The Historians' Paradox


Mr. Hoffer is Distinguished Research Professor, Department of History, University of Georgia, Athens.

History is impossible. Nothing I have written or could write in The Historians' Paradox: A Philosophy of History for Our Times, will change that brute fact. We cannot go back in time. But doing history, studying the past, is not impossible. If we are to traverse the creative bridge from present to past, we must confront this challenge. There is a striking scene near the end of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Indiana Jones must cross a yawning chasm to reach the cave that houses the holy grail. He must have faith in his quest and that faith requires he take a step into what appears to be empty space. He does, and finds solid ground–a bridge to the other side. What we need to complete our philosophy is a step of faith onto the bridge every historian constructs.

Where does such a faith arise? Not in the jargon of arcane academic methodologies. When Erasmus dedicated his Praise of Folly to his English host, Thomas More, both men knew that the real purpose of the essay was to get its readers to think about the folly that knowing philosophy or rhetoric could save a man, when faith could not. Erasmus: “All Christian religion seems to have a kind of alliance with folly and in no respect to have any accord with wisdom. Of which if you expect proofs, consider first that boys, old men, women, and fools are more delighted with religious and sacred things than others, and to that purpose are ever next the altars; and this they do by mere impulse of nature. And in the next place, you see that those first founders of it were plain, simple persons and most bitter enemies of learning.”

No historian will rest a working philosophy on pure faith alone, certainly not the faith of holy fools, but neither should that philosophy rest in the arrogance that history is akin to pure reason. In October, 2006, a blue ribbon committee of Harvard’s undergraduate teachers called for a college-wide course requirement entitled “reason and faith.” In December, they retreated. Their colleague, Steven Pinker, had put his finger on the sore spot in their proposal. “The juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these.”

It was a powerful indictment, if somewhat broad. For Harvard also leads its young charges into realms of the imagination where reason has little place. We believe a good many things “without good reasons to do so”: to expect another to love us for a lifetime; to spend that lifetime writing poetry; to run into burning buildings to save perfect strangers; to believe that peace is possible--all without good reasons to do so. To argue that knowing is “about reason, pure and simple” is to forget that history is a little short of that “pure and simple” truth. As the distinguished physicist Lawrence M. Krauss reminds us, “there is undoubtedly a deep need within our psyches to believe in the existence of new realms where our hopes and dreams might be fulfilled, and our worst nightmares may lie buried.” History is one of those realms, filled with human hopes and dreams, nightmares too.

Consider that faith itself need not have a canonical object. We can have faith in our ability to know a world different from our own without impleading an immanent deity. If organized religion is not a way to “know” anything about history, reason and its modern proxy “science” without basic humane values can just as easily lead to acts of unkindness and intolerance as can unreasoning dogma. Such values in the end analysis are based on little more than a faith in our common goodness, along with a faith in ourselves. Such faith can lead us to love, to aspire, and to sacrifice.

The structure of a bridge between the present and the past, including the segments of the span supplied by reasoned argument, near fallacy, the use of hypotheticals and other loaded questions, literary artifice, a sense of political context, the willingness to cooperate, a pragmatic acceptance of useful categories and configurations to accommodate uncertainty I discuss in The Historians' Paradox, is almost completed by the recognition that doing history presents us with the logical paradox of a yearning for certainties in an uncertain world. There is evil. There is good. And the outcome of the struggle between them–a struggle the historian can chronicle but cannot referee–is governed by chance and circumstance. The problem of evil is only the last of the results of this paradox. It is a paradox we can overcome with a due confidence in our own abilities and a recognition of our limitations. Then the bridge to the past, approached with reason, girded with literary skill, aware of the politics in its foundational piers, spanned with categories rooted in real life, suspended by moral awareness, is decked and paved with faith. Faith that we can know enough; faith that what we know is enough; faith that the effort is worthwhile for us and for those who read us.

What then is a philosophy of history for our times? It is that it is safe to go back into the archives, safe to return to the classroom and the lecture hall, safe to sit at the wordprocessor or to lift the pen over the yellow pad, safe to go to the library and take out a history book or buy one on It is safe to teach and write and read and listen to history. Something happened out there, long ago, and we have the ability, if we have the faith, to learn what that something is.

Deborah Gershenowitz, my editor and a Ph.D. in history herself, asked early in the production of this work, “what is your personal philosophy of history?” A fair question, but one I found, even after all I had written, not so easy to answer. The words of the beautiful ballad “How to Handle A Woman” from Camelot came into my mind. The way to handle history is simply to love it. That is not hard. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, history is the stream we all go fishing in. We are the product of history and we make history. Though most of us only occupy a very small place in it, leaving behind us the scant documentary record of our aspirations and achievements (and our failures too), we are the stuff of history. It is that single, necessary fact that enables us to know about the past and demands we seek out its truths.

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Edmond Dantes - 12/3/2008

I look forward to reading your book.