Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. Macneile Dixon
George Grote (17941871)
[George Grote was born at Beckenham, Kent, 1794. From the Charterhouse, where he received his school education, without proceeding to the University, he entered (1810) the bank founded by his grandfather George Prescott, and at this time under the management of his father. For thirty years he remained a banker, but combined with business the pursuits of a student of politics and literature. Grotes first work to attract notice was a pamphlet The Essentials of Parliamentary Reform, a plea for the broadest principles of popular representation. A personal acquaintanceship with Ricardo, in 1817, attracted him to the study of political economy, but the friendship, which soon ripened into discipleship, formed through Ricardo with James Mill, was the most important of his life in its influence upon his intellectual development. In the school of Bentham and Mill, Grote learned the principles of the political, social, mental, and moral philosophy, to which he adhered through life. In 1820 he married Miss Harriet Lewin, and ten years later became the head of the bank. Shortly after, he was elected by the city as member of Parliament, a seat which he held until his retirement from political life in 1841. During the nine years of his Parliamentary career he was active in support of the ballot. In 1843 Grote retired from business, and devoted himself to the long pre-meditated History of Greece, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1846. The work was completed in 1856. Grote from 1825 to 1827 was foremost in the movement which resulted in the establishment of the University of London, of which he was chosen as Vice-Chancellor (1862), and was President of University College, 1868. In 1865 appeared Plato, and the other Companions of Socrates, a work intended, in his own words, as a sequel and supplement to the History of Greece. It was his intention to publish a companion study of Aristotle, but it was left a fragment. Grote declined a peerage offered him by Mr. Gladstone, for his services, political and literary. On his death in 1871, he was buried near Gibbon and Macaulay, in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.]
GROTE belongs to that class of writers whose services in the good cause of learning command our respect as students, but to whom, when we have gone our way, we forget to be grateful. Write he never so wisely and well, he fails to capture our allegiance, for neither to Grotes imagination, nor to his style, belonged the qualities that enlist sympathy for the person of the writer, or lure one back to his company. Yet his work, philosophical in aim and nobly planned, may fairly be said to mark an epoch in the development of historical science. In the History of Greece, built upon the foundation of sound learning, the political and social aspects of Hellenic life were for the first time brought into the foreground, formerly occupied by the deeds of heroes, by embassies to and fro among the cities, by portraits of statesmen drawn from Plutarch, and by rhetoric on the golden occasions afforded by Salamis, Platæa, Marathon. In scope and conception all is admirable, but Grotes attitude is too confident, the very assurance of his knowledge in itself begets indefinable suspicions. The arguments are too good, the causes of things too abundantly evident, and despite the clearness of atmosphere we are not inclined to believe that the last secrets of the Hellenic temper and genius are presented to us in these pat conclusions of a disciple of Bentham. If this be his offence in the region of history, what shall be said of his later work in philosophy? With the same assurance with which, to use his own phrase, he had planned to exhaust the free life of collective Hellas, he proceeded to pluck out the heart of Platos mystery. But philosophy was not enriched by Grotes attempt to prove Plato a Utilitarian philosopher, or to find in Platonism the original of his own system. A James Mill might, indeed, be found thereand other philosophersbut without serious encroachment on the broad expanse of that intellectual territory. Keenly intelligent as was Grotes mind, it was of the practical Teutonic type, which in the rarified air of the Platonic philosophy breathes only with difficulty, is baffled by the irony that leavens it throughout, and lags far behind in appreciation of the delicate elusive subtleties of that marvellous dialectic.
Were his reputation now in the balance, to part from so indefatigable a worker, and, despite his limitations, so strong a thinker and writer, with no word of praise, would be scant courtesy, and scanter appreciation. But we have passed in our intellectual development the point at which Grote, like his fellow-historian Macaulay, was an inspiring force, and no discriminating estimate could assign him the rank among Englishmen which he held among his contemporaries. Rhetoric has lost its ancient charm, we are no longer enamoured of logical vigour, unaccompanied by imaginative insight, or of style that lacks the light and shade everywhere present in nature. Nor was it proved by his parliamentary career, that Grote was a statesman. The world is half a century older since he entered public life, and the science of politics, of which he was an admirable representative, does not yet supply the principles that control the democracy, or govern the deliberations of assemblies. Mr. Grote, said Sydney Smith, is a very worthy, honest, and able man; and if the world were a chess-board, would have been an important politician.
Indisputably, history was the field of Grotes best work, his equipment as historian embraced not a few of the essential qualities; a fresh and real interest in life, its colour, breadth, and variety, a true instinct for narrative, an impartial judgment, the patience of the student, and the knowledge of the man of affairs. A little more, and he might have been a great man; as it is, we can only say, that he is a commanding figure in the history of English scholarship.