Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary
Part III, Essay VI
OF THE STUDY OF HISTORY*33
I may indeed be told, that the fair sex have no such aversion to history, as I have represented, provided it be secret history, and contain some memorable transaction proper to excite their curiosity. But as I do not find that truth, which is the basis of history, is at all regarded in those anecdotes, I cannot admit of this as a proof of their passion for that study. However this may be, I see not why the same curiosity might not receive a more proper direction, and lead them to desire accounts of those who lived in past ages, as well as of their cotemporaries. What is it to CLEORA, whether FULVIA entertains a secret commerce of Love with PHILANDER or not? Has she not equal reason to be pleased, when she is informed (what is whispered about among historians) that CATO'S sister had an intrigue with CÆSAR, and palmed her son, MARCUS BRUTUS, upon her husband for his own, tho' in reality he was her gallant's? And are not the loves of MESSALINA or JULIA as proper subjects of discourse as any intrigue that this city has produced of late years?*34
But I know not whence it comes, that I have been thus seduced into a kind of raillery against the ladies: Unless, perhaps, it proceed from the same cause, which makes the person, who is the favourite of the company, be often the object of their good-natured jests and pleasantries. We are pleased to address ourselves after any manner, to one who is agreeable to us; and, at the same time, presume, that nothing will be taken amiss by a person, who is secure of the good opinion and affections of every one present. I shall now proceed to handle my subject more seriously, and shall point out the many advantages, which flow from the study of history, and show how well suited it is to every one, but particularly to those who are debarred the severer studies, by the tenderness of their complexion,° and the weakness of their education. The advantages found in history seem to be of three kinds, as it amuses the fancy, as it improves the understanding, and as it strengthens virtue.
In reality, what more agreeable entertainment to the mind, than to be transported into the remotest ages of the world, and to observe human society, in its infancy, making the first faint essays° towards the arts and sciences: To see the policy of government, and the civility of conversation refining by degrees, and every thing which is ornamental to human life advancing towards its perfection. To remark the rise, progress, declension, and final extinction of the most flourishing empires: The virtues, which contributed to their greatness, and the vices, which drew on their ruin. In short, to see all human race, from the beginning of time, pass, as it were, in review before us; appearing in their true colours, without any of those disguises, which, during their life-time, so much perplexed the judgment of the beholders. What spectacle can be imagined, so magnificent, so various, so interesting? What amusement, either of the senses or imagination, can be compared with it? Shall those trifling pastimes, which engross so much of our time, be preferred as more satisfactory, and more fit to engage our attention? How perverse must that taste be, which is capable of so wrong a choice of pleasures?
But history is a most improving part of knowledge, as well as an agreeable amusement; and a great part of what we commonly call Erudition, and value so highly, is nothing but an acquaintance with historical facts. An extensive knowledge of this kind belongs to men of letters; but I must think it an unpardonable ignorance in persons of whatever sex or condition, not to be acquainted with the history of their own country, together with the histories of ancient GREECE and ROME. A woman may behave herself with good manners, and have even some vivacity in her turn of wit; but where her mind is so unfurnished, 'tis impossible her conversation can afford any entertainment to men of sense and reflection.
I must add, that history is not only a valuable part of knowledge, but opens the door to many other parts, and affords materials to most of the sciences. And indeed, if we consider the shortness of human life, and our limited knowledge, even of what passes in our own time, we must be sensible that we should be for ever children in understanding, were it not for this invention, which extends our experience to all past ages, and to the most distant nations; making them contribute as much to our improvement in wisdom, as if they had actually lain under our observation. A man acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.
There is also an advantage in that experience which is acquired by history, above what is learned by the practice of the world, that it brings° us acquainted with human affairs, without diminishing in the least from the most delicate sentiments of virtue. And, to tell the truth, I know not any study or occupation so unexceptionable as history in this particular. Poets can paint virtue in the most charming colours; but, as they address themselves entirely to the passions, they often become advocates for vice. Even philosophers are apt to bewilder themselves in the subtilty of their speculations; and we have seen some go so far as to deny the reality of all moral distinctions. But I think it a remark worthy the attention of the speculative, that the historians have been, almost without exception, the true friends of virtue, and have always represented it in its proper colours, however they may have erred in their judgments of particular persons. MACHIAVEL himself discovers a true sentiment of virtue in his history of FLORENCE. When he talks as a Politician, in his general reasonings, he considers poisoning, assassination and perjury, as lawful arts of power; but when he speaks as an Historian, in his particular narrations, he shows so keen an indignation against vice, and so warm an approbation of virtue, in many passages, that I could not forbear applying to him that remark of HORACE, That if you chace away nature, tho' with ever so great indignity, she will always return upon you.*35 Nor is this combination of historians in favour of virtue at all difficult to be accounted for. When a man of business enters into life and action, he is more apt to consider the characters of men, as they have relation to his interest, than as they stand in themselves; and has his judgment warped on every occasion by the violence of his passion. When a philosopher contemplates characters and manners in his closet, the general abstract view of the objects leaves the mind so cold and unmoved, that the sentiments of nature have no room to play, and he scarce feels the difference between vice and virtue. History keeps in a just medium betwixt these extremes, and places the objects in their true point of view. The writers of history, as well as the readers, are sufficiently interested in the characters and events, to have a lively sentiment of blame or praise; and, at the same time, have no particular interest or concern to pervert their judgment.
Veræ voces tum demum pectore ab imo
Notes for this chapter
[This essay appeared in the first edition of Essays, Moral and Political, 1741, and in subsequent editions up to and including Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, 1760, after which it was withdrawn.]
[Cato's stepsister Servilia was for a time Julius Caesar's mistress. This led to the rumor that Caesar was the real father of Brutus. Valeria Messalina, at the age of fourteen, married her second cousin Claudius, then forty-eight, shortly before his accession as emperor. She was notorious for her sexual profligacy and even went so far as to celebrate a marriage with Gaius Silius while the emperor was away from Rome. Messalina and Silius were put to death in A.D. 48 at the behest of Narcissus, Claudius's private secretary.
Julia, the only daughter of Emperor Augustus, was married to Tiberius in 11 B.C. At last in 2 B.C., her father, learning of her adulterous conduct, sent her into exile, where she died in A.D. 14. Hume might be referring instead, however, to Julia, Caligula's sister, who was banished in 39 A.D. for adultery with her brother-in-law. After she was restored by Claudius, Messalina accused her of adultery with Seneca. She was banished once more and soon after put to death.]
[Horace, Epistles 1.10.24-25: "Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret, et mala perrumpet furtim fastidia victrix": "You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she will ever hurry back, and, ere you know it, will burst through your foolish contempt in triumph" (Loeb translation by H. Rushton Fairclough).]
[Lucretius, The Nature of Things 3.57-58: "... only then are the words of truth drawn up from the very heart ..." (Loeb translation by Martin Ferguson Smith). The context of these words is the poet's observation that we can best discern what kind of person someone is in a time of adversity, when he is in danger or peril.]
Part III, Essay VII
End of Notes
Return to top