History is our interpretation of past thoughts that happened to be written down or otherwise preserved. We do not really study [historical] causes, but what people at the time thought were the causes. And our aim in retrieving their thoughts is not so much to explain how things happened as to understand how they seemed to have happened. – Niall Ferguson
I could have begun this post with a quote from any historian I liked, instead I chose one of the better quotes from a historian I dislike. Ferguson will be one side of a debate.
Why am I writing about history this week? It is always on my mind. Importantly, I am wondering whether a background in history could benefit American politics, the crisis in Egypt, the stalemated negotiations between Israel and Palestine, the backward slide of Russia liberty, the changes in Chinese economic output and social reform, the increase in military buildup in Japan, the possible detente of Middle East powers versus the Iranian sphere of influence, the nightmare reality of North Korea, and on and on.
A preliminary question: Is history multi-sided, or is there one narrative for the human species? Was Giambattista Vico correct when he wrote:
The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it (emphasis added). Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.
This seems to be a negation of the 1st quote I placed by Ferguson. Vico does not believe the thoughts of the people during a historical (series of) event(s) truly mattered. Instead it is the actual product, the result, that is true.
Looking at current events in Egypt, is it fair to say the mindset of the peoples there matter less than, as Israeli military officials are keen of saying, “the facts on the ground?” Ultimately different groups of people are hoping to make their desires true, to make them a reality, so while those ‘dreams’ are not fulfilled, they are irrelevant to history. This seems categorically false, especially when discussing the Muslim Brotherhood, which sought for decades for a place in Egyptian society, only to gain power and within a year lose it and face repression all over again.
The Egyptian military never succumbed to the Brotherhood. It let Morsi work on a leash, and then cut his chain and hid him from the public. The expression of the people via a democratic vote occurred but the Brotherhood never had ultimate authority. Maybe Vico was on to something.
Ferguson is one of today’s best historians, and I give him credit for his analysis of why context, here meaning the mindset of people within history, is important. It gives greater understanding, and allows us to see what similar issues were at the core of debates and conflict last year, last decade, last century and beyond, that still mingle in our global lives everyday.
At the time, Vico was more reserved on judging other cultures than Ferguson may be today. For instance:
It’s all very well for us to sit here in the West with our high incomes and cushy lives, and say it’s immoral to violate the sovereignty of another state. But if the effect of that is to bring people in that country economic and political freedom, to raise their standard of living, to increase their life expectancy, then don’t rule it out.
I agree with this Ferguson statement, with heavier emphasis on “then don’t rule it out” than Ferguson, still much to the dismay of my liberal friends, and much to the delight of my Bush II-era conservative friends (Note: Odd, isn’t it, for many of us to still think in the language of the Bush administration, now 5 years later). But Vico believed that civilizations develop independently from one another, and cross comparisons were almost irrelevant, because their histories were so different. This, at the high period of colonial activity.
Here the question is put to us again: is there one narrative, or many, to history? A realist may quip, “history is written by the victors.” That is either short-sighted, or a comment on a portion of history that is too large, where any claim can be made to fit. And history is not written by the victors, after all, wasn’t Jesus slain? Where did the Romans go? Christianity rose from the grave of Jesus to be the dominant religion in Europe. Or what about the books by Chinua Achebe? Certainly his stories of African history survive beyond those cultures, and exist in English, French, and African history. History then is written by writers, by the faithful, by the thoughtful. I fear I’m back at Ferguson.
Leaving this post saying, “history is too large a topic to cover” won’t happen. I am not trying to grasp history, but the word history. What does the word mean for us?
Politically, not enough. Socially, it balances out. While the Congress in the United States seems to lack 1 historian, the country was fortunate to have a historian in charge at The Federal Reserve during the biggest crisis of a generation. A look at US history shows that our society is generally trending upward, learning from the mistakes of the past and becoming a better country for it. History means knowing how to treat other citizens properly, it means acknowledging peoples’ heritages, and common goals. History in America is an affirmation of our differences, and what brings up together.
Around the world, including in the United States, history is often used by groups to justify their positions or actions. Too often their ‘history’ is more so a story than reality. Stories and lies have powerful sway over people.
Perhaps using the lenses of history on current events is not as useful as I thought. Too much needs to be assumed. This is a valuable lesson. No matter the prescription of the lenses, where everything is seen clearly, current events are not best understood through understanding history. No event in history duplicates itself in our current events. The lessons of history are at best signposts, saying, “one once did this here.” It is another issue entirely where to go once you see the sign.