On History and Historians

By Namit Arora | Jan 2007 | Comments

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born," Cicero declared, "is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?" A good historian begins with the hard facts on public events and fragments of cultural life. But it takes more than what can be taught to become a great historian. He must also possess sensitivity, imagination, depth of perception, distance, and that uncanny ability to synthesize vast bits of knowledge, the kind found in great novelists. He must attempt to enter the society he studies, to see the world as its members saw it, and understand, to the extent possible, what it was like to live in it. He must examine the psychology, morals, aspirations, and assumptions of ordinary people.

The conception of man as an actor, a purposive being, moved by his own conscious aims as well as causal laws, capable of unpredictable flights of thought and imagination, and of his culture as created by his effort to achieve self-knowledge and control of his environment in the face of material and psychic forces which he may use but cannot evade-this conception lies at the heart of all truly historical study. [-Isaiah Berlin]

The present indeed derives from the past but its course remains ever fluid, non-linear, pliable yet unpredictable. However, it's not entirely a random walk in the contingent-culture renders some steps more probable than others. People come into a world, inherit ideas and traditions, project themselves in time, and die. Cultures consist of ideas, beliefs, values that shape people but people shape these same ideas, beliefs, values. In this sense, it is simultaneously true that history creates people and that people create history (in doing so, some are deemed heroes and some villains).

Inseparable from all narratives is a particular instantiation of politics, identity, and culture. There's no impartial and omniscient chronicler of events, no 'scientific' history. Facts are one thing, their interpretation another; only the former can be objective. As in Kurosawa's Rashomon, there are only particular interpretations of most facts, which may, of course, coincide at times. The louder or the more articulate frequently prevail. We are fortunate to have Herodotus' account of the ancient Greco-Persian war, an account that nevertheless led the non-Athenians to declare its Athenian author a father of lies

'What the historian says will, however careful he may be to use purely descriptive language, sooner or later convey his attitude. Detachment is itself a moral position. The use of neutral language ('Himmler caused many persons to be asphyxiated') conveys its own ethical tone.' History will continue to be rewritten, in response to new biases and grievances. Howard Zinn, for instance, outlines his own approach in A People's History of the United States,

         ... in telling the history of the United States ... we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities [pretending to a common interest] and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people ... not to be on the side of executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of Philippines as seen by the black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by the socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by the peons in Latin America ... to the limited extent that any one person ... can 'see' history from the standpoint of others.

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate ... turn on other victims ... as they are jammed together into the boxcars of the system ... 

In The Idea of History, RG Collingwood wrote: 'All history is contemporary history: not in the ordinary sense of the word, where contemporary history means the history of the comparatively recent past, but in the strict sense: the consciousness of one's own activity as one actually performs it. History is thus the self-knowledge of the living mind. For even when the events which the historian studies are events that happened in the distant past, the condition of their being historically known is that they should vibrate in the historian's mind.' Does this not render the very idea of a bygone golden age problematic?


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