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Writing History

Intention has an impact on what a historian writes. The proper motive for a historian, I think, is to describe an event or events with enough detail that the created picture is accurate. This is different from writing propaganda or a tract. Writing good history requires at least attempt to describe undistorted by one's passions, at least an attempt to take into account perspectives outside one's own head — an ability that we acquire when growing out of infancy. This can be done without claims to objectivity.

Details are important, drawn from investigation or reading, illuminating pertinent interconnections. A good history gives the reader enough to work with toward his or her own moral evaluations.

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 of his fellow 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." Indeed, the claim is a sloppy and faulty generalization that fails to recognize historians as capable of measure.

History moves with people making decisions, and 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. A good history of the origins of the Great War is not propaganda by this or that nation state; it is description of a conflict of wills and perceptions.

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.

History is not science in the sense that biology is a science. Science describes gravity without asking why gravity. History has difficulty sketching motivations. But it tries.


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