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The Commandment of History

Updated on April 9, 2013

The Job of the Historian

The historian must refrain from imposing his own morals from his own time on a historical event. One must remember that what is mainstream thinking today may not be what was common thought of the day. So, unless writing for the sake of arguing, the historian must not impose his or her own morality upon the person or event in the past. If writing a historical argument, the historian cannot entirely refrain from imposing his or her own strong opinions, but only after reviewing and stating opposing facts and counter-arguments.

The historian MUST be able to comprehend and interpret the facts in order for knowledge to be passed on to those who cannot. It is the job of the historian to be able to relate to the common people their history and the history of the world to the best of their ability.

The past has left behind many clues- it has let us know that it is there. It is the historian's job to interpret those clues, and to piece together a puzzle that may not be seen by scientists.

An Argument for History

History, as it is understood through Collingwood, Marx, and other writers, is rational; it is science. However history cannot be entirely rational for any true sense to be made of it. Perhaps there are certain ideas in history, or aspects of history, that are scientific and rational, but this is often relevant only to politicians, modernists, and some genealogists. Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492. Fact, virtually indisputable, rational. Columbus “discovered” America. Theory, simply because of the second common statement: Columbus “conquered” America, which is also theory. Does this make either statement less true? Christianity spread through the Ancient Roman Empire in the 5th century BCE. Fact, indisputable, documented. Christianity caused the collapse of the same empire, forcing it to virtually cave in on itself as pagan temples were destroyed and worshippers of the old gods burned. Well, there is fact somewhere in that statement; that Christians largely persecuted the pagans of old and destroyed their temples cannot be disputed. It can be proven. That Christians were the sole cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire- debatable. Another, more controversial example is this: Abraham of the Old Testament is largely considered to be the founder, or father, of monotheism as it exists in all its forms. Fact of belief, if not necessarily of concrete historical value. But ask any Jew, any Christian, or any Muslim, and they will say Abraham was one of them, and denounce the claims that the other two have. History is open to interpretation. This is a truth. History is also a constant argument, so it is only fitting that I present mine.

If one were to ask, “What is history?” then what would the answer be? If someone were to ask Tacitus of Rome, the answer would be that history is something to learn from- a morality tale, of sorts. Others say that history simply is- and it is the job of the historians to recount it truthfully and without embellishment. History is different to just about anyone who chooses to study it; because there are many facets to history and historiography, it appeals to many different people, and no two people are ever completely alike in thinking. There will always be more than one viewpoint on the nature of history, just as there will always be different ideas on how to relate history. Professors will often disagree entirely on a single subject, on anything from its definition to the thought process of people to how to present it. History is full of these contradictions, historical thought is widely different even among peers. Different people in different places at different times experience the world in different ways, according to Mark Gilderhus in History and Historians. No one can ever agree on anything simply because what one person sees is not what another person sees; but does that make any one person’s view of history be any less significant, in spite of the fact (or perhaps, because of it) that it differs from what is commonly accepted?

Contradiction and Causation

Just as history is full of contradictions, it is also made up of causality. John Lewis Gaddis devotes an entire chapter in his book The Landscape of History to causality. There is a relationship between an event, or the cause, and a second event, or the effect. Ah, there is the link between history and science, grounded in the simplicity of “cause and effect.” Wait, but there is a fundamental difference here. In science, there is (with exceptions of course) one cause, which initiates one effect. The variables that make up an experiment in science are often controlled, and those that are not controlled are easily recorded because they are probably under observation. However there is no single cause for any event in a historical sense. There never is and never will be. In fact, there is such an intricate weaving of events and variables that discerning a single cause is virtually impossible for any historian, even the very best. Even Herodotus could only make speculations on events he did not witness for himself. One could probably point out a leading cause, or a main cause, or even the final cause, of an event. Each of these is but one event which helps to trigger another; the only difference is the result in question. Sure, one could take a single, major event and relate it to a single, major event that caused it. But what forced that first event into action? What other affairs were happening to strengthen or lessen the eventuality of the main topic in question? According to Mark Gilderhus of History and Historians, most academic disciplines strive to make accurate predictions about probable outcomes. Unfortunately history is created from hundreds of different variables built upon each other and each of these variables, these causes of events, is susceptible to dozens of possible interpretations, sometimes centuries apart. What we know now is not necessarily what we knew then; yes it is thanks to developing sciences that allows the historians to learn more, but that does not make history itself a science. History is interpretive. Fact. How then, is history entirely rational?

Another aspect of history to factor in is this: History is written. This means it must be written by people. History is often about people. It is usually researched by people. People, as society should know by now, are anything but rational, and as Collingwood says, people are what their experiences make them. Even anthropologists, who work day in and day out trying to interpret various tools and tablets discovered recently in ancient dig sites, are not entirely rational. Nor can any of us who take pride in our field afford to be entirely rational. Even in a lab, a scientist cannot be fully rational, or progress can never be made, inventions never invented. To be rational is to close the mind to new ideas, and history is swarming with new ideas that are always being discovered. The American Revolution, for example. It happened. There is no disputing this; it is fact. Why did it happen? Well, ask any five people and you will likely hear five different answers, and always are “new theories” coming out. Even those who follow the teachings or ideas of a professor will differ slightly when it comes to the little things, and there is an infinite number of little things that are apparent in history.

How can history be rational, if the people who made it, and the people who wrote it, and the people who interpreted it, are not rational? Events happen in history because of people- people who think. Whether for good or for bad, people think and some may desire power, and conquer foreign places. This is not rational- but it happens. Modernists tend to dwell on the who, what, when, and where of history. If you look only at these, then yes, by all means, history is scientific, history is unchanging, history is logical. This happened here and involved them. But most people leave out the most important aspect of history- the aspect that defines history and helps us to understand the present and predict the future. Where is the why in history? For what reason is it often overlooked? The why in history is what makes history important- understanding not only the events that happened, or who led them, or where it occurred and when, but why. History and science must coexist for either to survive. This does not mean that scientists should write history or historians should work under a microscope. Science has history, and history can be scientifically aligned. But to say that history is science is, well, irrational. Perhaps Bloch was right when he created The Historian’s Craft. “On one hand, a small group of antiquarians taking a ghoulish delight in unwrapping the winding-sheets of the dead gods; on the other, sociologists, economists, and publicists, the only explorers of the living."

Elitism in History and Antiquity

Do not also think that our field does not have its elitists. We do, and I condemn them for being elitists. I am a common historian- a public historian. I can understand the hard facts, but I do not use them. The job of the true historian is not to write in a way that can only be understood by other historians! No, it is the job of the historian to relate the facts of history to the common people who cannot interpret, or have no care to read them, for themselves. It is the job of the historian to forever be speaking to those who know not the art of history. In a way, when it comes to performing the job of a historian adequately, then yes, call me an elitist, but I am one such as though condemns the idea of elitists.

I am not a scientist. Give me the literature and culture of ancient times, untouched, and let me interpret it and present it how I will. Let the politicians handle modern history; for it is largely they who created and preserved it, taking history away from the common folk and rewriting it through court cases and legal matters. But do not accuse a historian of not being a historian simply because he looks only to the past, for it is the historian’s job to interpret the past, is it not? Anthropologists, archaeologists, it is to them that the initial discovery of the past goes to. It is the job of historians to represent the history they are given, ask why things happened, and link the similarities to come up with new ideas. History and science coincide, but they cannot be used to describe each other. Science may provide the rationality that history needs, but history itself will never be rational so long as mankind creates it. History and science move in two different directions and follow two different paths, although they may cross each other time and again. They will greet each other as old friends, but largely continue on their own way. If becoming a historian means conforming to what is generally accepted as being the rationale of history, call me an antiquarian instead, and leave history for those antiquarians who will preserve it, not modernists who will inevitably corrupt it.

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    • cprice75 profile image

      cprice75 5 years ago from USA

      Good description of the work of a historian. However, I have one little quibble with what you wrote. I think there are certain instances in which it's necessary to make a moral judgment. Take, for instance, the Holocaust. People outside of Germany were appalled by this at the time. People today are appalled by it. I think it's appropriate to point this event as a very immoral era. Same thing with the slavery that evolved in the Americas and the treatment of Native Americans by the US government. Most nations tend to think that the stipulation of treaties should be lived up to. Not to do so is considered immoral (even though just about every nation does it at one point or another). I think it's fine to say that it's immoral. History serves as a cautionary tale. We should learn from the mistakes and transgressions of those who came before.

    • hmclio profile image
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      hmclio 5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I agree with what you are saying. A historian can not always help from making moral judgment; I believe the Holocaust was a very immoral thing, to take the example you have given, and most people during that time would agree. But take the decision to detain hundreds of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps here in US during WWII; if one were to look at the treatment of Japanese-Americans during that time, people then would not say it was immoral, in fact the general consensus then was that it was quite a popular idea in and out of the US.

      The treatment of the Native Americans was immoral, and even some people (not all but some) were against the decisions made against the tribes. But then look at slavery: I do not condone it, as keeping any human in bondage is immoral, but during the time in which slaves existed, it was a generally accepted everywhere. Even many non-whites owned slaves: there are records of both Native American and African American slaveholders. Maybe only 1%, yes, but still they existed and did not consider it immoral.

      Perhaps a middle ground might be that a historian is free to and can always state their point of view on morality, as long as the viewpoint of the time period in question is not disregarded. I definately agree that history is something we should learn from, but to do so would mean teaching history how it was accepted during the time it happened as best as possible, unless writing to argue a specific point.

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      Lisa 5 years ago

      Perhaps the best way is for historians to state the facts, and leave the moral interpretations to the sociologists.

    • cprice75 profile image

      cprice75 5 years ago from USA

      Facts are dry and boring. Historians have to ask how and why questions. The answers are based upon the facts, but the facts are generally fragmentary--especially the farther one goes back into history. All history has some level of interpretation.

    • hmclio profile image
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      hmclio 5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Facts can be dry and boring, but historians need to know how to write and read those facts. There's a difference between representing history, and imposing morals upon it.

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