Letters on the Study and Use of History

By Bolingbroke
Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1990-1991)
Issue theme: "Uses and misuses of history in the debate over immigration reform"

The love of history seems inseparable from human nature because it seems inseparable from self-love. The same principle in this instance carries us forward and backward, to future and past ages. We imagine that the things which affect us must affect posterity this sentiment thus runs through mankind, from Caesar down to the parish clerk in Pope's Miscellany....

Nature gave us curiosity to excite the industry of our minds; but she never intended it should be made the principal, much less the sole, object of their application. The true and proper object of this application is a constant improvement in private and public virtue. An application to any study that tends neither directly nor indirectly to make us better men and better citizens is at best but a specious and ingenious sort of idleness... and the knowledge we acquire by it is a creditable kind of ignorance, nothing more. This creditable kind of ignorance is, in my opinion, the whole benefit which the generality of men, even the most learned, reap from the study of history and yet the study of history seems to me, of all others, the most proper to train us up to private and public virtue....

Few by prudence, says Tacitus, distinguish good from bad, the useful from the injurious; more are taught by the fortunes of others. Such is the imperfection of human understanding, such the frail temper of our minds, that abstract or general propositions, though ever so true, appear obscure or doubtful to us very often, till they are explained by examples and that the wisest lessons in favor of virtue go but a little way to convince the judgment, and determine the will, unless they are enforced by the same means; and we are obliged to apply to ourselves what we see happen to other men....

(After l

About the author

A public servant and noted orator in England at the turn of the 18th century, Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), wrote on the study and uses of history. We use excerpts from one of his letters for our "The Past Is Prologue" item for this issue of THE SOCIAL CONTRACT.