Page:Studies of a Biographer 1.djvu/21

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7
NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY

that such abilities were not applied in more obviously useful fields. What do we care whether one or another obscure country squire in the sixteenth or seventeenth century had the merit of being progenitor of Washington? Can it really matter whether a particular volume was printed at Rotterdam or at Venice—in the year 1600 or ten years sooner or later? I will not discuss the moral question. At any rate, one may perhaps urge, it is better than spending brain-power upon chess problems, which is yet an innocent form of amusement. Such a labourer may incidentally provide data of real importance to the political or literary historian: he reduces, once for all, one bit of chaos to order, and helps to raise the general standard of accurate research. He is pretty certain to confer a benefit, if not a very important benefit, upon mankind; whereas, if he fancied himself a philosopher, he might be wasting his labour as hopelessly as in squaring the circle. He is at least laying bricks, not blowing futile soap-bubbles.

The labours of innumerable inquirers upon obscure topics have, as a matter of fact, accumulated vast stores of knowledge. A danger has shown itself that the historian may be