As I Was Saying/Essay XXV

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Essay XXIV As I Was Saying
Essay XXV
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXVI



Essay XXV: About Historians

I AM happy to say that there seems to be a real revival of interest in history; but, oddly enough, it does not mainly express itself in histories. It seems to express itself almost entirely in biographies.

There are, of course, several distinguished exceptions; it is good news that so great a scholar as Mr. H. A. L. Fisher has published a History of Europe; and I think that few more compact and convincing pieces of work have been done than Mr. Belloc's abridged History of England. But the fashion of the moment, or the feature of the movement, seems to me to be the publication of separate monographs on separate historical characters. We do not see, for instance, at least in any prominent example, the reappearance of the old full and formal narrative of the great national legend of the Cavaliers and Roundheads; a complete history of the Civil War, with its causes and consequences, set out like a section of a long, complete history of the nation. What we do see on every bookstall, and in every bookcase, is a number of new biographies of the men who once figured almost entirely in such histories. We find that Mr. Belloc writes a book on Charles I; that Mr. Buchan writes a book on Oliver Cromwell; that Mr. Belloc writes another book on Oliver Cromwell; and that another historical student has just written another book on the great Earl of Strafford. I have no doubt that, if I looked through the literary lists in a more systematic manner than it is within the power of my patience and virtue to look through anything, I should find that somebody had written a book on Sir Henry Vane; that somebody else had written a book on Lord Falkland; that somebody else had made a most learned study of Clarendon, but had not imitated Clarendon in writing a history of the Civil War. Now I come to recall it, there was recently a book, if not two books, on John Hampden; and I trust and believe there will always be any number of books on John Milton.

Between them, one would suppose these books would pretty well cover the whole ground that could be covered by a complete history. But, in fact, as compared with a complete history, any number of them must still remain incomplete. There is no conspectus of all these contrasted characters, seen together in the light of the same mind or general philosophy of history; and some of them naturally contradict each other so flatly as to lead rather to confusion than conclusion. A man has some reason for selecting the subject of another man; and the chances are that his reason, even if perfectly reasonable, will be highly personal; and sometimes personal to the point of being perverse. There is always a possible association of a monograph with a monomania. And though many of these books, and especially those I have mentioned, are filled with a real sense of history which goes far beyond mere biography, in the sense of mere gossip, these personal studies may easily involve a certain amount of mere scandal; sometimes involving a temptation to mere slander. Anyhow, either in the best examples or the worst, we can hardly find in biography a substitute for history; or be completely satisfied by looking at the program for the _dramatis personae_ as an alternative to seeing the play.

I wonder nobody has ever written a History of the Histories of England. The historians would themselves be characters in a very entertaining play. Summaries of their treatment of the same subject would have something of the unexpected variety of the versions of the same story in Browning's experiment of _The Ring and the Book._ Anyhow, the historians would be very vivid characters; some of them, to tell the truth, rather comic characters. And we should possess a rather important outline of the actual evolution of political thought or patriotic sentiment, through periods which are none the less important to our national destiny because nearly all of us have forgotten all about them. A very good example of what would strike us as a new truth, merely by being a neglected truth, can be found in the case of David Hume, when he wrote as a historian and not as a philosopher. Huxley revived Hume as a philosopher, in the days of his own fight for Agnosticism and quarrel with Comtism, calling the Scotch sceptic "that prince of agnostics." But I rather doubt whether Huxley would have bothered much about Hume as a historian; for Huxley was very Victorian in many ways, including the Victorian virtues. And, by his time, the whole Victorian world had undergone a profound change in the whole attitude towards history; a change that has rather falsified the whole perspective of the history of history, even of history so recent as Hume's.

Macaulay, after all, was something of a magician, even if he was also something of a cheap and popular conjurer. He was a romancer rather than a liar; at the worst, he was a romancer as well as a liar. That is, he was sincere in his enjoyment of romance, even where it departed furthest from reality. And he did do what the poets can do, though it was said to be what the gods themselves could not do. He did chance the past; he did throw a retrospective glamour over the past of his own Puritan and Parliamentary party; a light that looked like broad daylight, but which had not really shone upon it in its own day. There was a case for the Puritans; but it was a Puritan case. There is still a case for a few fanatics who drink to the Immortal Memory of William of Orange, but it is a fanatical case. It is ending very much as it began, and as it continued to be up to the moment when the magic of Macaulay made it look like mere practical politics or the religion of all sensible men. I mean that, while there was a true enthusiasm in the seventeenth-century sects, it was a sectarian enthusiasm. We may perfectly well sympathize with the heroic virtue of a Brownite or the martyrdom of a Muggletonian, but it must be as we sympathize with a dancing dervish or a wild prophet in the wilderness; and that was about the best that the bulk of England ever felt for the very best of the Puritans. The English, as the English, thought about them as the Romans thought about the Zealots; as the Rationalists thought about the Methodist preachers. One result of this was that the common-sense--or, if you will, commonplace--opinion of the country, for most of the time, was rather Royalist than Roundhead. It was not in the least necessary to be a romantic Cavalier, an old-world Jacobite, a High Churchman, or even a High Tory, in order to be a Royalist. Again and again we find that a Rationalist was a Royalist. Hobbes was a Rationalist, hating every trace and tradition of the old religious sentiment. But Hobbes was a Royalist, in the sense that his despotic theory of the State involved the implication of a royal despot. Indeed, Hobbes was a Hitlerite, and his whole theory of the Totalitarian State turns on a pivot of personal government. Hume was a Rationalist; but in his History of England he was a Royalist.

The most famous or fashionable of the recent monographs is the _Marlborough_ of Mr. Winston Churchill. The author has to sacrifice the Whig historian to the Whig hero. I do not share Mr. Churchill's innocent and child-like piety in the matter of his trust in Marlborough, but I entirely share his distrust of Macaulay. But the matter in which Macaulay has most falsified the past is that I have mentioned; the fashion of supposing that the solid sense of the nation was solid for the Puritans and the Parliament men, with nothing against it but a chivalric but childish memory of the past. Down to very late indeed, it was still the Roundhead who was the crank and the Cavalier who was the regular guy. Dr. Johnson was a Jacobite suspected of being out in the '45; but, right or wrong, he was a more solid and sensible sort of Englishman than Horace Walpole worshipping the Regicides and the death-warrant of Charles I. But the test is Hume. He would have seemed a horrible atheist to the doctor; but he, too, was a Royalist; because he seemed to himself a sensible man.