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March 10, 2013

Ironies of 18th century histories

There is a famous passage in Gibbon, or more likely quite a few of them, where he pours out contempt on the barbarism of Greek Rome, its superstition, is narrow dynastic disputes and barbarian adventurers, its vehemence of doctrine and ruthless factionalism of ecclesiastical controversy, its truculence and treachery and all the sum of middle-age obscurantism, which civilized rationalism, like that of Gibbon, would soon wash away.

Now Gibbon was a great historian and a great master of the English language; his quaint 18th century faith in rationalism, progress, and enlightenment, and his antipathy for Greek and Latin Christianity are small price to pay to sit under his instruction.

More: to imagine a Gibbon bereft of his prejudices is to imagine a Gibbon bereft of his wit, the soul of his masterful prose; one might as well wish for a Michael Jordan that is meek and mild rather than pitiless competitor. Nor could we, without his bigotries, enjoy the great irony that Gibbon’s scorn animates the vigor of his History; that what he tells us is a boring monotony of ecclesial insolence, royalist intrigue, and popular puritanism, he nonetheless shows us is vivid and sprightly tale, memorable in the strange annals of that inexpressible creature called man.

Hume, too, evidences that marvelous 18th century naivety. Near the beginning of his History of England, at the dawn of the Anglo-Saxon age, the great Scotsman holds forth in solemn warning. The reader should beware what comes next:

Wars, therefore, and revolutions and dissensions were unavoidable among a turbulent and military people; and these events, however intricate or confused, ought now to become the objects of our attention. But, added to the difficulty of carrying on at once the history of seven independant kingdoms, there is great discouragement to a writer, arising from the uncertainty, at least barrenness, of the accounts transmitted to us. The Monks, who were the only annalists during those ages, lived remote from public affairs, considered the civil transactions as entirely subordinate to the ecclesiastical, and besides partaking of the ignorance and barbarity, which were then universal, were strongly infected with credulity, with the love of wonder, and with a propensity to imposture; vices almost inseparable from their profession, and manner of life. The history of that period abounds in names, but is extremely barren of events; or the events are related so much without circumstances and causes, that the most profound or most eloquent writer must despair of rendering them either instructive or entertaining to the reader. Even the great learning and vigorous imagination of Milton sunk under the weight; and this author scruples not to declare, that the skirmishes of kites or crows as much merited a particular narrative, as the confused transactions and battles of the Saxon Heptarchy. In order, however, to connect the events in some tolerable measure, we shall give a succinct account of the successions of kings, and of the more remarkable revolutions in each particular kingdom.

There follows an able account of Gregory the Great and the sending of Augustine on his fateful journey to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Hume’s “despair of rendering [events] either instructive or entertaining to the reader” is shown immediately to be misplaced.

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