George Grote - Encyclopedia

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GEORGE GROTE (1794-1871), English historian of Greece, was born on the 17th of November 1794, at Clay Hill near Beckenham in Kent. His grandfather, Andreas, originally a Bremen merchant, was one of the founders (1st of January 1766) of the banking-house of Grote, Prescott & Company in Threadneedle Street, London (the name of Grote did not disappear from the firm till 1879). His father, also George, married (1793) Selina, daughter of Henry Peckwell (1747-1787), minister of the countess of Huntingdon's chapel in Westminster (descended from a Huguenot family, the de Blossets, who had left Touraine on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes), and had one daughter and ten sons, of whom the historian was the eldest. Educated at first by his mother, George Grote was sent to the Sevenoaks grammar school (1800-1804) and afterwards to Charterhouse (1804-1810), where he studied under Dr Raine in company with Connop Thirlwall, George and Horace Waddington and Henry Havelock. In spite of Grote's school successes, his father refused to send him to the university and put him in the bank in 1810. He spent all his spare time in the study of classics, history, metaphysics and political economy, and in learning German, French and Italian. Driven by his mother's Puritanism and his father's contempt for academic learning to outside society, he became intimate with Charles Hay Cameron, who strengthened him in his love of philosophy, and George W. Norman, through whom he met his wife, Miss Harriet Lewin (see below). After various difficulties the marriage took place on the 5th of March 1820, and was in all respects a happy union.

In the meanwhile Grote had finally decided his philosophic and political attitude. In 1817 he came under the influence of David Ricardo, and through him of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham. He settled in 1820 in a house attached to the bank in Threadneedle Street, where his only child died a week after its birth. During Mrs Grote's slow convalescence at Hampstead, he wrote his first published work, the Statement of the Question of Parliamentary Reform (1821), in reply to Sir James Mackintosh's article in the Edinburgh Review, advocating popular representation, vote by ballot and short parliaments. In 1822 he published in the Morning Chronicle (April) a letter against Canning's attack on Lord John Russell, and edited, or rather re-wrote, some discursive papers of Bentham, which he published under the title Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind by Philip Beauchamp (1822). The book was published in the name of Richard Carlile, then in gaol at Dorchester. Though not a member of J. S. Mill's Utilitarian Society (1822-1823), he took a great interest in a society for reading and discussion, which met (from 1823) in a room at the bank before business hours twice a week. From the Posthumous Papers (pp. ' 22, 24) it is clear that Mrs Grote was wrong in asserting that she first in 1823 (autumn) suggested the History of Greece; the book was already in preparation in 1822, though what was then written was subsequently reconstructed. In 1826 Grote published in the Westminster Review (April) a criticism of Mitford's History of Greece, which shows that his ideas were already in order. From 1826 to 1830 he was hard at work with J. S. Mill and Henry Brougham in the organization of the new "university" in Gower Street. He was a member of the council which organized the faculties and the curriculum; but in 1830, owing to a difference with Mill as to an appointment to one of the philosophical chairs, he resigned his position.

In 1830 he went abroad, and, attracted by the political crisis, spent some months in Paris in the society of the Liberal leaders. Recalled by his father's death (6th of July), he not only became manager of the bank, but took a leading position among the city Radicals. In 1831 he published his important Essentials of Parliamentary Reform (an elaboration of his previous Statement), and, after refusing to stand as parliamentary candidate for the city in 1831, changed his mind and was elected head of the poll, with three other Liberals, in December 1832. After serving in three parliaments, he resigned in 1841, by which time his party ("the philosophic Radicals") had dwindled away. During these years of active public life, his interest in Greek history and philosophy had increased, and after a trip to Italy in 1842, he severed his connexion with the bank and devoted himself to literature. In 1846 the first two volumes of the History appeared, and the remaining ten between 1847 and the spring of 1856. In 1845 with Molesworth and Raikes Currie he gave monetary assistance to Auguste Comte, then in financial difficulties. The formation of the Sonderbund (loth of July 1847) led him to visit Switzerland and study for himself a condition of things in some sense analogous to that of the ancient Greek states. This visit resulted in the publication in the Spectator of seven weekly letters, collected in book form at the end of 1847 (see a letter to de Tocqueville in Mrs Grote's reprint of the Seven Letters, 1876) .

In 1856 Grote began to prepare his works on Plato and Aristotle. Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates (3 vols.) appeared in 1865, but the work on Aristotle he was not destined to complete. He had finished the Organon and was about to deal with the metaphysical and physical treatises when he died on the 18th of June 1871, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He was a man of strong character and self-control, unfailing courtesy and unswerving devotion to what he considered the best interests of the nation. To colleagues and subordinates alike, he was considerate and tolerant; he was unassuming, trustworthy in the smallest detail, accurate and comprehensive in thought, energetic and conscientious in action. Yet, hidden under his calm exterior there was a burning enthusiasm and a depth of passion of which only his intimate friends were aware. His work may best be considered under the following heads: 1. Grote's Services to Education. - He took, as already stated, an important part in the foundation and organization of the original university of London, which began its public work in Gower Street on the 28th of October 1828, and in 1836, on the incorporation of the university of London proper, became known as University College. In 1849 he was re-elected to the council, in 1860 he became treasurer, and on the death of Brougham (1868) president. He took a keen interest in all the work of the college, presented to it the Marmor Homericum, and finally bequeathed the reversion of £6000 for the endowment of a chair of philosophy of mind and logic. The emoluments of this sum were, however, to be held over and added to the principal if at any time the holder of the chair should be "a minister of the Church of England or of any other religious persuasion." In 1850 the senate of the university was reconstituted, and Grote was one of seven eminent men who were added to it. Eventually he became the strongest advocate for open examinations, for the claims not only of philosophy and classics but also of natural science, and, as vice-chancellor in 1862, for the admission of women to examinations. This latter reform was carried in 1868. He succeeded his friend Henry Hallam as a trustee of the British Museum in 1859, and took part in the reorganization of the departments of antiquities and natural science.

The honours which he received in recognition of these services were as follows: D.C.L. of Oxford (1853); LL.D. Cambridge (1861); F.R.S. (1857); honorary professor of ancient history in the Royal Academy (1859). By the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences he was made correspondent (1857) and foreign associate (the first Englishman since Macaulay) (1864). In 1869 he refused Gladstone's offer of a peerage.

2. Political Career

In politics Grote belonged to the "philosophic Radicals" of the school of J. S. Mill and Bentham, whose chief principles were representative government, vote by ballot, the abolition of a state church, frequent elections. He adhered to these principles throughout, and refused to countenance any reforms which were incompatible with them. By this uncompromising attitude, he gradually lost all his supporters save a few men of like rigidity. As a speaker, he was clear, logical and impressive, and on select committees his common sense was most valuable. For his speeches see A. Bain in the Minor Works; see also Ballot.

3. The History of Greece

It is on this work that Grote's reputation mainly rests. Though half a century has passed since its production, it is still in some sense the text-book. It consists of two parts, the "Legendary" and the "Historical" Greece. The former, owing to the development of comparative mythology, is now of little authority, and portions of part ii. are obsolete owing partly to the immense accumulations of epigraphic and archaeological research, partly to the subsequent discovery of the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens, and partly also to the more careful weighing of evidence which Grote himself misinterpreted. The interest of the work is twofold. In the first place it contains a wonderful mass of information carefully collected from all sources, arranged on a simple plan, and expressed in direct forcible language. It is in this respect one of the few great comprehensive histories in our possession, great in scope, conception and accomplishment. But more than this it is interesting as among the first works in which Greek history became a separate study, based on real evidence and governed by the criteria of modern historical science. Further Grote, a practical man, a rationalist and an enthusiast for democracy, was the first to consider Greek political development with a sympathetic interest (see Greece: History, Ancient, section "Authorities"), in opposition to the Tory attitude of John Gillies and Mitford, who had written under the influence of horror at the French Revolution. On the whole his work was done with impartiality, and more recent study has only confirmed his general conclusions. Much has been made of his defective accounts of the tyrants and the Macedonian empire, and his opinion that Greek history ceased to be interesting or instructive after Chaeronea. It is true that he confined his interest to the fortunes of the city state and neglected the wider diffusion of the Greek culture, but this is after all merely a criticism of the title of the book. The value of the History consists to-day primarily in its examination of the Athenian democracy, its growth and decline, an examination which is still the most inspiring, and in general the most instructive, in any language. In the description of battles and military operations generally Grote was handicapped by the lack of personal knowledge of the country. In this respect he is inferior to men like Ernst Curtius and G. B. Grundy.

4. In Philosophy Grote was a follower of the Mills and Bentham. J. S. Mill paid a tribute to him in the preface to the third edition of his Examination of Sir Wm. Hamilton's Philosophy, and there is no doubt that the empirical school owed a great deal to his sound, accurate thinking, untrammelled by any reverence for authority, technique and convention. In dealing with Plato he was handicapped by this very common sense, which prevented him from appreciating the theory of ideas in its widest relations. His Plato is important in that it emphasizes the generally neglected passages of Plato in which he seems to indulge in mere Socratic dialectic rather than to seek knowledge; it is, therefore, to be read as a corrective to the ordinary criticism of Plato. The more congenial study of Aristotle, though incomplete, is more valuable in the positive sense, and has not received the attention it deserves. Perhaps Grote's most distinctive contribution to the study of Greek philosophy is his chapter in the History of Greece on the Sophists, of whom he took a view somewhat more favourable than has been accepted before or since.

His wife, Harriet Lewin (1792-1878), was the daughter of Thomas Lewin, a retired Indian civilian, settled in Southampton. After her marriage with Grote in 1820 she devoted herself to the subjects in which he was interested and was a prominent figure in the literary, political and philosophical circle in which he lived. She carefully read the proofs of his work and relieved him of anxiety in connexion with his property. Among her writings are: Memoir of Ary Scheffer (1860); Collected Papers (1862); and her biography of her husband (1873). Another publication, The Philosophical Radicals of 1832 (privately circulated in 1866), is interesting for the light it throws on the Reform movement of 1832 to 1842, especially on Molesworth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. - The History of Greece passed through five editions the fifth (io vols., 1888) being final. An edition covering the period from Solon to 403, with new notes and excursuses, was published by J. M. Mitchell and M. O. B. Caspari in 1907. The Plato was finally edited by Alexander Bain in 4 vols. See Mrs Grote's Personal Life of George Grote, and article in Diet. Nat. Biog. by G. Croom Robertson. (J. M. M.)

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