“There is no part of history so generally useful at that which relates to the progress of the human mind, the gradual improvement of reason, the successive advances of science, the vicissitudes of learning and ignorance (which are the light and darkness of thinking beings), the extinction and resuscitation of arts, and the revolutions of the intellectual world. If accounts of battles and invasions are peculiarly the business of princes, the useful or elegant arts are not to be neglected; those who have kingdoms to govern have understandings to cultivate.
Example is always more efficacious than precept. A soldier is formed in war, and a painter must copy pictures. In this, the contemplative life has the advantage. Great actions are seldom seen, but the labours of art are always at hand for those who desire to know what art has been able to perform.” p. 113
Imlac, “the poet,” to Prince Rasselas and Princess Nekayah, touching on what will become intellectual history.
From: Samuel Johnson. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. 2008/1759. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing.
His first ambitions, he has told us, were literary. He has also said that once he turned to history, his permanent inspiration became Auerbach’s Mimesis, the reconstruction by a literary scholar of the path to modern realism, from the Odyssey to Virginia Woolf, whose route included Ammianus, Gregory of Tours, Saint-Simon, historians and memorialists along with poets and novelists. Literature thus both preceded history in Ginzburg’s cursus, and has always thereafter lain adjacent to it. There is a long tradition of the practice of history as a branch of literature, but what this has usually meant is either a studied elegance (or unbridled flamboyance) of style – Gibbon or Michelet – closer to works of imagination than of record, or the quasi-reproduction of literary genres in the construction of narratives: for obvious reasons, epic and tragedy – Motley or Deutscher – more frequently than comedy or romance.
Perry Anderson reviews ‘Threads and Traces’ by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by Anne Tedeschi and John Tedeschi · LRB 26 April 2012 Mostly for the Auerbach reference and history as a branch of literature. From a lengthy book review.