Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Past for Itself or More?

Originally posted 6/28/2005

In the course of an attempt to formulate a Christian (but not Providential) theory of History, the Elfin Ethicist touches on the ideological uses of the past (Part IV of a series)
Humorlessness comes easily, I fear. History has so many implications in contemporary affairs that it must, indeed, be taken seriously, yet I regret that the field is so often politicized. We all find it difficult to avoid using the discipline as an ideological weapon, especially when there are so many horrible ideas based on flawed accounts of the past. What, should we refuse to respond to distortions? That would not solve the problem of politicization.

Rather, I think we must try to love the past for itself, not for what history can do for our causes. The reality of the past lies far beyond our descriptions of it; humility implies a certain amount of flexibility and congeniality. None of us will ever comprehend the past perfectly. This does not mean that we should excuse recognizable distortions, but I think it does mean that responsible scholarship begins at home.
I think it's important to realize that, much like pulling selections from the Bible, History culled from the same source (say, Jefferson on Church and State) can provide support for both sides of a given contemporary political debate. It is when used like this, often stripped of important context, that the ideological use of History can become spurious. EE also quotes the estimable Jacques Barzun:
The use of history is for the person. History is formative. Its spectacle of continuity in chaos, of attainment in the heart of disorder, of purpose in the world is what nothing else provides: science denies it, art only invents it. To try to make out the same vision for oneself in the midst of life is difficult, not to say discouraging. One might suppose that an astute synthesis of the items in the daily paper would supply it, but the paper lacks charm and solidity; its formative effect is nil, as one can see from sampling public opinion. Reading history remakes the mind by feeding primative pleasure in story, exercising thought and feeling, satisfying curiosity, and promoting the serenity of contemplation.
If to the beholder the deeds soon become more interesting than the explanations, this influence of the primary realities does not mark a decline in intellect or seriousness. It means rather that the reader is confident about the historical effect. Like the accomplished lover of an art, he immerses himself in the material without scruple. In other words, history is a means of cultivation much more than of instruction.
Perhaps history can teach us lessons, but those lessons are to be learned on the personal, rather than the societal, level. History can expose us to individuals who are similar to us in some aspect, though they lived at a different time. Yet, we can still draw from their experiences, compare them too ours and learn some lessons from them. It has often been said that the one constant in history is (loosely speaking) the nature of humanity, which I believe (though our sensibilities have generally become more "refined"). the macro As such, drawing from the lives of historical individuals to gain insight into our own past, present and future is a valid exercise. But can history on this personal, micro level be translated to the macro level of societiesi, nations or peoples? Individuals are complicated enough, what of the complication inherent in trying to boil down the thoughts, feelings, etc. of entire groups of people?

Perhaps we can learn enough to draw conclusions from examples in history at the macro level, but if so, it requires much more research and reflection, and a much longer treatment, than what is often passed off as historical depth in our contemporary, ideological-driven essays. When such in-depth work is done, what is often discovered is that the history called upon by those on various sides of an ideological debate actually supports all of the positions to one degree or another. In short, everyone is right. Thus, all that's left is to see who can spin Clio the best.

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