Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 37.djvu/650

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tive genius, such as the old Arabian Nights or the modern Shaving of Shagpat. It is not strictly needful for my present purpose that I should say anything about narratives which are professedly fictitious. Yet it may be well, perhaps, if I disclaim any intention of derogating from their value, when I insist upon the paramount necessity of recollecting that there is no sort of relation between the ethical, or the aesthetic, or even the scientific importance of such works, and their worth as historical documents. Unquestionably, to the poetic artist, or even to the student of psychology, Hamlet and Macbeth may be better instructors than all the books of a wilderness of professors of æsthetics or moral philosophy. But, as evidence of occurrences in Denmark, or in Scotland, at the times and places indicated, they are out of court; the profoundest admiration for them, the deepest gratitude for their influence, are consistent with the knowledge that, historically speaking, they are worthless fables, in which any foundation of reality that may exist is submerged beneath the imaginative superstructure.

At present, however, I am not concerned to dwell upon the importance of fictitious literature and the immensity of the work which it has effected in the education of the human race. I propose to deal with the much more limited inquiry, Are there two other classes of consecutive narratives (as distinct from statements of individual facts), or only one? Is there any known historical work which is throughout exactly true, or is there not? In the case of the great majority of histories the answer is not doubtful: they are all only partially true. Even those venerable works which bear the names of some of the greatest of ancient Greek and Roman writers, and which have been accepted by generation after generation, down to modern times, as stores of unquestionable truth, have been compelled by scientific criticism, after a long battle, to descend to the common level, and to confess to a large admixture of error. I might fairly take this for granted; but it may be well that I should intrench myself behind the very apposite words of a historical authority who is certainly not obnoxious to even a suspicion of skeptical tendencies:

Time was—and that not very long ago—when all the relations of ancient authors concerning the old world were received with a ready belief; and an unreasoning and uncritical faith accepted with equal satisfaction the narrative of the campaigns of Cæsar and of the doings of Romulus, the account of Alexander's marches and of the conquests of Semiramis. We can most of us remember when, in this country, the whole story of regal Rome, and even the legend of the Trojan settlement in Latium, were seriously placed before boys as history and discoursed of as unhesitatingly and in as dogmatic a tone as the tale of the Catiline conspiracy or the conquest of Britain. . . . But all this is now changed. The last century has seen the birth and growth