September 25, 2006

Conservative History Journal: Why history?

The Tory Historian has to be one of the most interesting Bloggers on the internet at the moment, and s/he has already supplied this blog with one post. On Friday s/he wrote about Geoffrey Elton, one of the great Early Modern Cambridge historians who wrote most significantly about Tudor administration. What s/he wrote did not focus so much on Sir Geoffrey's important contributions to the history of the period- rightly as much that Sir Geoffrey wrote is fading under attack from other historians- but about Sir Geoffrey's approach to history. He identifies history as something studied by cultures based around curiosity and also as something studied by cultures which are linked back through the past to the Greeks and Jews and then uses that to suggest that a division between Islam and Christianity is a reasonable one to make upon the basis that one is a culture of curiosity and one is not.

It is a pity to accuse such a good blogger of a confusion but this is what it is my duty now to do. Because after all what culture was more a product of Jewish and Greek thought than Islam. In the middle Ages Islam not the West preserved most of the Greek texts that we have and hold to this day- Islam for instance produced the most important studies and thoughts about Aristotle current for thousands of years. As to Judaism the natural comparision for Judaism is not Christianity- a world religion based on an arrived messiah with no sense of a chosen people- but Islam- a world religion which awaits a messiah and has a collection of prophets (bar two the same as the Jews) based around a chosen people- Islam is the Arab Judaism.

Furthermore Sir Geoffrey isn't right. He is right in his description of the Greek and Jewish traditions and their contribution to the West and had he limited himself to that he would have been secure (or maybe not, Norse saga has neither a Greek nor a Jewish antecedent but still shows history as a major concern of society). Looking Eastwards though both India and China produced profound meditations about the past- indeed Chinese art to a large extent emulated the past in such a way as to become it. Sir Geoffrey might object that such art is ahistorical but it mirrors many attitudes in the West simply in a different way- whereas in the West Romans were updated in art to look like medieval saints, in the East art remained fossilized in the style of a particular Han Emperor- the ahistoricity and the interest in the past are the same.

And that makes the point for me in reality- Sir Geoffrey was profoundly wrong to dismiss the historical cultures of other cultures- the simple fact is that he looks not to have known about them as much as he should have. All historians have to beware of commenting on that they do not know, this is a case in point.

Conservative History Journal: Why history?