I have been posting snippets of history on this site, which is hardly surprising given that I am in fact an historian (though a poor academic). It occurs to me that I should say a few things about history, to wit, what exactly is it and more important, why bother with it? After all, according to Henry Ford, a clever if nasty man, “History is bunk.” And several generations of freshmen students in my Western Civilization classes clearly had no idea why they should be wasting their time on something that was hardly likely to get them a job or a date.
Obviously, if you read this blog, you have presumably already found good reasons to bother with this history, but read on if you have ever wondered about the need to study history and want the historian’s pitch. Curiosity and interest likely prompted you to tune in to my pieces, and these are perfectly valid motivations. It was curiosity and interest that drew me to the study of ancient history, and I actually made a living off this stuff (which means of course that I have a vested interest in selling you the goods). But there must be more to it than that, you think, or else this guy and people like him would not have jobs. True enough. There is something more, and that something more involves the search for truth.
History, like fiction, is interesting and amusing because it is vicarious experience, filled with sex and violence, and it is as vicarious experience that history is ultimately valuable to us. Experience is how we learn. Through experience we add to the stock of knowledge upon which we base our judgments and decisions. The child sticks his hand in the fire and has an exciting experience, from which he may conclude certain things about the nature of fire and its relationship to human flesh. Learning is the natural issue of experience, of finding out what’s behind Door No. 1, Door No. 2 and Door No. 3.
But our direct experience of the world is sorely limited by the brief span of our lives and the narrowness of our physical and cultural environments. Three score and ten is not a hell of a lot of time to do that many things, especially when you must spend a large part of it making a living, and until recently most of the human race never got beyond a few miles of their birthplace. Even today most people never directly experience a seriously different culture, and as far as I know no one has ever personally experienced a different time.
Here is where the study of history comes in. It allows us to break out of these limits. In the words of Lord Acton “It liberates us from the tyranny of our environment.” Through history we can step outside of our time and place and learn indirectly, through the experiences of other peoples in other times and other places. This is hardly something strange; most of our learning is founded on vicarious experience. The child generally avoids the painful encounter with fire because his mother presents him with the experience indirectly by describing what happens.
Fine, but how valid are these experiences to twenty-first century man, you may be wondering. After all, the Greeks did not have to worry about nuclear weapons or the price of gas or global warming. Or to put it in the words so feared by academics in the sixties: “Is this stuff relevant?”
It sure is. Because while the shape of society and its technology and values may change, men and women remain men and women. The basic motivations and emotions of human beings are constants, and ancient Greeks and medieval Japanese and modern Americans are all driven by essentially the same needs, desires and fears. The Athenian man in the street basically wanted the same things as his American counterpart – a good job, security for himself and his family, the respect of his fellows and so on. The details may change, but the basics do not. We are all, whatever time and place we may be born into, faced with a similar set of problems, questions that are an immutable part of the human condition. How do I stay alive and provide for my offspring? How do I order my society and relate to my fellow humans? How do I relate to the universe as a whole? Every society in the history of the planet has had to find answers to these questions.
There are also the unchanging impersonal forces of history, the general social and economic laws that have held true throughout time. For example, you can’t fool Mother Marketplace: debase your currency and inflation will result. This will happen whether the context is Late Imperial Rome or contemporary America, whether the mechanism is the reduction of precious metal in the coins or spending financed by big deficits. But such forces are in a sense “human,” since they do not exist apart from human beings and thus by their constancy demonstrate the constancy of humans. Inflation results because the man selling his goods wants his due or more, a human trait that has never changed and that has in our century contributed to the collapse of the Marxist societies.
All societies, no matter how seemingly bizarre, have a basic relevance to us, but some are more meaningful than others, and Greece may be counted among these. Why the Greeks in particular are an important source of vicarious experience and a valid field of study should be fairly obvious. The roots of our western civilization lie deep in the society of ancient Greece, which has contributed countless important ideas and institutions to the development of our society. Indeed, the most important and distinctive elements of western civilization were born in Greece: constitutionalism, rationalism, humanism, the idea of the individual.
The result of all this vicarious experience picked up through history? Very simply, a better understanding of man and society and thus of ourselves and our society. The past can illustrate the present (and the reverse). Of course history cannot supply any pat solutions or blueprints for the future, but the more you know about other societies, the better you can understand your own, and the better you understand your own, the greater the chance of solving its problems and wisely determining its policies. Unfortunately, human beings have not shown themselves to be very good at this sort of thing. We seem to be doomed to make the same mistakes and do the same silly things over and over.
Part of the problem, as Plato discerned, is that the best and most educated elements in society are rarely in positions of power, whatever the nature of the state in question. This includes democracy, as the government of the United States vividly illustrates: an uneducated and ignorant electorate will tend to elect ignorant people. This America is now doing in a way unparalleled in our history. On the other hand, after three decades in the Alice-in-Wonderland environment of the American university I am not sure I want to see academics run my society. In fact I often find it hard to see why successful revolutionaries bother to shoot the intellectuals.
So, history is important. But what exactly is it? Most broadly and simply it is everything that has happened, all the facts. This is obviously an unworkable definition, however, since it includes an overwhelming amount of totally trivial and unimportant information. The fact that the President brushed his teeth this morning is technically history, but who cares? Now, if in the course of that dental routine the tooth paste tube exploded, removing him from office, we could all agree that we had an historical event on our hands. Clearly, it is necessary to consider the impact of the event upon its environment in order to determine its historical importance. What kind of ripple does it produce in the space-time continuum?
Enter the historian. It is his task to weigh the facts and consider their importance in the scheme of things. It is not only his task, but also something he can hardly avoid. In the nineteenth century there emerged in reaction to the romantic excesses of the previous age a school of “scientific” history, which maintained that the historian, like the scientist, must detach himself from his work and be totally objective. No more coloring the facts to fit or create your own vision of the past, just the straight poop. The goal of the historian was to record history, in the words of Leopold Ranke, “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” – “as it actually was.”
Well, objectivity is an admirable goal, but total objectivity is impossible. The simple selection of a topic and relevant facts is an injection of oneself into the material, a statement that you consider that bit of history important enough to examine. If one wanted to write a totally “objective” history of Greece, it would need to run to hundreds of volumes in order to accommodate all the information we have on the Greeks. One has to pick and choose to produce an history of any meaning or utility, and that involves a measure of subjectivity: you are deciding what information is important enough to include. Further, the mere listing of events, the bare recording of data, is really the work of a chronicler, not an historian. (And it is boring, which I suspect is why the average high school student sees no point in studying history.) The historian’s job requires a dose of subjectivity.
Now, I am not espousing the outright distortion of facts and the Joe Stalin school of history. The data must be presented as accurately and objectively as possible, but there must be something more. The historian must make some attempt at interpretation of his material, at understanding what he records. There must be an evaluation of events, an examination of causes, a delineation of trends and so forth; this is what makes Thucydides the only truly modern historian in antiquity. History must be something more than recording what happened; it must be, as E.H. Carr puts it, “an interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” And that is, I hope, what you have been receiving in my posts.