1902 Encyclopedia > History > 18th Century Historians' Contempt for Past Eras

(Part 9)

18th Century Historians' Contempt for Past Eras

We are now so imbued with the notions of growth and development in all forms that we find no difficulty in applying them to society as well as other phenomena. But these notions were all but entirely wanting in the 18th century; indeed, they did not fully emerge till the 19th had run a good portion of its course.

It was difficult for all true sons of the 18th century to conceive of men or of societies different from the men and the societies they saw around them. Or if they were forced to admit that men could exist under conditions widely differing from those in which they themselves lived, they unhesitatingly pronounced them barbarians, unpolished, hardly worthy of attention.

They consequently speak of past ages habitually in a tone of supercilious contempt which is to us highly amusing. Men who differed in every other opinion agreed in this. "The Athenians of the age of Demosthenes were a people of brutes, a barbarous people," said Dr Johnson; and Voltaire was quite of his way of thinking on this point (Dictionnaire Philosophique, article "Anciens et Modernes").

With such views or rather feelings it was impossible to understand the past; they did not even wish to do so. They mostly regarded their own age as the only one worthy of respect of respect and admiration, the only one in which "polite manners" had existed. The past to them was mainly a record of crime, ignorance, folly, and fanaticism (notice the way in which the sober Robertson speaks of the crusades); and they did not even which to see it as it really was.

It is obvious that such men could not write history as we understand it. The moral prejudices of the age shut out a true view of past times. Indeed they preferred a distorted view, if it represented better their notions of the seemly and the noble. They had always a tendency to dress up the past in the grab of the present.

The French writers surpassed the English in this foible. For them the only ideal of a king is Louis XIV, and all kings must be made to resemble him more or less, though of course they were not so great. This disposition reaches its acne of absurdity in Scipion Dupleix, historiographer of France, who died in 1616. Describing the baptism of Clovis, he represents the barbarian Frank as approaching St Remi, "with lofty port and grave demeanour, richly dressed, scented, and powdered, with long with long wig carefully curled and perfumed according to the custom of the ancient French kings."

More serious is the profound misapprehension of every great character and great period which differed from the current pattern. The unworthy interpretation of all political and religious phenomena with which the writers were unfamiliar, by sagacious references to state and priestcraft, is also apt at times to appear to us wilfully perverse, and even disingenuous. We may be sure it was nothing of the kind, and only resulted from the inadequate degree of culture then attained.

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