The Eighteen Christian Centuries

James White The Eighteen Christian Centuries
Project Gutenberg
James White
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Nobody disputes the usefulness of History. Many prefer it, even for interest and amusement, to the best novels and romances. But the extent of time over which it has stretched its range is appalling to the most laborious of readers. And as History is growing every day, and every nation is engaged in the manufacture of memorable events, it is pitiable to contemplate the fate of the historic student a hundred years hence. He is not allowed to cut off at one end, in proportion as he increases at the other. He is not allowed to forget Marlborough, in consideration of his accurate acquaintance with Wellington. His knowledge of the career of Napoleon is no excuse for ignorance of Julius Cæsar. All must be retained—victories, defeats—battles, sieges—knights in armour, soldiers in red; the charge at Marathon, the struggle at Inkermann—all these things, a thousand other things, at first apparently of no importance, but growing larger and larger as time develops their effects, till men look back in wonder that the acorn escaped their notice which has produced such a majestic oak,—a thousand other things still, for a moment rising in apparently irresistible power, and dying off apparently without cause, must be folded up in niches of the memory, ready to be brought forth when needed, and yet room be left for the future. And who can pretend to be qualified for so great a work? Most of us confess to rather dim recollections of things occurring in our own time,—in our own country—in our own parish; and some, contemplating the vast expanse of human history, its innumerable windings and perplexing variations, are inclined to give it up in despair, and have a sulky sort of gratification in determining to know nothing, since they cannot know all. All kings, they say, are pretty much alike, and whether he is called John in England, or Louis in France, doesn’t make much difference. Nobles also are as similar as possible, and peoples are everywhere the same. Now, this, you see, though it ambitiously pretends to be ignorance, is, in fact, something infinitely worse. It is false knowledge. It might be very injurious to liberty, to honour, and to religion itself, if this wretched idea were to become common, for where would be the inducement to noble endeavour? to reform of abuses? to purity of life? Kings and nobles and peoples are not everywhere the same. They are not even like each other, or like themselves in the same land at different periods. They are in a perpetual series, not only of change, but of contrast. They are “variable as the sea,”—calm and turbulent, brilliant and dark by turns. And it is this which gives us the only chance of attaining clearness and distinctness in our historic views. It is by dissimilarities that things are individualized: now, how pleasant it would be if we could simplify and strengthen our recollections of different times, by getting personal portraits, as it were, of the various centuries, so as to escape the danger of confounding their dress or features. It would be impossible in that case to mistake the Spanish hat and feather of the sixteenth century for the steel helmet and closed vizor of the fourteenth. We should be able, in the same way, to distinguish between the modes of thought and principles of action of the early ages, and those of the present time. We should be able to point out anachronisms of feeling and manners if they occurred in the course of our reading, as well as of dress and language. It is surely worth while, therefore, to make an attempt to individualize the centuries, not by affixing to them any arbitrary marks of one’s own, but by taking notice of the distinguishing quality they possess, and grouping round that, as a centre, the incidents which either produce this characteristic or are produced by it. What should we call the present century, for instance? We should at once name it the Century of Invention. The great war with Napoleon ending in 1815, exciting so many passions, and calling forth such energy, was but the natural introduction to the wider efforts and amazing progress of the succeeding forty years. Battles and bulletins, alliances and quarrels, ceased, but the intellect aroused by the struggle dashed into other channels. Commerce spread its humanizing influences over hitherto closed and unexplored regions; the steamboat and railway began their wondrous career. The lightning was trained to be our courier in the electric telegraph, and the sun took our likenesses in the daguerreotype. How changed this century is in all its attributes and tendencies from its predecessor, let any man judge for himself, who compares the reigns of our first Hanoverian kings with that of our gracious queen.

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