On historical ignorance

It is quite natural that the prosperous people in our time should know no history. If they did know it, they would know the highly unedifying history of how they became prosperous. It is quite natural, I say, that they should know no history: but why do they think they do? Here is a sentence taken at random from a book written by one of the most cultivated of our younger critics, very well written and most reliable on its own subject, which is a modern one. The writer says: “There was little social or political advance in the Middle Ages” until the Reformation and the Renaissance. Now I might just as well say that there was little advance in science and invention in the nineteenth century until the coming of William Morris: and excuse myself by saying that I am not personally interested in spinning-jennies and jelly-fish — which is indeed the case. For that is all that the writer really means: he means he is not personally interested in heralds and mitred abbots. That is all right; but why, when writing about something that did not exist in the Middle Ages, should he dogmatize about a story that he has evidently never heard? Yet it might be a very interesting story.

A little while before the Norman Conquest, countries such as our own were a dust of yet feeble feudalism, continually scattered in eddies by barbarians, barbarians who had never ridden a horse. There was hardly a brick or stone house in England. There were scarcely any roads except beaten paths: there was practically no law except local customs. Those were the Dark Ages out of which the Middle Ages came. Take the Middle Ages two hundred years after the Norman Conquest and nearly as long before the beginnings of the Reformation. The great cities have arisen; the burghers are privileged and important; Labour has been organized into free and responsible Trade Unions; the Parliaments are powerful and disputing with the princes; slavery has almost disappeared; the great Universities are open and teaching with the scheme of education that Huxley so much admired; Republics are proud and civic as the Republics of the pagans stand like marble statues along the Mediterranean; and all over the North men have built such churches as men may never build again. And this, the essential part of which was done in one century rather than two, is what the critics call “little social or political advance”. There is scarcely an important modern institution under which he lives, from that college that trained him to the Parliament that rules him, that did not make its main advance in that time.

If anyone thinks I write this out of pedantry, I hope to show him in a moment that I have a humbler and more practical object. I want to consider the nature of ignorance, and I would begin by saying that in every scholarly and academic sense I am very ignorant myself. As we say of a man like Lord Brougham that his general knowledge was great, I should say that my general ignorance was very great. But that is just the point. It is a general knowledge and a general ignorance. I know little of history; but I know a little of most history. I don’t know much about Martin Luther and his Reformation, let us say; but I do know that it made a great deal of difference. Well, not knowing that the rapid progress of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries made a great deal of difference is quite as extraordinary as never having heard of Martin Luther. I am not well-informed about Buddhists; but I know that they are interested in philosophy. Believe me, not knowing that Buddhists are interested in philosophy is not a bit more astounding than not knowing that the medievals were interested in political progress or experiment. I do not know much about Frederick the Great. I was frightened in my boyhood by the row of Carlyle’s volumes on the subject: there seemed to be an awful lot to know. But, in spite of my fears, I should have been able to guess with some sort of probability the sort of substance such volumes would contain. I should have guessed (and I believe not incorrectly) that the volumes would have contained the word “Prussia” in one or more places; that war would be touched on from time to time; that some mention might be made of treaties and boundaries; that the word “Silesia” might be found by diligent search, as well as the names of Maria Teresa and Voltaire; that somewhere in all those volumes their great author would mention whether Frederick the Great had a father, whether he was ever married, whether he had any great friends, whether he had a hobby or a literary taste of any kind, whether he died on the battle-field or on his bed, and so on and so on. If I had summoned the audacity to open one of these volumes, I should probably have found something on these general lines at least.

Now change the image; and conceive the ordinary young well-educated journalist or man of letters from a public school or a college when he stands in front of a still longer row of still larger books from the libraries of the Middle Ages — let us say, all the volumes of St. Thomas Aquinas. I say that in nine cases out of ten that well-educated young man does not know what he would find in those leathery volumes. He thinks he would find discussions about the powers of angels in the matter of balancing themselves on needles; and so he would. But I say he does not know that he would find a schoolman discussing nearly all the things that Herbert Spencer discussed: politics, sociology, forms of government, monarchy, liberty, anarchy, property, communism, and all the varied notions that are in our time fighting for the time of “Socialism”. Or, again, I do not know much about Mohammed or Mohammedanism. I do not take the Koran to bed with me every night. But, if I did on some particular night, there is one sense at least in which I know what I should not find there. I apprehend that I should not find the work abounding in strong encouragements to the worship of idols; that the praises of polytheism would not be loudly sung; that the character of Mohammed would not be subjected to anything resembling hatred and derision; and that the great modern doctrine of the unimportance of religion would not be needlessly emphasised. But again change the image; and fancy the modern man (the unhappy modern man) who took a volume of medieval theology to bed. He would expect to find a pessimism that is not there, a fatalism that is not there, a love of the barbaric that is not there, a contempt for reason that is not there. Let him try the experiment. It will do one of two good things: send him to sleep — or wake him up.

The Illustrated London News, 15 November 1913.

Published in: on January 3, 2018 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

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