The Clare Spark Blog

March 9, 2011

“What is history?”

     That was the name of a book by E. H. Carr, noted historian. Graduate students were supposed to read it in graduate school. However, this blog is about two kinds of “history” writing, incompatible with each other.

It is possible to write history within an entirely religious framework. 1. The deity intervenes in the everyday affairs of humanity, or 2. An undefined entity called “human nature” defies all attempts made by “secularists” to improve the condition of others and oneself, or 3. Civilizations rise and fall, hence there can be no “progress” based upon an improved study of the world around us, followed by measures taken to rectify the errors of the past.

I have encountered many historians writing under these assumptions: the cultural historians I mentioned who dominate the teaching of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction (see my blog, where their names are listed.) In one instance, the leading historian of this group wrote to me that the effects of slavery still lingered, though he did not say what they were, or how such a claim could be proven.

Similarly, today I read an essay by Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online in which the author contrasted the “therapeutic” view of human nature (he doesn’t like it) with the “tragic view” that he does like, lamenting that it is to be found in literature and not a guide to political choices. It is worth noting that the tragic view has been rightly identified by some as the viewpoint of a declining class that peers into the future and sees nothing but darkness. In Greek tragedy, the hero fell because of hubris or pride. He should have understood that the gods were spinning our fate, and to defy their divine plans was to court the fate of Prometheus.

The other kind of historian is a Promethean, and is denounced as secularist by “traditionalists.” Count me in their city of the damned. These are our crimes against the fates.

1. We pry into the affairs of our betters. We read their private letters, diaries, and journals, along with their public pronouncements. But even their most private utterances are taken with a grain of salt, for they may be leaving a false record for posterity or may simply be fallible as we all are in dealing with touchy issues that are entangled with emotional defenses. It is sometimes said that only the mature historian should attempt biography. Young persons are still wet behind the ears, emotionally speaking. In any case, we footnote our sources so that others may check out our veracity in transmitting the historical record. It is outrageous that most publishers consign these to “endnotes” instead of putting them on the page where they are referenced.

2. We do not assume the role of analyst of today’s conflicts and events, for we have not access to primary source materials, unless they are leaked, and even then we have only hints. Our betters tend to keep the good stuff away from the public eye. That is why James O’Keefe’s sting operation in exposing the views of  NPR executive  Ron Schiller is arousing hysteria in liberal circles.

3. We do not use the past as a foreshadowing or “anticipation” of the future. Unless we are Hegelian Marxists, there is no telos. And even Marx said once that men make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Too bad he went into prophet mode in his most influential work. But that is what organic thinkers do. For them, human history is analogous to the life cycle of a plant (e.g. Goethe), but we are not plants. Historians should study the past so that we may move on, while respecting the power of the human will and imagination to avoid preventable disasters and to increase the life chances for those who are needlessly burdened and slaughtered. We cannot be, must not be, “activist scholars” for that presumes a god-like omniscience or obeisance to a social movement; perhaps too that there is a telos or predetermined course for history, which we are hurrying on or making with our timely interventions. It is hard enough to do any kind of helpful history, given the sources at hand. But we can and must compare competing narratives of the past as disseminated by politicians, pundits, and all other communicators. Nothing and no one is sacred, especially not our own work. Writing history entails reconfiguring the past and sometimes, with new evidence,  overthrowing our own most cherished assumptions. If we can’t do that, we don’t deserve the name of scholar, but are courtiers or theologians.  Which is fine, only don’t pretend to be a participant in the Enlightenment or in the profession of  writing history.

4. Herman Melville, when queried, answered that he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic. That is why I continue to read Melville and inspect the distortions of his work promulgated by optimists and pessimists.  Historians had better be close readers.

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