Saturday, June 23, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Six

“History As an Art,” pages 190-209

The stuff of mathematics and physics is largely for specialists, and there is little to be said for experts in these fields to try to conduct their work with an eye to pleasing the masses. But all individuals benefit from possessing the rudiments of history, and hence history must appeal to non-specialists. I [Russell] am such a non-specialist, and this chapter presents my consumer perspective on what history needs.

History is both a science and an art, though for individual writers, one or the other of these dimensions predominates. Part of the science lies in sifting through contradictory claims to ascertain facts, and even artistic historians must be faithful to facts. Scientific approaches often try to go beyond the facts, to identifying causal laws that link facts. But in history the facts themselves frequently are of more interest than the purported connections, whereas in physical sciences it is usually the other way around: how eclipses arise and the regularities that govern them are more interesting than any isolated eclipse. History and poetry share the property that what has happened (or the poem itself) is of more import than how it came about.

Causal relations in history shouldn’t be undervalued, however, even though they might not be as reliable as in physical sciences. “[A]s everybody now recognizes, supposed laws of economics have a much more temporary and local validity than was thought a hundred years ago [p. 193].” History does not offer the same vista for recurrence as astronomy does. Even previously valid relationships, like drought bringing subsequent conquest, cannot be expected to remain valid. The potential to accurately predict the consequences of the activities of Columbus, for instance, are quite limited. “For these reasons I think that scientific laws in history are neither so important nor so discoverable as is sometimes maintained [p. 194].” The grand theories (of Marx or Spengler, say) that purport to capture the past and the future march of mankind are misguided.

One interesting sidelight of history is individuals or people who somehow become detached from their original culture, and then develop along unexpected byways. Alas, one of Russell’s examples, of how the Thomas Pride whose purge of Parliament led to the execution of Charles I, was forced into American exile and lent his name to Pride’s Crossing, does not seem to comport with those facts that historians must honor.

What does history offer non-historians? Russell engages in introspection. His view of himself as but a drop in the river of existence – a view that he recommends for a happy life – developed from reading history. Learning history shows that life is not static, and that perfection is not attained, that our wisdom to date is but a small slice of what is possible. The truths we hold dear, history suggests, will not be everlasting, so we should be wary of overconfidence. Hold your beliefs with passion, but do not allow yourself to act on those beliefs in ways that will have horrendous consequences if your beliefs are wrong.(Russell is reiterating a point he made in Unpopular Essays.)

How to ensure that non-specialists maximize their benefit from reading history? First, a historical book must be written in an interesting way, so that non-specialists will read it, as they would a novel. But a historian has to care about the material in order to make it interesting, so while it is necessary to respect facts, it also helps to make judgments, to take sides, as it were, among the characters that history offers up. Historians who adopt a completely disinterested stance are dull writers. “No doubt a love of drama can lead an historian astray; but there is drama in plenty that requires no falsification, though only literary skill can convey it to the reader [p. 199].”

Word choice is one element of literary skill; technical terms should be avoided. A pleasing rhythm can be imparted by a writer who is so versed in his material that he needn’t check sources as he composes. A good style is of necessity personal, so a writer cannot succeed by aping another writer’s style. The facts have to cohere into a story, and too much rumination can destroy the vitality of the tale. “Conscientious people are apt to work too hard and to spoil their work by doing so [p. 200].” [Russell sees conscientious writers and mothers as falling into the same trap!]

Gibbon had feeling for his characters, and could imagine well what it was like to be in their presence – even if he does impose on them some 18th century straitjackets. The result is a lively chronicle, and suggests that an excellent history needs a sole authorial voice, not a committee of specialists. The growth of knowledge renders it harder for any one writer to succeed, but success remains possible and can be encouraged. The secret is a division of labor -- though not one that extends to the writing of an individual work – and standing on the shoulders of predecessors, as Gibbon did with Tillemont. The writing of large-scale history does not provide the time for much archaeological or archival research, so information from these sources must be imported from others. “Broadly speaking the amassing of facts is one thing, and the digesting of them is another [p. 201].”  

Plutarch’s Lives provide an example of another type of history, that of accounts of the lives of notable individuals – perhaps a genre that now is undervalued. The turn towards history of common people has much to recommend it, and it has filled large gaps. Nevertheless, it should not involve the sacrifice of the study of heroes, or to see all great acts as being socially determined. Indeed, an insistence on societal determinism can become self-fulfilling, as it undermines the individual motivation to undertake great things. People rightly can aspire to leading significant lives, and historical studies like Plutarch’s can stir those aspirations. Even those historical personages whose significance is not of the heroic variety provide information; after all, we take instruction from fictional characters like Oedipus and Hamlet, and existence in reality offers a further advantage! “All forms of greatness, whether divine or diabolic, share a certain quality, and I do not wish to see this quality ironed out by the worship of mediocrity [p. 203].” To value the history of great figures is not to devalue the study of everyday lives, nor to embrace Carlyle’s or Nietzsche’s hero fetish. And individuals have made scientific and artistic contributions that would not have been forthcoming had those specific individuals not existed, while the value of states or other collective entities is no more than the collection of the value of their individual human constituents.

People don’t read as much as they used to, and this trend is more pronounced in the field of history. The present day is fast moving, and offers its own fascinating collection of individuals -- so history is neglected. But there is weakness on the supply side, too, as well as the demand side. Specialization and journal articles have become the historian’s stock in trade, not the ambitious broad stories of the past.

The study of history doesn’t so much provide lessons as it alters mindsets. “It is an ancient doctrine that tragedy comes of hubris, but it is none the less true for being ancient, and hubris recurs in every age among those who have forgotten the disasters to which it has always led [p. 207].” Our clever scientists are the slaves of foolish politicians, and so the work of the clever people is heralding the destruction of humanity. If the politicians understood history, they might right the course along which we are hurtling to our doom. They could learn to cooperate more, and to fear and hate less. They could learn the likelihood of the falsity of some of their cherished opinions. This wisdom exists, though it must be made readily available to both the masses and to the politicians. Oh for a Prophet to awaken men to the catastrophe to which they unwittingly sprint, and to point the way to a better path, one that will elevate mankind, not destroy it. But such a Prophet would be liquidated or ignored, so we need something other than prophesy: we need the people and their leaders in the powerful nations to recognize that they must change their course to provide hope for a future. “I believe that if men are to feel this hope with sufficient vividness to give it dynamic power, the awareness of history is one of the greatest forces of which the beneficent appeal must be felt [p. 209].”

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