Excerpt of Walter Raleigh’s preface to his “History of the World”

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Walter Raleigh, courtier to Queen Elizabeth and captain of her guard, privateer, importer and exporter, veteran of many wars fought on the seas with cutlass and cannon, and on the land fought with musket, pikes and horse, explorer of Guiana, the Orinoco River and the Carolinas, politician, farmer with estates in Ireland and England, chemist and pharmacist, a much sought out mineral assayer, a friend to the South American Indians, who brought the first potato and tobacco to England; a man for all seasons. After Elizabeth’s death he was locked in the Tower by King James who would eventually execute him.  While he awaited the king’s will in the prison, he turned historian and theologian. He gathered over 500 books and manuscripts and undertook to write the history of the world, from Adam and Eve on up. He finished sixteen hundred pages before he lost his head; King James took offense with his commentary on the government of kings, though that was not the reason Raleigh was executed.

Most people don’t realize it, but one of the reasons James commissioned the King James Bible was because he was offended by the Puritan commentary in the Geneva Bible; he thought they had a little too much flare for individual rights and freedoms. James liked big government and frowned on those who promoted individual rights.

400 years have passed since Raleigh sat in the tower writing the book. Here in this excerpt from his lengthy preface, translated from the old English by yours truly, Raleigh gives us one of the reasons why he chose to write a history while imprisoned in the Tower of London; the importance of history itself and its value for contemporary men. He says that history tells us about the beginning of the earth and;

“How it was covered with waters, and again repeopled: How kings and kingdoms have flourished and fallen; and for what virtue and piety GOD made prosperous, and for what vice and deformity he made wretched, both the one and the other. And it is not the least debt which we owe to history that it has made us acquainted with our dead Ancestors; and, out of the depth and darkness of the earth, delivered us their memory and fame. In a word, we may gather out of history a policy no less wise than eternal; by the comparison and application of other men’s long past miseries with our own like errors and ill deservings,

But it is neither from examples, the most lively instructions, nor the words of the wisest men, nor the terror of future torments that have yet to wrought in our blind and stupefied minds so to make us remember that the infinite eye and wisdom of GOD does pierce through all our pretenses as to make us remember that the justice of GOD requires no other accuser than our own consciences; which neither the false beauty of our apparent actions, nor all the formalities  which (to pacify the opinions of men) we put on; can in any, or in the least cover us from his knowledge. And so much did the Heathen wisdom confess, not yet qualified by the knowledge of a true GOD. If any (says Euripides) has in this life committed wickedness and thinks he can hide it from the everlasting gods, he thinks not well.”  p. 17, preface to History of the World

“But the judgments of GOD are forever unchangeable; neither is he wearied by the long process of time, and inclined to give his blessing in one age, to that which he hath cursed in another.

Therefore those that are wise, or whose wisdom,  if it be not great, yet is true and well grounded; will be able to discern the bitter fruits of irreligious policy…” p. 18, ibid

Raleigh thought that through history we could relive the lives of our forefathers, the good, the bad and the ugly; and thus avoid repeating the mistakes they made while making use of those courses of action which profited them. Raleigh was greatly concerned at receiving the blessing of God, while at the same time avoiding His wrath. We might laugh at the author here and find him naïve, but he would have returned the favor with a guffaw of his own and informed us that faith in a self-forming universe is not a new concept but an ancient pagan one. He would have insisted that the creator God of the universe has made himself plain through the things he has made; his universe, and that men that refuse to recognize that are without excuse.

And his wanting you to be a partaker of that knowledge was one of the primary reasons why he penned this book while awaiting the King’s pardon or the executioners axe.

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About notmanynoble

woodcutter from Washington State
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