What is the use of History?

3 Nov 2015 Dr Gerard Kilroy Details The study of history is always recommended, but what can we learn? Profound historical studies alert us to the complexity of past events, and we try to avoid making the same mistakes (like invading Afghanistan), but most history is so simplified by national bias that its distorted lessons barely instruct anyone. Our view of the Tudors, the French Revolution, the First World War, Hitler and Stalin have all settled into grotesque stories as comfortable as our armchairs and as threadbare as our slippers. Can history teach us uncomfortable truths? Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry set out ‘to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned’. Will the four million words promised enable us to avoid the mistakes of the past? E. H. Carr begins his What is History? (first published in 1961) by examining two alternative views: history as an attempt to discover and describe ‘a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian’, which Carr called ‘a preposterous fallacy’. At the other extreme, he argued, was the approach characterised by R.G. Collingwood in The Idea of History (1945), who lists St Augustine, Gibbon and Mommsen and argues that each was governed by the preoccupations of his period. According to this view, history is so governed by the interpretation of the historian that ‘there is no point in asking which was the right point of view. Each was the only one possible for the man who adopted it’. Carr argues that Collingwood’s view is as ‘untenable’ as the idea that there are some objective facts independent of interpretation: ‘It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes’. How far can an historian escape the spirit of his period or of his nation? Communist governments, whether in the Soviet Union or China, have exerted strong control over the history taught. Even in Britain, successive governments have wished history to be taught with a strong national bias, and by careful selection produced a picture of a nation emerging from the darkness of superstition to the enlightened tolerance, fair-mindedness and justice that are said to characterize ‘British values’. Those who have been on the receiving end of the sword, flame or bullet, might see this differently. But even if history escapes the perils of nationalism, it can run aground on other conceptions. On the one side is the view that history is driven by large impersonal forces beyond the control of any individual; on the other, the view characterised by Thomas Carlyle that ‘history is the biography of great men’. At one time, ancient history was taught as if it was the history of Xerxes and Pericles; then it became the history of sociological and economic patterns. Sir Herbert Butterfield’s formula seems sensible: ‘There is something in the nature of historical events which twists the course of history in a direction that no man ever intended.’ Then there is the role assigned by historians to chance. Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace, consistently presents the outcome of battles as determined not by generals, but by some chance decision of an individual soldier: ‘Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic universal aims of humanity’. The role ‘of the contingent and the unforeseen’ in history is perhaps the most significant challenge to a rational attempt to understand the past. Was it Cleopatra’s beauty that made Antony throw away the battle of Actium? (The whole theory is now known, for this reason, as Cleopatra’s Nose). Was the Battle of Britain won because one allied bomber unintentionally dropped unwanted bombs on Berlin, thereby diverting German bombing from airfields to cities? Or is this chance event one stone in the mosaic as Marx seems to suggest when he says, ‘Chance itself naturally becomes part of the general trend of development and is compensated by other forms of chance’. The search to understand the past, to be able to trace the causes of events, seems inherent in human beings. We clearly cannot understand the present without understanding the past, especially as the role of historical myths seems so important. The British resistance to a united Europe, and the German and French enthusiasm for it, appear to derive more from divergent histories than current economic or political reality. And yet, our view of the past is so often simplified by synecdoche (the part standing for the whole). The First World War becomes the Battle of the Somme, the guillotine the only known part of the French Revolution. Distortions are increased by the increasing role of historical novels, like Wolf Hall, as if we did not care what really happened as long as it is a good read or makes good candle-lit television. The school curriculum sometimes seems a random selection unconcerned by the need to create any time line, and students end up studying the Industrial Revolution, or Stalin and Hitler, or the First World War over and over again. What is the use of such limited history? When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he occupied himself with writing a history of the world. He had finished the first volume and was at work on the second when there was a scuffle between some workmen beneath the window of his cell, and one of the men was killed. In spite of diligent inquiries, and in spite of the fact that he had actually seen the thing happen, Sir Walter was never able to discover what the quarrel was about: whereupon, so it is said – and if the story is not true it certainly ought to be – he burned what he had written and abandoned his project. George Orwell (4 February 1944) I hope to do two things: to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of the Asiatic peoples; secondly, and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict [to give the cause of their fighting one another]’ Herodotus (trans. de Selincourt) The task was a laborious one, because eye-witnesses of the same occurrences gave different accounts of them, as they remembered or were interested in the actions of one side or the other. And very likely the strictly historical nature of my narrative may be disappointing to the ear. But if he who desires to have before his eyes a true picture of the events which have happened, and of the like events which may be expected to happen thereafter in the order of human things, shall pronounce what I have written to be useful, then I shall be satisfied. My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten. Thucydides (trans. Jowett) China cannot be considered as outside the mainstream of human history. Professor E. G. Pulleyblank (1955) Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Abraham Lincoln Historians imagine the past and remember the future. Sir Lewis Namier When eras are on the decline, all tendencies are subjective; but on the other hand when matters are ripening for a new epoch, all tendencies are objective. Goethe The true historian, confronted with this list of causes of his own compiling, would feel a professional compulsion to reduce it to order, to establish some hierarchy of causes which would fix their relation to one another, to decide which cause, or which category of causes, should be regarded ‘in the last resort’ or ‘in the final analysis’ (favourite phrases of historians) as the ultimate cause, the cause of all causes. The dead hand of vanished generations of historians, scribes, and chroniclers has determined beyond the possibility of appeal the pattern of the past. History acquires meaning and objectivity only when it establishes a coherent relation between past and future. To a society which is full of confusion about the present, and has lost faith in the future, the history of the past will seem a meaningless jumble of unrelated events. If our society regains its mastery of the present, and its vision of the future, it will also, in virtue of the same process, renew its insight into the past? E. H. Carr, What is History? History is about the most cruel of all goddesses, and she leads her triumphal car over heaps of corpses, not only in war, but also in ‘peaceful’ economic development. And we men and women are unfortunately so stupid that we never pluck up courage for real progress unless urged to it by sufferings that are almost out of proportion. Engels