Why history?

Posted by Helen Friday, September 22, 2006

Tory Historian is one of those thousands who studied the Tudors’nStuarts for A-level and is, therefore, a paid up member of “Sir Geoffrey Elton is the greatest historian ever” club. After a week of rather hard, concentrated work on various projects, a reading of the great man’s “The Practice of History” seemed in order.

An admission is in order: I had no idea until I looked up Elton’s biography, that he was of a German Jewish family, which had moved to Prague before fleeing again to Britain. Another loss to Germany and gain to Britain as a result of that insane ideology.

A couple of quotations, I think, for readers to contemplate. A characteristically wry comment at the very beginning:

[M]ost books on history have been written by philosophers analysing historical thinking, by sociologists and historiographers analysing historians, and by the occasional historian concerned to justify his activity as a social utility. This contribution seeks to avoid the last, ignores the second, and cannot pretend to emulate the first. It embodies an assumption that the study and writing of history are justified in themselves, and reflects a suspicion that a philosophic concern with such problems as the reality of historical knowledge or the nature of historical thought only hinders the practice of history.
This is a very misleading comment as far as Sir Geoffrey himself is concerned. In actual fact, he spent a great deal of time (though not as much as he did on the unravelling of the Tudor years) on thinking and writing about history, its meaning and importance.

The second quotation is particularly apt in the days after the kerfuffle about Pope Benedict XVI’s extremely interesting lecture at the University of Regensburg, in which he spoke of the role of reason in religion and the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit”.

This is what Sir Geoffey has to say about the unique growth of the study of history in European culture:

There is something markedly a-historical about the attitudes embedded, for instance, in the classic minds of India and China, and any history of historiography must needs concentrate on the Hellenic and Judaic roots of one major intellectual tree. No other primitive sacred writings are so firmly chronological and historical as is the Old Testament, with its express record of God at work in the fates of generations succeeding each other in time; and the Christian descendant stands alone among the religions in deriving its authority from an historical event.

On the other hand, the systematic study of human affairs, past and present, began with the Greeks. Some sort of history has been studied and written everywhere, from the chronicles of Egypt and Peru to the myths of Eskimos and Polynesians, but only in the civilization which looks back to the Jews and Greeks was history ever a main concern, a teacher for the future, a basis of religion, an aid in explaining the existence and purpose of man.
One could not compete with the elegance of that statement. I would put it simpler: history is studied in cultures which are based on a sense of curiosity. “What happened then?” – is a question all those who have had to deal with children know all too well. It is the first question of an historian.

3 comments

  1. newmania Says:
  2. This is more my sort of thing

     
  3. We aim to please, of course, but could you be a little more specific?

     
  4. truepeers Says:
  5. What a great idea for a blog!

    I am with Elton all the way on this, but I might quibble with his claim that Christianity is the only religion that understands its authority as emerging from a historical event. On the one hand, there is something unique about Christian self-understanding; but on the other, all forms of revelation are in fact historical events, however understood or communicated. Yet again on the other hand, it may be that it is only the Judeo-Christian revelations that are aware of this fact - in terms of their historically-unfolding conversation with God, an ongoing test of faith that broadens the founding revelations.

    Which leads to the question of why professional historians in the west today are largely ignorant of the anthropological basis of event and revelation, of human historicity in short. Perhaps Elton is right that it would impose too much on the pragmatic practice of history to delve long into such matters. But perhaps it is also the case that the philosophers, with all their metaphysical gymnastics, don't know how to explain human historicity anyway - I sure get that impression from reading chaps like Hayden White. Indeed, I believe the nature of human historicity is only well explained by the school of Generative Anthropology and I wonder if it would serve historians, from a pragamatic p.o.v., to learn the paradigm shift in our understanding of event, revelation, and historicity therein.

     
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