December 03, 2009

What is history for?

Tim Stanley's article in the Utopian about the purpose of history interested and provoked me. Stanley basically argues that history cannot instruct us about the future, cannot provide lessons which are directly relevant to today's politics and in that he is in a sense exactly right. You will not find out from reading about the Russian, French or English revolutions when the next revolution will happen: when someone tells you that looking at the current crisis or moment, it will repeat some pattern from the past, you are perfectly within your rights to tell them that they neither understand the past, the present, the future or the concept of time itself. Having said that, Stanley himself seems to row back on that sentiment when he says at one point in his essay,

But the future must be imagined and created afresh - again and again until no mistakes are undertaken at all.

The point about the true analysis he has undertaken above this though is that history cannot tell us that kind of lesson- there will always be lessons to learn, there will never be a future in which we have not made a mistake or facilitated the next revolutionary moment. One day London and New York will be as Babylon and Tyre, even the memory of China will have faded from the earth and figures which bulk large today like Bush, Blair or even Churchill will be as foreign to our great great great grandchildren as Commodus, Aurelius and Tacitus are to us. And the same thing will happen to their generations and unto infinity- the preacher in Jerusalem was right, if there is one thing that history teaches us it is that 'vanity of vanities, all is vanity'.

And in a sense Ecclesiastes should be our starting point for understanding what the study of history can do and why it can be useful to any intellectual to really try and understand history- you are not necccessarily going to derive practical political ideas from it (though in some fields where you study the behaviour of vast groups of human beings, there may be value- say in the history of economics). If you go to it to find an identity- as a woman, gay man, black man, white man, Englishman- you will end up doing one of two things- you will either end up living a lie and constructing an identity on nothing more substantial than a dollop of prejudice, a spoonful of self regard and a blob of stupidity- or you will end up realising that it is the particularity of every human being's experience that history confronts you with all the time. We all experience the world in different ways- Mother Teresa and Aggripina the Younger may have both been women, but their ideals and ideas of the world- even the smells of the world and its taste and touch were completely different for them. Agrippina had more in common with Augustus and Teresa with Peter Tatchell than either had with each other- and I could do that exercise with almost any group that you name. No it is not identity that you will find if you go to history- that is another one of the preacher's vanities.

Rather what you find when you go to history is a vast array of different lives and experiences- most of which are irrecoverable and lost forever to us. What you discover is fragments of other lives- and if you study it properly- lives that you can never understand fully or appreciate completely. History is the study of sceptics. I study history largely because the thing which fascinates me in the world is other minds- how people work, what they say and do. That fascinates me because I feel that in principle I cannot understand it. I do not know what you mean by good or truth- but I want to understand it and to appreciate it because it might alter what I mean by good or true. Vanity of vanities said the preacher and he was right- all men and women see the world through subjective glasses- that is not to say that every truth is equal (the earth does go round the sun)- but it is to say that any perception of the human world must start from trying to understand why actors act, and that their reasons for acting may be illogical or (in my and your view) stupid. History is less a means to teach you about what perception of the past is right-though part of history is about looking at why things happened and assessing evidence against other evidence- but it is also about understanding the way that people understood their own lives. The historian views the fact that James and Jane broke up through two sets of questions- why and when did it happen, and just as importantly how did the ways that both of them reacted shape our future lives and future perceptions of other individuals.

I have never been convinced and still remain unconvinced that history teaches you about what to do when confronted with a crowd, armed and menacing. I am totally unconvinced that it provides a narrative to tell you that you are a great person and so was everyone of the same religion/sex/gender/race/nationality. What I do think it does and can do is provide you with a sense of the complicated beauty of human life, the tangled nature of our interactions, the complexity of historical processes with which we live, the partiality of your own view and the partiality of the views of others. Caution, scepticism and an awareness of your fundementally tiny place in the world are all things that I think history can teach- whether it always does is a different matter, some prefer their consoling narratives, I like my harsh truths from the preacher in Jerusalem. Vanity of Vanities, all is vanity.


James said...

"I have never been convinced and still remain unconvinced that history teaches you about what to do when confronted with a crowd, armed and menacing." Don't know about you, but I'd sport my oak.

Steve said...

History is a superior form of literature, in which the characters actually have some basis in real life. The point of history (and also literature) is to understand the limits of human activity rather than to plot it's future course.

Gracchi said...

James Ha indeed you are right.

Steve, history isn't merely a superior form of literature- there is an idea of historical truth or historical methodology which isn't actually the same as literary method or culture- I don't think the two are easily compared. They are relatives maybe siblings- but they are not identical- I agree with your comment about the limits of human activity.

Claudia said...

Very posibly, I don't understand exactly what you are saying. I think our full understanding of other people's actions and words (past and present) depends very much on where we are, and of our level of education.

Nevertheless, I find great comfort in not feeling totally anonymous, and in being somehow uniquely essential in the composition of human life, from beginning to end. Like one note in a piece of music.

I always kept, at hand, this quotation from Emerson: "There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time."

Please, allow me another citation, this time from Schleirmacher: "By the ingenious mechanism of this community the slightest movement of each individual is conducted like electricity through a long chain of a thousand living links."

Whether my vanity requires faith in my connection with the whole of history, I cannot say. All I know (because I experienced it) is that having lived. at one point, with people of a totally different culture, I never felt they were very different from me. Terence said it also: I'm human. Nobody is a stranger to me.

I might learn very little from other people's history, but I learn a lot through my own walk in life. To the point of not repeating steps which have been extremely painful. Fire will burn me. That I learned. Fire I avoid.(Fire being a symbol, of course!)


Anonymous said...

Great text. I´ve never believed that History had the power of preventing what is coming. I believe that History teaches indeed something about the world, something about how people think and react. What are we capable of doing be it good or bad. History teaches us about Humanity. The rest is vanity.