« PreviousContinue »
Ilis Independence and Truthfulness.
egoism, founded as it was upon so rich and ample a scholarship, helped greatly to advance his historical investigations, although it also here led him sometimes into error. It must, we fancy, however, have but little qualified him for many of the subtile and accommodating duties of diplomacy; and, in fact, there is abundant evidence that the diplomatic yoke never sat easily on his impatient and independent spirit. He was not the stuff to make a courtier of in any sense. There is a story told by Bunsen (pp. 427-8,) which very well illustrates this, but which we cannot afford space to quote.
The thorough truthfulness characteristic of the man was even more conspicuously characteristic of the scholar and the writer. We know nothing, indeed, more noble and exalted than his example here--nothing more impressive than his statement of the principles which, in this respect, ought to animate the student, contained in his famous letter to "a young man who wished to devote himself to philology." This is altogether a most precious letter, the most perfect rubric of study we know anywhere to be found; we would have it engraven on the heart of every student. How full of truth and value, for instance, the following:
"You do not write simply enough to express without pretension a thought that is dear to your mind. That you cannot give richness and soundness to your style is no subject for blame; for though there have been some, especially in former times, who by the particularly fortunate guidance given to a peculiar talent, have been able to do this at your age, such perfection is, as a rule, out of the question. Fulness and maturity of expression presuppose a maturity of soul which can only arrive in the progress of its development. But what we always can and always ought to do, is not to strive after the semblance of more than we can perform, and to think, and express ourselves with straightforwardness and correctness."-Vol. ii. pp. 225-6. And again,
"All writing should be nothing but the symbol of the thought and speech." "Everything must be based upon thought, and the thought must shape the structure of the language.". "If our thoughts do not satisfy us, if we turn and twist in the consciousness of our poverty, writing will become a horrible labour to us."-P. 229. But it is with the earnest manner in which he inculcates truthfulness that we are at present concerned.
"But above all things," he 66 says, we must preserve our truthfulness in science so pure, that we must eschew absolutely every false appearance that we must not write the very smallest thing as certain of which we are not fully convinced-that when we have to affirm a conjecture, we must strenuously endeavour to exhibit the precise degree of probability we attach to it. If we do not ourselves indicate
our own errors, where possible, even such as it is unlikely that any one will ever discover-if when we lay down our pen we cannot say in the sight of God, upon strict examination, I have not knowingly written anything that is not true, and have never deceived, either regarding myself, or others; I have not exhibited my most inveterate opponent in any light which I could not justify upon my death-bed; if we cannot do this, then study and literature render us unrighteous and sinful."-Pp. 230, 231.
Then, after alluding to his own practice of never quoting at second hand, and remarking that he would not blame others who are less strict in this respect, supposing that they either mention that their citations are borrowed, or that it is really a matter of indifference to them whether or not people consider them to be more profoundly learned than they truly are, he proceeds
"But of a young man I require absolutely, and without indulgence, were it only as an exercise of virtue, the most scrupulous truthfulness in literary as in all other matters, that it may become a part of his very nature, or rather that the truthfulness which God has implanted in his nature may remain there. With this weapon alone can we fight our way through the world. The hour in which my Marcus should tell an untruth, or give himself the semblance of a merit that he did not possess, would make me very unhappy; it would be the fall in Paradise."-P. 232.
Even by those who may consider Niebuhr somewhat rigid in his exactions here, it will not be disputed that there is almost a sublimity about the truthfulness of the man who could thus write. He could not brook that the shadow of a falsehood should rest on any work of his. There was no charm or grace -no drapery of external decoration that could compensate, in his eyes, for the unveiled aspect of truth. Loving poetry from his heart, and possessing a warm and lively sympathy with its beautiful fictions in every age, he yet loved truth better. The pale sparkle of this lustrous gem delighted him more than the brilliancy of the finest invention. And this is the key to all his labours on Roman History. It was not in the least degree a merely destructive zeal that led him to tear off the poetic vesture in which that history had become hidden. It was not because the imaginative picture of Rome's early career had no attractions for him. On the contrary, on every page of his history there is the evidence how deeply it interested him-with what a thorough and genial love he dwelt on it. But it was because he longed to penetrate to the traces of fact that lay concealed beneath the embellishments of the picture. The mere work of sceptical demolition was not in any sense peculiarly his. It did not remain for him to doubt for the first time the historical veracity of the
Ilis Poetic Insight.
common narrative transmitted by Livy. But his was eminently the merit of discerning the true beneath all the distortions of poetic colouring. The ruins were not made by him; they lay already scattered around. But his it was, for the first time, to seize, in some degree, the outline and form of the ruined and obliterated structure.
While marking a stern truthfulness as among the most prominent characteristics of Niebuhr, it would indeed be a strangely erroneous conclusion to judge him deficient in the warmth and sensibility of genius. His letters everywhere shew him, on the contrary, to be the child of feeling and enthusiasm. The deep tenderness of his nature breaks out in all relations. All the aspects of life especially-all that is lovely, or grand, or touching in human passion or affection, had a living interest for him, and swayed him with a living power. His heart moved in tremulous response to all that is ennobling and beautiful in human character or conduct. His historical intuition was eminently vivid and poetic. It was as an animate and shaping picture, in which the forms of ancient Life presented themselves in clear and distinct colouring, that the Past stood before him. And as to his labours on the early Roman History, even in their most negative aspect, what were they but just the analysis and reproduction, in its genuine form, of the poetic element which had become so largely involved in it? Far from discovering any lack of poetic appreciation, it was the very depth and delicacy of this power in him which enabled him to reclaim for Poetry those fine old stories which not even the most tedious and insipid narratives of ancient and modern compilers had succeeded in utterly mutilating and destroying.
There is one point, but indistinctly intimated in our previous detail of Niebuhr's life, which might have claimed from us a somewhat minute and patient consideration-we mean his religious convictions. We had intended to dwell perhaps at some length on this point; but we prefer, upon reflection, to allow him to speak for himself, with but slight comment on our part. The subject is one not to be hastily dealt with, and our space is rapidly drawing to a close.
Niebuhr, as we have already hinted, had but little sympathy with those vague and abstruse speculations so congenial to his countrymen. He seems never for a moment to have lost himself in the region of Transcendental Philosophy. His deep love of reality, and warm sympathy with all the practical interests of human life, saved him from this. He had grown up, however, amid the theological "enlightenment" of the old Rationalism, and although, as he afterwards says, contemplating it with disgust, he yet could not fail to own its influence in some degree. If in no other respect, he felt its effects in the want of any adequate
religious instruction in his youth. It is not much to be wondered at, therefore, if his riper views should bear the trace of this if a vague uncertainty should still have haunted as its shadow the faith to which his heart clung. His early historical studies, too, did not certainly tend to check the sceptical influences under which he had been educated-but rather the reverse. The following extract from the deeply interesting letter addressed to an anonymous correspondent, may serve to place the measure of his scepticism, and the causes which operated in its production, before the reader :—
"Faith, properly so called, in a much wider sense than religious faith, it is either not given to every nature to possess, or the possibility of its taking root and flourishing may be annihilated by an inharmonious intellectual life. The soil may be fertile, but the climate ungenial. My intellect early took a sceptical direction. With my whole attention bent upon the real and the historical, eager to comprehend and to get to the bottom of everything, I let my thoughts follow the natural association of ideas, without endeavouring to guide them into any particular channel; and in this respect had neither, properly speaking, a truly creative imagination, nor any strong feeling of the need of something beyond the boundaries of experience to satisfy my heart; or perhaps I let both perish for want of nourishment. Altogether, it was very seldom that the consciousness of a thought vanished from my mind in the contemplation of its import and object. To this, unquestionably my natural turn of mind, was added the influence of miserable religious instruction, and of the living study of classical antiquity. Thus, it was in riper years, and through the study of history, that I came back for the first time to the sacred books, which I read in a purely critical spirit, and with the purpose of studying their contents as the groundwork of one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of the world. This was not a mood in which real faith could spring up, for it was that of the Protestantism of the present day. I needed no Wolfenbüttel fragments to discover the discrepancies of the Gospels, and the impossibility of even drawing the outlines of a tenable history of the life of Jesus by such criticism. In the Messianic allusions to the Old Testament, I could recognise no prophecies, and could explain all the passages adduced with perfect ease. But here, as in every historical subject, when I contemplated the immeasurable gulf between the narrative and the facts narrated, this disturbed me no further. He, whose earthly life and sorrows were depicted, had for me a perfectly real existence, and his whole history had the same reality, even if it were not related with literal exactness in any single point. Hence also the fundamental fact of miracles which, according to my conviction, must be conceded, unless we adopt the not merely incomprehensible but absurd hypothesis, that the Holiest was a deceiver, and his disciples either dupes or liars; and that deceivers had preached a holy religion, in which self-renunciation is everything, and in which there is nothing tending towards the erection of a priestly rule—
His Religious Convictions.
nothing that can be acceptable to vicious inclinations. As regards a miracle in the strictest sense, it really only requires an unprejudiced and penetrating study of nature, to see that those related are as far as possible from absurdity, and a comparison with legends, or the pretended miracles of other religions, to perceive by what a different spirit they are animated."-Vol. i. pp. 339, 340.
It will be seen even from this, ample as the confession of unbelief may appear to many, how far Niebuhr was from the desolating naturalism that at this time still held so many minds. in Germany. If the purity and simplicity of his faith were marred-if his intellect and his heart were unreconciled on the ground of Scripture-he yet obviously possessed a clear recognition of the divine mission of the Saviour and of the divine power of that faith which he taught. The story of the Life of Jesus seemed to him indeed fragmentary and incomplete; but the Life itself was a reality. The picture was broken and defaced, but there were traces enough of divine harmony and beauty in it. And the Christian convictions of Niebuhr seem to have gathered strength and clearness, as his mind continued to dwell on the facts of the Christian history. Writing from Rome in 1818, two years later than the letter from which we have just quoted, he expresses himself with confidence and earnestness concerning the reality of historical Christianity. The revered Neander was deeply touched with his “ golden words," and hailed them as a signal testimony to the truth "from one of the greatest men of modern times." "In my opinion," he says, "he is not a Protestant Christian who does not receive the historical facts of Christ's earthly life in their literal acceptation, with all its miracles, as equally authentic with any event recorded in history, and whose belief in them is not as firm and tranquil as his belief in the latter; who has not the most absolute faith in the articles of the Apostle's creed, taken in their grammatical sense; who does not consider every doctrine and every precept of the New Testament as undoubted divine revelation in the sense of the Christians of the first century, who knew nothing of a theopneustia. Moreover, a Christianity after the fashion of the modern philosophers and Pantheists, without a personal God, without immortality, without human individuality, without historical faith, is no Christianity at all to me; though it may be a very intellectual, very ingenious philosophy. I have often said that I do not know what to do with a metaphysical God, and that I will have none but the God of the Bible, who is heart to heart with us."
We will only say further on this matter, that whatever may have been defective in Niebuhr's theoretical views of Christianity, his life shews not feebly the beautiful traces of Christian virtue. In the numerous and varied letters of these volumes, the man