On Not Reading Macaulay

I must confess I have read little of the historian/essayist/poet Thomas Babington Macaulay. But apparently very few historians read him either even though he is reputed to be one of the best historians ever to have set pen to paper (as was done in the old days). Indeed, the breed of new historians, about whom I have written in the past, regard the old historians as part of the problem with the world today: yesterday’s news, not important enough to waste time on. Many of them prefer the New History that makes few demands on their time or effort (how symptomatic of our times, eh?). They would prefer to do such things as psychoanalyze Hitler and determine that his hatred of the Jews, if not his reasons for declaring war on the rest of the civilized world, was the result of the failure of a Jewish doctor to save his mother who was dying of cancer. Or they would like to rewrite history “from the bottom up,” focusing on the little people whom past historians have ignored because of a lack of documentation to create accurate pictures. Lack of documentation is not a problem for these “historians.” They just make stuff up!

In any event, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (yes, her again: she is brilliant) the tireless defender of the Old History and a great admirer of Macaulay notes not only that historians don’t read him anymore, she notes that the problem goes even deeper:

“a commentator [on Macaulay in 1959] thought it safe to predict that Macaulay would indeed be read half a century hence, ‘if there are readers left.’ It is not clear whether the ominous proviso referred to a nuclear catastrophe or simply to the death of the written word as a result of television or a debased mass culture. What was not anticipated was that professional historians would turn against Macaulay, making him seem . . . unreadable and unmemorable. . .”

I have commented on the death of old ways of doing history in previous posts so I shall not go there again. But the broader point is worth some serious reflection. The notion that we would lose our desire to read because of “television or a debased culture” is prescient — written as it was in 1987. It would be hard to argue against the fact that we now live in a digital age that has replaced the reading of books with television, iPads, wifi, and video games.

A critic recently noted the spike in interest of late in Orwell’s 1984 (are people actually reading it?) in light of the recent ascendency of a man into high office who looks more and more each day like a dictator and less and less like the leader of a democracy whose citizens are the ones he works for. The critic noted that Huxley’s Brave New World was more appropriate because while Orwell warned against the burning of books, Huxley warned against the loss of any desire to read in the first place. Huxley looks increasingly like he saw things everyone else was missing.

The point of all this is that we lose so much in turning our backs not only on great minds like Macaulay’s but on all of those who have brought us to this place in time, a time when we have come to realize the ills of former days, the lack of respect for persons world-wide; the persecutions of those who differ from us (though there are those who would prefer to keep the persecutions alive); the wholesale exploitation of other countries in the name of profit; the need for a more cosmopolitan and less nationalistic outlook on the world around us of which we are a part — also seeming of late to have lost much of its appeal. For all our problems and challenges, in many ways we have made moral progress and much of that progress is due to the great thinkers, not only in the West but in the East as well, who have informed our thinking and created the categories by means of which we seek to make sense of the world we share in common and which seems so confounding at times. In any event, before we turn our backs on those great minds altogether we should at least make sure we have read them. It is very sad indeed that we seem to have become determined to ignore our past and especially those who created out of that past a deeper and more interesting world, people like Thomas Babington Macaulay.