Page images

would have found some connecting link. Livy and Tacitus have more merit in this respect, and, as narrative historians, are good models in the selection and arrangement of facts.

2. Fidelity as a trait of the historian.

Cicero has said that two things are incumbent on the historian-to avoid stating what is false, and fully and fairly to place before us the truth. These two things the historian professes to do, and fidelity implies that he is true to his professions. He promises us the results of careful, thorough, fair investigation; and, if he is faithful, he seeks access to every possible source of knowledge, and free from carelessness and indolence, makes a fair use of the materials he may obtain. Fidelity further implies, that a writer does not designedly deceive us. It is indeed hardly to be supposed, that any one wishing to obtain confidence as a writer of history, should designedly deceive. But it is not enough that a historian may not have designed misrepresentations laid to his charge; he must be free from the influence of prejudice, and his statements must be fairly made. In philosophical history, there is frequently strong temptation to misrepresent, and so various and apparently unimportant are the ways in which this may be done, that there is much need of watchfulness. The selection of some facts in preference to others—the dwelling on favourite views of subjects—the manner of representing facts, and even the epithets used, may give a decided cast to a historical statement, and strongly manifest the bias of the writer's mind. We almost expect, that when a historian writes of his own country, or attempts to account for the origin, and to exhibit the nature of those political or religious opinions, which he himself is accustomed to maintain or oppose, he will be partial. From this source, no doubt, arise the greatest defects in Hume's History of England. Sometimes, also, the influence of cherished

opinions will be felt, when writing the history of an extinct nation, and with which the historian himself has no connexion. Thus Gibbon's infidelity has coloured his representations of what pertains to the Christian religion. In the same manner, Mitford's monarchical principles are seen in the account of the democracy of Athens, given in his "History of Greece." In fact, such are the subjects on which the philosophical historian is called to pronounce an opinion, so connected are they, either directly or indirectly with his own private views and opinions, that we can hardly expect more than an approximation to uncorrupted truth. The historian should be a man of no party, either in politics or religion, of no partialities or aversions, with no avowed or secret aim but naked truth; and rarely indeed can such a man be found.

3. Style of historical writings.

In examining a historical production of modern times, we find that there is a diversity in its different parts, requiring variety in the style in which it is written. Some portions are simply narrative; others argumentative. There are found relations of striking and imposing occurrences, and descriptions of natural scenery and of works of art. Some histories also contain descriptions of men, or character painting. Here evidently is occasion for variety of style. Narration and argument require chasteness and simplicity. Descriptive writing allows a wider range to the imagination. This is in fact a species of historical painting; and though it must be true to the original, it admits of the adornings of fancy.

It may be said of the style of history, that it should have simplicity and gravity. Instruction is the appropriate employment of the historic muse; still she would allure us to the study of the lessons which she teaches. She may well be styled a matron among the muses; and the words which she utters, and the aspect which she

wears, are those of maternal simplicity and endearment. It is well known, that ancient historians proposed the amusement of their readers as a prominent object of their efforts. When Herodotus wrote, he had in immediate view the assembled throng at the Olympic games. Indeed it may be said, that histories are among the most polished and elegant productions of ancient literature. And even now that History and Philosophy are found in alliance, much of the polish and elegance of former times is retained.

In tracing the progress of historical writings, we are led to notice varieties in their form, which occur at successive periods. The earliest records of nations belong to their poetry, and the connexion between epic poetry and narrative history is close. This is seen, not only in the style, but in the incidents narrated. Such are the marvellous exploits of heroes; uncommon and striking occurrences; and events, both in the natural and moral world, approaching the miraculous. Amusement, and not instruction, is evidently a leading design of the writer. The resemblance between ancient histories and modern historical novels is striking. Both aim to carry us back to former periods, and to present to our view the scenes which then transpired. Of these ancient histories, few have come down to us. Herodotus is usually placed in this class, though the accuracy of his geographical statements, and the amount of true information which he gives, might entitle him to a higher rank.

In the next period, are placed, those properly styled, narrative historians. In these writings, we find true accounts of occurrences distinctly and fully stated in regular succession. The course of the narrative, and the style, are natural and easy. There has apparently been little effort on the part of the writer, and little is required on our part in following him. It is a plain, easy route, and we advance along it pleasantly, gathering instruction


as we proceed. Xenophon among the Greek, and Livy among the Latin historians, may be mentioned as excelling in this form of historical writing. The easy, artless, natural manner, which characterizes their works, and the simple story which they tell, are fitted to excite grateful emotions, and highly recommend them to all their readers.

In the third class of historical writers, we perceive the beginnings of philosophical history. The writers indulge in some remarks on the events which they relate. They begin also to regard occurrences in their connexion with each other. Still there is not found any guiding, leading principle, which runs through their works; neither is there displayed that knowledge of politics and of man, which is found in philosophical history. Thucydides and Tacitus, especially the latter, are admirable instances of this class of historians.

The transition from such writers as Thucydides and Tacitus to philosophical history, is easy. Some of the Italian writers lay claim to be regarded as the earliest philosophical historians. Machiavelli particularly is mentioned, as uniting the elegance and poetry of ancient history with the wisdom and gravity of philosophy. But it is to English literature that we are to look for models in historical writing. Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon,

are masters in the art.

BIOGRAPHY is a branch of Historical writing, being designed to place before us the characters, and important events in the lives of distinguished individuals. It is a kind of writing, which from the subjects on which it is employed, excites much interest. The reader expects to see how an individual has conducted himself in scenes, the same perhaps, or similar to those, with which he himself is conversant. At least, he desires to have exhibited before him the workings of the human mind, the views and feelings of one of like passions with himself.

He wishes to learn something of the private character, and of the retired hours of one, who, as an actor in the more public scenes of life, or as an author and a scholar, has been the object of his admiration. The following practical directions may be given, to aid those who make attempts in this species of composition.

1. In the selection of incidents to be narrated, the writer of Biography should confine himself to what is closely connected with the subject of his memoirs. In this way, the expectations of the intelligent reader will be satisfied. A student does not take up a biography, that he may read a collection of anecdotes, or that he may acquaint himself with the history of a particular period, but he expects to learn the history and views of an individual, and to acquaint himself with the history of the times, so far only as this individual is concerned.

The effect of neglecting this caution, by giving notices of other individuals, merely because they lived at the same time, and by introducing narrations of other events, because they happened at the same period, is to render a biography tedious and uninteresting.

2. A second direction is, to present a just statement of facts, and a fair view of character ;—let neither partiality nor aversion be discovered.

Memoirs are most frequently written by the particular friends and associates of those, whose characters are described. The public are aware of this circumstance, and make allowances for the partialities of friendship. But if the eulogium is excessive, and the writer indulges himself in praise and high commendation, a different effect from that designed is frequently produced. It is much safer to state facts, and leave the reader to make his own inferences, and reflections. We always suspect weakness, where there is an effort to appear strong.

3. The style of Biographies should be characterized by ease and perspicuity. The story should need no

« PreviousContinue »