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[FOOTNOTE: The History of Charlemagne; with a Sketch, and History of France from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Rise of the Carlovingian Dynasty. By G.P.R. JAMES, Esq. VOL. II.]


History is sometimes treated under the splendid conception of ‘philosophy teaching by example,’ and sometimes as an ‘old almanac;’ and, agreeably to this latter estimate, we once heard a celebrated living professor of medicine, who has been since distinguished by royal favor, and honored with a title, making it his boast, that he had never charged his memory with one single historical fact; that, on the contrary, he had, out of profound contempt for a sort of knowledge so utterly without value in his eyes, anxiously sought to extirpate from his remembrance,–or, if that were impossible, to perplex and confound,–any relics of historical records which might happen to survive from his youthful studies. ‘And I am happy to say,’ added he, ‘and it is consoling to have it in my power conscientiously to declare, that, although I have not been able to dismiss entirely from my mind some ridiculous fact about a succession of four great monarchies, (for human infirmity still clings to our best efforts, and will forever prevent our attaining perfection,) still I have happily succeeded in so far confounding all distinctions of things and persons, of time and of places, that I could not assign the era of any one transaction, as I humbly trust, within a thousand years. The whole vast series of history is become a wilderness to me; and my mind, as to all such absurd knowledge, under the blessing of Heaven, is pretty nearly a tabula rasa.’ In this Gothic expression of self-congratulation upon the extent of his own ignorance, though doubtless founded upon what the Germans call an einseitig or one-sided estimate, there was however that sort of truth which is apprehended only by strong minds, and such as naturally adhere to extreme courses. Certainly the blank knowledge of facts, which is all that most readers gather from their historical studies, is a mere deposition of rubbish without cohesion, and resting upon no basis of theory (that is, of general comprehensive survey) applied to the political development of nations, and accounting for the great stages of their internal movements. Rightly and profitably to understand history, it ought to be studied in as many ways as it may be written. History, as a composition, falls into three separate arrangements, obeying three distinct laws, and addressing itself to three distinct objects. Its first and humblest office is to deliver a naked unadorned exposition of public events and their circumstances. This form of history may be styled the purely Narrative; the second form is that which may be styled the Scenical; and the third the Philosophic. What is meant by Philosophic History, is well understood in our present advanced state of society; and few histories are written except in the simplest condition of human culture, which do not in part assume its functions, or which are content to rest their entire attraction upon the abstract interest of facts. The privileges of this form have, however, been greatly abused; and the truth of facts has been so much forced to bend before preconceived theories, whereas every valid theory ought to be abstracted from the facts, that Mr. Southey and others in this day have set themselves to decry the whole genus and class–as essentially at war with the very primary purposes of the art. But, under whatever name, it is evident that philosophy, or an investigation of the true moving forces in every great train and sequence of national events, and an exhibition of the motives and the moral consequences in their largest extent which have concurred with these events, cannot be omitted in any history above the level of a childish understanding. Mr. Southey himself will be found to illustrate this necessity by his practice, whilst assailing it in principle. As to the other mode of history–history treated scenically, it is upon the whole the most delightful to the reader, and the most susceptible of art and ornament in the hands of a skilful composer. The most celebrated specimen in this department is the Decline and Fall of Gibbon. And to this class may in part [Footnote 1] be referred the Historical Sketches of Voltaire. Histories of this class proceed upon principles of selection, presupposing in the reader a general knowledge of the great cardinal incidents, and bringing forward into especial notice those only which are susceptible of being treated with distinguished effect.