No. 7.


L O I T E R E R.

"Speak of us as we are."




Messrs. EGERTON, Whitehall, LONDON,




No. VII.


L O I T E R E R.

SATURDAY, March 14, 1789.

Historiæ munus est, rerum gestarum famam posteris tradere,
e quarum cognitione quid agendum fit & quid fugiendum ediscatur. Stradæ Prolus


IF the respective merits of our different studies are to be settled by the pleasure which arises from their pursuit, or the utility which results from their attainment, historic knowledge will justly claim the highest rank amongst our literary acquirement. To review with one glance the various accidents, and mark the latent causes, which have given birth to states, or destroyed empires, to place before us the exploits of the daring, the discoveries of the adventurous, and the systems of the wise, confers the greatest superiority which an enlightened age and a polished nation can enjoy, over an area of darkness and a clan of barbarians. And though history were always what it too often is, only an enumeration of the madness, folly, and crimes of mankind, it is yet some advantage to know what we would wish to avoid; and if mankind make a proper use of this knowledge, they may derive some benefit even from the crimes, and some wisdom from the follies of their ancestors. But history has surely something better to offer, has other claims upon our attention, other motives to excite our industry, and other sweets to reward our labours.

It relates indeed the vices of tyrants, the meanness of their flatterers, and the miseries of their people; but it relates also the virtues of their destroyers, the public spirit of a party struggling for liberty, and the happiness of a nation which enjoys it. And if the unhardened sensibility of youth, and the unpolluted bosom of innocence, will turn in disgust from the short-lived frenzies of a Caligula or a Claudius, they will dwell with repeated rapture on the glorious annals of a Trajan or an Antonine. - Since history can boast examples at once so powerful to deter from vicious extravagance, and incite to virtuous undertakings, no wonder it has been ever the favourite study of the wise and great: that it has stimulated the one to new discoveries, and the other to difficult achievements. How much the world stands indebted to the former, the world is ready enough to own; and (however partial instances among the latter may contradict my assertion, and derange my system) I think the best and wisest of our modern princes have owed much of their merit to their historic information, and from pursuing the actions of the wise have become wise themselves. It cannot indeed be denied that an unfortunate choice of examples, or an imperfect imitation of them, has occasioned much misconduct in princes, and many evils to their unhappy subjects. But this is a misfortune arising from the vanity and perverseness of human nature, both in the historian and the reader; in the former from having drawn his heroes in colours that will not bear a close examination, and in the latter for admiring them without any examination at all. Thus an heroic frenzy seems to have descended (in a kind of entail) from Achilles to Alexander, from Alexander to Lewis the Fourteenth, and from Lewis to the late King of Prussia; each of whom was particularly careful to imitate the other, in the very worst parts of his character; and consequently, became in regular gradation, more eminent for ambition and cruelty, and more conspicuous for the lust of fame, and the desire of power.

But however the zealous imitation of great characters may have done partial mischief, by exciting fresh desires in the breasts of the turbulent, and stimulating the ambitious to new conquests; it has, on the other hand, been of general benefit to mankind, in awakening a laudable spirit of emulation among their governors, for the encouragement of every useful and every liberal art, which can add lustre to the dignity of the state, and give a higher relish to the social intercourse of individuals. - It would not, perhaps, be hard to prove, that the total neglect of historic studies among the great, and the corruption of it by the Monks, was no inconsiderable cause of those deplorable calamities which afflicted the nations of Europe from the tenth to the fifteenth century. To this, I am aware, it will be objected, that it was not in History alone, but in every other department of science, that the feudal chieftains were uninformed: that if they were bad historians, they were worse philosophers; and, consequently, the defects of their government, and the rudeness of their manners, were rather to be attributed to general ignorance in all the arts and sciences, than to particular deficiency in one alone. - That the Nobles, and even the Kings of the middle ages, were most grossly ignorant of almost every thing, which they ought to have known towards promoting either the happiness of their subjects, or their own reputation, is a fact too notorious to be denied; but it does not therefore follow, that their literary deficiencies were equally conspicuous, or alike fatal to the interests of their people.

For the greatest proficiency in many branches of science, however entertaining to themselves, would have been little useful to others; whereas a very moderate acquaintance with history, would have supplied them with precedents, drawn from the highest authority, and rules applicable to general practice, would have guarded them from the commission of numberless errors, and the perpetration of some crimes. It is at least certain, that from the time when this most instructive and most amusing of the sciences obtained any great degree of perfection, political government has assumed a more regular form, and private security been fixed on a firmer basis. Our possessions are no longer a prey to the attacks of foreign invaders, or the tyranny of domestic usurpation, and our peace is no more disturbed by the intrigues of factious Barons, or the tumults of a discontented populace. Nor is this any way extraordinary, for the Great have learned, that all unnecessary exertions of power are productive of discontent, murmurs, and insurrections; and their Inferiors will readily allow that confusion, disorder, and anarchy, are as certainly attendants on groundless disaffections, and rebellion without cause. - Thus each party, by mutually receding from the rigid inflexibility of their favourite opinions, and partially relinquishing their separate rights, prevent the collision of jarring principles, and secure the general happiness of the whole on a firm foundation. - Thus far, therefore, the study of History must be acknowledged highly beneficial to the continuity, since it enables us to regulate our conduct, and form our characters by the most unerring rules, and the most unblemished models; teaches us to anticipate the future by a retrospection on the past, and makes us, if not better, at least wiser than our ancestors. - Were the cultivation of History confined to the great and powerful, and conducive only to the welfare of political society, there would need no additional recommendation to entitle it to the applause of a well-informed and enlightened age. But it is the undoubted, perhaps the peculiar merit of this science, to adapt itself to all the various pursuits, by which individuals can either contribute to the general welfare, or promote their own advancement. - It recommends itself at the same time to the intrepid and the busy, and will, with equal propriety, grace the tent of the general, and the chamber of the lawyer: and whilst the campaigns of Caesar, and the jurisprudence of Justinian shall find admirers, it will for ever remain a doubt whether the heroes of the sword or the gown are under greatest obligations to the recording labours of the Historian. - But the advantages of this science will not stop here; the use as well as pleasure of historic studies extend themselves over every land, where the muses have fixed their residence; and are the constant attendants of genius, taste, and learning. For, though the particular works alone of the general, or the statesman, will be selected by those who wish to imitate their actions, and hope to obtain their rewards; who are emulous either of the martial or civic crown; yet there are numbers, to whom the page of history presents rather an extent of varied country, than one well- cultivated but confined field; a country sometimes indeed wild, but always grand, and abounding with every flower which can tempt the eye, and every fruit which can gratify the taste. It is the accurate investigator of human nature, the ardent admirer of classic learning, and the elegant cultivator of the liberal arts, who will reap the most general improvement, and draw the most lasting pleasure from works of this kind. - No clime, no age, no nation will escape his penetrating eye, or however distant, dark, or barbarous, be incapable of furnishing some hints to a mind of intelligent observation, or not deserve the candid remarks of rational criticism. The King, the Hero, and the Legislator, will engage his attention, and be honoured by his remarks; he will bless the good for their virtues, and drop a tear on the calamities of the wretched. But chiefly will he be pleased to observe the various and progressive steps, by which science has gained her present exalted height, and mark the rapidity with which she is hourly extending the influence of her reign, and the happiness of mankind, over enlightening savages, and regions just emerged from barbarity. He will view her with pleasure, rising after a long night of Gothic darkness, and dispersing by degrees the clouds of ignorance, and the mists of superstition; and he will boast, with a pardonable partiality, that if she has chosen Europe for her temple, she has also selected England for her shrine. - And whilst he contemplates other countries with the discerning eye of impartiality, or bestows on them the language of general commendation, he will admire his own with a glow of generous zeal, and expatiate upon its merits with the warmth of grateful affection. The muse of history, indeed, never appears in a more engaging attitude, than when recommending the actions of their ancestors to the notice of British youth. - The deeds of the brave and the hardy are the best study for the noble and the free, and we are under too many obligations to our ancestors, for the happy effects of their virtues, not to take an early opportunity of knowing more intimately, and admiring more warmly, the excellence of our Constitution, and the wisdom of its Founders. - Such indeed is its excellence, that they, who are best acquainted with all its various parts, will be most interested in its preservation, and it will surely be confessed, that an exact knowledge of the causes to which it owes its rise, and the principles on which it is founded, will be the only means to ensure its continuance, and add the blessing of perpetuity to that monument of human wisdom which best deserves it.


                 < < Previous                                                           List of Issues                                                                  Next > >

Sophia's Home page