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Writing History

Good history is a product of investigation into the details of human experience. We can at least try to describe what happened undistorted by our own desires. Intention has its impact on what a historian writes. The more he can include pertinent interconnections the better his description. Regarding historical development, he may choose to include data than indicates deterioration or data that indicates change that is beneficial to human well-being. But the proper motive in writing history, I think, is different from writing a tract. It should not be to assure or to comfort. For some that is what religious faith does. A good history is a big picture that leaves it to the reader to focus on what he thinks is encouraging or discouraging in events.

The first modern historian-journalist is said to have been Thucydides, author of History of Peloponnesian War. He made a conscious effort at impartiality. Of Thucydides the historian Herbert J Muller writes that his detachment was "especially admirable because he was himself deeply involved in the war." Thucydides wrote down the exact speeches of participants in the war. He avoided poetry, choosing instead the precision of prose, knowing that prose would have less appeal.

Before Thucydides there was another Greek, Herodotus, who has been called the father of history. He has been described as the first to collect his materials systematically and to consider the material's accuracy – hardly the method of ancient oral storytelling. Herodotus did not write to praise the gods as priest-writers had. Unlike previous storytellers he admitted that he was conveying a personal point of view, but he wanted to be fair with those on both sides of a conflict. This made him vulnerable to the prejudices common among the Greeks, and they called him a "barbarian-lover."

Some say that history is written by the victors. The historian Humphrey Clarke describes this claim as "an overused folksy saying rather than something that can provide any kind of historiographical insight." The claim is, I say, a sloppy and faulty generalization that fails to recognize historians as capable of measure.

Good history is about people making decisions. History moves with decisions in conflict. The variety of their choices prevents history from moving in a predetermined way. It is erroneous to describe events as linear. It would be erroneous to say, as some do, that Gavrilo Princip's assassination of Archduke Ferdinand determined the outbreak of war in August 1914. Following that assassination there were more politically powerful men whose decisions made the Great War possible. Because the bullet fired from the pistol in Princip's shaky hand hit its target did not make World War I inevitable. Many decisions produced the great chaos that became World War I.

Good history is more than art. It's more than telling a story with imagination. Historians have archaeology to draw from. They have primary documents that tell them what people were declaring. They cannot verify the way scientists can, but they can be empirical. One is being empirical if he writes that the Avesta describes Zoroaster as God's prophet; one is being religious if he writes that Zoroaster was God's prophet. If one writes that Custer's wife said that he beat her and he has seen no recorded evidence of this, he is being fanciful.

History is not a science in the sense that biology is a science. History has its limitations. It cannot answer the question why. Neither can science. Science describes gravity without asking why gravity. Someone might ask why the industrial revolution started in England rather than Japan, Switzerland, Sweden or Argentina? Were the English genetically superior to elites in the other countries? Was it just the availability of coal in England? What about the availability of coal in other countries? Did rulers elsewhere here have a failure of imagination? Did God favor the British? Was it part of God's plan?

The more connections one can accumulate the better one can answer a question. Knowledge is the understanding of connections. But our ability to gather connections is limited, and a good historian is obliged to exercise some modesty.


Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.