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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2013

13 - Thomas Babington Macaulay: “The death of Monmouth”


The beginning of this inquiry considered the role of narrative techniques in transforming the representation of reality in the interests of the narrator. An important tenet of our analysis is that narrative provides sufficient means to accomplish this end without distorting the underlying facts of the matter. People certainly can lie about what has happened, and they do so. But in any particular case we proceed on the assumption that they are not engaging in the difficult and dangerous tactic of telling lies. Instead, we accept their account of the facts of the matter and see what other means they have to make the worse appear the better cause.

This last phrase, originally used to describe the practice of the Greek Sophists, brings us into contact with some of the most vigorous debates of professional historians, and in particular with successive waves of interpretation and reinterpretation of the social role of these very Sophists. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, English historians portrayed the Sophists as opportunistic knaves who taught young Athenians how to flatter and grovel before the democratic mob. Gorgias of Leontini, Prodicus of Ceos and Hippias of Elias came to Athens to gain their living in this way. In Mitford's History of Greece, he sums up his view of the Sophists with the traditional phrase: “Many of them indeed would take either side of any question, political or moral; and it was generally their glory to make the worse appear the better cause.” This view underwent a wholesale reversal in the second half of the nineteenth century in a reassessment most prominently seen in Grote's History of Greece (1888), first published in 1850. Here the Sophists appear as respected teachers who provided the people of Greece with instruction in skills essential to legitimate democratic government. Liberals and Whigs joined in this rewriting of history, and attributed the former prejudice against the Sophists to the aristocratic bias of Tory politics.