The Great Conversation: History
By Gabriel Blanchard
History, like philosophy, is a universal discipline—everything fits into it somehow.
The earliest forms of history are certain kinds of myth, especially epics and plays. Homer’s poetry about the Trojan War and its aftermath, or Aeschylus’ about the collapse of Mycenae, look back to the Greek Bronze Age, already hundreds of years in the past. Unlike modern history, however, these works are character-centered—primarily stories about individual people, rather than primarily researches into politics or cultures through time—and tolerated some embroidering of the facts. (The development of the Arthurian cycle in Medieval Britain and France probably followed a similar pattern.) This narrative-centered aspect continues in many ways in Herodotus, a contemporary of Socrates, whom Cicero titled “the father of history.” Herodotus does represent a turn from the primarily personal focus of myth to the kind of history-writing we would recognize today, especially with his concern to distinguish what he has seen or verified from what he has simply been told by others; however, he preserves the story-like structure, direction, and appeal of earlier literature about the past.
The idea that history literally has a plot, crafted by a transcendent author, comes into the western tradition from two chief sources. One is the Bible. The other is Virgil’s Aeneid, which picks up the personal focus of epic but makes the founding of Rome its theme, treating it as not simply something that happened but something fated by the gods. St. Augustine arguably took up threads from both in The City of God, which not only treats history as something with a plot and a purpose, but as a way of discerning the judgments of God on good and evil. Some later thinkers echo this in a radically different form: Hegel’s idea of progress, and the assorted philosophies of history that derive from it (such as Marxism and fascism), almost deify history itself.
Another important turn in history as a discipline took place in the Enlightement, when a new emphasis came to be laid on analyzing evidence and evaluating sources. At first this was largely directed against claims of miracles, by writers like Voltaire, Hume, and Gibbon; but the tendency to treat verifying facts as the historian’s first duty spread to religious authors as well.
It may be this turn which helped history blossom into its multitude of sub-disciplines: the history of technology, the history of art, the history of law, and so forth. Historical details on these things were often furnished only incidentally, and even accidentally, in the past; intensive investigation might be needed to discover things as apparently simple as the eating habits of our remote ancestors. The development of thought and culture is a specially fascinating subdivision of history, because of the way it contextualizes past texts and therefore helps interpret them. Scholars from a great variety of schools of thought—from postmodernists like Michel Foucault to conservatives like C. S. Lewis—have contributed to this grand contextualization.
Interestingly, the Enlightenment accent on establishing facts has had another, quite surprising result: rendering a large proportion of ancient myths historically plausible. Archaeologists in Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and many other countries have uncovered records and letters that seem to correspond to the Trojan War, and even relatively minor figures like the sons of Oedipus appear to have some basis in fact. It puts one in mind of the proverb: truth is the daughter of time.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like one of our author profiles, on figures from Euripides to St. Thomas More to Karl Marx. You might also like our “Great Conversation” post on the concept of nature, or this student essay on the poetry of Edmund Spenser.