Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/17

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By Professor Robert Matteson Johnston

HISTORY alone, of all modes of thought, places the reader above his author. While the historian more or less diligently plods along his own narrow path, perhaps the one millionth part of all history, every avenue opens wide to the imagination of those who read him. To them history may mean anything that concerns man and that has a past; not politics only, but art, and science, and music have had their birth and growth; not institutions only, but legends and chronicles and all the masterpieces of literature, reflect the clash of nations and the tragedies of great men. And it is just because the reader is merely a reader that the full joy of history is open to him. He wears no fetters, so that even were he bent on mastering the constitutional documents of the United States he could turn aside with a calm conscience to listen to the echoes of dying Roland's horn in the gorge of Roncevaux or to stand by Cnut watching the North Sea tide as it lapped the old Dane's feet.

In all directions, in almost every branch of literature, history may be discovered, a multiform chameleon; and yet history does not really exist. No one has yet composed a record of humanity; and no one ever will, for it is beyond man's powers. Macaulay's history covered forty years; that of Thucydides embraced only the Peloponnesian war; Gibbon, a giant among the moderns, succeeded in spanning ten centuries after a fashion, but has found no imitators. The truth is there is no subject, save perhaps astronomy, that is quite so vast and quite so little known. Its outline, save in the sham history of text books, is entirely wanting. Its details, where really known to student's, are infinitely difficult to bring into relation. For this reason it may be worth while to attempt, in the space of one short