Antiquarianism and the Need for History

“Often, to take just one example, a single fragment of an antique statue will be purchased at enormous expense by someone who wants to look at it every day.  He will give it a place of honor in his house and allow those who aspire to be sculptors to copy it.  The sculptors then make every effort to do work comparable to it. Think, on the other hand, of the immensely skillful deeds the history books record for us, deeds done by ancient kingdoms and classical republics, by kings, generals, citizens, legislators, and others who have worn themselves out for their homelands.  These deeds may be admired, but they are scarcely imitated.  Indeed, everybody goes to great lengths to avoid copying them, even if it only concerns and insignificant detail.  The results is not a trace of the classical military and political skills survives…

I do not believe the cause of this is the feebleness contemporary religion has instilled in the world, nor the evil consequences that a supercilious indolence has had for many Christian countries and cities. The real problem is people do not properly understand the history books. When they read them they do not get out of them the meaning that is in them. They chew on them but do not taste them. The result is countless people read them and enjoy discovering in them the great variety of events they record, but never think of imitating them, presuming it would not be just difficult but would be simply impossible to do as the ancients did. As if the heavens, the sun, the elements, human beings had changed in their movement, organization, and capacities, and were quite different from what they were in days gone by.”

Machiavelli’s Discourses I.Preface

It most behoves the honorable race
Of mightie Peeres, true wisedome to sustaine
And with their noble countenaunce to grace
The learned forheads, without gifts or gaine:
Or rather learnd themselves behoves to bee;
That is the girlond of Nobilitie.

But (ah) all otherwise they doo esteeme
Of th’heavenly gift of wisdomes influence,
And to be learned it a base thing deeme;
Base minded they that want intelligence:
For God himselfe for wisedome most is praised,
And men to God thereby are nighest raised.

But they doo onely strive themselves to raise
Through pompous pride, and foolish vanitie;
In th’eyes of people they put all their praise,
and onely boast of Armes and Auncestrie:
But vertuous deeds, which did those Armes first give
To their Grandsyres, they care not to atchive.

So I, that doo all noble feates professe
To register, and sound in trump of gold;
Through their bad dooings, or base slothfulnesse,
Finde nothing worthie to be writ, or told:
For better farre it were to hide their names,
Than telling them to blazon out their blames.

So shall succeeding ages have no light
Of things forepast, nor moniments of time,
And all that in this world is worthie hight
Shall die in darknesse, and lie hid in slime:
Therefore I mourne with deep harts sorrowing,
Because I nothing noble have to sing.

Edmund Spencer. The Teares of the Muses (79-108)

In both of these 16th century works, we hear the same post-Renaissance dirge intoned. The previous period had brought great learning from the Greeks (Constantinople and the Byzantine empire had fallen in 1453), but with it came the scourge of antiquarianism, the habit of ‘great’ men to collect great works of the past for the sake of collecting and the social pride that came with it. This false intellectualism can barely work up the courage of nostalgia, but simply lets the appearance of goodness wash over them. It is the loss of courage, that glorious desire to seek after the great virtu of the past, which is also the root of good education, that is lamented in the above passages. Those who don’t know history may be doomed to repeat it. But those who disdain history, who “Despise the brood of blessed Sapience” (Spencer 72), are simply doomed.

And yet, for these writers, this thought is just the start. For Machiavelli, this Preface gives way to his Discourses, where he renews and refreshes political thought; he takes up the continued work of the ancients instead of simply standing by and letting their statues gather moss (which does mean that at times he radically disagrees with them), and in doing so, writes a work that inspires numerous others (including, for example, the Founding Fathers). Spencer, on the other hand, goes on to write The Faerie Queene, a magnificent tale that continues to spur writers on today (if I’m remembering correctly, CS Lewis held this particular work in very high regard).

Do we memorize scripture or study the Bible to sound good or are we taking up the challenge to live anew the Christian life today? Are we letting history sit there as a trophy in our home or as spur that pushes us to new heights, to new challenges and hopes? As we read above, the tendency to merely collect is ironically the very same one the allows “all that in this world is worthie hight / Shall die in darknesse, and lie hid in slime”.

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