Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hume on Whom to Trust

Thanks to the good folks at Project Gutenberg and LibriVox, I've been refreshing my memory* on one of the shrewdest, if necessarily not the most up to date, of English historians: that would be David Hume, Esq., who still after all the centuries achieves a clarity of vision that would be hard to match.   Interesting that he begins with a bit of what I guess you could call historiography:
The curiosity entertained by all civilized nations, of inquiring into the exploits and adventures of their ancestors, commonly excites a regret that the history of remote ages should always be so much involved in obscurity, uncertainty, and contradiction. Ingenious men, possessed of leisure, are apt to push their researches beyond the period in which literary monuments are framed or preserved; without reflecting, that the history of past events is immediately lost or disfigured when intrusted to memory and oral tradition, and that the adventures of barbarous nations, even if they were recorded, could afford little or no entertainment to men born in a more cultivated age. The convulsions of a civilized state usually compose the most instructive and most interesting part of its history; but the sudden, violent, and unprepared revolutions incident to barbarians, are so much guided by caprice, and terminate so often in cruelty, that they disgust us by the uniformity of their appearance; and it is rather fortunate for letters that they are buried in silence and oblivion. The only certain means by which nations can indulge their curiosity in researches concerning their remote origin, is to consider the language, manners, and customs of their ancestors, and to compare them with those of the neighboring nations. The fables, which are commonly employed to supply the place of true history, ought entirely to be disregarded; or if any exception be admitted to this general rule, it can only be in favor of the ancient Grecian fictions, which are so celebrated and so agreeable, that they will ever be the objects of the attention of mankind. Neglecting, therefore, all traditions, or rather tales, concerning the more early history of Britain, we shall only consider the state of the inhabitants as it appeared to the Romans on their invasion of this country: we shall briefly run over the events which attended the conquest made by that empire, as belonging more to Roman than British story: we shall hasten through the obscure and uninteresting period of Saxon annals; and shall reserve a more full narration for those times, when the truth is both so well ascertained, and so complete, as to promise entertainment and instruction to the reader.
 High marks to the Scotsman for skepticism about the oral tradition, though I suspect he rates rather too highly the records of ore civilized times.  And what's this stuff about "ancient Grecian fictions"  getting a bye because they "are so celebrated and agreeable"?   Whatever; Hume offers an instructive application of his own theory when he comes to consider the case of one "Arthur," called in to aid the Britons against the advancing Saxons: 
The southern Britons, in this extremity, applied for assistance to Arthur, prince of the Silures, whose heroic valor now sustained the declining fate of his country.  This is that Arthur so much celebrated in the songs of Thaliessin, and the other British bards, and whose military achievements have been blended with so many fables, as even to give occasion for entertaining a doubt of his real existence. But poets, though they disfigure the most certain history by their fictions, and use strange liberties with truth where they are the sole historians, as among the Britons, have commonly some foundation for their wildest exaggerations.
 Sounds right to me: there may be a grain of sand in that oyster of song and story although it may be obscure to any except the most aggressive inquirers.   Hume does seem more credulous in addressing the story of Hengist and Horsa, conventionally the invader-founders of Kent.  I think modern specialist treat them as equally imaginary with Arthur but Hume accepts the narrative of their careers pretty much as fact.

*Not that I ever read the whole six volumes.  But I did read the excellent Pelican reprint, covering the reigns of James I and Charles I.  I read it back to back with a one-volume narrative by perhaps a more famous old warhorse: Thomas Babington Macaulay.   The comparison was instructive: Hume stood solidly on the shelf while Macaulay came across as (entertaining but) something of a gasbag.

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