« PreviousContinue »
as inany and profitable rules for perfecting the stage as any wherewith the French can furnish us.
LIFE OF PLUTARCH.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY.
It may now be expected, that having written the life of an historian, I should take occasion to write somewhat concerning history itself; but I think to commend it is unnecessary, for the profit and pleasure of that study are both so very obvious, that a quick reader will be beforehand with me, and imagine faster than I can write. Besides that, the post is taken up already; and few authors have travelled this way but who have strewed it with rhetoric as they passed. For my own part, who must confess it to my shame that I never read anything but for pleasure, it has always been the most delightful entertainment of my life; but they who have employed the study of it as they ought, for their instruction, for the regulation of their private manners, and the management of public affairs, must agree with me, that it is the most pleasant school of Wisdom. It is a familiarity with past ages, and an acquaintance with all the heroes of them: it is, if you will pardon the similitude, a ?prospective glass carrying your soul to a vast distance, and taking in the farthest objects of antiquity. It informs the understanding by the memory: it helps us to judge of what will happen, by showing us the like revolutions of former times. For mankind being the same in all ages, agitated by the same passions, and moved to action by the same interests, nothing can come to pass but some precedent of the like nature has already been produced ; so that having the causes before our eyes we cannot easily be deceived in the effects, if we have judgment enough but to draw the parallel.
God, it is true, with his divine providence overrules and guides all actions to the secret end he has ordained them ; but in the way of human causes, a wise man may easily discern that there is a natural connection betwixt them: and though he cannot foresee accidents, or all things that possibly can come, he may apply examples, and by
them foretell that from the like counsels will probably succeed the like events;
and thereby in all concernments, and all offices of life, be instructed in the two main points on which depend our happiness —that is, what to avoid, and what to choose.
The laws of history in general are, truth of matter, method and clearness of expression. The first 3 propriety is necessary to keep our understanding from the impositions of falsehood; for history is an argument framed from many particular examples or inductions: if these examples are not true, then those measures of life which we take from them will be false, and deceive us in their consequence. The second is grounded on the former; for if the method be confused, if the words or expressions of thought are any way obscure, then the ideas which we receive must be imperfect: and if such, we are not taught by them what to elect or what to shun. Truth, therefore, is required as the foundation of history, to inform us; 4 disposition and perspicuity, as the manner to inform us plainly: one is the being, the other the well-being of it.
History is principally divided into these three species : commentaries, or annals; history, properly so called; and biographia, or the lives of particular men.
5 Commentaries, or annals, are (as I may so call them) naked history, or the plain relation of matter of fact, according to the succession of time, divested of all other ornaments. The springs and motives of actions are not here sought, unless they offer themselves, and are open to every man's discernment. The method is the most natural that can be imagined, depending only on the observation of months and years, and drawing, in the order of them, whatsoever happened worthy of relation. The style is easy, simple, unforced, and unadorned with the pomp of figures ; counsels, guesses, politic observations, sentences, and orations are avoided : in few words, a bare narration is its business. Of this kind the “Commentaries” of Cæsar are certainly the most admirable ; and after him the “ Annals” of Tacitus may have place; nay, even the prince of Greek historians, Thucydides, may almost be adopted into the number. For though he instructs everywhere by sentences, though he gives the causes of
actions, the counsels of both parties, and makes orations where they are necessary, yet it is certain that he first designed his work a commentary, every year writing down, like an unconcerned spectator as he was, the particular occurrences of the time, in the order as they happened; and bis eighth book is wholly written after the way of annals : though out-living the war, he inserted in his others those ornaments which render his work the most complete and most instructive now extant.
History, properly so called, may be described by the addition of those parts which are not required to annals; and therefore there is little further to be said concerning it, only, that the dignity and gravity of style is here necessary : That the guesses of secret causes inducing to the actions be drawn at least from the most probable circumstances, not perverted by the malignity of the author to sinister interpretations, of which Tacitus is accused,) but candidly laid down, and left to the judgment of the reader : That nothing of concernment be omitted; but things of trivial moment are still to be neglected, as debasing the majesty of the work : That neither partiality nor prejudice appear, but that truth may everywhere be sacred—6“ Ne quid falsi dicere audeat, ne quid veri non audeat historicus :” That he neither incline to superstition, in giving too much credit to oracles, prophecies, divinations, and prodigies; nor to irreligion, in disclaiming the Almighty Providence; but where general opinion has prevailed of any miraculous accident or portent, he ought to relate it as such, without imposing his opinion on our belief. Next to Thucydides, in this kind, may be accounted Polybius amongst the Grecians; Livy, though not free from superstition, nor Tacitus from ill-nature, amongst the Romans; amongst the modern Italians, Guicciardini and Davila, if not partial; but above all men, in my opinion, the plain, sincere, unaffected, and most instructive ?Philip de Comines amongst the French, though he only gives his history the humble name of “Commentaries.” I am sorry I cannot find in our own nation, though it has produced some commendable historians, any proper to be ranked with these. Buchanan, indeed, for the purity of his Latin, and for his learning, and for all other endowments belonging to an his
torian, might be placed amongst the greatest, if he had not too much leaned to prejudice, and too manifestly declared himself a party of a cause, rather than an historian of it. Excepting only that, (which I lesire not to urge too far on so great a man, but only to give caution to his readers concerning it,) our isle may justly boast in him a writer comparable to any of the moderns, and excelled by few of the ancients.
Biographia, or the history of particular men's lives, comes next to be considered ; which in dignity is inferior to the other two, as being more confined in action, and treating of wars and councils, and all other public affairs of nations, only as they relate to him whose life is written, or as his fortunes have a particular dependence on them, or connection to them. All things here are circumscribed and driven to a point, so as to terminate in one; consequently, if the action or council were managed by colleagues, some part of it must be either lanie or wanting, except it be supplied by the excursion of the writer. Herein, likewise, must be less of variety for the same reason; because the fortunes and actions of one man are related, not those of many. Thus the actions and achievements of Sylla, Lucullus, and Pompey, are all of them but the successive parts of the Mithridatic War, of which we could have no perfect image if the same hand had not given us the whole, though at several views, in their particular lives.
Yet though we allow, for the reasons above alleged, that this kind of writing is in dignity inferior to history and annals, in pleasure and instruction it equals or even excels both of them. It is not only commended by ancient practice to celebrate the memory of great and worthy men, as the best thanks which posterity can pay them, but also the examples of virtue are of more vigour when they are thus contracted into individuals. As the sunbeams united in a burningglass to a point, have greater force than when they are darted from a plain superficies, so the virtues and actions of one man, drawn together into a single story, strike upon our minds a stronger and more lively impression than the scattered relations of many men and many actions; and by the same means that they give us pleasure they afford us profit too. For when the understanding is intent (147)
and fixed on a single thing, it carries closer to the mark; every part of the object sinks into it, and the soul receives it unmixed and whole. For this reason Aristotle commends the unity of action in a poem; because the mind is not capable of digesting many things at once, nor of conceiving fully any more than one idea at a time. Whatsoever distracts the pleasure lessens it; and as the reader is more concerned at one man's fortune than those of many, so likewise the writer is more capable of making a perfect work if he confine himself to this narrow compass. The lineaments, features, and colourings of a single picture may be hit exactly; but in a history-piece of many figures, the general design, the 10 ordonnance or disposition of it, the relation of one figure to another, the diversity of the posture, habits, shadowings, and all the other graces conspiring to an uniformity, are of so difficult performance, that neither is the resemblance of particular persons often perfect, nor the beauty of the piece complete; for any considerable error in the parts renders the whole disagreeable and lame. Thus, then, the perfection of the work, and the benefit arising from it, are both more absolute in biography than in history. 11 All history is only the precepts of moral philosophy reduced into examples. Moral philosophy is divided into two parts--ethics and politics : the first instructs us in our private offices of virtue; the second in those which relate to the management of the commonwealth. Both of these teach by argumentation and reasoning, which rush as it were into the mind, and possess it with violence; but history rather allures than forces us to virtue. There is nothing of the tyrant in example; but it gently glides into us, is easy and pleasant in its passage, and, in one word, reduces into practice our speculative notions : therefore the more powerful the examples are, they are the more useful also ; and by being more known, they are more powerful. Now unity, which is defined, is in its own nature more apt to be understood than multiphcity, which in some measure participates of infinity. The reason is Aristotle's.
Biographia, or the histories of particular lives, though circumscribed in the subject, is yet more extensive in the style than the other two; for it not only comprehends them both, but has somewhat