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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 261-282

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The "Progress of Ambition":
Character, Narrative, and Philosophy in the Works of William Robertson

Neil Hargraves

In his biography of William Robertson, Dugald Stewart claimed that by "few writers of the present age has [the] combination of philosophy with history been more often attempted than by Dr. Robertson; and by none have the inconveniences which it threatens been more successfully avoided." 1 At first sight Stewart's assertion seems puzzling. Arnaldo Momigliano considered Robertson to be less successful than Edward Gibbon in his integration of the three elements of eighteenth-century historical writing, philosophy, narrative, and erudition. 2 Despite Robertson's stated belief that "arrangement" was the principal task of the historian, his organizational framework appeared to foster separation rather than integration. 3 Thus, his central work, The History of the Reign of Charles V (1769), is divided into three discrete parts. An apparently conventional narrative of high politics and diplomacy is prefaced by an essay on medieval Europe, A View of the Progress of Society in Europe, which was regarded by his contemporaries as a classic of "philosophical" history, 4 while [End Page 261] Robertson appended to both copious "Proofs and Illustrations." The structure of The History of America (1777) is even less integrated, despite criticalpraise of its "regular plan ... complete narration and perfect whole." 5 To other critics his interpolation of dissertations upon the "condition and character" of the Americans, Mexicans, and Peruvians, seemed to sever the thread of the narrative and consequently to break up the unity of the work. 6 Yet as this paper will seek to demonstrate, there was a vital connection between the narrative and "philosophical" components of Robertson's major histories: the theoretical dissertations served recognizably narrative purposes. The bridge between them lies in the complex notion of character created by the expansion of historical forms in the eighteenth century.

"Philosophical" history defined itself in opposition to the vacuities and muddles of conventional political-diplomatic historical narrative. Its advantages over narrative were various: the revelation of general rather than particular causes, grounding the history on more certain and less random principles: 7 the penetration of causes "insensible" and invisible to the eyes of a careless observer, obscured by the "great theatre of the world"; 8 a broadening of the subject-matter, away from the mere rehearsal of the struggles between crown and nobility or fixation with constitution and government, towards a more inclusive and heterogeneous history of "manners, including arts, sciences, society" and what today would be termed "mentalities," and, related to the last point, a principle of organization that would reduce the apparent chaos and multiplicity of the past to a simple and luminous plan of arrangement. 9 This was the most exacting requirement for the philosophical historian. As a critic wrote of Robertson's View, its value lay most in its "vast and magnificent plan ... that profound and easy art of classing [facts], in such a manner that ... the accumulated multiplicity of events is gradually reduced to a small number." It [End Page 262] required a more "elevated view ... above all discussions and disputes." 10 Philosophic history aimed to strip away the illusion of appearances and substitute an unseen but more regular and systematic history. In its more ambitious formulations it aimed not simply at a universal history of mankind but at no less than a "history of the human mind": an attempt to explain through historical description the enormous gulf that separated modern man from his savage ancestor. As Robertson himself famously declared in Book IV of America,

In order to complete the history of the human mind, and attain to a perfect knowledge of its nature and operations, we must contemplate man in all those various situations wherein he has been placed. We must follow him in his progress through the different stages of society, as he gradually advances from the infant state of civil life towards its maturity and decline. (VIII, 49-50)

This was a history of progress...


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