16 April 2012

Compromise and Hedging

Charles Oman, Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906), pp. 12-13:
In sober fact it is impossible to write history that every man, whatever his race, creed, or politics, can accept -- unless indeed we are dealing with ages and problems so remote from our own that the personal element does not appear. Conceivably it may be possible to talk of Khammurabi or Rameses or some statesman of China of the seventh century b.c. without offending any man. It is not possible to do so with Pericles or Caesar -- much less with Hildebrand or Calvin, Napoleon or Bismarck. The historian whose verdict on any one of those crucial personages is to be equally satisfactory to everybody, must perform a sort of tour de force of compromise and hedging, or confine himself to the bald statement of facts accomplished. The moment that he dares to draw a deduction or point a moral, the personal element inevitably makes itself felt. Imagine an appreciation of Bismarck that equally pleased a patriotic Frenchman and a patriotic German! 
Therefore I am practically driven to concede to Froude that history must be subjective. No great book ever has been or ever will be written by a historian who suppressed self as he wrote each word: what such a book may conceivably gain in accuracy it loses in spontaneity and conviction. The passionless scientist chronicling the antics of puppets with whom he feels no sympathy, for whom he has no moral like or dislike, does not tend to produce a readable literary output. I can safely leave the view of those who hold that history has nothing to do with literature -- any more than it has anything to do with morals -- and the view advocated by Froude to fight out their duel in the public arena, little doubting which will be the winner.
I have seen a summary of James Anthony Froude's inaugural lecture on the study of history (made in October 1892 when he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford) in Julia Markus' biography, but I have not been able to find the original text online or in the university library.