The Purpose of History
By Matt McKeown
History is a standard subject in every curriculum. But why do we study it?
Plutarch is not exactly a household name in our day, yet he was a popular ancient historian for centuries. Authors as unlike each other as Cotton Mather and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were influenced by Plutarch. A Greek of the late first century, he composed many biographies, collections of proverbs, and works on ethics. The people of his day liked and respected him, and he received guests from around the Roman Empire. The reason for his popularity, and perhaps also for its relative lapse in the last century, may lie in his approach to history.
Every historian writes to tell a story. Some favor a strictly factual approach, reporting things as impartially as possible. This type of history has done well in the last century or so, partly because of modern concerns about bias in older texts. And these concerns certainly have merit. Strongly held beliefs can move us to ignore facts we dislike. All the same, some historians succeed in being impartial only by failing to be interesting. (And some can manage neither.)
So other historians are more imaginative or philosophical, and there is a place for this approach. Human history is human history, after all. It happens for human reasons, and largely due to human choices. Plutarch is of this latter type. In Parallel Lives, he paired historical figures (for example, Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar) and wrote double biographies. He examines their virtues and vices, and attempts to draw relevant morals from their fortunes.
Plutarch was also strongly religious. He was a priest of Apollo at Delphi, and probably an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Pagan piety, an accent on character, and Platonic mysticism all appear in his work. Plutarch thus wrote not merely to chronicle famous lives, but to teach people how to live and inspire them towards virtue.
Such a clear moral purpose might make a reader suspicious. The line between scholarship and propaganda can be thin, and propaganda often sells itself in moral terms. Plutarch’s honesty and accuracy have both been questioned. Notably, his book On the Malice of Herodotus is a severe critique of the earlier historian. Some scholars believe this had as much to do with Herodotus’ unflattering portrait of Plutarch’s hometown as it did with real problems in Herodotus.
Even so, an author with palpable designs on his readers is being more up front. The author who acts impartial may only be putting up a façade to exploit his audience. And after all, everyone brings some sort of perspective to their work. It’s impossible not to. In that sense, historians like Plutarch are easier to disagree with and also easier to agree with, because the cards are on the table.
And we could use a strong moral outlook. Even in our current political turmoil, everyone from MAGA supporters to the 1619 Project take a moral view of history. The disagreement concerns how to apply morality to history, not whether we should. One benefit of ancient historians is that, while they have problems of their own, they do not have our problems. Using their work to reflect on our own times could give us perspective in turn. Taking a break from the noise and reading a few chapters of Plutarch might be just what the doctor ordered.