Dr. Jeremy Bell

Earlier this year I delivered a lecture on Robespierre and the Reign of Terror to a classroom of undergraduates. After I had finished, I overheard one student say to another, “who needs TV drama when you have history?” While I was naturally pleased at her enthusiasm for the content, her words did not sit easily with me. Historical narratives can indeed be as gripping as anything seen on screen – it is no accident that the genre of “historical drama” boasts some of the finest television series ever made, such as the BBC’s I, Claudius – but the academic study of history is supposed to offer the student something more than mere stimulating or cathartic spectacles. What, however, is this “more”? This question has bothered me ever since my own undergraduate days. Setting aside its possible entertainment value, why exactly do we study history?

The answer that probably comes immediately to our lips is: “to learn from the past.” Knowledge of our forbears’ deeds and misdeeds, we like to think, enhances our practical wisdom. At the very least it enables us not to repeat past mistakes. Yet is this true? We certainly learn from our own, individual pasts. In other words, we learn, or are capable of learning, from our own experience. (When George Santayana famously said that “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” he seems to have meant only that those benighted individuals – “savages,” to use his now unfashionable term – who are incapable of retaining any memory of their own experiences are condemned to repeat these experiences.) Up to a point, of course, we may also profit from the experience of others, including past generations. “A wise son heareth his father’s instruction,” says the Book of Proverbs. The keynote of Burkean conservatism is the conviction that age-old customs and institutions embody the accumulated experience and wisdom of centuries, which we disdain at our peril. Pious deference to one’s elders or to tradition, however, is quite different from scholarly interest in past events. The academic historian seeks in the first instance to learn about the past, not from it. Moreover, his training and professional habits militate against anything like pious deference towards custom and tradition. He usually sees it as one of his tasks to strip away what Burke called the “pleasing illusions” indispensable to civilized political life, to “demythologize” famous historical episodes, and to resist the allure of “grand narratives,” all in the name of objectivity or detachment. We might think that this equips him admirably to identify past mistakes, which he might then help his contemporaries to avoid, but this is questionable. His patient circumspection in interpreting sources, fastidious attention to detail, and wariness of overhasty generalization combine to make him positively reluctant, as a rule, to find positive or negative “lessons” in history. Fundamentally, his discipline obliges him to be too acutely conscious of the uniqueness and unrepeatability of events to be comfortable drawing close analogies between the past and the present – and how can we apply historical knowledge to our own situation without drawing such analogies?

Most of us nonetheless feel that a knowledge of history is valuable, even if not precisely “useful.” “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born,” Cicero declares, “is to remain always a child.” What does this suggestive but enigmatic apothegm mean? The great Roman gives an indication in the rhetorical question that immediately follows: “For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the study of history?” We study history, on this view, so that we may lead truly human lives. Let us see ourselves, not as ahistorical, autonomous individuals each pursuing his own happiness – this, Cicero intimates, is the self-image of a child – but as members of a community whose past, present, and future form a seamless, living whole. National holidays and commemorations like Anzac Day reflect this view, or something like it. In learning our history, we in some sense learn who we are. This need not mean, of course, that we celebrate all of our ancestors’ deeds or all facets of their legacy to us. On the contrary, the weaving of our own lives into that of our ancestors might sometimes take the form of acknowledging and repudiating past crimes, as with Kevin Rudd’s 2007 apology to the Stolen Generations. Yet even the regretful repudiation of our past is a kind of self-identification with it.

Whatever its appeal, the Ciceronian view is at best insufficient. It might explain the value of a basic grounding in history, or anyhow in the history of one’s own people, but not the value of history as an academic discipline. One does not immerse oneself in antiquarian minutiae and recondite historiographical debates chiefly (if at all) in order to foster self-identification with one’s ancestral community.

I have mentioned the uniqueness and unrepeatability of human events. Precisely these features of the historian’s subject matter led Aristotle to describe history as less “philosophical and serious” than poetry (or “literature,” as we would now say). Poetry “speaks more of universals,” history of “particulars.” A great poet like Sophocles or Shakespeare can invest his fictional characters and their actions with a kind of universal significance, while a great historian like Thucydides or Gibbon can do no more, it seems, than narrate and attempt to explain the actions of real, unique individuals. To be sure, history no less than poetry features recurring types. One may meaningfully compare Caesar with Napoleon, or the Roman empire with the British. But historical figures in their stubborn particularity never or rarely exercise the peculiar fascination of a masterfully drawn literary creation. There is too much that is seemingly accidental, opaque, and simply unknown even in a personality so well-documented and closely studied as Adolf Hitler’s for the Nazi dictator to capture the imagination in a way comparable to, say, Shakespeare’s Richard III. Shakespeare, it is tempting to say, presents us in his (historically fanciful) play with a larger-than-life figure in whom the essential features of a certain human type are artfully distilled, while the biographers of Hitler merely wrestle manfully with necessarily inconclusive evidence about a remarkable but idiosyncratic human individual. Additionally, the identification of clear, exceptionless and non-trivial patterns in history seems impossible. (At least, very few historians are so bold as to claim that they have identified any.) For Aristotle, who held that any science worthy of the name must concern itself with universally valid truths, this would be presumptive evidence that history is not and cannot be a genuine science.

Though Aristotle compares poetry favourably with history, he clearly does not rank it with science or philosophy proper. Whatever the status of “poetics” or literary criticism, for him poetry or literature itself is at best a kind of popular approximation to the serious pursuit of wisdom, while history is still further removed from it. Paradoxically, reflection on the question of why we read (and even study) literature nonetheless suggests a serious answer to the question of why we study history. Why do we read poetry, novels, or dramas? One simple reason is that we like to enter imaginatively into the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of people different from ourselves. As C. S. Lewis says, “in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” And why should I wish to become a thousand men (or women) while remaining myself? Surely it is in part because I see revealed in each of these men and women something of myself – some perhaps unrealized possibility of my own. This experience will in one way be all the more pleasurable the less I resemble the figure in question. The contemporary office-worker is worlds apart from Homer’s Achilles or Tolstoy’s Levin, but for this very reason he may experience a special delight in reading about such characters. Each represents something that in one sense he could never be, yet in another sense he already is; each embodies a permanent human possibility. And why should the revelation of this possibility afford us pleasure? Ultimately, I suggest, the answer is that it teaches us to know ourselves better and that self-knowledge is pleasurable.

The study of history too can be thought of as the study of permanent human possibilities, hence as the pursuit of a kind of self-knowledge. The past has in this regard one simple advantage over poetic fiction: the actual is by definition possible. One may wonder to what extent some of the more extreme flights of poetic fancy reflect genuine human possibilities (can we really take seriously the death-devoted eponymous lovers of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, for instance?), but there can be no doubting the real possibility of what has once been. A chronicler’s knowledge of what has been, of course, is not enough. We fail to understand the men and women of the past insofar as we fail to enter sympathetically into their souls. If a certain past deed or custom (e.g., human sacrifice) strikes us as too radically exotic or too monstrously evil for us to imagine being willingly party to it, we need to work harder. Not only will we otherwise fail to understand the past, but we will more importantly lose an opportunity to understand some (perhaps hitherto unacknowledged) part of ourselves. The serious historian should be able to say, with the playwright Terence, “nothing human is alien to me.”

The study of history, then, can form part of an “examined life” – i.e., of a life worth living, if we may believe Plato’s Socrates. Clearly, however, it can form only a subordinate part. The Delphic maxim, “Know thyself,” invites us, in the first instance, to reflect on who we are and, more basically, on what we are. What kind of beings are we – in short, what is man? This foundational question of the humanities is properly a philosophical question, not a historical one. The sympathetic study of man’s past may help us to avoid superficial or incomplete answers, but it cannot on its own supply possible answers. Even if the true answer is, in part, that man is an essentially historical being, as thinkers of the stature of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger have held, the question belongs to the philosophical anthropologist rather than to the historian. History, conceived as the pursuit of a kind of self-knowledge, can ultimately be no more than a handmaid to Socratic philosophy.

  • About the Author: Dr. Jeremy Bell, Senior Lecturer at Campion College.