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Ironies of 18th century histories

There is a famous passage in Gibbon, or more likely quite a few of them, where he pours out contempt on the barbarism of Greek Rome, its superstition, is narrow dynastic disputes and barbarian adventurers, its vehemence of doctrine and ruthless factionalism of ecclesiastical controversy, its truculence and treachery and all the sum of middle-age obscurantism, which civilized rationalism, like that of Gibbon, would soon wash away.

Now Gibbon was a great historian and a great master of the English language; his quaint 18th century faith in rationalism, progress, and enlightenment, and his antipathy for Greek and Latin Christianity are small price to pay to sit under his instruction.

More: to imagine a Gibbon bereft of his prejudices is to imagine a Gibbon bereft of his wit, the soul of his masterful prose; one might as well wish for a Michael Jordan that is meek and mild rather than pitiless competitor. Nor could we, without his bigotries, enjoy the great irony that Gibbon’s scorn animates the vigor of his History; that what he tells us is a boring monotony of ecclesial insolence, royalist intrigue, and popular puritanism, he nonetheless shows us is vivid and sprightly tale, memorable in the strange annals of that inexpressible creature called man.

Hume, too, evidences that marvelous 18th century naivety. Near the beginning of his History of England, at the dawn of the Anglo-Saxon age, the great Scotsman holds forth in solemn warning. The reader should beware what comes next:

Wars, therefore, and revolutions and dissensions were unavoidable among a turbulent and military people; and these events, however intricate or confused, ought now to become the objects of our attention. But, added to the difficulty of carrying on at once the history of seven independant kingdoms, there is great discouragement to a writer, arising from the uncertainty, at least barrenness, of the accounts transmitted to us. The Monks, who were the only annalists during those ages, lived remote from public affairs, considered the civil transactions as entirely subordinate to the ecclesiastical, and besides partaking of the ignorance and barbarity, which were then universal, were strongly infected with credulity, with the love of wonder, and with a propensity to imposture; vices almost inseparable from their profession, and manner of life. The history of that period abounds in names, but is extremely barren of events; or the events are related so much without circumstances and causes, that the most profound or most eloquent writer must despair of rendering them either instructive or entertaining to the reader. Even the great learning and vigorous imagination of Milton sunk under the weight; and this author scruples not to declare, that the skirmishes of kites or crows as much merited a particular narrative, as the confused transactions and battles of the Saxon Heptarchy. In order, however, to connect the events in some tolerable measure, we shall give a succinct account of the successions of kings, and of the more remarkable revolutions in each particular kingdom.

There follows an able account of Gregory the Great and the sending of Augustine on his fateful journey to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Hume’s “despair of rendering [events] either instructive or entertaining to the reader” is shown immediately to be misplaced.

Some pages later comes the account of Kingdom of Northumberland. In this instance I will simply let the reader judge of whether that land in that age, so sadly sunk in ecclesiastical ignorance and barbarity, was indeed “barren of events”:

Adelfrid, king of Bernicia, having married Acca, the daughter of Aella, king of Deïri, and expelled her infant brother, Edwin, had united all the counties north of Humber into one monarchy, and acquired a great ascendant in the Heptarchy. He also spread the terror of the Saxon arms to the neighbouring people; and by his victories over the Scots and Picts, as well as Welsh, extended on all sides the bounds of his dominions. Having laid siege to Chester, the Britons marched out with all their forces to engage him; and they were attended by a body of 1250 monks from the monastery of Bangor, who stood at a small distance from the field of battle, in order to encourage the combatants by their presence and exhortations. Adelfrid enquiring the purpose of this unusual appearance, was told, that these priests had come to pray against him: “Then are they as such our enemies,” said he, “as those who intend to fight against us”: And he immediately sent a detachment, who fell upon them, and did such execution, that only fifty escaped with their lives. The Britons, astonished at this event, received a total defeat: Chester was obliged to surrender: and Adelfrid, pursuing his victory, made himself master of Bangor, and entirely demolished the monastery; a building so extensive, that there was a mile’s distance from one gate of it to another; and it contained two thousand one hundred monks, who are said to have been there maintained by their own labour.

Notwithstanding Adelfrid’s success in war, he lived in inquietude on account of young Edwin, whom he had unjustly dispossessed of the crown of Deïri. This prince, now grown to man’s estate, wandered from place to place, in continual danger from the attempts of Adelfrid; and received at last protection in the court of Redwald, king of the East-Angles; where his engaging and gallant deportment procured him general esteem and affection. Redwald, however, was strongly solicited by the king of Northumberland to kill or deliver up his guest: Rich presents were promised him, if he would comply; and war denounced against him in case of his refusal. After rejecting several messages of this kind, his generosity began to yield to the motives of interest: and he retained the last ambassador, till he should come to a resolution in a case of such importance. Edwin, informed of his friend’s perplexity, was yet determined at all hazards to remain in East-Anglia; and thought, that if the protection of that court failed him, it were better to die than prolong a life so much exposed to the persecutions of his powerful rival. This confidence in Redwald’s honour and friendship, with his other accomplishments, engaged the Queen on his side; and she effectually represented to her husband the infamy of delivering up to certain destruction their royal guest, who had fled to them for protection against his cruel and jealous enemies. Redwald, embracing more generous resolutions, thought it safest to prevent Adelfrid, before that prince was aware of his intention, and to attack him while he was yet unprepared for defence. He marched suddenly with an army into the kingdom of Northumberland, and sought a battle with Adelfrid; in which that monarch was defeated and killed, after revenging himself by the death of Regner, son of Redwald. His own sons, Eanfrid, Oswald, and Oswy, yet infants, were carried into Scotland; and Edwin obtained possession of the crown of Northumberland.

Edwin was the greatest prince of the Heptarchy in that age, and distinguished himself, both by his influence over the other kingdoms, and by the strict execution of justice in his own dominions. He reclaimed his subjects from the licentious life, to which they had been accustomed; and it was a common saying, that during his reign a woman or child might openly carry every where a purse of gold, without any danger of violence or robbery. There is a remarkable instance, transmitted to us, of the affection borne him by his servants. Cuichelme, king of Wessex, was his enemy; but finding himself unable to maintain open war against so gallant and powerful a prince, he determined to use treachery against him, and he employed one Eumer for that criminal purpose. The assassin, having obtained admittance, by pretending to deliver a message from Cuichelme, drew his dagger, and rushed upon the King. Lilla, an officer of his army, seeing his master’s danger, and having no other means of defence, interposed with his own body between the King and Eumer’s dagger, which was pushed with such violence, that, after piercing Lilla, it even wounded Edwin: But before the assassin could renew his blow, he was dispatched by the King’s attendants.

The great historians of the 18th century fancied themselves civilized men, sophisticated men, and indeed they were. But the irony of their ingenuousness is more than merely endearing: it undergirds the power and subtlety of their history. Their very artlessness is the key to their historical art. It turns out that some men who had long supped on the cuisine of progress, science and rationalism, but not yet endured the dissolution of learning and literature that this morbid fare eventually wrought, were best able to render, in lapidary form, the very lively history of Christian antiquity.

[Liberty Fund has made the whole of Hume’s History available online, but for antiquarians like me, that company’s most excellent print edition is well worth the price.]

Comments (13)

I liked this piece. It seems that there is rarely any "pure rationalist", or pure modernist. Sometimes something comes out.

That's a great bit of English history from Hume, of all people. As you say, his prejudices, rather surprisingly, did not prevent him from writing lively history that belies his sweepingly negative evaluation of the period as boring.

I suppose that Hume would say prissily that it's all that war and violence and dynastic squabbling that he finds boring. The funny thing is that most normal people (perhaps secretly included Hume himself) find it rather interesting.

As you say, his prejudices, rather surprisingly, did not prevent him from writing lively history that belies his sweepingly negative evaluation of the period as boring.

Which leads me to think it was more a matter of pretense than of prejudice. Hume's monks are a strange lot: They are at once too much besotted with the love of wonder, and lacking in imaginative engagement with events.

"The love of wonder" is a phrase of art in Hume. It means "inclined to believe in miracles and bizarre stories ." When Hume says that a person suffers from the "love of wonder" he means roughly that the person is a fool who could write for the National Inquirer about Bigfoot's Baby and the prophecies of Nostradamus. Strictly speaking, I suppose that is compatible with writing in only a boring way about the ordinary temporal events of the time.

Something tells me that Lydia does not hold Mr. Hume in high esteem. I do enjoy his historical writing and his essays; his philosophy, not so much.

The phrase "love of wonder" is important in his essay "On Miracles," which is where I've most interacted with him. There it is used explicitly to discredit all miracle reports as per se unreasonable.

Actually, I have more sympathy with certain isolated aspects of his philosophy than you might think. For example, I think his conceivability criterion for logical possibility is correct.

That's interesting, Lydia, thank you.

Here's a recent article by Ron Unz, "How Social Darwinism Made Modern China,"


that everyone is going to be talking about.

It seems similar claims to a recent article by Geoffrey Miller, "Chinese Eugenics":



What the deuce does that have to do with the topic of this post?

What the deuce does that have to do with the topic of this post?

It is ironic that somebody promoting social darwinism can't read and doesn't remember history.

The great historians of the 18th century fancied themselves civilized men, sophisticated men, and indeed they were. But the irony of their ingenuousness is more than merely endearing: it undergirds the power and subtlety of their history. Their very artlessness is the key to their historical art. It turns out that some men who had long supped on the cuisine of progress, science and rationalism, but not yet endured the dissolution of learning and literature that this morbid fare eventually wrought, were best able to render, in lapidary form, the very lively history of Christian antiquity.

But in our recounting of the theories of progress spawned by the Enlightenment, it has been overlooked that the Enlightenment also fanned the flames of an old primitivism into something just as powerful, and not necessarily held to be antithetical even at extremes of both where surely it should have been. Theories about progress and regress have taken on a life of their own through much of history, so the idea that Enlightenment spawned only a wild belief in progress that collapsed due to empirical evidence is a trope I don't believe anymore. It spawned some idealistic beliefs about progress and some even more idealistic beliefs of regress.

In the 18th century, there was a shift at the beginning from a rationalistic primitivism which saw the qualities of goodness and wisdom in savages from the unobstructed operation of the "light of reason" to a more emotional, sentimental, and antinomian primitivism which came to dominate by 1750, though there was a lingering rationalistic tradition. And theology played a role too. The doctrine of total depravity had some blowback. Folks turned off by this idea weren't as attracted to the idea that we find out the laws of nature by the light of reason as they were to the idea that a true ethics would have natural feelings as right and good–as with savages before they were supposedly corrupted by education and society–and even more to the follow-on that following natural instincts he could not go wrong.

Examples, Mark? I think I understand the idea you are describing, I just don't recall it being pushed in mid 1700's. I thought it came much later.

Well, I'm not sure exactly what you want examples of, so I'll try a scattershot.

As far as primitivism, it has been persuasively argued by Theodore Dwight Bozeman ("To Live Ancient Lives") that primitivism (creating the circumstances of the early church) was the driving force behind the Puritans project in America and that Perry Miller's thesis, for all his brilliance, about the "Errand in the Wilderness" being their main purpose, can clearly be shown to have been wrong by the clear (full) testimony of Miller's own sources. Even if you don't believe Miller was in fact wrong about that, as I do, surely it shows that primitivism was a powerful force during the Enlightenment if it was even reason #2. The idea that "savages" were superior in intellect and emotion because they were uncorrupted by education and society respectively is an idea so ubiquitous during the time that it can't be missed. I needn't give examples for that because there are too many. The reason for this view was because of theories of progressive degeneration have been present throughout human history and surely reached a peak during the Enlightenment. Even anti-evolutionary theories were quite strong during the 17th century I believe.

As far as whether a a "faith in reason" collapsed because of the results of such beliefs, I'd say that the theory of progressive degeneration, which had been an inherent part of primitivism from the fables of the golden age to the present, though challenged by the modernists of the seventeenth century, was invigorated by the ideas of the Enlightenment because it was a logical inference from the uniformitarianism that it held. If it is true that God gave all people sufficient intelligence to find out the uniform and eternal laws of nature, and if civilized man fails to discover and follow the laws of nature as perfectly as primitive man, or if modern man weren't as benevolent as the "savages" supposedly were, it would be because the mind and heart have become corrupted by the vices of civilization.

As far as whether a belief in progress and perfectibility is a unique danger to religion, vices come in pairs. Belief in progressive regress and degeneration from primitivism is just as much a danger as the established church realized. From England in the seventeenth century orthodox church leaders found in the "modernist" idea of continuous intellectual improvement an irrefutable answer to the insistence of atheists upon the eternity of the world. It was a robust defense that noted the Christian grounding for ideas of progress from the greats of the faith from Turtullian, Augustine, Aquinas and others. Sorry I don't have the names of this cabal, but I can tell you it is documented in a journal article you can google titled "Anglican Apologetics and the Idea of Progress, 1699-1745". And as I've said, there were Christian extremes spawned by the doctrine of total depravity. George Whitfield scandalized London with his claim that "man is by nature half-brute and half-devil". Much of the force behind idealistic theories on man's benevolence were spawned by such attacks. In part, possibly a large part I think, these proclamations of man's benevolence were defenses of the natural goodness of man in reply to various extreme doctrines of corruption as well as Hobbe's claims of man's egoistic hedonism.

So I'm just saying I'm skeptical in the standard idea we have of the Enlightenment about "faith in progress" that opposed the Church and was seen to fail by events as people lost faith in man's reason. I think it was largely about conflicting theories, and many supposed experts didn't even seem to mind hold contradictory and simultaneous views of progress and regress. The argument was on many fronts, within the Church as well as out, and there were good guys and bad guys on each side of every issue. It was about reason and whether emotion is subject to a governing rationality as classically thought, or whether it was outside of a government of reason as the moral sense theorists supposed who rejected the classic idea, David Hmnnnn being one.

In spite of the established church's pushback against the idea of degeneration and that the progress of science in the seventeenth century had favored a general theory of progress, the idea of progressive degeneration remained one of the popular favorite theories in the eighteenth century. And it still is among the usual suspects. At the end of the day there isn't really any real evidence that the idea of regression is a reaction to events. It is an abstract theory like any other. Ideas of progress and regress are joined at the hip, and the struggle is ancient, proceeds down to the present day, and will never end.

Not too many examples, but that's about the best I can do.

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