I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.
Hmm. This is awesome.
I had gone with Henri Pirenne to Stockholm; we had scarcely arrived, when he said to me: “What shall we go to see first? It seems that there is a new city hall here. Let’s start there.” Then, as if to ward off my surprise, he added: “If I were an antiquarian, I would have eyes only for old stuff, but I am a historian. Therefore, I love life.
What is History?
Still trying to understand and answer this question.
“History is, as Marx said, made by people in circumstances beyond their own choosing. But they affect those circumstances, in the lives they lead. ‘Circumstances’, ‘history’, and ‘people’ are not different things. They go on and on together, awaiting the historian who chooses to draw one pattern from the rest. The pattern which I favour is that of unintended consequences: that most, if not all, of what happens is the result of people trying to achieve certain ends, but never possessing the perspective to see what the effects will be. People do things, for reasons and within circumstances linked to their own present. But the things that they do cause ripples, spreading outwards beyond their own moment, interacting with ripples from a million other lives. Somewhere, in the patterns formed by these colliding waves, history happens.”
And before this.
There is not, and will never be, one sole explanation for the war [English Civil War]. To desire one is perhaps to miss the point of the past - that it is complex, and therefore demands our care and attention. Every history is provisional, an attempt to say something in the face of impossible complexity
John H. Arnold. History A Very Short Introduction. 93.
To see the past through one narrative, one cause, one origin, one person, one event is too simplistic too narrow. It’s naive and childish. The past is life - with all its complexities, contradictions, inherent biases, emotions, feelings, stories, beliefs, hopes, fears, ironies, humor. Life is complex, think of your own life! Arnold’s unintended consequences approach is interesting. I agree to some extent, and it depends on what the historian is looking at, that people, ordinary people lack the perspective to see how their actions influence or change the circumstances that Marx says we are bound to. There is no birds eye view of society. No man has had it, ever, throughout the past. No man is capable of seeing all the threads of society. It’s impossible. Yet the historian is tasked with explaining life, describing what he sees when he looks at the “patterns formed by these colliding waves.”
I’d also like to unpack the notion of ‘Great Men’. First of all it’s gendered, so in fact I mean ‘Great Men and Women’, or rather ‘Great People’ or figures maybe. The immortalization of certain men, take the great figures of American History, like Lincoln. Aren’t the characteristics of these people within ourselves as well? Are we not also capable of exemplifying their virtues in our own lives? The dwarfing size of the Lincoln statue in Washington, D.C. can be intimidating. Here is this huge man, this great figure, this enormous statue and here I am, the small, tiny, seemingly insignificant observer. But there is so much in common between you and a great figure from the past.
Substantively speaking, I’d like a little more elaboration on the “Information ceases to be information” line. But visually this is awesome. Historians need to harness this graphical cinema and the power of visual digital representation to help explain their interpretations of the past. This would help scholar to scholar interaction and discussion especially. Not to mention it would greatly satisfy the hunger that wider, general audiences have for History in this country.
The past itself is not a narrative. In its entirety, it is as chaotic, uncoordinated, and complex as life. History is about making sense of that mess, finding or creating patterns and meanings and stories from the maelstrom.
Historians produce new knowledge of the past and … do so in order to help contribute to conversations about contemporary issues.