Monday, July 18, 2016

The tragedy of Lord Acton

"If any work is ever really wasted in the world, it is that of the man who makes himself a sort of walking encyclopaedia, and then dies without having produced a single book. His knowledge perishes with him, and the facts which he has collected have to be reconquered by some successor, because he has never deigned to commit them to paper.

Every one of us has known such men—but perhaps I may be permitted to speak for a moment of the king of them all. I name him with infinite respect: he was in some ways a great man, and he might have been a great historian. He started to read history early, he was granted a long life, he had ample leisure, he was able to collect such a library of its kind as England had never before seen. And he died leaving as his life's achievement a lecture or two, and a number of reviews and short papers scattered about in the back numbers of more or less unobtainable periodicals, together with a scheme for a modern history which (though excellent in itself) has certainly not been carried out on the lines which he laid down.

This heart-breaking paucity of results from a man qualified to do great things seems to me to have proceeded mainly from the cardinal defect of the want of a definite clear-cut thesis. Lord Acton had a great book hovering before his mind: what it was I have never made out: his literary executor, Mr. John Morley, once told me that he fancied that its subject was the Growth of the Modern Idea of Liberty: but two or three alternative and equally vast titles have been suggested. Whatever it was, its compilation necessitated the accumulation of such a mass of detailed material that no single human brain could possibly deal with it. I went down into Shropshire to look at that famous library before it was removed to Cambridge: never was there such a pathetic sight of wasted labour.

The owner had read it all: there were shelves on shelves on every conceivable subject—Renaissance sorcery— the Fueros of Aragon—Scholastic Philosophy—the growth of the French Navy—American exploration— Church Councils—and many books were full of hundreds of cross-references in pencil, noting passages as bearing on some particular development or evolution in modern life or thought. There were pigeon-holed cabinets with literally thousands of compartments, into each of which were sorted scores of little white papers with references to some particular topic, so drawn up (as far as I could judge) that no one but the compiler could easily make out the drift of the section. Arranged in the middle of the long two-storied room was a sort of altar or column composed entirely of unopened parcels of new books from continental publishers. They were apparently coming in at the rate often or fifteen books a week, and the owner had evidently tried to keep pace with the accumulation—to digest and annotate them all, and work them into his vast thesis—whatever it was.

For years apparently he must have been engaged on this Sisyphean task. Over all these were brown holland sheets, a thick coating of dust, the motes dancing in the pale September sun, a faint aroma of mustiness proceeding from thousands of seventeenth and eighteenth century leather bindings in a room that had been locked up since its owner's death. I never saw any sight which so much impressed on me the vanity of human life. A quarter of the work that had been spent on making those annotations and filling those pigeon-holes would have produced twenty volumes of good history—perhaps an epoch-making book that might have lived for centuries. But all the labour had been wasted—save so far as the actual accumulation of the dead books was a permanent gain to Cambridge—because the accumulator had too vague and too broad an aim.

It is better to have produced one solid monograph on the minutest point— better to have edited a single pipe-roll or annotated a single short chronicle—than to have accumulated for forty years unwritten learning that goes down to the grave and is lost. And I said to myself—Learn to be definite at all costs; be limited, if it is necessary, stick to a single century if it must be so, or to a single reign, but write something—knowledge not committed to paper is knowledge lost."

- (Charles Oman, Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History)

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