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Historiography: 19th Century (Romanticism, History as Literature & French Historiography)

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Jul 10, 2022 , Updated: Jul 18, 2022 · 10 min read

The assumption of the philosophers that faith and feeling must submit to reason provoked a romanticist reaction which looked upon life and its interpretation as based more on feeling than on thought.

Romanticism

Romanticism is the establishment of human life on a pure basis of feeling.

To the romanticist, the medium of thought itself was feeling.

The Romantic tide swept Europe from 1760 to 1859, between Rousseau and Darwin.

A literature of feeling, sentiment and passion flowed from Germany, England and France.

Rousseau (1712–1778 AD)

Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, composer and the "messiah" of the Romantic movement.

A child of the Enlightenment, Rousseau became the father of the Romantic movement.

His books were the best expression of the Romantic idea, and they had an incalculable influence on political thought, philosophy, literature, education and history.

His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic, and educational thought.

His "Discourse on Inequality" and "The Social Contract" are cornerstones in modern political and social thought.

Rousseau's sentimental novel "Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) was important to the development of pre-romanticism and romanticism in fiction.

His "Emile, or On Education (1762)" is an educational treatise on the place of the individual in society.

Herder (1744–1803 AD)

Rosseau had no direct relation to history, but Johann Gottfried von Herder, the harbinger of the Romantic movement in Germany, became also an innovator in the philosophy of history and culture.

It was through Herder that the Romantic movement became so influential among historians.

His "Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man" anticipated Darwin in its claim that all organic life is connected and evolving progressively toward human beings, the highest form of life.

Herder, like Darwin later, thought of man as an evolutionary product of nature, each stage in the evolution designed to prepare for the next.

Herder held a tripartite view of historical development and was interested in what he conceived as the spirit of cultures.

He posited an age of primitive human poets whose consciousness was distilled in epics.

Herder's book is one of the richest and most stimulating on its subject but the wealth of ideas therein is developed in a loose and hasty manner.

Herder is generally regarded as the "father of Romanticism".

Vico (1668-1744 AD)

Giambattista Vico was an Italian philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist during the Italian Enlightenment.

He criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism, finding cartesian analysis and other types of reductionism impractical to human life.

He was an apologist for classical antiquity and the Renaissance humanities, in addition to being the first expositor of the fundamentals of social science and of semiotics.

He is recognised as one of the first Counter-Enlightenment figures in history.

He inaugurated the modern field of the philosophy of history, and, although the term philosophy of history is not in his writings, Vico spoke of a "history of philosophy narrated philosophically.

Vico's intellectual magnum opus is the book "New Science", which attempts a systematic organization of the humanities as a single science that recorded and explained the historical cycles by which societies rise and fall.

In opposition to the philosophy of Descartes, Vico argued that "only history can produce certainty".

According to Vico, humans can have knowledge of "the world of nations" because they created it, but only God can know the natural world.

Hegel (1770–1831 AD)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher.

He is considered one of the most important figures in German idealism and one of the founding figures of Modern philosophy, with his influence extending logic, metaphysics, aesthetics, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, and the history of philosophy.

Hegel was the most influential philosopher of the Romantic-Idealist historical movement which began with Herder.

"Vico" and "Herder" worked toward a conception of "spirit of the times" and "spirit of the people," both of which were incorporated into Hegel's enormously ambitious philosophy of history.

Hegel's thought eludes easy summation, and its premises are not intuitively obvious.

As an absolute idealist, he held that only ideas are real (the real is rational).

The greatest philosophical achievement of Hegel was the systematic development of the dialectical method.

Hegel's work has been considered the "completion of philosophy" by some of the most influential thinkers in existentialism, post-structuralism, and twentieth-century theology.

Bancroft (1800–91)

The most influential American historian of the 19th century was George Bancroft, who studied at the universities of Berlin.

During intervals in a busy career as a public official he wrote a 10-volume "History of the United States (1834–74)", which placed the country within God's plan for all humanity.

The European colonists who settled the country brought with them the vital principles of "Teutonic liberty".

With the signing of the "Declaration of Independence", a new plebeian democracy took its place by the side of the proudest empire, a democracy that was destined to spread the blessings of liberty to the rest of the world.

As to spreading the blessings of liberty to American slaves, Bancroft argued that slavery was imposed on the United States and that it played a role in the providential plan.

The resonance within his work not only of Romantic principles (it can be seen as an adaptation of Hegel) but also American political rhetoric of the 19th century explains its wide appeal.

History as Literature

Macaulay (1800–59)

Romanticism crossed the English Channel, though naturally with variations, and it also crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Macaulay stands out among those who wrote history as national epic and literature.

Macaulay proclaimed that the central theme of "English history" from the time of the granting of the Magna Carta in 1215 to his own day involved the gradual increase of liberty.

His History of "England" from the Accession of James II (1849–61) situated the genius of the English in achieving liberty by largely peaceful means, thus sparing himself the task of accounting for England's medieval regicides or the "English Civil Wars".

The English had enough respect for the past to avoid violent change but enough flexibility to avoid rigid conservatism.

In the first volume, Macaulay wrote a classic description of English life in 1685.

In the essay "History", written when only twenty-eight years of age, Macaulay argued that literary talents are not antithetical but complementary to history.

His picture of England was highly pleasing to 19th-century Victorians, who bought hundreds of thousands of copies.

In 1838 Macaulay had conceived the project of an "History of England from 1688 to 1820".

But when death came in 1859, the five volumes of the History had brought the story only up to 1702.

Carlyle (1795-1881 AD)

More directly influenced by Romanticism, as by German thought, was Thomas Carlyle.

Carlyle compares favorably with Macaulay in giving tremendous impetus to history reading and in looking upon history rather as literature.

But they differed in their aims.

Macaulay wrote history to justify his political convictions, Carlyle employed history to illustrate and reinforce his ethical teaching.

The son of a dissenting stonemason, Thomas Carlyle's chosen occupation was to thunder against all kinds of pretence(दिखावा) and deception(धोखा), which he did with a historical reference at every step.

In his essay "On History", published in 1830, Carlyle wrote that - history was the first distinct product of man's spiritual nature, his earliest expression of thought.

Carlyle's greatest works by which he is to be judged, are, however, political and social, known for their literary beauty and insight into human nature.

Of such works the most important are - The French Revolution (1837), Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845), and Frederick the Great of Prussia (1858–65).

A stern moralist, he believed not so much in material forces and economic wants as the moving forces of history as in qualities of a spiritual order.

Berlin Revolution in Historiography

Though history had come to be written and great historians had developed from the time of Herodotus and Thucydides, the subject had been treated more or less as a branch of literature or philosophy.

The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century began to infuse history with a critical spirit.

But history in our modern sense of the term, as a scholarly discipline, came to be established only with Niebuhr and Ranke.

Barthold Niebuhr (1776–1831)

Barthold Georg Niebuhr was a Danish-German statesman, banker, and historian who raised history from a subordinate position to the dignity of an independent science.

After university he entered the service of the government of his native Denmark but was pressed to transfer his services to Prussia.

His two volumes of the "History of Rome (1811–12)" marked the birth of modern historical methodology.

One of Niebuhr's great achievement was the "critical examination of the sources and credibility" of early Roman history.

Extremely skeptical of the historical tradition about early Rome, Niebuhr sought to place thorough comprehension on its proper footing.

This he did by devising a new method of handling sources, the method of philological criticism.

The method consisted of two operations.

First, the analysis of sources into their component parts, distinguishing earlier and later elements in them and thus enabling the historian to discriminate between the more and the less trustworthy portions.

This is what is now known as external or textual criticism.

And second, the internal criticism of the more trustworthy parts, showing how the author's point of view affected his statement of the facts.

Leopold von Ranke (1793–1886)

Niebuhr was the first and Ranke the second, in introducing a new critical spirit into the theory and practice of history.

Ranke was a German historian and a founder of modern source-based history.

After schooling Ranke entered the "University of Leipzig" where he studied "theology and classical philology".

Ranke was an obscure Gymnasium (a state-run secondary school) teacher when, at the age of 29, he published - "History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514".

But it was the "History of the Popes (1834–36)" in 3 volumes, that gave Ranke his place among the great historians of the world.

Ranke's "History of France", written in a European spirit, is admirably free from the German prejudice against the French.

Ranke was one who never wearied of expressing his debt to Niebuhr, whose bust occupied the place of honor in his study.

He was explicitly applying Niebuhr's principles to modern history and further developing them.

Niebuhr and Ranke believed that they were creating a completely scientific, objective history.

Ranke's works are the best examples of the objective treatment of the past.

French Historiography

The historiography of the French Revolution stretches back over two hundred years, as commentators and historians have used a vast array of primary sources to explain the origins of the Revolution, and its meaning and its impact.

Michelet (1798–1874)

In his main work "Histoire de France (1855), Michelet coined the term Renaissance (meaning "rebirth" in French), as a period in Europe's cultural history that represented a break from the Middle Ages, creating a modern understanding of humanity and its place in the world.

The 19-volume work covered French history from Charlemagne to the outbreak of the French Revolution.

His inquiry into "manuscript" and printed authorities was most laborious, but his lively imagination, and his strong religious and political prejudices, made him regard all things from a singularly personal point of view.

Michelet was one of the first historians to shift the emphasis of history to the common people, rather than the leaders and institutions of the country.

He had a decisive impact on scholars.

Taine (1828–1893)

Hippolyte Taine, although unable to secure an academic position, was the chief theoretical influence of French naturalism, a major proponent of sociological positivism, and one of the first practitioners of historicist criticism.

He pioneered the idea of "the milieu" as an active historical force which amalgamated geographical, psychological, and social factors.

Historical writing for him was a search for general laws.

His brilliant style kept his writing in circulation long after his theoretical approaches were passed.

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