History as Prelude

Reply Mon 8 Oct, 2007 08:38 pm
From: Western Civilization
ll: The Expansion of Empire
to Europe in the Modern World

(excerpts from William L. Langer)

History as Prelude

The two quite different meanings of the term history often lead to considerable confusion. In the one sense history means the entire past--all that happened to the human race since its emergence on this planet, the foods it has eaten and the ways in which the race has obtained them, the diseases that have periodically decimated its numbers, its social organization and institutions, its religious ideas and practices, its conflicts with others of its kind--in short, all the events that have influenced mankind's existence and all the activities through which he has striven to prolong his existence, however precarious and wretched it might be.

In recent years the use of the term history in this sense has been expanded beyond the realm of the human to include such categories as "the history of art," "the history of chemistry," "the history of exploration," and so on. True, these "histories" also relate to human activities and achievements, but even giant redwoods, insect life, or mountain glaciers have a past. We are, at any moment, moving on the tides of time, and what is more, only very few of us can do much of anything about it. Certainly the course of human history has, in the long term, been profoundly influenced by personalities such as St. Francis, Michelangelo, Luther, Napolean, or Hitler. But such men we all recognize as exceptions, and we should not forget that human destiny has been greatly affected also by such natural phenomena as climate, recurrent epidemics, and other uncontrollable forces, which have left their mark not only on man but also on animals and plants.

Of the aforesaid two meanings of the term history, the one applying to human beings is much the more restricted. It is not the story of past happenings, but simply the record of what men have thought or said or written about the past, the efforts they have made to select from the welter of data what seems to them to have had longer and deeper significance, to establish a logic of development or, in the words of one German scholar, to make sense out of what is essentially senseless. It stands to reason that men have not at all times held the same opinion about the relative importance of past events, nor that they have all subscribed to a particular interpretation of past happenings. There have, in fact, been all too many "philosophies of history," of which some have been extremely influential.

Less than two centuries ago the Christian religion simplified the problem, at least for the European world. Painstaking analysis of Holy Writ convinced most scholars that God had created the earth only a few thousand years ago, that He had appointed Adam and Eve to populate it, and that presumably the future of the planet and of mankind would be substantially as short-lived as the past. But by 1800 the work of astronomers had opened larger vistas on the universe. Presently geologists succeeded in explaining scientifically the structure and age of the earth as well as the antiquity of man and other forms of life. Since then archeologists have unearthed remains and records of generations long since past. Recent discoveries have forced contemporary man to revise his concepts drastically. He has now walked on the moon, he has sounded the depths of the universe, he has established the age of the earth at billions of years and has traced the human race back over millions of years. While on the one hand new forms of power and incredible technological achievenments have bound all parts of the planet together in rapid communication and transportation, scientific exploration has extended the past--that is, history--quite immeasurably.

Unfortunately we as yet know almost nothing of man during the millions of years he has roamed the earth. A few bones and a miscellany of crude artifacts are the only evidence presently available. Strenuous efforts are being constantly made to push back the frontier of darkness. The fabulous rock paintings of Lascaux, Altamira, and other localities in western Europe have been traced back by chemical testing to about 12,000 years before Christ, and human settlements in the Middle East are now known to have existed about 8,000 years before our era. But these important finds reveal to us mankind already at an advanced stage, organized in communities, living by agriculture and trade, and highly sophisticated in religious beliefs and social arrangements. The link between the earliest known communities that have left voluminous records and the nameless human hordes from which they developed still remains shrouded in obscurity.

This means that of the millions of years of human existence, of this incredibly long past, recorded history is but the merest segment, a paltry ten thousand years out of eons of time. This is a sobering thought, but one that is compensated for at least in part by the fact that of the last thousands of years, the "historical period," we know a good deal. From the Middle Eastern civilizations perhaps even more than from the Egyptian, we can trace the origins and evolution of many of the institutions that, traditionally, were ascribed to Greece and Rome. We can see that the classical Mediterranean civilizations were followed by a "Dark Age" of some five centuries duration, possibly a period of severe depopulation and demoralization, during which the remnants of the old culture were rescued by the Christian Church and its "barbarian" adherents.

...Since about 1750 European and Western society have been so completely transformed as to constitute a new world. Preeminent in the process was the advance of scientific knowledge and understanding, followed closely by the invention of devices that progressively reduced the need for human exertion. The machinery that transformed a basically agrarian, subsistence society into an industrialized world not only made possible the production of goods in undreamed of numbers and kinds, but more than halved the time of human effort required for production even of the essentials of life. The less spectacular transformation of agriculture through the introduction of new foods, the discovery of chemical fertilizers, and the application of machinery to farming provided food on an unprecedented scale. One all important result of these changes has been the rapid growth of population...

There is much discussion nowadays of the psychological problems of the individual's isolation and alienation. Many young people, in particular, feel themselves strangers in a vast universe, among a throng of unrelated people, everything moving at a dizzying tempo. Modern media of communication report hour by hour what goes on everywhere in the entire world. It used to be said that no news is good news, and that happy is the nation that has no history. True or false, we are no longer permitted such luxuries. Our news is predominantly bad news--records of disaster, of revolution, of war. Nearer home the media are less apt to report the joys of a summer day at the beach or the triumphs of those devoted to improvement and reform on a modest scale. They much prefer what is exciting, dramatic, alarming--natural disasters, the ineptitude of government, the maldistribution of wealth.

And so, many students are overwhelmed by the world they live in. Those who are idealistic want to tackle the evils of the day by frontal attack. They are altogether impatient about history--why spend time on events of the past when the present calls insistently for drastic action? A popular demand is for revolution, as though only a complete overturn could provide the remedy for our many problems. Actually the term revolution has by now become so diluted as to be almost meaningless. Every trifling change--let us say in the style of women's clothing--becomes a "revolution." Those who advocate revolution should remember that human society can never begin anew with a clean slate. They should remember that the truly major overturns, such as the French or Russian Revolutions, have always been incredibly destructive and extremely costly in terms of human lives and property. Furthermore, they have shown a tendency to back-slide, leading to reaction rather than to reform. By and large the greatest and most beneficial advances, such as those towards equality and democracy, have been made by gradual but continued agitation and pressure, not by violence.

In his earlier years Karl Marx was seriously threatened in the leadership of the German labor movement by Wilhelm Weitling, a most estimable workingman who enjoyed great popularity. One day at a meeting of the labor party Weitling charged Marx with his devotion to study and failure to come to grips with the issues of the day. Marx replied with withering scorn that it never hurt to know something of the problems, and with this scathing remark he all but ruined Weitling's standing in the movement. The fact, of course, was that Marx was basically a historian, the whole of whose social doctrine was based on his truly amazing knowledge and interpretation of the social institutions of the past. Can anyone suppose that the Communist Manifesto of 1848 would have made so profound and lasting an impression had it not built its argument on history? Young people, and older ones too, could certainly profit if they had even a modicum of the historical grasp that was Marx's chief weapon.

We forget that there is hardly a problem of the modern world that does not have a significant historical background. Why have men always striven to leave the countryside for the city, despite the slums that awaited them there? What has been the past history of crime and innumerable efforts to combat it? How can we hope to grapple with poverty unless we realize that a mountainous literature exists attempting to explain and overcome it? How, finally can we hope for an international community and an end to wars unless we understand the many forces that for centuries have made for conflict?

It is true, of course, that the conditions of human existence have been constantly changing and that, in a sense, history never repeats itself. But to say that all we can learn from history is that there is nothing to be learned from it is a clever sounding but very misleading remark. Even if historical situations are never exactly reproduced, human nature, so far as we have been able to determine, has not changed fundamentally, whatever the changes in human attitudes. The actors in Thucydides's Pelopennesian War calculated their chances much as we would do and looked for the solution of their problems in much the same way. We read Shakespeare and other classics largely because we are fascinated by what they tell us of human nature, its nobility and its indignity, its achievements and its reversals. Most of us like a good story, and history abounds in drama and excitement. But above all, it is and remains the greatest of the cultural studies, the record of man's tribulations, but also of his strivings and successes.

--William L. Langer 1968
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