Historical Perspective

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Why do some things happen rather than others?  To a historian, the ongoing battle with this fundamental question cuts to the very essence of what they do: To what extent can we identify with certainty the causal factors leading to some particular event? How did those events influence what came later?  What might have happened had they not occurred?

An even deeper question than all of those, perhaps, is: Why bother doing all that at all? What does the past have to do with us today?

Well, many of us don’t, of course.  Our current age often likes to vaunt its uniqueness: through the unprecedented, transformative impact of a large, interconnected number of technologies, goes the argument, we have reached a sort of societal “tipping point” where the future will necessarily be strikingly different from the past.  There is not, in other words, much pointing in studying the evolution in societal attitudes in Renaissance Italy if what we are really interested in is understanding how artificial intelligence, neuroscience and genetic engineering are going to impact our lives in the years to come.

The problem with that argument is not just that it smacks of a particularly dangerous level of hubris (though it certainly does that), but that it is strongly at odds with our current scientific understanding.  After all, if there is anything that evolutionary biology tells us, it’s that human beings don’t change fundamentally on 500 year timescales.  

Which means that if we want to better appreciate how people are going to react in the future, the obvious place to begin one’s investigations is to carefully examine what they’ve done in the past in order to see what lessons might be extracted.  While technologies have assuredly evolved at warp speed, humanity most certainly hasn’t, and the deliberate adoption of a historical mindset will provide some much-needed context to help us grapple with our own issues of the day, whatever they might be.   

Renowned Princeton University historian David Cannadine puts it characteristically well:

“I think that one of the principal purposes of studying history is to try to get ourselves outside of ourselves.  It seems to me that history is the most powerful antidote to the geographical parochialism, which assumes the only place is here, and the temporal parochialism that assumes that the only place is now.

“Well, actually, an awful lot of people are living lives now very different from ours in other parts of the world and we ought to take notice of that.  And, actually, most of humanity has had very different assumptions about how to live their lives than we have now.

“In ten millennia’s time, I wonder what people will make of us.  I don’t know how well we’ll be thought to have done. I think it’s very important to have a sense of that: that this is how we’re living our lives now, but in other places now, and other times then, other people – maybe as decent as us, maybe more decent than us – have had different views and lived their lives differently.”

Invoking historical reasoning to help keep us grounded is obviously important, but it is often hard to see how, exactly, it can be appropriately inserted into a world dominated by perpetual announcements of “breaking news” twinned with an unrelenting analysis of what it means for us.  

But Professor Cannadine has a suggestion for that too.

“When politicians and pundits and false profits stand up and say to us, ‘The world is very simple and I will tell you how simple it is and all we need to do to fix it,” it seems to me that it’s constantly the job of the historian to say in reply, ‘No, the world is very complicated; and you disregard that complication not only at your peril, but probably ours as well.”

A specific example is provided by his intriguing book The Undivided Past, where he argues that our current fixation on the historical impact of tribal human differences is often much less valid than we are regularly led to believe.

“The general argument is that, while seeing the world in terms of these conflicts of ‘us and them’ – whether it’s religion, nation, class, gender, race or civilization – is undeniably one of the ways in which we have seen the world in the past, one of the ways in which the world worked or didn’t work in the past, and certainly the way we are constantly invited to look at the world today by politicians and pundits, there is another way of thinking about the world which involves conversations across these allegedly impermeable boundaries of identity.

“For instance, it used to be commonplace to present the period of religious wars from the Reformation through to the end of the Thirty Years’ War as a time of constant religious confrontation between Protestants and Catholics.  And what a lot of recent historical work has shown is the extraordinary way in which, if you go down from the level of theological disputation or princes fighting each other in the name of one religion rather than another religion, and look instead at the way people, on the whole, were living out their lives, it wasn’t on the basis of those antagonisms at all.

“There were households in which the servants might be of a different religious faith from the people who employed them.  The churches were used for a Catholic services and then for a Protestant service.  There was a whole variety of interconnections in ways that we hadn’t understood as much as I think we now do.  One of the things the book tried to do is to report on the way in which historians have recently begun to see that the history of humanity is about the history of conversation and dialogue as much as it’s about the history or antagonism and war.”

Well worth keeping in mind, I think, the next time you turn on the news.

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com

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