The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIV. Historians

§ 5. Thirlwall and Grote

The influence of the new school of historical criticism, as well as that of the great personality of Niebuhr, is conspicuous in both the English historians of Greece who adorned this age of our literature. Their labours were almost simultaneous—for Grote’s first two volumes appeared in 1845—rather more than a year after the publication of the last of Thirlwall’s; and, of Grote, we know that he had been actively engaged upon the chief literary work of his life for more than twenty years. Although the pair were schoolfellows, their lives had lain in very different spheres of mental exertion—college and city; and they long remained quite unaware of their common devotion to the same subject of special study. It is all the more to Thirlwall’s honour that, from the first, he should have welcomed so formidable a competitor; while Grote declared that, had Thirlwall’s book appeared two or three years sooner, he would have abandoned his own design. In much the same spirit, some of the best qualified of judges—E. A. Freeman above all—compared and contrasted the two great English historians of ancient Greece. Freeman, no doubt, is right in saying that, notwithstanding its relative conciseness, and the absence of the large excursive element to be found in Grote’s book, Thirlwall’s is primarily that of a scholar rather than of a man of affairs, and is free from all political passion—generally, to all appearance, even from political preferences. This unlikeness is, of course, partly due to the different genesis of the two works: Grote’s was the execution of a great design, gradually but consciously formed, and harmonising with the writer’s ideals of public life; Thirlwall’s, originally intended for a contribution to Lardner’s Cyclopaedia, was at first undertaken as little more than a, and, in its earlier age, inspired by no more ardent ambition than that of “leaving the history of Greece in some respects in a better condition than I found it.”

Connop Thirlwall, whose literary life had begun with the publication, over his infant head, of a volume of his precocious primitiae in prose and verse, had early come to the conclusion that history and biography are “the basis of polite literature”; but his linguistic gifts were always quite extraordinary, and brought him into early contact with many branches of learning. A version by him of Schleiermacher’s essay on St. Luke preceded his translation of Niebuhr, with Julius Hare. In 1831, the two Trinity fellows jointly founded the short-lived Philological Museum, in which appeared Thirlwall’s masterly essay “On the Irony of Sophocles,” which, of itself, would suffice to prove him a critic of rare perceptive power. Before settling down into the country living which gave him the necessary leisure for writing the History of Greece, he had been, very effectively, engaged in academic controversy and shown that, when he chose, he could wield a trenchant pen. His History—for of the wise ecclesiastical statesmanship and immovable sense of duty which marked his episcopal life nothing can be said here—was worthy of a fully furnished mind and of a self-controlled character. The progress of the narrative sustains the reader’s interest by a style which holds him easily and naturally; as it happens, while the opening of the work is not its most remarkable portion (for ethnological research is not held to have been Thirlwall’s strongest point), the later volumes, especially those which treat of the struggle with Macedon and the conquests of Alexander the Great, are, in some respects, more successful than the corresponding portions of Grote’s narrative. Although his habit of mind was critical, the author of Letters to a Friend was not without tenderness of soul; and it would be strange if one of the noblest among the qualities that distinguished him in life—a consistent hatred of injustice—were not found reflected in his History. Yet, at times, in his desire to be fair, he places a curious restraint upon himself, as in his account of the death of Socrates, following on a more than adequate tribute to the patriotism of Aristophanes.

Thirlwall, though he cannot be said to have been superseded by Grote, must, if the highest standard is impartially applied to the whole historical achievements of both, be allowed to be surpassed by him. Grote’s is, or used to be, not unfrequently cited as a signal example of the historical work which has been produced in England without the training of the academical specialist and which thus conspicuously exhibits the vivifying effects of a direct contact with public life and a knowledge of the world, with its interests and motives of action. Apart, however, from the fact that, in Grote’s younger days, at the English universities, such men as Arnold and Thirlwall had, virtually, to strike out for themselves the path of critical historical studies, it should be remembered that his own training was full and protracted as a student of both moral and mental philosophy in general, and of those of its branches, in particular, which are intimately connected with the philosophy of history. This training was carried on, partly as a discipline of private enquiry and study, and partly under the influence of the school or party of which Bentham was the founder or “spiritual father,” and of which James Mill was the indefatigable prophet. Grote, therefore, like those Athenian followers of wisdom in hall or garden with whom his mind loved to dwell, cherished in himself those instincts of academic life which have little to do with degree courses and examinations, and, both in the early days of the new university of London and during his later official connection with University college, showed the warmest interest in the advancement of higher studies.

To the arduous service exacted from Grote in his early manhood by the important banking-house with which he was connected by birth was added a political activity extending from 1820, when he came forward with a temperate Statement of the Question of Parliamentary Reform in response to an Edinburgh article by Sir James Mackintosh, to his final retirement from parliament in 1842. He had been elected for the City at the end of 1831, having, at the beginning of the year, in a second pamphlet, The Essentials of Parliamentary Reform, re-stated those political principles to which he consistently adhered, and which included the advocacy of secret and frequent elections. But, so early as 1823, he had been so deeply interested in the study of Greek history that his wife’s suggestion, “Suppose you try your hand,” instantly caught fire; and, from this time forward, he engaged in the collection of notes and extracts towards that end. In April, 1826, in an article, a review of Clinton’s Fasti Hellenici, in The Westminster Review, of which the editor, Dr. (afterwards Sir John) Bowring, recognised the unusual value, Grote had taken occasion to examine at length the claims of Mitford’s History of Greece to the reputation which it still enjoyed and which was fervently upheld by Clinton, and to predict that, should Greek history “ever be rewritten with care and fidelity, these claims would be prodigiously lowered.” Business and politics alike long prevented him from devoting the necessary time to his great historical project; but, when, with the requisite leisure, the day of fulfilment came at last, it did not find him unprepared. Niebuhr’s influence upon Grote, and his intimacy with Sir George Cornewall Lewis, alike led him to enter with very great interest into the earliest section of the work before him; and March, 1845 at last saw the publication of the first two volumes of the History of Greece. Although this instalment of the work was occupied with the legendary rather than the properly historical part of its subject, the high merit of these volumes, and the thoroughness with which they applied the critical method to Hellenic mythology, ensured to them an immediate success; Hallam, though far more conservative as a critic than Cornewall Lewis, with whom he joined in according a warm welcome to Grote’s production, declared that he had never known a book take so rapid a flight to the highest summit. Although the earliest portion of the work is, perhaps, in some respects, less conclusive than the body of the historical narrative that follows, it bears upon it, like the rest, the stamp of both independence and freedom of judgment. The review of the Homeric problem, following on the general survey of Greek mythology, specially exemplifies these qualities and offers a good test of Grote’s powers as a critical scholar.

The remaining volumes appeared in a fairly regular and quick sequence; the circumstance that the twelfth and last volume, published in 1856, was three years behind the eleventh being due partly to the labour entailed by the revision of the previous volumes for later editions, partly, perhaps, to uncertainty in the author’s mind as to the ultimate limits of the work. During its progress, it absorbed his literary labours almost entirely; in 1847, however, when on the eve of giving to the world its most vital portion, the review of the history of the great Athenian democracy, he spared time to put on paper his views as to the progress of the earliest of the series of revolutionary movements in mid-nineteenth century Europe, the conflict between the Swiss confederation and the Sonderbund. As the historian of Greece drew nearer to the close of his work, he finally made up his mind to reserve for fuller treatment in a separate book the philosophy which he expounded in Plato and the Companions of Sokrates (1865); but he did not, as he had at first intended, proceed to a complete examination of the philosophy of Aristotle. His historical work proper had come to an end some time before his death. Yet, he may be esteemed happy in that he ended his intellectual life where he had begun it; for, if other great historians have reared their historical works on the substratum of philological, legal or other studies, with him it was “divine philosophy” which had suggested the ideals that were before him in his narrative of Greek, or, perhaps, it might better be said of Attic, life and thought. He died on 18 June, 1871. He had refused Gladstone’s offer of a peerage; but he was buried in Westminster abbey, and a bust of him was erected there.

Of the criticisms to which Grote’s great work, as a whole, has been subjected, two seem specially deserving of notice, since, at the same time, they point to characteristics from which it derives much of its value, and not a little of the power of attraction which it exercises. For, notwithstanding its undeniable longueurs, and a certain formlessness, due to the contempt for the artifices of composition and style observable in Grote as in nearly all the members of the philosophical school which he followed, the History has a fascination of its own from which few will escape who read consecutively at least the last ten volumes. Grote’s work—with the exception, if it be such, of its first two volumes—is, practically, political. Herein lies at once its strength and its limitation. The investigation of the origines of Hellenic national life (partly, no doubt, in consequence of the condition, in his younger days, of philological and ethnological science) hardly entered into the range of his closer studies; while it would have been equally out of keeping alike with his natural gifts and with the unimaginative atmosphere in which his own intellectual powers had ripened that he should have been able to give colour and glow to his picture of Periclean Athens, albeit the very centre of his entire History. As to the former restriction, apart from the drawbacks chargeable on the period of learning to which he belonged, it is much to his credit that, in discussing ethnological problems, he should not have surrendered his judgment even to the authority to whose guidance he was under the greatest obligation, as in the case of K. O. Müller and his Dorians. In the matter of pure scholarship, Grote had to undergo (and could afford to undergo) attacks like those of Richard Shilleto. But there was some force in the broader-minded criticism that, in his attention to political problems and the phenomena of the working out of these, he neglected social and economic conditions. And, since the history of the Athenian democracy was, to him, the very heart and kernel of the history of Greece, it must be allowed that this way of looking at his subject causes a certain impression of incompleteness in his great work, although, of course, inasmuch as a history is not a handbook, he was wholly within his rights in determining what ground that work should cover. At the same time, it is difficult not to think that Grote’s republican instincts, to which we owe his sympathetic account of Epaminondas, prejudiced his general view of the Macedonian period, and of Alexander the Great in particular, if it did not, as Merivale paradoxically put it, cause him to break off his story just where “it became interesting.”

But in what, as has been hinted, may be regarded as the main thread in the woof of his fabric, in the history of Athens and of her constitution, and of its influence upon the destinies and the achievements of the Athenian people, Grote accomplished a which communicated its qualities to the whole of his historic work, and which, whatever exceptions may be taken to some of the details of the narrative, remains, and probably always will remain, without a parallel. The age of political reform, or of aspirations for reform, throughout Europe, and the mind of a reformer familiar with the struggle on behalf of high political inspirations, or reaching out for the realisation of ulterior ideals—these both live in Grote’s volumes and give life to them. Athenian history had been miswritten from the days of Xenophon to those of Mitford; and the strength of a great writer, of whose nature political thought and political endeavour had come to form part, was required to redress the balance. Grote’s love of liberty joined with his fundamental sense of justice in producing a sympathetic though candid relation of the progress of the Athenian constitution and of Athenian public life from Clisthenes to Pericles, in whom this progress reached its height; and nowhere does that sense of justice shine forth more conspicuously than in his temperate, though still sympathetic, narrative of the ensuing decline. He refuses to set down the sophists as agents in this decline, or to draw a contrast between them and Socrates, whom he shows to have been, though generously distinguished from them in some respects, yet essentially one of their body. Thus, he is neither daunted nor depressed by the view of earlier historians, but rather stimulated to opposition, though, even in opposition, he maintains his fairness and his self-control.

On Grote’s work was largely founded The History of Greece by George William Cox (who, in his later years, assumed the title of baronet), also known by the part taken by him in ecclesiastical controversies, more especially in that concerning bishop Colenso, whose life he wrote. Cox was associated with Freeman in their early publication of Poems Legendary and Historical (1850), and afterwards gained a considerable reputation by a succession of popular historical volumes. Perhaps the most striking part of his History of Greece is to be found in its mythological chapters, where he followed Max Müller’s method of interpretation, which he carried to a great length in other books; as a whole, the History has not achieved a lasting reputation.