Front Page Titles (by Subject) MR. GROTE. 1 - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 5 (Historical & Financial Essays; The English Constitution)
Return to Title Page for The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 5 (Historical & Financial Essays; The English Constitution)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
MR. GROTE. 1 - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 5 (Historical & Financial Essays; The English Constitution) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 5.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
“Mr. Grote, a merchant who reads German,” writes Mr. Crabb Robinson, in an early entry of his diary, and this is perhaps the earliest mention in print or in literature of the great historian whom we have this week lost. And though in detail the entry is wrong, though Mr. Grote never was exactly a merchant, yet in an essential point it indicates his characteristic excellence. Mr. Grote was not a mere literary man, and no mere literary man could have written his history. He was essentially a practical man of business, a banker trained in the City, a politician trained in Parliament, and every page in his writings bears witness that he was so. Just as in every sentence of Thucydides there lurks some trace of exercised sagacity fit for the considerate decision of weighty affairs, though by fate excluded from them, so in every page of Grote there is a flavour not exactly of this quality, but yet others only to be learned in the complex practical life of modern times, and equally necessary for it. At the beginning he impressed the shrewd diarist as pre-eminently a man of business, and pre-eminently a man of business he remained to the end.
Since 1842 he devoted himself so exclusively to literature that his powers in action were little known to younger men. Only a few now remember what he was as a banker and what he was as a politician. But for many years he has been Vice-Chancellor of the University of London and Vice-President and President of University College, and those who have seen him in those capacities well know that he had all the faculties of a great administrator and many of the faculties of a great ruler. Almost all the important measures of these bodies wear the almost personal mark of his wide knowledge and strenuous decision, and it was difficult in both to carry much in opposition to them.
The style of the History of Greece shows the practical taste of its author in its most marked quality,—its reality. As it is twelve thick volumes long, it cannot be called a short book, but there is not a word added for the sake of effect. Every word was written because it was wanted to express the full meaning of the writer, and because the writer would be content with nothing less that his full meaning. Most writers on ancient subjects leave their readers to suppose something, require of them to fill in some links in the chain of reasoning. But Mr. Grote argues everything out. He tries historical questions as if he were a judge expounding them to a jury. He states every probability, weighs each witness, discusses every reason. It never strikes him that his readers may not wish to go through these processes, that they may not have as much interest in the subject as he has himself. He evidently thinks they ought to wish to know it all, even if they do not. They are impanelled to try the issue, and they are bound in conscience not to relax their attention till they have heard all which can be said about it. The conscientious historian will not let them off a single reason or permit them to omit the minutest authority. The whole style says, from the author to the reader, “Now I want to explain this to you, and I know you want to have it explained to you, therefore let us go all through it”. How different this is from most historians we all know. Most of them never give their readers credit for a sustained interest in the matter in hand; they think that their style must be ornamental or no one will read them; that they must hurry on quick or no one will have patience with them. Probably at times Mr. Grote is needlessly full, and certainly on many occasions he argues the same point too often; the case of the “Sophists” is argued in his “Plato” at least a hundred times, still, on the whole a reader wanting to understand Greek history will be refreshed by a writer “who has no style,” who at least does not think of his style, who pours all his ideas plainly forth, who assumes his readers to be as really interested in the events as if they were his own money matters.
The views of evidence in Mr. Grote’s history are as practical as the style. “Why do I believe events in common life?” he asks. “Because I have the evidence of honest eye-witnesses for them, either given to me at first hand; or communicated through trustworthy channels, and under the same circumstances and no other, will I accept events in history.” Tried by this rigid rule, the Argonautic expedition, the Trojan war, the legends of Thebes vanish alike, and vanish wholly. Sir G. Lewis upon Niebuhr is not more contemptuous than Mr. Grote on the constructive critics—on those who try to make bricks without straw—who think they can evolve “certified fact” from “uncertified fiction,” who have canons of probability, or, what is more convenient, an internal tact by which they learn which is truth and which is legend. Mr. Grote’s questions in all cases are,—who saw this, and how do you know that he saw it? He will listen to nothing else. We need not, indeed we cannot, discuss here whether this is a good theory of evidence or a bad, a complete one or an incomplete, we cite it only as showing the practical bent and bearing of Mr. Grote’s mind. He brings historical evidence “out of the clouds”; he reduces it to the same sort of evidence as that upon which a banker discounts a bill, a politician believes a contemporary conversation.
Practical men have always an object in what they do; and strange as it seems to those who “think over thoughts and live in other days,” Mr. Grote’s object was to refute Mitford. That clever writer is now unread and forgotten, but in his day he was a keen Tory, and discussed the affairs of Athens in the spirit of a Tory. The contest between oligarchy and democracy, between the rule of the many and the rule of the few, was as vigorous in the time of the Peloponnesian war as in that of the first French Revolution, when Mitford lived. Being a Tory, he fell upon the Liberals of Athens as vigorously, as keenly, as unscrupulously as he would have fallen on Mr. Fox and Lord Grey. If there could have been a bill of Pains and Penalties against Cleon, Mr. Mitford would have produced a bill of Pains and Penalties. As he could not do this, he amassed every prejudice and accumulated every innuendo. In Mr. Grote’s youth, more than forty years since, this party pamphlet was in orthodox England received history, and he determined to reply to it. The original design of the twelve volumes, which begin at Troy and end with the death of Alexander, was to refute the accusations of Mitford against Greek Liberals, and expose the false panegyrics of Mitford upon Greek aristocrats. There is much else, of course, in Grote’s history, much else far more valuable. This was the first thought, the young man’s dream of what it was to be.
Mr. Grote was peculiarly likely to write such a reply, for he belonged to a remarkable class of most vigorous Liberals. They were called the “Philosophic Radicals” forty years ago, and had a curious, hard, compact, consistent creed. They were in the most anomalous position possible as politicians. They were unpopular Democrats; they liked the people, but the people did not like them or their ideas; they said that the mass of the nation ought to have direct conclusive power, but the mass of the nation said they would not on any account have such power. To preach that the numerical majority ought to rule to a numerical majority which does not wish to rule is painful. A barbarous demagogue, no doubt, will shout till the people hears. But the “Philosophic Radicals” were not barbarous demagogues, but grave, careful reasoners. They might defend Cleon in theory, but they had no tinge of the Cleon in practice. Some, Mr. Grote even perhaps, would not have borne at all easily the liberties which Cleon would have taken with him. The philosophic Radicals had a lesson to teach the people which the people did not wish to learn, and they were decidedly the last sort of people to make them learn it. It was natural that a man like Mr. Grote, with ample leisure and conscious of great literary power, should turn to a more congenial occupation.
Around the original anti-Mitford thesis Mr. Grote accumulated the most enormous store of miscellaneous knowledge. There was perhaps no subject that he could possibly bring into his theme which he did not bring in, and on which he did not write as fully as it was decent to write. Nor does the trumpet ever give an uncertain sound. Sir George Lewis justly said that Dr. Thirlwall was like Lord Eldon; “he even used his acuteness in order to avoid coming to a decision”. But no one would say this of Mr. Grote. Perhaps he discusses a million subjects or more, and has expressed more than a million distinct opinions. No doubt this omnivorous discussion and this universal copiousness have impaired the merits of the History. The main subject is buried under the collateral, and only a very careful reader can always bear in mind whence he came or perceive why he is going where he seems to be taken. Nor has Mr. Grote, as a mere narrator, any peculiar charm; he tells his story plainly aad fairly, but he does not make you read for the sake of the story. In ancient history, however, mere narrative is almost a secondary element. So many cardinal facts are omitted, and so many important inferences denied, that a perpetual disquisition must be mixed with the regular narrative, and in disquisition Mr. Grote has been very rarely equalled, and never surpassed. That Macaulay’s famous criticism, “too many plums and no suet,” is applicable to Grote’s history is certain, but Greek history is of necessity almost entirely “plums”.
That the political part of Grote’s history is much better than most of the other parts every one will admit. Scarcely any one will now think the treatment of the mythology sufficient. “Prehistoric” speculation, as we now call it, might be made to elucidate the opening part of Greek history. But comparative mythology and prehistoric speculation are subjects which have been quite elaborated afresh since Mr. Grote dealt with the earliest Greece. If they had been known in 1846, we should have had an ample dissertation on them; probably many dissertations. There are defects of omission, and there are other (as most people will think) defects of commission. To estimate Grote’s great work, the greatest philosophical problems and the deepest religious questions must be discussed; on almost every one of them he has expressly given his opinion, or not obscurely hinted it. But we cannot deal with these great subjects now. Gibbon said he was sustained by the hope that “a hundred years hence I might still continue to be abused”. Abuse is not the word for Mr. Grote, but a hundred years hence his writings will still continue to be the ground of controversy and the basis of discussion. The scholarship and the mode of teaching grave history in our time will be judged of hereafter by the History of Greece more than by any other work. “Those who go down to posterity,” said Mr. Disraeli, both wittily and wisely, “are about as rare as planets,” and Mr. Grote will be one of the few in this generation.
[1 ] This article was published in the Spectator of 24th June, 1871.—E. Bagehot.