1902 Encyclopedia > History > 18th Century Historians' Failure to Understand Economic Forces

(Part 10)

18th Century Historians' Failure to Understand Economic Forces

But the historians in question were hindered not only by prejudice which they could not avoid from understanding the past; they were also hindered by a want of knowledge which it was impossible for them to have. To say nothing of the larger conceptions of society which we have only recently acquired they were unfurnished with those preparatory means of accurately observing the past which were soon to be discovered.

The science of economics, as we shall presently see, was about to throw a broad and vivid light on many hitherto obscure problems of history. But the writers in question did not yet enjoy the benefit of it, and surely the fault was none of theirs.

When we see a man of the genius and erudition of Montesquieu (Grandeur et Décadence des Romains, c. 17) gravely ascribing the decline of old Rome to the fact that all the gold and silver after the division of the empire were carried to Constantinople, we realize the value of true conceptions relative to the wealth of nations. But in Montesquieu’s time the precious metals were regarded as the sole or chief sources of wealth, and he applied without hesitation to history a principle which he saw statesmen apply without hesitation to politics.

Again, Gibbon, writing on the same subject, the decline and fall of Rome, considers the real cause to have been the reluctance of the soldiers to wear defensive armour. It seems hardly credible, but here are his words :-- "They (the soldiers) complained of the weight of their armour, which they seldom wore; and they successively obtained permission to lay aside both their cuirasses and their helmets. The heavy weapons of their ancestors dropped from their feeble hands, and their pusillanimous indolence may be considered the immediate cause of the downfall of the empire" (chap. 27).

Montesquieu and Gibbon were men of an historical genius second to none. Yet they could descend to such trivialities, and the reason was that the true sources of national wealth and military strength had not been laid open in their day.

It would be easy to multiply examples of a similar kin, taken from the ablest writers, in which the most superficial explanation of wide-reaching events is hastily caught at, as if one were to explain an earthquake by a scratching of the earth’s surface. In fact the old writers might be likened to surveyors as contrasted with geologists. They have little or no conception of the forces at work under the surface they see.

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