Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Narrative, Interpretation, and Plagiarism in Mr. Robertson's 1778 History of Ancient Greece

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Narrative, Interpretation, and Plagiarism in Mr. Robertson's 1778 History of Ancient Greece

Article excerpt

Days after the successful debut of his History of Scotland in 1759, Dr. William Robertson was busy consulting his friends about what project to undertake next. David Hume solicitously responded by expressing doubts about two of the possible topics-the age of Pope Leo Xth and the Emperor Charles Vth. The first would be difficult because it would require the understanding of that age's "great Works of Sculpture, Architecture, Painting," while attaining the "competent Knowledge . . . requird of the State & Constitution of the Empire," including numerous European countries, necessary to carry out the second project "would be the Work of half a Life." Rather Hume recommended "the ancient History, particularly that of Greece": "I think," he wrote, "Rollin's Success might encourage you, nor need you be in the least intimidated by his Merit. That Author has no other Merit, but a certain Facility & Sweetness of Narration; but has loaded his Work with fifty Puerilities."1 Yet, after considering further the excellent historical narratives that survived from antiquity, Hume feared that they could indeed turn into a disadvantage for the aspiring modern historian: "For what can you do in most places with these Authors, but transcribe & translate them? No Letters or State Papers from which you coud correct their Errors, or authenticate their Narration, or supply their Defects. Besides, Rollin is so well wrote with respect to Style, that with superficial people it passes for sufficient." On the whole he thought, however, that a "History of Greece till the death of Philip . . . would be successful, notwithstanding all these discouraging Circumstances. The Subject is noble, & Rollin is by no means equal to it."2

Despite his friend's advice, Robertson went on to write what became his most successful work, the History of the Reign of Charles V (1769), but Hume's letters are nevertheless revealing.3 Hume's acute concern with publishing success speaks, on the one hand, to his lifelong economic struggle, but also of the flourishing market for history books in his times, on which, before the professionalization of the discipline, authors more and more came to rely in lieu of the literary patronage of earlier times.4 But the issue of the status of the historian was more than an institutional one for Hume's contemporaries. While the classical model of the historian as political man writing history in his retirement from public life was in sharp decline, a clear successor was still to follow. As Pocock puts it: would one who studied, edited, or rewrote past history be an historian at all?5 Hume's concern with historical authority and his consciousness of the difference between a narrative based on experience, in the Thucydidean mode as he would have understood it, and one based on authorities, is clear in his letter advising Gibbon to transform the Decline and Fall's endnotes into footnotes.6 Hume's letters to Robertson show again this concern developed in parallel to a philosophical preference for manners over details of action, human explanations rather than divine ones. From this perspective he found "puerile" the French Jansenist educator Charles Rollin, who in the preface to his Histoire Ancienne (1730-38) set out the goal to reveal the design of divine Providence within human history and whose work was dominated by a moralistic reading of the past.7

Hume's reflections and concerns neatly fit the influential interpretation that, more than half a century ago, Arnaldo Momigliano formulated for the genealogy of modern Western historiography. As Momigliano saw it, modern history developed precisely out of the eighteenth-century convergence of traditional historical narrative-what used to be linear accounts of mostly political events-and antiquarian research-scholarship traditionally devoted to systematic treatment of a variety of subjects that relied on the skills of paleography, epigraphy and the interpretation of archaeological material. …

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