Why Do We Think Learning About History Can Make Us Better?

Why Do We Think Learning About History Can Make Us Better?

We take history to be an essentially worldly, secular, materialist, empirical discipline. We presume that the factors, human acts, and dynamic forces that we invoke to explain why the world is as it is are of this Earth and objectively discernible. And yet the discipline emerged from a search for meaning that adopted the eschatological structure of religious belief. It was built to endow morally questionable events with purpose and meaning revealed in the narrative end of history.

How did we come to think of history as a guide to conscience? By the middle of the 18th century, the association was increasingly secure. In his Letters on the Study and Use of History (written in 1735 and published in 1752), the Tory politician and man of letters Lord Bolingbroke explained history’s uses as a guide to morality: “These are certain general principles, and rules of life and conduct, which always must be true, because they are conformable to the invariable nature of things. He who studies history as he would study philosophy, will soon distinguish and collect them, and by doing so will soon form to himself a general system of ethics and politics on the surest foundations, on the trial of these principles and rules in all ages, and on the confirmation of them by universal experience.”

From Bolingbroke’s period, we inherited the idea that the worldly narrative of history can guide the exercise of agency. It emerged from the Enlightenment search for a universal system of ethical evaluation based on reason that might exist apart from both organized religious belief and the internal impulses that signal the workings of conscience — a more worldly, if not secular, ethics.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (oil on canvas)

Philadelphia Museum of Art

“The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834″ by J.M.W. Turner.

Before this time, “history” had connoted a story or narrative, such as an account of a battle or journey. The idea of history as “something that equally comprises past and future as states of a continuous subject, so that we may speak of history as such” (as the philosopher Eckart Förster puts it), emerged only in the second half of the 18th century. In 1784, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant described history’s potential as a guide to moral action in his “Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” He explicitly intended this philosophy of history to help history reach the cosmopolitan end it theorized. It would guide history’s unfolding along the very lines it described: Among Kant’s avowed motives was that it might “direct the ambitions of sovereigns and their agents” toward contributing to the goal of world citizenship as “the only means by which their fame can be spread to later ages.” In short, rulers might better serve history with an eye toward history’s judgment of them. Kant anticipated that their own encounter with historical accounts of earlier governments’ contributions toward the goal would nurture rulers’ awareness of history’s prospective judgment of themselves. And his very narrating of this “idea” would help it come to pass.

How did history come to acquire this power?

It was the Reformation that began a retrospective search for meaning in past events, according to the historian Euan Cameron. Protestant theologian-historians looked for and found God’s hand in history. The very rupture of Reformation fueled the notion that they were at an epochal turning point. Martin Luther’s perception that the Church had departed over time from its scriptural foundations was an argument about history framed within biblical time.

The methods of modern historical thought emerged as part of an effort to make ethical sense of a world still understood to be divinely enchanted.

Viewing the rupture as providential also helped justify it. Sixteenth-century Protestant chroniclers did not apply this prophetic view of history only to the Church, but also to events beyond the reach of the Christian world in time and space. Theologians like Philip Melanchthon supplied retrospective meaning to medieval chronicles by attaching forewords to new editions, which affirmed that history shows how God rewards and punishes earthly kingdoms. Periodization — the search for turning points in a meaningful structure headed toward the final moment, the eschaton — emerged as a Protestant passion.

This early modern ferment of religio-historical thought left a deep imprint on Enlightenment ideas of history. History came to be understood as linear and irreversible and, especially, progressive. Classical works of history recovered during the Renaissance, thanks to Muslim preservation of those works, were appropriated into this new understanding. The works of Thucydides and Herodotus were claimed as the foundational texts for a discipline that was now all about telling the stories of nations, especially through the lives of their political makers. These narratives conferred legitimacy on national leaders and national claims to sovereignty, going well beyond earlier narratives tracing the genealogical and divine descent of individual sovereigns to substantiate their claims to rule.

Even as 18th-century historians adopted Thucydides’ view of history as an arena of human action, they did not dispense altogether with God. Instead they theorized new understandings of God’s providence. In 1710, the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz fused a belief in the contingent nature of history with his conviction that “God nevertheless exercises providential care.” God chooses among contingencies created by man or nature. Those contingent events are thus both accidental and chosen at once. God does not cause events but chooses among randomly occurring variations. As the literary scholar Catherine Gallagher explains, this twist on providential history created room for imagining the effects were God to choose alternative contingencies. There might be other “possible worlds.” The accidents of history thus illuminated the process of divine planning. God’s consciousness included countless unrealized contingencies. By speculating about (necessarily inferior) other possible worlds, we gain a clearer view of Providence’s hand in our world.

Like Augustine and earlier philosophers, Leibniz was asking why a good God tolerates bad things. His theodicy rested on the notion that our world may be imperfect but is at least guaranteed by Providence to be the best among all possible worlds. No better world must be possible according to His lights. God may be omnipotent and omniscient, but his human creations are limited; they will err. Evil is the necessary consequence of this metaphysical imperfection, existing so that humans might seek redemption and perceive true good.

In short, the methods of modern historical thought emerged as part of an effort to make ethical sense of a world still understood to be divinely enchanted. But it was enchanted in a different way than the ancient world: The gods of antiquity acted directly in the world; the modern Christian cosmos (as Talal Asad has argued) relegated God to a supernatural realm distinct from rather than entwined with a “natural” realm governed by its own laws.

Historical thinking is like the ghost in “Hamlet,” at once goading and absolving morally dubious action.

And yet those laws were also divinely ordained — at first. Even for a rationalist such as Kant, human history simply must fulfill some immanent narrative structure; it cannot be without meaning. Without faith in such redeeming purpose, Kant explained, so much of human history would seem such an “unceasing reproach” to the “majesty and wisdom of Creation” that we would turn from it in disgust, and would hope for meaning only in another world. Kant’s philosophy of history was in this sense an “expression of rational hope,” writes the philosopher Manfred Kuehn. The Last Judgment was supposed to reveal right and wrong, but Kant asks us not to look for meaning in another world and rather to rely on history to reveal that truth. The modern effort to sweep religion into its own sphere thus created a space for a secular ethics that depended critically on a historical imagination.

In Birmingham, England, the Dissenting clergyman and Enlightenment philosopher Joseph Priestley shared these views. His 1788 Lectures on History and General Policy reproduces Bolingbroke’s description of history’s usefulness in forming a system of ethics. Priestley was certain that proper study of history would always vindicate virtue and prove the folly of vice: “So consistent is the order of Divine Providence, that, if the scheme be fairly and completely represented, we may depend upon it that nothing will be exhibited from which it may be justly concluded, that vice is eligible upon the whole.” Thus, history “must have an effect that is favourable to virtue.”

Priestley’s work was also a theodicy: He affirms that by imagining the other possible worlds that might have been, we will come to recognize the rightness of God’s decisions in shaping the world as it was. If there seemed to be evil in the world, such historical imagining showed that “all evils lead to, and terminate in, a greater good.” As Catherine Gallagher puts it, Priestley saw history as a “large-scale mechanism of incremental betterment, which makes use of the very ills it ultimately overcomes.”

By the middle of the 18th century, war, so central to the making of the British nation, became the testing ground for ethics for Enlightenment thinkers invested in the idea that reason, rather than violence and emotion, lit the path of progress. The question was about the ethical status of war itself: Was it something that could or even should be resisted? Many thinkers considered war a historical necessity toward the end of peace and progress, the working of some natural law that well-meaning humans might only futilely attempt to resist.

The idea of the “necessary evil” proved highly portable as a historically grounded concept for justifying activities manifestly offensive in other systems of ethical thought. In 1796, for instance, the Quaker Samuel Galton Jr. — proprietor of the largest gun-manufacturing business in England — defended his business to his Quaker community, which considered it in violation of its belief in the un-Christian nature of war. His defense shows us how 18th-century people came to see the war-driven economic realities of their time as irrevocable, as historically inevitable in a manner that deprived them, as individuals, of the capacity for agency. Arguing that everyone, including his fellow Quakers, participated in war, ineluctably, Galton invoked the hand of “Providence” to make a point about the particular historical moment in which they found themselves. He lamented to his judges, “the Practice of your principles is not compatible with the situation in which Providence has placed us.” Galton’s arguments drew on the philosophical authority of the emerging historical discipline to clear the conscience.

Most essentially for its moralizing purposes, Enlightenment historical thought embraced a particular conception of time as something that moves irresistibly forward, adopting an eschatological structure and millenarian outlook from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Hence its obsession with “progress,” variously defined. The assumption about the steady and irreversible unfolding of universal time is what allows history to exercise that power of moral judgment that Thucydides detected. As the novelist and anthropologist Amitav Ghosh puts it, history’s most potent words of damnation, “passed down … from Hegel and Marx to President Obama, is the malediction of being ‘on the wrong side of history.’”

From the 19th century, a Marxist historical sensibility — also eschatological in its structure — could also shape a person’s sense of historical responsibility and moral accountability. Marx himself recognized the cultural power of an awareness of history in shaping how historical actors act. He recognized the objective historical constraints on human agency — “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please” — but he also recognized that agency itself depends on a sense of history:

The tradition of all dead generations weights like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

The “spirits of the past” evokes the occultlike power of culture and memory, of history to shape new history. This is why major modern historical “upsets” occurred in years commemorating earlier dramatic events: Stories of the past inspired the exercise of agency in the later moment. The “spirit” of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, in England, animated the French Revolution that erupted on its centenary in 1789; the ghost of the Battle of Plassey in 1757, when the British first established formal rule in Bengal, haunted the sweeping Indian rebellion exactly a hundred years later in 1857. Each successive French revolution — 1830, 1848, 1871 — was in turn stalked by the memory of 1789.

The investments in universalism that characterized Enlightenment historical thought ensured this mimicry — the idea that a revolution in one place had world-historical significance, that revolutions drove a single, universal narrative of human progress, “wheels in the machine of the universe,” as Voltaire styled them. These historical genuflections were new. Participants in the Glorious Revolution, in a time before “revolution” was understood as a collective political act or a practice or goal of history, did not gesture to past scripts for authority. The modern historical imagination endowed its enactors with a sense that in their local crisis, they were, as the Stanford historian Keith Baker says, “carrying out a universal historical mission.”

Indeed, the word “revolution” was revolutionized in this very period. Etymologically, it refers to something cyclical, a return to the start of a circle, referring, for instance, to the astronomical movements that many early modernists took to be shepherding the evolution of human history. In early modern usage, however, it did not always imply a return to an original state but referred to the general vicissitudes of fortune, to the disorder and instabilities that were the natural state of human affairs, to change that happened but was not made. The naming of the political changes of 1689 as the “Glorious Revolution” thus strove to establish, rhetorically, that a great shift had occurred, providentially, and was over. Before 1789, “there were revolutions but no revolutionaries,” writes Baker.

Enlightenment thinkers, with their vision of human existence framed by a social order itself created by humans, ideally according to rational principles, gave the word new meaning. To understand society as a product of human activity, of history, requires a different temporal logic from that implied by ongoing vicissitudes and flux. “Revolution” thus came to mean a mechanism of change for the indefinite transformation of society — understood as progress (even if critics saw it as social collapse). It became the name for “a collective political act ushering in the birth of a new world,” an act rather than a fact.

The notion that time itself was headed in a particular, linear direction — and that those conscious of it must act with the knowledge that “history has its eyes on you,” as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s George Washington tells Alexander Hamilton — resonated with Enlightenment historical thought. A radical sense of human agency was at play in this new sense of “revolution,” the idea that men can make society anew. I do mean “men” here: Though women were obviously equal participants in the history of the period, ideas about who should think with history, who might act out of a sense of historical exigency, were critical to modern gender notions. Priestley’s pedagogical object in his Lectures was “young men of ability formed to virtue.” Making history was about enacting the masculine and its “other,” the feminine.

In short, the discipline of history, for all its claims to materialism, is also supposed to possess transcendental power. Like myths, god, and stars, “history” itself has shaped the unfolding of the recent past. The historical imagination became essential to the modernity of the modern period.

In this sense, the historical sensibility poses something of the same dilemmas as divine agency for historians. A group of scholars known as the Subaltern Studies Collective decades ago determined to write Indian history from the perspective of common people rather than of British or Indian elites — part of the movement for “history from below.” Dipesh Chakrabarty identified the challenge posed by divine agency in this effort, invoking the historical incident at the heart of Ranajit Guha’s early indictment of history-writing as “the prose of counterinsurgency.” Guha’s essay focused on a mid-19th-century Santal rebel against British rule who attributed his rebel agency not to himself but to the god Thakur.

Chakrabarty proposed that rather than simply historicize the Santal, we might see him “as a figure illuminating a life possibility for the present.” Can we write that divine agency into our historical narrative — as a way of acknowledging what Chakrabarty calls “the plural ways of being that make up our own present”? Or must we allow the Santal’s subaltern voice to falter under the enormous condescension of posterity, since “we,” after all, know that his invocation of divine agency is deluded, that it was “really” the result of his class consciousness, even if in fact his actions were deeply shaped by the way he believed Thakur directed him? History, as a secular discipline, may not be able to do full justice to the history the Santal rebel recounts. But we at least can use the dilemma he poses to begin to understand how a particular historical imagination — in this case involving an otherworldly cast — can shape human action.

What makes modern historical activity “modern” is that modern historical actors consciously seek change that they understand as “historical.”

An important part of what makes modern historical activity “modern” is that modern historical actors consciously seek change that they understand as “historical.” Whatever we think of the Santal’s invocation of divine direction, we must concede his modernity, for his rebellion was aimed at ending British rule and replacing it with something else. Early-modern rebels rioted to restore customary rights, to restore the “moral economy” of community, when paternalistic social relations were eclipsed by more purely commercial ones. Rather than move history forward or create something new, they aimed at stopping or reversing change. The 18th-century crowd likewise protested change — changes brought by the Industrial Revolution — but also demanded change itself: political changes that would empower it to address its sufferings.

By the early 19th century, the crowd became conscious of itself as a working class, attempting to shape its own historical destiny against the whims of more powerful social groups. This awareness of its historical role is supposed to have shaped how the class acted from that point. It is hard to say which came first — the theory of history or the pattern of historical activity. Marx assembled his theory of history partly while witnessing the making of the English working class as it became conscious of itself.

The truth is that we don’t have a theory of historical agency that accounts for people acting in a manner shaped by their own theories of historical agency, whether materialist, astrological, mythological, or something else. Does it matter whether astrological forces themselves or the belief in such forces shape history? (If the former, there would be little for historians to do.) Would a historian’s worldly account be convincing or even useful to those who believe the stars shape our fates? Historical thinking is like the god whispering in the Santal’s ear; it is the ghost in Hamlet, at once goading and absolving morally dubious action.

As much as we like to think that historical thinking offered a secular narrative of change over time, it kept the world enchanted for us in new ways. The Romantics insisted it do so. “There’s music in all things, if men had ears,” affirmed the poet-hero Lord Byron. “Their earth is but an echo of the Spheres.” The harsh reality of conquest, slavery, and industrialism was accompanied, indeed significantly driven by, the search for imaginative relief from the dehumanization they caused: the addictive magic of tobacco, opium, coffee, cocoa, sugar, and tea. In addition to the jinn, angels, goddesses, and shape-shifting creatures that remain with us culturally, binding us to earlier eras, the modern era produced new chimera: mythical concepts like nation, progress, and race. The Romantic notion of “genius” infected the Enlightenment-derived discipline of history with a penchant for mythologizing great men who served these chimera. The longing for the sacred and magical did not disappear during the Enlightenment; even when philosophers’ search for sources of ultimate meaning led away from the divine, it sacralized other objects: nature, the nation, and so on. History was part of this re-enchantment, allowing us to live with and among the dead.

This mythology, as Amitav Ghosh notes, is even harder to disavow than other kinds of myth “because it comes disguised as a truthful description of the world; as fact, not fantasy.” Enlightenment thinkers understood the historian as a creative intermediary illuminating Providence for humanity and in that sense an angel himself. The historian was himself a great man, interpreter of muses. Kant affirmed that just as “Nature” had produced great scientists like Newton and Kepler to discern the laws of science for the rest of man, so she would produce a man capable of discovering and narrating the natural laws governing human progress. With this great-man view of the historian, Kant anticipated Marx’s hopes for the historian’s history-making powers: The progress of history might be continual, he explains, “when the soothsayer himself causes and contrives the events that he proclaims in advance.”

As minuscule as human history is on the scale of Time, human consciousness feels timeless, struggling to encompass in the time that it lives concepts as vast as Time and the Universe, accommodating an immeasurable, palimpsestic inheritance of myth and time-before-time, as well as the empirical minutiae of everyday reality. Shahrazad, the great storyteller of the Arabian Nights, told tales without message, without end, to ward off death. Historians tell stories of the past, with a message, to dispel knowledge of universal sin, of the inherently flawed human self — the routine failure of conscience. In doing so, they engage in a political act that, itself, makes new history.

This essay is adapted from Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, just out from Harvard University Press.

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