« ForrigeFortsæt »
God, my Creator, have pity on your poor servant John Gerson. He had the happiness to die poor, in some measure, in the midst of the poor, having scarce enough left for a last foundation of the sisters of charity for the instruction of girls, and to take care of the sick. I hope the reader will pardon this digression, since the sole motive of it is, to express my gratitude for a master to whom I have so many obligations.
INTRODUCTION. It is not without reason that [a] History has always been considered as the light of ages, the depositary of events, the faithful evidence of truth, the source of prudence and good counsel, and the rule of conduct and manners. [b] Confined without it to the bounds of the age and country wherein we live, and shut up within the narrow circle of such branches of knowledge as are peculiar to us, and the limits of our own private reflections, we continue in a kind of infancy, which leaves us strangers to the rest of the world, and profoundly ignorant of all that has preceded, or even now surrounds us. [c] What is the small number of years that make up the longest life, or what the extent of country which we are able to possess or travel over, but an imperceptible point in comparison of the vast regions of the universe, and the long series of ages, which have succeeded one another since the creation of the world ?And yet all we are capable of knowing must be limited to this imperceptible point, unless we call in the study of History to our assistance, which opens to us everyage
[a] Historia testis temporum,lux omni. Senec. de Consol. ad Mar, veritatis, vita memoriæ, magistra ciam. cap. 20. vitæ, nuncia vetustatis. Cic. lib. 2. Nullum seculum magnis ingeniis de Orat. n. 36.
clusum est, nullum non cogitationi  Nescire quid antea quàm na. pervium, Id, tus; sis acciderit, id est semper esse Si magnitudine animi egredi hupuerum. Cic. in Orat. n. 120. manæ imbecillitatis angustias libet,
[c] Terram hanc, cuin populis . multum per quod spatie nur tempourbibusque ... puncti loco poni- ris est. . . Licet in consortiuin om. mus, ad universa referentes : mi. nis ævi pariter incedere. ld, de norem portionem ætas nostra quàm Brev. Vitæ, c. 14. puncti habet, si tempori comparctus yoL. II.
and every country, keeps up a correspondence betwixt us and the great men of antiquity, sets all their actions, all their atchievements, virtues, and faults before our eyes; and by the prudent reflections it either presents, or gives us an opportunity of making, soon teaches us to be wise before our time, and in a manner far superior to all the lessons of the greatest masters.
History may properly be called the common school of mankind, equally open and useful both to great and small, to princes and subjects, and still more necessary to princes and great men, than to all others. For, how can awful truth approach them amidst the crowd of flatterers, which surround them on all sides, and are continually commending and admiring them, orin other words corrupting and poisoning their hearts and understandings ; how, I say, can truth make her feeble voice be heard amidst such tumult and confusion? How venture to lay before them the duties and slaveries of royalty? How shew them wherein their true glory consists, and represent to them, that if they will look back to the original of their institution, they may clearly find [d] they were made for the people; and not the people for them? How put them in mind of their faults, make them apprehend the just judgment of posterity, and disperse the thick clouds, which the vain phantom of their greatness, and the inebriation of their fortune, have formed around them?
These services, which are so necessary and important, can be rendered them only by the assistance of History, which alone has the power of speaking freely to them, and the right of passing an absolute judgmnent upon the actions of princes, no less than fame, which [e] Seneca calls liberrimam principum judicem, “ the most free judge of princes.” Their abilities may be extolled, their wit and valour admired, and their ex
[d] Assiduis bonitatis argumen- Clem. lib. 1. cap. 19. tis probavit, non rempublicam suam [e] Sen. de Consol. ad Marciam, esse, sed se reipublicæ. Senec, de cap. 4.
ploits and conquests boasted of; but if all these have no foundation in truth and justice, History will tacitly pass sentence upon them under borrowed names. The greatest part of the most famous conquerors they will find treated as public calamities, the enemies of mankind, and [f] the robbers of nations, who hurried on by a restless and blind ambition, carry desolation from country to country, [g] and like an inundation, or a fire, ravage all that they meet in their way.
They will see a Caligula, a Nero, and a Domitian, who were praised to excess during their lives, become the horror and execration of mankind after their deaths ; whereas Titus, Trajan, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius, are still looked upon as the delights of the world, for having made use of their power only to do good. Thus we may say, that History is to them a tribunal raised in their life-time, like that which was formerly erected amongst the Egyptians, where princes, like private men, were tried and condemned after their death, and that hence they may learn beforehand, the sentence which will for ever be passed upon their reputation. It is History, in fine,  which fixes the seal of immortality upon actions truly great, and sets a mark of infamy on vices, which po after-age can ever obliterate. It is by History that mistaken merit, and oppressed virtue, appeal to the uncorruptible tribunal of posterity, which renders them the justice their own age has sometimes refused them, and without respect of persons and the fear of a power, which subsists no more, condemns the unjust abuse of authority with inexorable rigour.
There is no age or condition, which may not derive the same advantages from History; and what I have said of princes and conquerors, comprehends
f] Jer. iv. 7.
animantium exaruit. Senec. lib. 3. [g] Philippi aut Alexandri la. Nat. Quæst. in Præfat. trocinia cæterorumque, qui exitio [b] Præcipuum munus annalium gentium clari, non minores fuere reor, ne virtutes sileantur, utque pestes mortalium, quàm inundatio, pravis dictis factisque ex posteritate quâ planum omne persusum est, & infamiâ metus sit. 'Taçit. An. quam conflagratio, quâ magna pars nal. lib. 3. cap. 65.
also in some measure all persons in power, ministers of state, generals of armies, officers, magistrates, governors of provinces, prelates, ecclesiastical superiors both secular and regular, fathers and mothers, masters and mistresses; in a word, whoever have authority over others. For such persons have sometimes more haughtiness, pride and humour in a very limited station than kings in theirs, and carry their despotic disposition and arbitrary power to a greater length. History therefore is of great advantage, to lay down useful lessons to them all, and present them with a faithtul mirror of their duties and obligations by an unsuspected han and therety make them sensible, that they are all con vituted for the sake of their inferiors, and not their inferiors for them.
Thus History, when it is well taught, becomes a school of morality for all mankind. It condemns vice, throws off the mask from false virtues, lays open popular errors and prejudices, dispels the delusive charms of riches, and all the vain pomp which dazzles the imagination, and shews by a thousand examples, that are more availing than all reasonings whatsoever, that nothing is great and commendable but honour and probity.
From the esteem and admiration, which the most corrupt cannot refuse to the great' and good actions which History lays before them, it confirms the great truth, that virtue is man's real good, and alone renders him truly great and valuable. [i] This virtue we are taught by History to revere, and to discern its beauty and brightness through the veils of poverty, adversity, and obscurity, and sometimes also of disgrace and infamy; and on the other hand it inspires us with the contempt
[i] Si, quemadmodum visus ocu- illam, quamvis sordido obtectam. lorum quibusdam medicamentis Rursus æquè militiam å ærum. acui solet & repurgari, sic & nos nosi animi veternum perspiciemus, acrem animi liberare impedimentis quamvis multus circa divitiarum voluerimus, poterimus perspicere radiantium splendor impediat, & virtutem, etiam obrutam corpore, intuentem hinc honorum, illinc magetiam paupertate oppositâ, & hu- narum potestatum, falsa lux vese militate, & infamiâ ohjacentibus: beret. Senec. Ep. 315ocernemus, inquam, pulchritudinem