Front Page Titles (by Subject) 22.: The Use of History 1827 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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22.: The Use of History 1827 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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The Use of History
Manuscript, John M. Robson. Typescript, Fabian Society. Edited by Harold J. Laski as “Speech on the Use of History,” Bermondsey Book, VI (Mar.-May 1929), 11-17. In a note, Laski says the speech “was delivered by Mill to a meeting of the Utilitarian Society,” and he gives the date as 1823. On the manuscript, however, Mill has written: “SPEECH on the USE OF HISTORY / Spoken in 1827” and “Speech on History.” The debate was probably in the first half of 1827, before Cole became a member of the London Debating Society in May; up to that date he records only two debates, one in January and one in March, on other topics, and he does not mention the first debate in June. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
i come here, Sir, with my mind not fully made up on this interesting question: but as the balance of the evidence as far as I have examined it, seems to me to be on the side of my honourable friend the proposer of the question1 and as, though I may perhaps hesitate to go the full length of the question on the paper, it is my decided opinion formed on mature consideration, that the importance of history as a source of political knowledge has been greatly overrated, I will briefly submit, if the Society will honour me with their patience, the reasons which have led me to embrace a sentiment so greatly at variance with the received opinions of the world. That common notions are on the other side, must be confessed; and though I may surprise some honourable gentlemen by the assertion, I do think it primâ facie evidence against any opinion that it is paradoxical. But it is a common fate of paradoxical opinions, to be thought much more paradoxical than they are: and I think it must have already appeared to any one who has attentively listened to the very luminous speech of the opener, that the opinion he maintains has more the appearance of a paradox than the reality.
Sir—we are not now assembled here to discuss, whether we ought to be guided by experience. No one has yet appeared in this Society to deny that we ought to judge of the future from the past. This remark is perhaps required, because several of the defenders of history appeared to be of opinion that their opponents were chargeable with some such doctrine—and it would seem that according to their ideas the world is divided into two portions, whereof the one, the larger, and therefore I need scarcely say the wiser are votaries of experience, while the rest are followers of theory. Sir, if honourable gentlemen will point out in the whole world a single individual who believes a theory for any reason except because he considers it to be founded upon experience, the justness of this classification may be admitted. No such theorist however can be pointed out, because none such exists. All mankind recognize experience as the sole guide of human affairs, the past as our sole criterion for judging of the future, and if there were to be found a man who thought otherwise which there is not even within the walls of Bedlam we have something better to do than to give ourselves the trouble of refuting him. But there is a right way of consulting experience, and there is a wrong way—And the question now is, which is the right way, and which is the wrong. Our opponents hold that the oracles of experience are written legibly in the page of history—we say that they are not, or, if they are, that like other oracles they are so ambiguous that they might be read to eternity and never understood. We may be wrong; but let us not be accused of despising the precepts of experience, when our whole aim is to discover the rightful interpretation of those precepts which are so much oftener talked of than understood.
All arts have their instruments, and their materials: The instruments and the materials of the art of the politician are the same: they are men. Whatever the politician seeks to effect, on men, and by means of men, it must be effected. Now as soon as this is stated, it appears self-evident, that the knowledge which is necessary to the statesman is knowledge of men: that the experience which he stands in need of, is experience of men: that he who knows mankind best, if he have integrity of purpose, is the best qualified to be a statesman, and that the volume which should be his guide is not the book of history but the book of human nature. I do not here allude to that intimate acquaintance with the darkest recesses of the human heart—that familiarity with the petty passions of petty minds, a familiarity scarcely to be acquired but by him whose own heart reflects to him the image of those secret workings which he seeks to penetrate—in short I mean not what is termed a knowledge of the world by those slaves of avarice and ambition to whom indeed no other world is known. Nor do I mean that nobler knowledge of human nature which consists in a knowledge of the outward signs by which the stronger passions display themselves and which gives to the dramatist all his power over our emotions and to poetry itself the greater part of its charm. But I mean, a knowledge of the causes, rules or influences which govern the actions of mankind, since the actions of mankind are what it is the business of the statesman to regulate, and of those other principles of human nature upon which depends the influence of the social arrangements over their happiness. These principles are far from being obscure or mysterious; they are such as a diligent study of our own minds, together with a careful observation of a few others, are adequate to disclose to us. For it is sufficient to him who designs laws and constitutions, to know well those things in which all mankind agree: though to him who is to administer them and therefore to accommodate his conduct to the peculiar dispositions of the men among whom he is thrown, a knowledge likewise of the varieties of human character is essentially necessary. But all this knowledge is the fruit of experience, and it remains to be seen whether what honourable gentlemen can get from history is more truly the result of experience than this, or safer in the application.
It is scarcely necessary to say that in history no one instance can be a rule for another. One instance might be a rule for another if all the circumstances were the same: but they never are the same. Even those circumstances which we know to exist are never in any two cases the same: and besides these there may be a hundred others which we do not dream of. It may be said that though all the circumstances be not the same, all the material circumstances may. But how can we ever know this? We see the results, only in the gross: We see that under particular laws the people are or seem contented and tranquil, that under particular systems of commercial policy the country seems prosperous, under particular systems of financial policy affluent. But do we see how many hidden causes have contributed to this result, or is there any one circumstance in the physical moral or political state of a nation which without other evidence than this we could boldly pronounce to be totally unconnected with it? The analogy which some honourable gentlemen have attempted to find between a historical fact and a chemical experiment is more plausible than well grounded. In a chemical experiment we can distinguish the cause of an effect from what are merely the surrounding circumstances, for we can alter the surrounding circumstances, and the effect is still produced. We know that the action of the air has nothing to do with the freezing of water, for water will freeze in vacuo. But can we try these experiments in the political world? Can we place a nation in vacuo, and try whether our frigerific mixtures will freeze it and dry it up? No, Sir, the great instrument by which we have penetrated the arcana of the physical world fails us in the political, at least when history is our guide. We cannot there combine and vary the circumstances as we will, we must rest content with the few and unsatisfactory experiments which nature has made. There was a time when our physical knowledge was thus bounded—when we studied outward nature too by mere observation without experiment, when without any artificial arrangement of circumstances we took things in the gross as the hand of nature had left them, and drew from the pages of natural history the whole of our natural philosophy. And what happened? Scarce one of the great laws of nature were ascertained and all mankind floated in the regions of fancy from one airy hypothesis to another, not interrogating nature but their own wild imaginations, adopting and believing as truth anything which would plausibly explain the phenomena which they beheld. So it was during a long succession of ages during which not one spark of true philosophy glimmered on the earth. Then men proceeded upon history. There is only one branch of physical science now in which from the impossibility of experiment we have nothing better than history to go upon, I mean geology: and accordingly there is scarcely one fact in it which is precisely ascertained. It would be a great concession were we to allow to any system of politics which has only history for its basis, as much certainty as is now possessed by geology.
I have thus briefly set forth the grounds of the opinion which I professed in the commencement—that the importance of history in a political point of view is inconsiderable. Weighty however as these reasons appear—and to me they do appear weighty, weightier than the Society at the first glance, will probably esteem them—notwithstanding these reasons, and notwithstanding all the other arguments which were so ably set forth by the opener of the debate, he nevertheless shall not have my vote. And the reason is that however much the political importance of history has been overrated it appears to me utterly impossible to overrate its moral importance.
It is history alone which preserves from oblivion the deeds of the great ones of the earth, of all those who have exercised a direct influence over the destinies of large masses of their fellow creatures. I need not say how vastly it imports those who are subject to these men, those whose happiness depends upon the deeds of these men, that their deeds should be good and not evil. All experience however bears testimony to the extreme difficulty of supplying motives sufficient to keep such men within the line of virtue—it is the grand problem of political science, a problem which not more than two or three nations in the world were ever pretended to have solved. What then would the difficulty be were it not for the consciousness which these men cannot escape from—the consciousness that they live if I may so speak in the presence of posterity? We do not live in so good a world, Sir, that any of the existing inducements to virtue can be spared, nor is the conduct of the rulers of mankind always so exemplary and pure, that we could do without any of the motives which might render it more so. Sir, whatever may be the other failings of statesmen and warriors, it cannot I think be justly complained that they are too patriotic, too disinterested, too just, too modest, too indifferent to pleasure, to power or to wealth. But if they cannot be accused of an immoderate share of virtue although they know that their good and bad actions will be recorded and remembered and that their vices will be detested or their virtues admired to the very latest posterity, what would be their conduct if this check were taken off, if as soon as they had ceased to live their deeds were to pass at once into utter oblivion? I may be told, Sir, that I over-estimate the effect of these motives on bad men. I may be told that such men are indifferent to posthumous fame, and that this delicate sensibility to the opinion of future ages is not to be found in men who can disregard those more palpable inducements to virtuous conduct which their own times afford. Sir, I can afford to concede this point though it is not without many deductions and modifications that I can concede it. I will give up the influence of posthumous fame upon bad men. Upon the good however its influence is not to be disputed. To them at least the esteem and veneration of an endless succession of ages does appear a prize worth struggling for. Short and scanty is the catalogue which history affords of human actions which were at once great and good, but of these were we to omit all such as would not have been done if the doers had not desired a reputation beyond the grave, the residue would be small indeed. Perhaps it is not possible for us—who live in an age where that which deserves moderate praise is generally certain of obtaining fully as much praise as it deserves, and few of whom can probably boast the unenviable distinction of being before our age, with the consequent fate of being persecuted, spurned and treated as ruffians or madmen for holding truths of which when the public mind has opened to receive them some quack of a future century will possibly go down to posterity as the discoverer—it is not for us I say to judge of the feelings of the great men of other times. Most of the men to whom human nature is most deeply indebted, were far above being influenced by the opinions of contemporaries who were unworthy of them. Their reward was prospective—it was sufficient for them to know that one day they would be appreciated, and their exertions were sufficiently stimulated by the proud anticipation of the feelings with which we now regard them. This hope it was which animated Bacon in the execution of his gigantic task—which sustained Galileo in the dungeons of the Inquisition and would have sustained him at the stake.2
But it is not only in this point of view that history renders services to morality which it would not be easy to compensate if history were to be annihilated. It is no trifling aid to all the better principles of our nature to be brought acquainted with those bright examples of sublime virtue joined to the rarest endowments of intellect which, though in small number and at long intervals, history affords, and which it can fall to the lot of few to know familiarly otherwise than in history. The world perhaps has not produced twelve men who have attained to that exalted degree of wisdom and virtue, of which I speak. Yet still it is unspeakably cheering to know that there have been such men. But for them, we should never have known of how high a degree of excellence our species is susceptible. But for them we should never have known how much we have to be proud of, how much to love, how much to admire. It matters not though the Swifts and Bolingbrokes3 and twenty other disappointed candidates for human grandeur, should vent their spleen in reviling human nature because it had not given them all which their ambition grasped at, and because it would not pardon their profligacy in favour of their talents. The ravings of a hundred such men will not disgust the philosopher with his species since it has produced a Turgot.4 That sublime character, whose whole soul was so strictly under the dominion of principle that he had not one wish which did not center in the happiness of mankind—for whose elevated, comprehensive and searching intellect no speculation was too vast, no details too minute, provided they did but conduce to his great and generous purposes—who called from a private station to the councils of his sovereign, sacrificed every personal object in order to free his countrymen from the oppressions under which they groaned, and who actually did more to free them from those oppressions during a few short months than they had ever before ventured even to wish for—who after bearing the bitter and undissembled hatred of the privileged classes and what is yet more difficult to bear, the clamours of a misguided people, rather than abandon those measures which he knew to be good for that people—resigned his office when he found those great objects unattainable, for the sake of which alone he had ever desired it, and who after beholding the ruin of his own prospects with unwet eye wept for the reimposition of the corvée—is it a trifle to know that such a man has been? But a small satisfaction to pay that reverence and adoration to his memory with which he was regarded while living by all that was great and good among his contemporaries? This man was hunted down by one of the most worthless aristocracies which ever existed, as a visionary and a theorist—those epithets by which presumptuous and besotted ignorance never fails to stigmatize all who are wiser than itself, and political profligacy all who are more honest—those epithets by which they who know nothing endeavour to make it appear that the mere fact of knowing something renders a man unfit to be a statesman, and by which those who hold that there ought to be no such thing as public virtue express their cool contempt for those honest fools who are so extremely ignorant as to suppose that there ought.
But I am wandering from my subject on which in truth I have little more to say. But I must repeat that the favorable estimate which cannot but be formed of a species to which such men belonged, is both an incentive to virtue and a source of happiness which no true moralist or philosopher will despise. Imagine who will, that mankind can be happy without thinking well of one another, or that all the excitement which can be afforded by purely selfish pursuits is sufficient to render a man happy who has no others. He who is just starting in his worldly career, and before whose enraptured sight visions of earthly grandeur and the applause of men are now for the first time floating, he may think that these things are sufficient for happiness. But it is he who has obtained these things, or he who even without having obtained them (and there are such men) has sickened of the pursuit, it is for him to feel that it is all hollow, and that it is necessary to the happiness of human beings to love human beings, and therefore necessary to think them deserving of love.
[1 ]Not identified.
[2 ]Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was charged in 1633 by the Inquisition with having transgressed against a decree of 1616 forbidding him to teach Copernican doctrines. Under threat of torture he recanted his views, but in fact was incarcerated for only two days before being released to live out his days in seclusion.
[3 ]Henry Saint-John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), Tory pamphleteer and statesman.
[4 ]Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, baron de l’Aulne (1727-81), economist and financial reformer who served as Comptroller-General for Louis XVI 1774-76.