What is History? What is Moral Philosophy?
By Scott Lipkowitz
At some point in the life of every history enthusiast they are confronted with the inevitable question: what is the use of history? If you are like me, an avid fan of history, this question seems almost rhetorical. Who could not be enthralled by the drama, the discovery, the conflict, the ideas, and the emotions of the aggregate of all human experience that came before the here and now? Yet to many the same intrigue can be found in contemporary entertainment, on TV, or on the internet; simply enjoying history for the sake of its retelling is an indulgence in the human desire for storytelling that can be satisfied outside the realm of history. This leads us back to that inevitable question. Asking ‘what is the use of history?’, is essentially asking what is history’s practical purpose? What is its relevance to everyday life in the present? History after all, if defined by nothing else, is defined by change: the rise of empires, the fall of empires, the ascendancy of one leader who is then deposed, a breakthrough that revolutionizes the world only to be replaced by a different, better breakthrough. How then could what happened in the past have any bearing on the present? To answer this question one must find the common through-line which links the centuries. That through-line is us; human beings. Our proclivity for tribalism, our reactions to outside threats, how we allocate and maintain our resources, how we order our societies, how we integrate or shun new ideas, and even our desire for material possession and comfort are the constant facets of human nature.
This shared nature is precisely from whence history derives its importance and its usefulness; and it is why we are drawn to stories. We identify with the characters, we want to understand their motivations, their decisions, and how they arrived at the positions they are in. History is no different. We can try to understand the motivations, actions, and decisions of not only the famous historical figures; but also of the average people who lived through and participated in historical events. In this way history gives us a profound analytical tool with which to apply what we know about the past to the problems of the present. Thucydides, the Greek chronicler of the Peloponnesian War some 2400 years ago, said of his history: “my work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the needs of an immediate public, but was done to last forever”. Thucydides’ intent was not to merely retell the sequence of events that comprised the 27 year long struggle of the Athenians and the Spartans; but rather to draw broader conclusions about such things as the nature of war, of democracy, and of what happens to the rule of law when placed under stress. While the outward trappings of technology and culture may give a superficial appearance of difference between now and the world of the 5th century Greeks, many of the above stated issues are still ones over which we debate and anguish.
Now there are many who would grant that our shared humanity creates a bridge to the past and helps to engage the casual observer of history. Yet there are also those who would argue history is driven on by the actions of a select, exceptional few; a notion first popularized during the 19th century as the “Great Man” theory of history. The proponents of this view would argue that history has no bearing on the present, no real utility, because of the unpredictable appearance and actions of so called ‘great’ figures. To be sure, the course of human events does sometimes depend upon the actions of a few important individuals, and their idiosyncrasies, but once again, our common humanity would prove such proponents wrong. Even the “Great Men” (and women) were nothing more than human. If we can picture all of our own varying ideas, motivations, and actions, within the complex context of our own lives; then we can certainly ascribe such similar states of mind to the house-hold names of history; be they a Churchill, or a Pericles, a Thomas Jefferson, or a Queen Nefertiti. What’s more, much of history would not be noteworthy at all without the actions of the great masses, who’s names may not be recorded in history texts, but without whom the great moments of history would never have happened. One need only think of the soldiers of every war ever fought to see that this is so. History is the the story of all of humanity, and not just of a select few.
As a counter argument to the 'Great Man’ theory, historians of the 20th Century put forth the 'Trends and Forces’ view of history. In a laudable nod to the fact that humanity does not exist in a vacuum, the 'Trends and Forces’ view of history states that there are broad sweeping movements, changes, and outside factors which are the engines of history. The role of 'Great Men’ in such a historical theory is severely limited. One could argue that the Civil War in the United States was a product of trends and forces. The growing abolitionist movement and it’s inevitable clash with slavery, and the conflict between the autonomy of the federal government and the states, can be viewed as broader trends in which men such as Lincoln, Brown, and Lee would eventually be caught up. History in this way becomes more complex; and it’s complexity should be embraced. However, even this view is flawed. To be sure, there are outside influences, many over which we have no control, that do impact the way in which historical events play out. Yet, as Jared Diamond so fantastically points out in his book Collapse, the way in which humans and their societies react to these outside events often significantly effects the outcome. 'Trends and forces’ ultimately present a situation in which the nature of the human reaction to them becomes a significant part of the story. Once again, it is our shared humanity that creates the continuity.
While it is certainly a mixture of both of these theories which help one to examine history, and to use it as an analytical tool in the present; both theories seem to have one further built in assumption which this blog will aim to debunk: that the course of history is somehow beyond the control of the majority of the humans who live through and often participate in it’s events. This '5th dimension’ view of history and of the current situations in which humanity finds itself appears to also be an inherent assumption of our modern discourse. I say '5th dimension’ because it often seems that we do not, as the average person, want to believe that what has happened to us, and what is happening now, is the product of human actions. Instead, we often seem to speak and to act as though all of the issues concerning us and the problems we face were simply dropped upon us from out of some unseen 5th dimension. We may blame our leaders, or some larger external forces (as the above stated historical theories seem to do), and imply that if only they could be removed or overcome, that the rest of humanity would be free, and a utopia would envelope the globe. Yet it was ordinary people who marched off into the carnage of World War I, it was ordinary people who rose up in the French and American Revolutions, and it was ordinary people who embraced such horrific ideas as slavery, Social Darwinism, and the colonization of other peoples century after century. The average person is just as guilty for the course of history as is any of the famous and powerful. By embracing a '5th dimension’ view of history we seem to be doing three things: abdicating our own culpability for the course of our history, implying that we are somehow inherently angels, that all of our problems come from without. By doing so, we fail to honestly examine our nature. Everything that has happened to us, be it good or bad, we’ve done to ourselves. Only by acknowledging this can we attempt to move forward.
'Moral philosophy’, the 2nd part of the title of this blog, will be an attempt to do just that. Of course many may equate the notion of morality with an appeal to some higher, extra-human authority (in contradiction to what has been written above), but this is precisely what is not meant within the context of these posts. Moral philosophy, within the confines of this blog, is based upon the reality that humans are the only guilty party for the way things were and for the way things are now. There will be no appeal to some outside force to explain away history’s events, no assertion that if only such-and-such a group had triumphed that the world would be a utopia, and no adherence to the mythology surrounding many of history’s greatest figures. Morality exists between flesh and blood human beings; and it’s questions and concerns are pushed and pulled by our common nature. To get to the heart of history we must implement a moral philosophy which centers around this fact. Within these posts I will try to do just that.
Here I have only touched upon what history is, why it is useful, and how, through utilizing a moral philosophy centered on our shared human nature one can examine history with an eye toward applying its lessons in the present. While our ancient ancestors may not have had the benefit of a Thucydides calling out to them from times long gone, we now posses a wealth of accumulated human ideas and experience, potentially enabling us to build upon past success and avoid previous failures. I will try my best to incorporate a 'Human Nature’ theory of history into the mix of “Great Men” and “Trends and forces”; and include a hefty dose of historical narrative along the way. Lastly, this blog will also aim to take into account the perspectives of the average person, and to invite you too to inhabit their historical stories. After all, one day you may be the ancestor of one who looks back and wonders: what were they thinking, how did they live, and what lessons did they leave for me?
Hardcore History with Dan Carlin. 2008. Episode 24- Classical Hanson. Audio Podcast
Diamond, Jared. Collapse. Revised Edition. Penguin Books. 2011.
Hanson, Victor Davis. A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War. Kindle Edition. Random House. 2011