Texts in Context
How to History
By Gabriel Blanchard
"History is a pack of tricks we play on the dead," "History is written by the victors," "History is bunk," etc.—these are all evaluations of history. But before we decide whose fault it is, what is history?
In the low-level war between STEM and the humanities that has raged all the way up to current year, history occupies a kind of no-man’s-land. Its close ties to the discipline of archæology—a field that has benefited more, maybe, than any other from the immense advances in technology that the last century or so have furnished us with—would seem to make it difficult to classify among the humanities. On the other hand, anybody who tried to argue that history is a science, when it is perhaps the most un-repeatable of all disciplines,* would be laughed out of the room. Like Æsop’s bat, history appears to be neither one thing nor the other, and besides that, deceitful. Hardly a year goes by when some brilliant scholar or other publishes a fresh proof that Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name. Between this much-rehearsed duplicity, and the decades-long chorus (chiefly but not solely from the Left) that the terms in which we study history are deeply biased and even contributors to injustice, one begins to wonder if the study of the past is somehow immoral—like the study of the future, which in Dante’s Inferno lands its practitioners in the Fourth Malbowge of hell, reserved unto the astrologers and diviners.
The present author’s father studied history at college, and his father’s son—not to be outdone in transgression—chose to be the only thing even worse than a historian (viz., a Classicist). He therefore takes for granted that All men by nature desire knowledge,** and that the indulgence of this craving is something they will assuredly pursue regardless of the consequences. Maybe some people really do prefer Henry Ford’s maxim “History is bunk”; he contents himself to observe that, at this date, Henry Ford is history.
How, then, are we to study history? It is not the sort of thing that can be deduced from first principles; logical or mathematical proofs are of exceedingly little use in understanding history, which often enough hasn’t even the decency to sound probable, let alone sensible. Nor is it susceptible of scientific analysis. History studies what happened, not what happens; in seeking to understand, say, the assassination of Cæsar, we can only rely on facts gleaned either from written accounts or (if any of its available gleanings are relevant) archæological findings; we cannot ask Cæsar and Cassius and Brutus and the rest to come and do the assassination again once we’ve found a more comfortable seat to take notes from.† History must play by its own rules, or else take its globe and go home.
What, then, are its own rules? The first is that history proper involves the study of written accounts. This means in turn that in societies which have left us no writing, or none that we can read, are societies of which we can compose no history (although we may be able to discover many things about them through archæology even so); they properly belong to the related but separate discipline of prehistory. But once we do reach legible writing systems, we hit a snag.
In order to write, one must think it worth the bother. That inevitably introduces goals, values, perspectives—in a word, a narrative. Modern concerns about narrative bias would therefore seem to cast the usefulness of written accounts, and with it the very possibility of history, into doubt. … Or are they modern? Consider:
Whenever contemporaries speak about the dynastic armies of their own or recent times, … or when they get to figuring the tax revenues and the money spent by the government … and the goods that rich and prosperous men have in stock, they are quite generally found to exaggerate … and to succumb to the temptation of sensationalism. When the officials in charge are questioned about their armies, when the goods and assets of wealthy people are assessed, and when the outlays of extravagant spenders are looked at in ordinary light, the figures will be found to amount to a tenth of what those people have said.
This comes, not from a modern scholar like Michel Foucault or Camille Paglia, but from the Muqaddimah [مقدّمة]‡ of one Abu Zayd ibn Khaldun. Ibn Khaldun was a highly respected philosopher, jurist, and historian; and he originally wrote the Muqaddimah in 1377. It would be unnecessarily naïve to accept every historical source at face value, certainly (or rather, not so much naïve as impossible, since some sources contradict each other!). But ibn Khaldun did not for this reason despair of history, any more than the imperfect memories or dubious honesty of some witnesses he examined as a judge made him despair of justice. We need not despair of either one ourselves.
The present author would add just one more note to the study of history—one that in some sense balances ibn Khaldun’s caution against sensationalism. The principle is excellently articulated in a novel by the late Douglas Adams. In it, one of the characters, Kate, has met a girl who (to all appearances) is incessantly reciting stock market prices exactly twenty-four hours behind their issuance, yet with no perceptible means of obtaining the information. She later encounters the protagonist of the book, Dirk (a self-styled “holistic detective”), and has the following exchange with him:
“Most of the ideas I have at the moment have to do with things that are completely impossible, so I am wary about sharing them. They are, however, the only thoughts I have.”
“I’d get some different ones, then,” said Kate. “What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? ‘Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'”
“I reject that entirely,” said Dirk, sharply. “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something which works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say ‘Yes, but he or she simply wouldn’t do that.’ … [Y]our girl in the wheelchair—a perfect example. The idea that she is somehow receiving yesterday’s stock market prices apparently out of thin air is merely impossible, and therefore must be the case, because the idea that she is maintaining an immensely complex and laborious hoax of no benefit to herself is hopelessly improbable. The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don’t know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality.”
—The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, ch. 14§
*Of course, to borrow a phrase from The Onion, history does regularly sigh and repeat itself. But what it will not do, for love or money, is consent to do this on request and under laboratory conditions.
**Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I.
†Or rather, we can—but this generally appears either to be unsuccessful, or else to land us precisely in the Fourth Malbowge for our troubles.
‡We might, with a little cheek, render this title in English as “Prolegomena to Any Future History.”
§It may be just as well, to avoid possible misinterpretations, to note here that Mr. Adams was an atheist.
To historians, Gabriel Blanchard (1987-2024 or later) will have been a freelance author and CLT’s editor at large; he will have lived principally in Baltimore, MD.
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Published on 5th February, 2024. Page image of Fragment A of the Antikythera mechanism (used under a CC BY license, v. 2.5—source). This object was an orrery, a type of mechanical planetarium, built to exhibit the relatives motions of the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and (optionally) other planets in the solar system; the Antikythera mechanism was constructed probably some time in the second century BC, was geocentric, and included all of the classical planets. The device was lost in a shipwreck in the 60s BC off the coast of Antikythera, an island northwest of Crete; the wreck was rediscovered in 1900, yet the device went largely unexamined until the 1970s, and saw another, ongoing phase of academic examination beginning in 2008. Based on the period and specifics of the device, it is possible that Hipparchus (c. 190-c. 120 BC), one of the most eminent astronomers and inventors of antiquity, may have designed or worked on the Antikythera mechanism: e.g., it possessed a Saros dial, used to calculate solar and lunar eclipses, which Hipparchus was the first to find rules for predicting.