A Brief History of History

To use a ridiculously simplified metaphor: It’s as though both writers are painting a portrait of a woman sitting at a table. But while the novelist is painting from imagination and can give the woman any features, any race, any age, any dress, the historian is looking at an actual young, white woman sitting at a sidewalk table outside a St. Louis eatery…
Susan Wise Bauer, “The Well-Educated Mind”, page 164.
(Self-portrait by Aert de Gelder painting an ugly old woman, 1685. Just like this painter, the historian cannot paint history as he pleases.)

SUMMARY: What follows is a summary of Chapter 7 of “The Well-Educated Mind“, by Susan Wise Bauer, entitled “The Story of the Past: The Tales of Historians (and Politicians)”. All the content (but my final comment) is hers. The interested reader is well advised to buy her book for a full treatment on the liberal education we should all have.

 

History itself appeared with the ancient Greeks Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, but it was little more than a collection of disconnected stories focused on large individuals. History was not a journey toward an end or had any underlying plan. The universe had always existed, after all.

This changed with the advent of Christianity during the Middle Ages, beginning with Augustine‘s “City of God.” History became a sequential linear story, endowed with beginning and end based on a divine plan.

When the Renaissance came, and with it innumerable doubts about God and new technological advances, the source of explanation for life and the world migrated to man and reason, instead of God and faith. The Christian notion of timeline was retained, but only man could now know where history would go.

When Newton gave a mathematical explanation for the universe and Locke proposed that man came into the world with nothing but reason (a tabula rasa), Enlightenment historians began to see history as physical phenomena that should be explained.

The Enlightenment then gave rise to two families of historians: one who venerated its progenitor, another who hated it.

The first, Positivism (a term coined by sociologist Auguste Comte), came to view history as a science, and the forces of Nature – not individuals – as its engines.

But if science was progressing at an accelerated pace, society should also continue to advance. If historians were now scientists, they would discover historical laws and use them for our benefit. At least, that’s how Progressivism preached history would unfold. Karl Marx was perhaps its most famous evangelist, borrowing various ideas from the mystical philosopher Hegel.

The importance that the downtrodden gained with Marx led to history focusing on the study of all minorities, and to the belief that truth would only be achieved within each sub-culture — generalizations were no longer possible. This movement expanded beyond the scope of historiography and came to be called Multiculturalism.

The other offspring of the Enlightenment – now, the ungrateful one – was Romanticism: the optimistic belief that man is destined for great things, unrestrained by cold rationality, but driven by his individuality, intuition and imagination. Rousseau was the quintessential romantic, but Hegel, Herder, and even Kant were claimed by Romanticism. Unfortunately, such a creed led to nationalism, in particular, German nationalism — and “the rest is history”.

After “scientific truth” and romantic nationalism materialized into millions of deaths, Relativism brought profound disbelief in any kind of truth. History had become a history based on the visions of particular groups or, mainly, of individuals.

A natural sequence of Relativism was Skepticism: the complete refusal to accept that reason could reach any truth. History could no longer be explained; it was now just one of the possible versions of the past.

Finally, there came Postmodernism and its overly cautious historical approach, afraid to answer (or even to raise) great questions.

But I wonder.

Man has flourished by generalizing principles to live by. If history won’t help him in this task, why bother with it?

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2 thoughts on “A Brief History of History

  1. Hi, this is Susan Wise Bauer. I’m so glad you enjoyed my summary of the history of historiography. Could you please credit me with the precis of that summary that’s you’ve provided here? It comes from the chapter on history in my book THE WELL-EDUCATED MIND, but that’s not clear from your blog post. Thank you!

    Like

    • I hope you can forgive me for failing to give you the appropriate credit; this was never my intention. This is just my “online notebook” where I try to learn as much as I can, and I have profited very much from your book. In fact, your book was one of my great motivations to educate myself. When the time comes, and I get to read your other books on history for kids to my daughter, I hope she will find the same kind of motivation to pursue further knowledge on her own.
      I have changed the post as you requested. Please, tell me if it is adequate.
      Thanks for all your writing. And my apologies once more.
      Best!

      Like

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