QOTD (2011-01-29)

I’m not certain that I actually agree with all the principles G.M. Trevelyan lays forth in his “Clio: A Muse,” but I like how he expresses them:

To recover some of our ancestors’ real thoughts and feelings is the hardest, subtlest and most educative function that the historian can perform. It is much more difficult than to spin guesswork generalisations, the reflex of passing phases of thought or opinion in our own day. To give a true picture of any country, or man or group of men in the past requires industry and knowledge, for only teh documents can tell us the truth, but it requires also insight, sympathy and imagination of the finest, and last but not least the art of making our ancestors live again in modern narrative….

[H]istory cannot prophesy the future; it cannot supply a set of invariably applicable laws for the guidance of politicians; it cannot show, by the deductions of historical analogy, which side is in the right in any quarrel of our day. It an do a thing less, and yet greater than all these. It can mould the mind itself into the capability of understanding great affairs and sympathising with other men. The information given by history is valueless in itself, unless it produce a new state of mind. The value of Lecky’s Irish history did not consist in the fact that he recorded in a book the details of numerous massacres and murders, but that he produced sympathy and shame, and caused a better understanding among us all of how the sins of the fathers are often visited upon the children, unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate each other. He does not prove that Home Rule is right or wrong, but he trains the mind of Unionists and Home Rulers to think sensibly about that and other problems….

The dispassionateness of the historian is a quality which it is easy to value too highly, and it should not be confused with the really indispensable qualities of accuracy and good faith. We cannot be at too great pains to see that our passion burns pure, but we must not extinguish the flame. Dispassionateness—nil admirari—may betray the most gifted historian into missing some vital truth in his subject.

Also, Trevelyan gives Symonds a shoutout for having “carried on the tradition that history was related to literature,” which is of course excellent.

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