Summaries of chapters 21 and 22 of John Burrow's History of Histories

In chapter 21 of History of Histories, John Burrow presents three historians of the Enlightenment, David Hume, William Robertson, and Edward Gibbon, and discusses how their philosophy influences their historical writings. In chapter 22, Burrow turns his attention to the historians of the English and French Revolutions and discusses the various viewpoints of Thomas Babington Macaulay, Thomas Carlyle, Jules Michelet, and Hippolyte Taine.

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Chapter 21 of John Burrow's History of Histories focuses on the historical writing that follows from the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The author begins with a discussion of David Hume, whose philosophy pervades his six-volume History of England. Hume concentrates on “the association of fundamental changes in manners and opinion with the decline of feudalism and the growth of commerce” (314). He also includes a good deal of his “notorious religious scepticism” and disdain for what he calls “enthusiasm,” but he also shows a tendency toward sentimentalism and pathos (315).

William Robertson shares Hume's Enlightenment philosophy, but he directs his attention to “the state of society” in Europe (rather than just England) in The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (320). Robertson concentrations on modernity, how modern Europe emerged during the sixteenth century, and he breaks ranks with previous historians by choosing to write about subjects outside his own country. Robertson also works from the premise that “the state of society and manners passed through successive stages” over the centuries, and that his own time is more enlightened and progressive than the past. His style is narrative and sentimental.

Burrow also gives some attention to Robertson's pupil the historical novelist Walter Scott and his novel Waverly (which illustrates many of Robertson's ideas) before turning his attention to Edward Gibbon and his massive series The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon concentrates on history as “a tissue of events connected by deeper causes than those most apparent” (333). In writing about the Roman empire, Gibbon strikes out in a direction few historians of his era chose to tread, and he does so with an eye toward the “modern balance of power” and the lack thereof in Rome, which, along with decadence and corruption, led to the empire's decline. Gibbon is highly anti-Christian and attacks religion with irony.

In chapter 22, Burrow considers the historians of the English and French revolutions. Thomas Babington Macaulay writes about the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 with “unprecedented vividness and dramatic and emotional intensity” in the History of England from the Accession of James II (348). As a politician himself, he tends to focus on the political elements of history, particularly from his Whig perspective, yet his writing has an appealing “pictorial quality” that can even evoke “pity and intimacy” (350).

Thomas Carlyle also uses a dramatic style in his French Revolution and employs much poetic symbolism and even the “imagery of apocalypse” to describe the events of the era (355). Overall, he presents the French Revolution in epic terms and includes multiple voices in his narrative as he focuses on events that, in his eyes, point to larger trends and realities, thus interpreting history along with writing it.

Burrow ends his reflections on the historians of the revolutions by discussing the works of Jules Michelet and Hippolyte Taine. The former's History of the French Revolution is part of a larger series on the history of France. It is “deeply personal and emotional” and emphasizes “the life, experiences, thoughts and sentiments of the French people” (367). Taine also offers a volume called the History of the French Revolution, but his version focuses more on the horror of the events. His “rhetoric,” says Burrow, “has an enduring power to shock and alarm” (372). Taine believes that the Revolution was “a pathological social phenomenon” with out-of-control leaders, and he analyzes events and characters psychologically to present a “powerful psycho-drama”(373, 379).

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