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A LECTURE ON THE STUDY OF HISTORY


MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED
LONDON . BOMBAY . CALCUTTA
MELBOURNE

THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
NEW YORK . BOSTON . CHICAGO
ATLANTA . SAN FRANCISCO

THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD.
TORONTO




A LECTURE
ON
THE STUDY OF HISTORY

_DELIVERED AT CAMBRIDGE,
JUNE 11, 1895_

BY

LORD ACTON
LL.D., D.C.L.
REGIUS PROFESSOR OF MODERN HISTORY


MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED
ST. MARTIN'S STREET, LONDON
1911


RICHARD CLAY AND SONS, LIMITED,
BRUNSWICK STREET, STAMFORD STREET, S. E.,
AND BUNGAY, SUFFOLK

_First Edition, October, 1895.
Second Edition, January, 1896.
Reprinted, 1905, 1911._




FELLOW STUDENTS,

I look back to-day to a time before the middle of the century, when I
was reading at Edinburgh, and fervently wishing to come to this
University. At three colleges I applied for admission, and, as things
then were, I was refused by all. Here, from the first, I vainly fixed
my hopes, and here, in a happier hour, after five-and-forty years,
they are at last fulfilled.

[Sidenote: UNITY OF MODERN HISTORY]

I desire first to speak to you of that which I may reasonably call the
Unity of Modern History, as an easy approach to questions necessary
to be met on the threshold by any one occupying this place, which my
predecessor has made so formidable to me by the reflected lustre of
his name.

You have often heard it said that Modern History is a subject to which
neither beginning nor end can be assigned. No beginning, because the
dense web of the fortunes of man is woven without a void; because, in
society as in nature, the structure is continuous, and we can trace
things back uninterruptedly, until we dimly descry the Declaration of
Independence in the forests of Germany. No end, because, on the same
principle, history made and history making are scientifically
inseparable and separately unmeaning.

[Sidenote: LINK BETWEEN HISTORY AND POLITICS]

“Politics,” said Sir John Seeley, “are vulgar when they are not
liberalised by history, and history fades into mere literature when
it loses sight of its relation to practical politics.” Everybody
perceives the sense in which this is true. For the science of politics
is the one science that is deposited by the stream of history, like
grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past,
the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical,
as an instrument of action, and a power that goes to the making of the
future.[1] In France, such is the weight attached to the study of our
own time, that there is an appointed course of contemporary history,
with appropriate textbooks.[2] That is a chair which, in the
progressive division of labour by which both science and government
prosper,[3] may some day be founded in this country. Meantime, we do
well to acknowledge the points at which the two epochs diverge. For
the contemporary differs from the modern in this, that many of its
facts cannot by us be definitely ascertained. The living do not give
up their secrets with the candour of the dead; one key is always
excepted, and a generation passes before we can ensure accuracy.
Common report and outward seeming are bad copies of the reality, as
the initiated know it. Even of a thing so memorable as the war of
1870, the true cause is still obscure; much that we believed has been
scattered to the winds in the last six months, and further revelations
by important witnesses are about to appear. The use of history turns
far more on certainty than on abundance of acquired information.

Beyond the question of certainty is the question of detachment. The
process by which principles are discovered and appropriated is other
than that by which, in practice, they are applied; and our most sacred
and disinterested convictions ought to take shape in the tranquil
regions of the air, above the tumult and the tempest of active
life.[4] For a man is justly despised who has one opinion in history
and another in politics, one for abroad and another at home, one for
opposition and another for office. History compels us to fasten on
abiding issues, and rescues us from the temporary and transient.
Politics and history are interwoven, but are not commensurate. Ours is
a domain that reaches farther than affairs of state, and is not
subject to the jurisdiction of governments. It is our function to keep
in view and to command the movement of ideas, which are not the
effect but the cause of public events;[5] and even to allow some
priority to ecclesiastical history over civil, since, by reason of the
graver issues concerned, and the vital consequences of error, it
opened the way in research, and was the first to be treated by close
reasoners and scholars of the higher rank.[6]

[Sidenote: NOT GOVERNED BY NATIONAL CAUSES]

In the same manner, there is wisdom and depth in the philosophy which
always considers the origin and the germ, and glories in history as
one consistent epic.[7] Yet every student ought to know that mastery
is acquired by resolved limitation. And confusion ensues from the
theory of Montesquieu and of his school, who, adapting the same term
to things unlike, insist that freedom is the primitive condition of
the race from which we are sprung.[8] If we are to account mind not
matter, ideas not force, the spiritual property that gives dignity,
and grace, and intellectual value to history, and its action on the
ascending life of man, then we shall not be prone to explain the
universal by the national, and civilisation by custom.[9] A speech of
Antigone, a single sentence of Socrates, a few lines that were
inscribed on an Indian rock before the Second Punic War, the footsteps
of a silent yet prophetic people who dwelt by the Dead Sea, and
perished in the fall of Jerusalem, come nearer to our lives than the
ancestral wisdom of barbarians who fed their swine on the Hercynian
acorns.

[Sidenote: MEDIÆVAL LIMIT OF MODERN HISTORY]

For our present purpose, then, I describe as modern history that which
begins four hundred years ago, which is marked off by an evident and
intelligible line from the time immediately preceding, and displays
in its course specific and distinctive characteristics of its own.[10]
The modern age did not proceed from the mediæval by normal succession,
with outward tokens of legitimate descent. Unheralded, it founded a
new order of things, under a law of innovation, sapping the ancient
reign of continuity. In those days Columbus subverted the notions of
the world, and reversed the conditions of production, wealth and
power; in those days, Machiavelli released government from the
restraint of law; Erasmus diverted the current of ancient learning
from profane into Christian channels; Luther broke the chain of
authority and tradition at the strongest link; and Copernicus erected
an invincible power that set for ever the mark of progress upon the
time that was to come. There is the same unbound originality and
disregard for inherited sanctions in the rare philosophers as in the
discovery of Divine Right, and the intruding Imperialism of Rome. The
like effects are visible everywhere, and one generation beheld them
all. It was an awakening of new life; the world revolved in a
different orbit, determined by influences unknown before. After many
ages persuaded of the headlong decline and impending dissolution of
society,[11] and governed by usage and the will of masters who were in
their graves, the sixteenth century went forth armed for untried
experience, and ready to watch with hopefulness a prospect of
incalculable change.

[Sidenote: INFLUENCE OF KNOWLEDGE ON MODERN HISTORY]

That forward movement divides it broadly from the older world; and the
unity of the new is manifest in the universal spirit of investigation
and discovery which did not cease to operate, and withstood the
recurring efforts of reaction, until, by the advent of the reign of
general ideas which we call the Revolution, it at length
prevailed.[12] This successive deliverance and gradual passage, for
good and evil, from subordination to independence is a phenomenon of
primary import to us, because historical science has been one of its
instruments.[13] If the Past has been an obstacle and a burden,
knowledge of the Past is the safest and the surest emancipation. And
the earnest search for it is one of the signs that distinguish the
four centuries of which I speak from those that went before. The
middle ages, which possessed good writers of contemporary narrative,
were careless and impatient of older fact. They became content to be
deceived, to live in a twilight of fiction, under clouds of false
witness, inventing according to convenience, and glad to welcome the
forger and the cheat.[14] As time went on, the atmosphere of
accredited mendacity thickened, until, in the Renaissance, the art of
exposing falsehood dawned upon keen Italian minds. It was then that
history as we understand it began to be understood, and the
illustrious dynasty of scholars arose to whom we still look both for
method and material. Unlike the dreaming prehistoric world, ours knows
the need and the duty to make itself master of the earlier times, and
to forfeit nothing of their wisdom or their warnings,[15] and has
devoted its best energy and treasure to the sovereign purpose of
detecting error and vindicating entrusted truth.[16]

[Sidenote: INTERNATIONAL IDEAS]

[Sidenote: MEMORABLE MEN]

[Sidenote: INDEPENDENT MINDS]

In this epoch of full-grown history men have not acquiesced in the
given conditions of their lives.



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