Sivut kuvina
PDF
ePub

men.

practically acquainted with their secret springs : it was not in the schools, but in the forum or the palace, that Sallust

, Tacitus, and Burke acquired their deep insight into the human heart. Hume was gifted with admirable sagacity in political economy; and it is the good sense and depth of his views on that important subject, then for the first time brought to bear on the annals of man, that has chiefly gained for him, and with justice, the character of a philosophic historian.

To this may be added the admirable clearness and rhetorical powers with which he has stated the principal arguments for and against the great changes in the English institutions which it fell to his lot to recount-arguments far abler than were either used by, or occurred to, the actors by whom they were brought about; for it is seldom that a Hume is found in the councils of

With equal ability, too, he has given periodical sketches of manners, customs, and habits, mingled with valuable details on finance, commerce, and prices; all elements, and most important ones, in the formation of philosophical history. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the man who has rescued these important facts from the ponderous folios where they were slumbering in forgotten obscurity, and brought them into the broad light of philosophic observation and popular narrative. But, notwithstanding all this, Hume is far from being gifted with thie philosophy of history. He has collected or prepared many of the facts necessary for the science, but he has made little progress in it himself. He was essentially a sceptic. He aimed rather at spreading doubts than shedding light. Like Voltaire and Gibbon, he was scandalously prejudiced and unjust on the subject of religion; and to write modern history without correct views on that subject, is like playing Hamlet without the character of the Prince of Denmark. He was too indolent to acquire the vast store of facts indispensable for correct generalisation on the varied theatre of human affairs, and often drew hasty and incorrect conclusions from the events which particularly came under his observation. Thus the repeated indecisive battles between the fleets of Charles II. and the Dutch, drew from him the observation, apparently justified by their results, that seafights are seldom so important or decisive as those at land.

4

The fact is just the reverse, and might easily have been ascertained, even in his time, by a more extended induction. Witness the battle of Salamis, which repelled from Europe the tide of Persian invasion; that of Actium, which gave a master to the Roman world; that of Sluys, which exposed France to the dreadful English invasions, begun under Edward III.; that of Lepanto, which rolled back from Christendom the wave of Mahometan conquest; the defeat of the Armada, which permanently established the Reformation in Northern Europe; that of La Hogue, which broke the maritime strength of Louis XIV.; that of Trafalgar, which for ever took“ ships, colonies, and commerce” from Napoleon, and spread them with the British colonial empire over half the globe.

Montesquieu owes bis colossal reputation chiefly to his Esprit des Toix; but the Grandeur et Decadence des Romains is by much the greater work.

It has never attained nearly the reputation in this country which it deserves, either in consequence of the English mind being less partial than the French to the philosophy of human affairs, or, as is more probable, from the system of education at our universities being so exclusively devoted to the study of words, that our scholars rarely arrive at the knowledge of things. It is impossible to imagine a work in which the philosophy of history is more ably condensed, or where there is exhibited, in a short space, a more profound view of the general causes to which the long-continued greatness and ultimate decline of that celebrated people were owing. It is to be regretted only that he did not come to modern times and other ages with the same masterly survey; the information collected in the Esprit des Loix would have furnished him with ample materials for such a work. In that noble treatise, the same philosophic and generalising spirit is conspicuous; but there is too great a love of system, an obvious partiality for fanciful analogies, and, not unfrequently, conclusions hastily deduced from insufficient data. These errors, the natural result of a philosophic and profound mind wandering without a guide in the mighty maze of human transactions, are entirely avoided in the Grandeur et Decadence des Romains, where he was retained by authentic history to a known train of events, and where his imaginative spirit and marked turn for generalisation found sufficient scope, and no more, to produce the most perfect commentary on the annals of a single people of which the human mind can boast.

Bossuet, in his Universal History, aimed at a higher object; he professed to give nothing less than a development of the plan of Providence in the government of human affairs, during the whole of antiquity, and down to the reign of Charlemagne. The idea was magnificent, and the mental powers, as well as eloquence, of the Bishop of Meaux promised the greatest results from such an undertaking. But the execution has by no means corresponded to the conception. Voltaire has said, that he professed to give a view of universal history, and he has only given the history of the Jews; and there is too much truth in the observation. He never got out of the fetters of his ecclesiastical education ; Jerusalem was the centre round which he supposed all other nations revolved. That was no doubt true with reference to the future advent of Christianity; but it was not the whole truth with reference to human affairs. Many other objects entered into the general plan of Providence for the government of the world. Bossuet's mind was polemical, not philosophic; a great theologian, he was but an indifferent historian. In one particular, indeed, his observations are admirable, and, at times, in the highest degree impressive. He never loses sight of the divine superintendence of human affairs; he sees in all the revolutions of empires the progress of a mighty plan for the ultimate redemption of mankind; and he traces the workings of this superintending power in all the transactions of man. But it may be doubted whether he took the correct view of this sublime but mysterious subject. He supposes the divine agency to influence directly the affairs of men—not through the medium of general laws, or the adaptation of our active propensities to the varying circumstances of our condition. Hence his views strike at the freedom of human actions; he makes men and nations little more than the puppets by which the Deity works out the great drama of human affairs. Without disputing the reality of such immediate agency in some particular cases, it may safely be affirmed, that by far the greater

[ocr errors]

part of the affairs of men are left entirely to their own guidance, and that their actions are overruled, not directed, by Almighty power to work out the purposes of Divine beneficence.

That which Bossuet left undone, Robertson did. The first volume of his Charles V. may justly be regarded as the greatest step which the human mind had yet made in the philosophy of history. Extending his views beyond the admirable survey which Montesquieu had given of the rise and decline of the Roman Empire, he aimed at giving a view of the progress of society in modern times. This matter, of the progress of society, was a favourite subject at that period with political philosophers; and, by combining the speculations of these ingenious men with the solid basis of facts which bis erudition and industry had worked out, Robertson succeeded in producing the most luminous, and at the same time just, view of the progress of nations that bad

yet been presented among mankind. The philosophy of history here appeared in its full lustre. Men and nations were exhibited in their just proportions. Society was viewed, not only in its details, but in its masses; the general causes which influence its progress, running into or mutually affecting each other, and yet all conspiring with more or less efficacy to bring about a general result, were exhibited in the most lucid and masterly manner. The great causes which have contributed to form the elements of modern society--the decaying civilisation of Rome—the irruption of the northern nations—the prostration and degradation of the conquered people—the revival of the military spirit with the private wars of the nobles—the feudal system and institutions of chivalry—the crusades, and revival of letters following the capture of Constantinople by the Turks—the invention of printing, and consequent extension of knowledge to the great body of the people the discovery of the compass, and, with it, of America, by Columbus, and the doubling of the Cape of Good Hope by Vasco de Gama—the discovery of gunpowder, and prodigious change thereby effected in the implements of human destruction are all there treated in the most luminous manner, and, in general, with the justest discrimination. The vast agency of general causes upon the

VOL. III.

F

progress of mankind now became apparent: unseen powers, like the deities of Homer in the war of Troy, were seen to mingle at every step with the tide of sublunary affairs; and so powerful and irresistible does their agency, when once revealed, appear, that we are perhaps now likely to fall into the opposite extreme, and to ascribe too little to individual effort or character. Men and nations seem to be alike borne forward on the surface of a mighty stream, which they are equally incapable of arresting or directing; and, after surveying the vain and impotent attempts of individuals to extricate themselves from the current, we are apt to exclaim with the philosopher, * “ He has dashed with his oar to hasten the cataract; he has waved with his fan to give speed to the winds."

A nearer examination, however, will convince every candid inquirer, that individual character exercises, if not a paramount, yet a very powerful influence on human affairs. Whoever investigates minutely any period of history will find, on the one hand, that general causes affecting the whole of society are in constant operation; and on the other, that these general causes themselves are often set in motion, or directed in their effects, by particular men. Thus, of what efficacy were the constancy of Pitt, the foresight of Burke, the arm of Nelson, the wisdom of Wellington, the genius of Wellesley, in bringing to maturity the British empire, and spreading the Anglo-Saxon race, in pursuance of its appointed mission, over half the globe! What marvellous effect had the heroism and skill of Robert Bruce upon the subsequent history of Scotland, and, through it, on the fortunes of the British race! Thus biography, or the deeds and thoughts of illustrious men, still forms a most important, and certainly the most interesting, part even of general history; and the perfection of that noble art consists, not in the exclusive delineation of individual achievement, or the concentration of attention on general causes, but in the union of the two in due proportions, as they really exist in nature, and determine, by their combined operation, the direction of human affairs. The talent now required in the historian partakes, accordingly, of this twofold character. He is expected to write

Fergusson.

[ocr errors]
« EdellinenJatka »