Donald Kagan: In Defense of History

Roundup: Talking About History

Donald Kagan, the 2005 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities (5-12-05):

... André Malraux said that "All art is a revolt against man's fate." If he is right, Sophocles's plays, the other tragedies, and much of ancient Greek literature are not art. Malraux seems to me to reflect the Romantic view that is determined to see the artist as an individual apart from, superior to and in rebellion against the established order. Sophocles, like Aeschylus and Thucydides, was very much a part of his society. He fought its battles as a soldier, he understood and appreciated its necessity and excellences even as he probed its dilemmas and weaknesses. His plays, among other things, helped their audiences to understand and come to terms with man's fate. It is man's fate, part of the tragic human condition, to revolt and struggle against its negative elements. But human excellence, virtue, even survival depend on the establishment of a decent social order and its defense even against the most passionate and sincere rebels who would smash it in search of some imagined perfection beyond human grasp.

Because he was part of the society in which he lived and understood its needs and virtues he could compel his fellow citizens honestly to confront its conflicts and its deepest contradictions. They did not suppress, scorn, or, what is worse, ignore him. Instead, they honored him with prizes, election to the highest military and political office and with deep and abiding reverence. Would that all this were possible for modern artists and their audiences in the world today.

To understand this question, which involves both literature and philosophy, one must study history, my own special field of interest, the dearest to my heart. I want to make the case that history, defined not meanly in the current style as an infinitely malleable tool to be used to achieve current political ends, but as the Greek founders of the genre did, can be the most valuable approach to achieve the proper goals of the humanities.

The world we live in is a difficult place to try to make a case for the value of history. Through the centuries its claim has rested chiefly on its search for truths arrived at by painstaking research conducted with the greatest possible objectivity, explaining events by means of human reason. Its various goals, as the late Arnaldo Momigliano put it, were "to provide an example, constitute a warning, point to likely developments in human affairs." The ancient Greek historians, the earliest and still among the greatest, set the agenda, taking as their subjects large events affecting great numbers of people in dramatic and powerful ways.

Herodotus, the first true historian, wrote of the war in which a band of small Greek city-states defended their freedom against the assault of the vast and mighty Persian Empire. He wrote, he said, "so that time may not blot out from among men the memory of the past, and that the fame of the great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners may not be lost, and especially the reason why they fought against each other." Here, from the very beginning of the genre, we can discern the special place occupied by history among humanistic studies. Like literature, specifically the epic poetry of Homer, it has the responsibility of preserving the great, important and instructive actions of human beings, individually and in the mass so that we may marvel at them and learn from them. It sets the historian the task, however, not merely of describing events in evocative language that will impress them on human hearts and arouse an emotional response but also, like philosophy, to explain their meaning by the use of reason....

Thucydides understood that his careful attention to factual accuracy came at a literary price. "Perhaps," he says, "the absence of the fabulous from my account will seem less pleasing to the ear." But he judges the sacrifice necessary to achieve a higher goal, a philosophic one with great practical application: "If those who wish to have a clear understanding both of the events of the past and of the ones that some day, as is the way in human things, will happen again in the future in the same or a similar way, will judge my work useful, that will be enough for me. It has been composed not as a prize-essay in a competition, to be heard for a moment, but as a possession forever."

These lines seem plainly to be a critique of Herodotus and then a bold claim to contribute to rational, philosophic understanding. Even beyond that, I believe, they lay claim to practical usefulness in dealing with real human problems in the real world. These are the missions for the historian: to examine important events of the past with painstaking care and the greatest possible objectivity, to seek a reasoned explanation for them based on the fullest and fairest possible examination of the evidence in order to preserve their memory and to use them to establish such uniformities as may exist in human events, and then to apply the resulting understanding to improve the judgment and wisdom of people who must deal with similar problems in the future. That is the legacy the Greek historians handed down to their successors which, when practiced well, makes Clio the Queen of the Humanities, standing between and slightly above her noble handmaidens, the muses of literature and philosophy....

Some historians may not be convinced by these beliefs, observing that post-modernists assert that there is no such thing as truth, only self-interest, prejudice and power, that there is no objectivity, that all statements of fact or value are relative and claims to the existence or search for objective truth are part of the racket by which the ruling groups try to retain power. Such doubters may point out that the opinions of those making these claims should be ignored since, by their own admission, their claims can not be objective or true but merely devices to gain power.

Although historians in universities have given far too much ground to such mindlessness promoted by contemporary political partisanship, as historians they are better situated than their colleagues in the other humanities to recover their senses. They know that the current fad of skepticism and relativism is as old as the Sophists of ancient Greece and had a great revival with the Pyrrhonism of the sixteenth century. On both occasions their paradoxical and self-contradictory glamour yielded in time to common sense and the massive evidence that some searches are more objective, some things truer than others, however elusive perfect objectivity and truth may be.

Historians have reason to know this and to resist the blatantly subjective and untruthful assault of the modern-day sophists, confident that if they hold, or return, to their traditional methods, which allow them to correct errors in our beliefs about the past, or, sometimes, to bring new evidence and perceptions, that may have the effect of refining or even confirming what has been believed. For history is a discipline in which the improvement of understanding is not impossible, random, nor merely cyclical, but cumulative....

The fact is that we all need to take our moral bearings all the time, as individuals and as citizens. Religion and the traditions based on it were once the chief sources for moral confidence and strength. Their influence has faded in the modern world, but the need for a sound base for moral judgments has not. If we can not look simply to moral guidance firmly founded on religious precepts it is natural and reasonable to turn to history, the record of human experience, as a necessary supplement if not a substitute. History, it seems to me, is the most useful key we have to open the mysteries of the human predicament. Is it too much to hope that one day we may see Clio ascend her throne again and resume her noble business at the same old stand?

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