Project Canterbury

Literary Remains of J. H. Shorthouse
edited by His Wife

London: Macmillan, 1905


And indeed it were somewhat strange, as well as sad, if a person disposed and accustomed to observe and consider, conversing with such instructive books as those of God's creatures and His providence, with an intention to take out practical lessons, should not find them.--ROBERT BOYLE'S Occasional Reflections, sect. iv. chap. i.

THE question whether the study of history is a useful and improving one--a question which I have heard argued m the negative by very sensible and intelligent persons--must surely be only part of a much wider question, viz. whether it be wise to engage in any mental study of any kind. For the object of any study can only be the knowledge of ourselves, our duties, and our powers; and in the endeavour after this knowledge, that science which tells us the deeds and thoughts, the beliefs and attempts, the successes and failures, of our own kind who have lived before us on the earth must without doubt greatly assist us. That there is a want of mathematical proof of the exact amount of the benefit which we have derived from the study of history is not more than may be said of any study whatever, except the learning of those arts by which we either gain our bread or maintain our bodies in health.

I think we may take it for granted that the study of history is a useful and ennobling one; that it raises us from the merely animal life of the present moment, and from the petty sympathies of our mediocre natures, to an existence in many distant ages, and to a friendship and a sympathy with the highest and noblest of our race; and that it gives us all, what few of us otherwise would ever have, the spectacle of what human nature really is, and what it can be, when circumstances combine (which they so seldom do) with the aspirations and powers of the heart and intellect, and produce an actor, on the stage of the world's theatre, who commands for ever the love and admiration of mankind.

The great evil which has befallen the science of history is that its professors have been too fond of particular theories of their own. From the first dawn of history its facts have only been taken to support the favourite theories of different historians. Those who considered themselves the exponents of Biblical truth have arranged them all in one phalanx; and the opposite party, the party of free inquiry, have too often forgotten their oft-repeated boast that they at least had nothing to do with theories, and sought only to discover the truth, and have arranged the facts (and even in some cases unblushingly falsified them) so that they might appear in that order which they supposed would be most damaging to their opponents; and while insisting strongly on the changes of opinion, as showing the instability of their opponents' position, have too often forgotten that their own assertions stand on very doubtful proof, and are very likely to be superseded in their turn. If we are to argue at all on such uncertain data, it is surely as fair to argue on the passing opinion of the day m favour of Revelation as against it; but those (seeming) facts which tell in its favour are depreciated as ephemeral, while those which seem to go against it, though perhaps equally unsettled, are received with avidity.

One of the acknowledged facts of our earliest history, which perhaps has been the cause of more theories than any other, is the similarity in the traditions and theologies of the most widely separated nations. The believers in a common origin of mankind (to which belief, indeed, most inquiry tends) have not considered this fact sufficient to account for so remarkable a similarity, but have started the most different, and in some cases extraordinary, theories. Nations have been sent flying about the earth like the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, and the supposed journeys of the ten lost tribes of Israel might have formed the originals for the traditionary ones of the Wandering Jew himself. Even now these theories have not ceased, one having been recently started which places them in the north of Scotland, while the tribe of Dan was settled in Ireland, and both received visits from fellow Jews--missionaries of Buddha--who had previously been converted to that religion in India!

Setting aside all theories, there appears something unphilosophical, and almost childish, in this endeavour to account for every similarity of tradition and habit of thought by theories of personal intercourse and conversation with men of other nations. Taking for granted, what modern science as well as orthodox antiquity would seem to teach, that men originally came from one parent stock, is it not more rational to take such coincidences as the natural result of the workings of a common human intellect, originally fallen, it is at least most pleasant to believe, from a high source?

Taking a few of these coincidences, we find in most nations a vague tradition of a dimly seen, a powerful, and a magnanimous Divinity, precedent to the ordinary gods of their current worship; and in the Scandinavian theology we even read of a time when this Divinity shall resume his sway, and rule triumphant over a new heaven and a new earth, not peopled, however (that glorious vision being reserved for Christianity), with a risen and purified humanity.

This belief is to be traced in a very interesting way in the Hellenic mind and writings. The Hellenic intellect, though always given to a species of worship (often amounting to no more than an expression of admiration and of thanks for benefits received) of an infinite number of objects, animate and inanimate, had yet in its higher development and aspirations a strong tendency towards unity, and (as also in the Scandinavian theology) this tendency took the form of one predominating Power or Deity--of one God, in fact--manifested to those old seekers after Him in that attribute which appeared most prominent in their experience of life--Fate or Inavertable Necessity: "Fate," as Homer says, "whom none avoid, whoever is born." The Stoics held that fate was superior to all the gods, and the conviction at which Herodotus had arrived after a long, patient, and most intelligent inquiry into, and study of, the different forms of life, and the various opinions of the people, of his time, was of the absolute existence of a Power, which he calls "the Deity," who governed the world upon fixed principles of His own, and whom the generally known and worshipped gods had no power to change or to divert or to persuade; and who took a peculiar pleasure in helping and advancing the poor and wretched, and in debasing and casting down those of great estate, almost using the words of the Magnificat: "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek." And although it is true that the old Greek thought he saw, in the actions of this Omnipotent Ruler, some signs of human capriciousness and jealousy, and probably was far from understanding the "humble and meek" of the earth in the Christian sense (a sense which it required Christ Himself to teach), yet we may not be hard upon him for this, while some religious opinions concerning the Providence and Character of God exist amongst ourselves, and while the true meaning of those words is not always understood even by us.

We find also in most nations a well-defined tradition of some primeval and supreme conflict--a conflict between gods and inferior demons, or between gods and men themselves,--and it is curious that, although these traditions are among the earliest of our history, there is no mention of the expulsion of the evil angels from heaven in the Book of Genesis, seeming to prove that the Gentile nations could not have received this tradition from the Jews. It would be a very curious study to trace this belief from what some have believed to have been its origin--the presence of the gigantic Saurians in the oolite rocks, through all the Gentile theologies down to Milton, in connection with such passages in the Bible as speak of the "war in heaven," most of which, occurring in the Book of Revelation, are confused in our minds with the primeval expulsion of Satan and his angels; and to see how much of the belief of orthodox minds on this latter subject is formed from the Paradise Lost, the ideas of which Milton is said to have borrowed wholesale from a Greek poem of the fifth century called the Dionysiaca, descriptive of the Titanic War.

Another of these general traditions is the horror of the pollution of blood, or of dead bodies, and of the fatal consequences of the defilement of sacred places thereby. This idea is seen all through the Old Testament and the Greek poets and tragedies, and attains its fullest development in a noble tradition of the Scandinavian mythology, in which the gods, having their mortal enemy, the Daemon Loc, in their power, and in spite of the foreknowledge they possess that ultimately he will destroy them all, refuse to slay him, lest they should defile their holy cities with blood.

We have already seen that, according to one theory, the existence of the geologic relics of the pre-adamite world was known to the ancients, and was the groundwork of one of their most universal traditions, and it would really appear that they were not unacquainted with the geologic periods and convulsions. Their poets have described the desolation of more than one of these periods in their chaos, and the

Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,

appear not only to have been known to these old poets, but to have profoundly impressed their imagination.

These traditions are not mere coincidences--much less are they, I think, the result of direct communication by word of mouth and teaching; they form one of the strongest proofs of the common origin of our race, not so much because of the resemblances themselves, which might be accidental, or arise from many causes, but because in them and through them we can see the same mind working, the same ideas, the same ignorance, the same desire for instruction. When we consider how very little the nations after the Flood knew probably of the nature of God, or of their own origin, we cannot be very far wrong if we look on the earliest inhabitants of the first peopled countries, Syria, Greece, and Egypt, as men set down in the earth like little children in a large garden, perfectly ignorant of the meaning and powers of the objects they saw around them, with no instructor (or at least with One only very darkly understood), with no guide but their own senses; and who, partly from the daily additions they made to their experience of facts, but very largely by the uncontrolled wanderings and dreamings of their intellect (wandering at large among beautiful and wonderful things, as all things seem beautiful and wonderful to a child), built up that structure of theology, poetry, tradition, history, physics, and ethics which has such a charm for us now, as being human nature very nearly by itself--human nature, perhaps, under its most picturesque aspect.

I say human nature almost by itself, because we have very high authority, as well as very sufficient proof from ancient literature itself, that the Divine Spirit did not leave the world, throughout all these ages, totally without some portion of its indwelling, but that God left Himself a witness, not only in the free bounties of Nature, but by half-understood promptings in the secret chambers of the human heart itself; making much of the history and writings of the classic ages sound more like allegory than history or philosophy.

If we allow ourselves fully to realise the childlike and totally unoccupied state of the human mind in these early ages, I think we shall understand many peculiarities both in ancient and modern history, because this state continued in a very great degree to very recent times. Revelation only touched very slightly upon man's intellect, or upon his knowledge of his dwelling-place, and the writings of the seventeenth century show no great dissimilarity to those of Greece and Rome. The most remarkable of the effects of this state of things is the prominence and importance it gave to individual character and action. From the Homeric poems downward, this is what gives such an interest and picturesqueness to history, to almost within our own age; and the absence of this makes history now so dull, and its future prospects so dreary. Formerly individual human interest was supreme: ascertained facts were very few, and those few of a nature (such as death) that added to, rather than detracted from, individual prominence and influence; now facts are everything--science is crushing individuality out of the world; we live and move scientifically and in masses; we may be said to think by machinery and steam; there is no scope for individual action; the science of law fixes exactly what every man is to do, and that every man is to do very much alike (or rather we should say that the necessities of our modern life oblige us to submit to such a science of law). Nothing separates history from our own era so much as this want of commanding individual interest. The leading men of to-day do not excite the same feelings in their contemporaries that the hero of two centuries or more ago did, nor will they ever excite the same feelings in the readers of history. The nature of the age is against them, their own education is against them, their very virtues are against them. Our great men are men of cabinets and diplomacy, men of theories and principles (often beneficent ones), men of correspondence and blue-books; but they are not men of personal action, and never can rival those of old in commanding individual interest or admiration. The age, indeed, would not endure heroes. A king who, at the head of his armies, took the field now for "the glory of God and the relief of man's estate" would be looked upon with the greatest suspicion. If Gustavus Adolphus or John Frederic of Saxony (Luther's friend) were now for the first time to appear on the European stage, the story they would leave in history would be very different from what it was; yet more noble characters, more favoured and drawn out by circumstances into striking development, it would be hard to find. No careers dazzle and excite, no individual characters absorb, no events stun, the sense of Europe like the Crusades, like the person of Charles the Fifth or Gustavus, like the defeats and death of Charles the Bold of Burgundy. The interest of these events was heightened by every ornament which outward circumstances could bestow. Everything at once and naturally mellowed itself into romance; every man's action, however common, was picturesque; there was not a house in Europe, not a dress, not an implement in daily use, not an occupation or custom or habit of the people, but which, whatever fault may be found with it, was at least this--picturesque. Picturesqueness in fact and individuality are the same things, for picturesqueness always accompanies individual thought and action and their productions, and it is the working of abstract laws upon masses of men which destroys the picturesque. This question is much more important than at first sight it looks, for it accompanies us as we go back to the earliest dawn of European life--to the Homeric poems, and it assists us towards an understanding of the great question, whether any advance, or indeed any alteration, has taken place in the individual mental standard of mankind. For the united efforts of great minds having produced civilisation, and as one consequence, raised the minds of multitudes to an approximation to the highest standard, it is to individual minds then and now that we must look for an answer to that question; and as in questions of human civilisation these considerations take an important place, so in questions of the religious life of our race they occupy one not less so. For if we put on one side the foreign element of Revelation (as we have done that of the civilisation of the masses by artificial means), we shall find that the individual religious standard of the Homeric age was as high, in proportion to the present one, as the mental standard was; and it is impossible too highly to estimate the importance of this part of the inquiry, because many often forget the impassable gulf which exists between the pursuit of truth in material sciences and in the immaterial existence of which Revelation treats. It is a doctrine of the Socinian teachers, that in religious questions they cannot tell one day what they shall believe the next, and that they can only pray that they may be guided aright. In making this statement, they seem entirely to forget that (putting on one side Revelation, which is fixed, and in which no further discoveries can be made) the human mind has not advanced one step in the knowledge of the immaterial world since the earliest Homeric days. The mind of the earliest, the most uncultivated Greek, when he gave the body of his friend back again to the kindly keeping of the earth that gave it life, saw as clearly the answer to the great riddle of Life and Death as (without the Christian faith) we see it. Standing beside that "grassy barrow" or that urn "filled with a little dust," his eye pierced just as clearly and as far into the awful night that lay before him as ours does. Standing by our grave-sides, as the earth rattles on the coffin-lid, just as dense a veil, just as impalpable a void, cuts us sharply off from the life beyond, baffling our intensest efforts, our keenest glances, as they baffled his.

The religion of the historian, therefore, is not so vague as at first would appear. He sees full evidence of a common humanity, of a mysterious similarity of ideas, of a singular property in all history, tradition, poetry, and literature, as if all these forms of human thought contained in them something more than met the eye--were, in fact, apologues and types, the outward manifestations of a secret power which, through many and dark ages, was silently, all but imperceptibly, working towards a certain end; teaching men, gradually but not the less surely, that, as Plutarch had learnt, they were "wanderers, strangers, and fugitives from God," and leading them, as may be seen sometimes even in their dark theologies, to understand something of the connection between the human and the Divine. He sees also the impossibility of human nature of itself advancing one step beyond the limits of the earthly dwelling-place primevally assigned to it (the life of a little child being as incomprehensible as the eternal pre-existence of God). When he comes nearer to our own time, and looks more confidently for what is called " the hand of God in history," perhaps for a long time he is perplexed and cannot see it. He thinks that those who have pretended most clearly to see it were well-meaning but ill-advised men, that they selected those facts which pleased them, and resolutely shut their eyes to all that seemed difficult of subordination to their theory. He sees men of the most different and opposing creeds evidently bearing about with them the credentials of the same Master. He sees men the most holy, the most plainly under the influence of the highest motives, miserably mistaken--themselves the cause of incalculable mischief to that faith which he is trying to believe the true one. He sees the cause of truth forsaken, desolate, utterly beaten down and trodden out. The promises of Revelation, so far as he can see, are not fulfilled. He sees a general hope and desire among those of all creeds, not altogether, he thinks, unshared in by some of the most holy men, that their cause should be owned publicly before the multitude, that God would declare who was according to His own mind and who was not; but no cause has been so acknowledged, no sign of divine recognition has been vouchsafed, the awful calm of the blue heavens has been undisturbed during the acting of their tragedy, the triumph of their foes has been complete. A phantasmagoria of men and events floats before him; men seem in history to have walked indeed in a vain show; the more he inquires into men and creeds, the more he is perplexed--he finds none which he can say is absolutely right, no one fully wrong; the course of Nature maintains its impartial calm, shutting out the sight of God from him, and his constant prayer is that ejaculation of Isaiah, " Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens and come down! " Then perhaps gradually one fact comes out more clearly in all his study; a fact not dependent on any theory--far above all theory; a fact so infinite in all the innumerable incidents from which it is deduced, that no theory could have invented it; a fact so absolutely one with humanity that scarcely a human being who ever lived but may be said to have had some share in its proof; a fact so incontrovertible that no mind is blind to it;--the fact which all history, literature, human life before a certain period pointed forward to, and to which all history, literature, human life after that period points back--three short years of a human life passed upon the lake shores and in the towns and villages of Judsea; a life so intensely human that every human heart at once bears witness to its truth, and yet so far above what had ever before it been known of humanity (placed on the other side of so wide a gulf from the lives and words and minds of the noblest of human kind that had preceded it), that no theory of the gradual development of human teaching, no theory of the improvement by one great teacher of the ideas and discoveries of his predecessor, can ever account for or explain the divine teaching, the perfect example of this life. The student concentrates his attention upon this life round which all history centres, in which the longing of ages is fulfilled, upon which the intense restlessness perceptible in all the highest of the classic writings (a restlessness quite different from any feelings that we now experience) at last found tranquillity. He traces it to its end--an end which human nature would not have predicted of such a life, but which Plato, in a moment of divine illumination, saw would be the end of such a life, as he saw that if human nature ever was perfected it would be by such a life; and having followed it so far, he begins to see that all the confusion and perplexity which before had troubled him was but what this Divine Life itself exemplified, and what surely this Divine Person led His followers to expect. He finds that, in the study of His teaching, all creeds, doctrines, disputes of different churches, theories of inspiration--all lose themselves in one single command, one single doctrine--belief in Him. He sees that in disputes about the doctrine men have forgotten the Person, that in discussions on what His servants have taught they have forgotten His own teaching, and he begins to understand that, though possibly necessary to be passed through, all these confusions and mistakes are no argument against, nor in fact have anything to do with, the main doctrine on which the Christian faith revolves, the belief in the Son of God--a belief which during His life was hard to attain to by reason of the lowliness and desertion of His earthly estate, and which all through history has been not less hard, because His servants often seem deserted, and the promises of His Gospel are often fulfilled in a way which has more to do with faith than with sight.

As I write these words, with the echoes of the Easter chant still ringing in my ears, it seems to me that the religion of the historian, more than that of any other, should lead him to cling tenaciously to the belief in the Person of Christ; that he, more than any other, can fully know the difference between His life and words and the lives and words of other teachers; that he, more than any other, can understand the utter desolation which would have been the lot of the world if that life had never been lived, those words never spoken; that he, more than all others, should join in the anthem, "Christ is risen from the dead, therefore let us keep the feast."

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