the Atlantic on the one side, and the Indian ocean on the other; of the stern crusaders, who, nursed amid the cloistered shades and castellated realms of Europe, struggled with that devastating horde " when 'twas strongest, and ruled it when 'twas wildest;" of the long agony, silent decay, and ultimate resurrection of the Eternal City : are so many immortal pictures, which, to the end of the world, will fascinate every ardent and imaginative mind. But, notwithstanding this incomparable talent for general and characteristic description, he had not the mind necessary for a philosophical analysis of the series of causes which pidence human events. He viewed religion with jaundiced and prejudiced eye—the fatal bequest of his age and French education, unworthy alike of his native candour and inherent strength of understanding. He had profound philosophic ideas, and occasionally let them out with admirable effect; but the turn of his mind was essentially descriptive; and his powers were such, in that brilliant department, that they wiled him from the less inviting contemplation of general causes. We turn over his fascinating pages without wearying, but without ever discovering the general progress.or apparent tendency of human affairs. We look in vain for the profound reflections of Machiavel on the permanent results of certain political combinations or experiments.
He has led us through a “ mighty maze;" but he has made no attempt to show it “not without a plan.'
Hume is commonly called a philosophical historian, and 80 he is; but he has even less than Gibbon the power of unfolding the general causes which influence the progress of human events. He was not, properly speaking, a philosophic historian, but a philosopher writing history; and these are very different things. The practical statesman will often make a better delineator of the progress of human affairs than the philosophic recluse; for he is more