A New Intrusion of Pedantry
by Paul Elmer More
The gathering of materials, he declares, bearing upon minute local events, the collation of MSS. and the registry of their small variations, the patient drudgery in archives of states and municipalities, all the microscopic research that is carried on by armies of toiling students--it may seem like the bearing of mortar and bricks to the site of a building which has hardly been begun, of whose plan the laborers know but little. This work, the hewing of wood and the drawing of water, has to be done in faith--in the faith that a complete assemblage of the smallest facts of human history will tell in the end. The labor is performed for posterity.Against this promulgation of the new school, Mr. Trevelyan has protested vigorously in the Independent Review, showing with admirable persuasiveness that the labor of sifting evidence and establishing facts is only the beginning of the student's task, and that no generation can safely forego the real objects of history--which are, as he thinks, to teach political wisdom, to restore our heritage in the ideals of the past and the lives of the noble dead, and to awaken a feeling for the poetry of time.
We could wish that some champion of the finer scholarship, as Mr. Trevelyan sees it, might arise in this country and smite hip and thigh the pedants who are fast bringing the study of history into the same disrepute among men of the world as that into which the classical languages have long since fallen at the hands of our learned philologians. The root of the disease lies in a misapprehension of the term science--in a sort of hypnotic spell which this word has cast over the minds of all who practise in the profession of knowledge and wisdom.
To suppose there can be a science of history in any sense corresponding to the science of material phenomena, is merely to bow down before the many-tongued idols of the marketplace. Truth is the aim of the historian, as it is of the scientist--as it is of the poet even; but it has not yet appeared that the only road to historic truth is by the "town-pump" method of instruction, as the cynical have denominated the pedantry of our schools. Unless history recreates the life of a past age, with all the passions and aspirations of that bygone world at play, it is not easy to perceive what profit arises from its pursuit. Accurate sifting of documents and weighing of evidence is necessary, but to stop there, as Professor Bury demands and as too many of our college men do in practice, is to harrow the soil without planting the seed; more than that, it is to waive the one instrument at our service for controlling the traditions and documents that descend to us. Human passion was the source and formal cause of that life, and only by passion can its meaning be brought back to us of the present. "Men act from passion," Hazlitt wrote, "and we can only judge of passion from sympathy. Persons of the dry and husky class above spoken of often seem to think even nature itself an interloper on their flimsy theories." And again: "Passion, in short, is the essence, the chief ingredient in moral truth, and the warmth of passion is sure to kindle the light of imagination on the objects around it."
There may seem something startling in this setting up of passion as the discoverer of historic truth; and yet, if the matter be examined into, it will be found that the historian whose works endure and whose portrayal of a certain period has gained the common approval of readers, has almost invariably written, not coldly and pedantically, but with strong forejudgment. His absorbing feeling kindles the imagination; by it he is able to comprehend the other human impulses at work as no cold registrar of documents can conceive them; and in reading his works it is perfectly easy to bear in mind that "personal equation" which is easily discounted since it is unconcealed. In this way, Carlyle discovered and gave to the world the character of Cromwell--by passion. In this way, to name no other instance, Tacitus presented a picture of the Roman Empire, whose fundamental truth no mere maker of themes can shake, and whose exaggerations the reader can readily account for; he has made the age forever alive and forever a lesson to the world.
Now, it is needless to say that passion in the writer of history does not mean any deliberate coloring of the truth, and it is equally needless to say that passion has no place at all in the pursuit of science. The error of Professor Bury and of the growing school he represents is the same error that vitiates so much that comes from pulpit and desk--the failure to perceive distinctions. True science has her own glory, from which no caviller may detract. This science falsely so called is no better than a parody and a stale imitation. Even if historic truth were to be found within the limitations set by Professor Bury, where were the profit? It still holds good of such pedantry--
That truth itself is in her head as dullThe peril of allowing restrictions of this sort to creep into any field of university work is too serious to be ignored by those who have the really higher education at heart.
Return to Writings of Paul Elmer More.