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The Value of Such Discussions

Some uncritical readers may perhaps say that such minute discussion on points of this kind is unnecessary. And if any man were entirely self-sufficing in every event, I might allow that the accurate knowledge of the past, though a graceful accomplishment, was perhaps not essential: but as long as it is not in mere mortals to say this, either in public or private affairs,—seeing that no man of sense, even if he is prosperous for the moment, will ever reckon with certainty on the future, —then I say that such knowledge is essential, and not merely graceful. For take the three commonest cases. Suppose, first, a statesman to be attacked either in his own person or in that of his country: or, secondly, suppose him to be anxious for a forward policy and to anticipate the attack of an enemy: or, lastly, suppose him to desire to maintain the status quo. In all these cases it is history alone that can supply him with precedents, and teach him how, in the first case, to find supporters and allies; in the second, to incite co-operation; and in the third, to give vigour to the conservative forces which tend to maintain, as he desires, the existing state of things. In the case of contemporaries, it is difficult to obtain an insight into their purposes; because, as their words and actions are dictated by a desire of accommodating themselves to the necessity of the hour, and of keeping up appearances, the truth is too often obscured. Whereas the transactions of the past admit of being tested by naked fact; and accordingly display without disguise the motives and purposes of the several persons engaged; and teach us from what sort of people to expect favour, active kindness, and assistance, or the reverse. They give us also many opportunities of distinguishing who would be likely to pity us, feel indignation at our wrongs, and defend our cause,—a power that contributes very greatly to national as well as individual security. Neither the writer nor the reader of history, therefore, should confine his attention to a bare statement of facts: he must take into account all that preceded, accompanied, or followed them. For if you take from history all explanation of cause, principle, and motive, and of the adaptation of the means to the end, what is left is a mere panorama without being instructive; and, though it may please for the moment, has no abiding value.

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