An Outline of The History of History

That this is a preposterous title for any essay I, a lightly-read non historian who would have to crawl to the starting line to even begin serious study of the subject, would write is part of the point. Spoiler: the promulgation of what now passes for history has fallen to anti-historians. It won’t do to call them non-historians, less to call them amateurs, a word that means at it root ‘lovers.’ Here’s what they hate:

History is the telling of tales. I don’t mean this in any derogatory sense. Among the most basic and characteristic activities of people is telling stories. ‘True’ stories, in the modern sense, are those where the ‘facts’ check out. Our more sophisticated ancestors would not have been as interested in those facts. In past eras and in all other cultures, stories were ‘true’ were those that conveyed something real about people. An infinite number of things happen. Few make good stories. Among those few, we love and retell those that reveal to us something about ourselves. In this sense, those who know no history have forgotten who they are.

The modern distinction between history and myth would, I think, have been a bit baffling to most people in times past. I don’t know what the reaction the children of the original Hawaiians had to the stories of Maui and his fishhook, but it is true that the Hawaiian Islands are surprising and a gift from the gods, and that it is delightful that people get to live there. That some demigod would play tricks on his brothers and yank them up from the deep is hilarious – and just about right.

Just like the ubiquitous genealogies, myths tell us who we are. More important, they tell us how we know who we are: by our relationships to particular people, places, and nature. In stories from every culture I’ve ever heard of, every so-and-so is introduced as the offspring of a string of forefathers, often pointing back to an ancestral hero or demigod. A place and social setting get named: Abram is introduced as descended from Terah, Nahor and Serug, and ultimately Adam. He is from Ur. The importance of parentage and place are illustrated by Oedipus, who doesn’t know who his parents are nor where his home lies, and is the most cursed of men, and as a direct result of his foundational ignorance, commits the greatest sins of patricide and incest.

Since there will be an infinite number of potential stories to choose from, the ‘historian’ in the sense I’m using here is the one who chooses the stories. Each generation will inherit some stories that are just too good to forget, and generate more potential stories in their own time. The good ‘historians’ will tell their stories in memorable, exciting form, and emphasize what is most telling in the stories. A little or a lot of embellishment is to be expected. Some stories survive from generation to generation, and become defining to the point where not knowing that story is a sign you are not of the tribe. Greeks memorized Homer; Jews memorized the Bible.

A famous incident (that a few minutes of web searching failed to turn up, so we’re working without a net here) concerned some anthropologist who was studying some tribe in New Mexico (I think) shortly after the kind of incident that generates History had come to pass: a party of this tribe had gone to do some official business and had strayed into the territory of an unfriendly tribe. A fight broke out, and one tribesman was killed. The factual story was relayed to the anthropologist. A couple generations later, after the participants in the event had all died, another anthropologist followed up. The story he heard was recognizable, but different: it concerned how the tribes had had to work out that territorial dispute, had retconned the dispute into a central place in the original purpose of the trip, and made the man who had died into a sort of martyr for intertribal peace.

Was this wrong, or a lie, or primitive propaganda? No. What had made the story memorable once it had passed from living memory was the resolution of the tribal territorial dispute. The myth now contained important information: at great cost – the death of a tribal leader – peace had been established and borders set with a neighboring tribe which had earlier been antagonistic. I don’t know, but I would be surprised if the actual ‘treaty’ was not included in the story, so that future generations would know the territory and the rules agreed to.

In the West, starting with Herodotus, we start to have a different set of standards. Drenched in myth from every direction, Herodotus wants to know what’s true in a typically Greek abstract sense, not merely what are the stories each people tell themselves. He finds himself in Tevye’s position: He might be able to acknowledge that the stories of People A are true, and that the stories of People B are also true, but when it is pointed out that they can’t both be true, the old Greek isn’t quite magnanimous enough to allow that they can remain true even if contradictory.

Nope – Herodotus wants to settle the differences. He turns to the blunt instrument of facts. This appeal to facts, perhaps most celebrated in the discovery of the ruins of Troy in the late 19th century, tends to obscure the truth that the stories that make up history, even or perhaps especially in our enlightened postmodern age, remain selected and embellished.

While Herodotus wanders a bit and clearly delights in the odd tall tale at the expense of more focused storytelling, Thucydides is recognizable as an historian at all points. He’s followed by Livy and Tacitus (and a bunch of guys I’ve not read – poser, remember?) who also read as history. But while these men were at least trying to tell us What Happened, the usual filters were in place. Thucydides was an exiled Athenian, writing about a war Athens ultimately lost due to horrible political stupidity. I find him very circumspect and even-handed, under the circumstances. It’s not all ragging gleefully about the fall of the people who exiled him – that doesn’t come across at all, at least to me. He seems to think the truth, and as full a record as he can manage, is important. We should all do so well.

Thus, a standard for historical storytelling was established, against which other historians might be judged and to which they might aspire. Yet, other than scholars, people still got their stories by word of mouth, and remembered, embellished and repeated those that they found interesting. The lives of the saints, especially the dimly-remembered but much loved early martyrs, are classics. Butler dutifully repeats the general lore, while always noting when there’s nothing but legend to back them up. He assumes, prudently and piously, that there’s most likely something to a story when centuries of storytellers have passed it on, even if the name and naked fact of martyrdom are about all we can be confident in. This is the way History works, more often than not. We have stories. They are almost always filtered by the preferences of the ancestors who passed them on. When available, the luxury of the written record supplies us not only with facts we may not have had, but perhaps more important, with what the more thoughtful, or at least more literate, people at the time thought worth remembering.

Before the written, then recorded, then broadcast, then videoed, word displaced the spoken as the conveyor of stories, it would have been difficult, I suppose, to tamper with history as the term is used here. Things might have changed in the telling over time, but not too much, when the hearers were as familiar with the stories as the tellers. Long after the invention of writing, it would still be the case that most people in just about any culture would learn the stories from hearing them.

Theological issues in the West are inseparably entangled with history, since any Christian theology must deal with real, named people in real, known physical and historical places. The stories about Jesus and His companions and Apostles were literally sacred, written down and copied and told with great care; the writings of the early Fathers and the hagiographies of early saints were also nearly as sacred. To dispute a dogma all but requires, at minimum, a repackaging of history; to refute the Church calls for a major rewrite.

The serious, conscious rewriting of history in the West seems (for I am not an historian) to have begun with, maybe, Wycliffe? Certainly, he didn’t like the history/stories he’d received, and proposed a hermeneutic of Bad Clergy, Monks, and Pope! Bad! as the filter to use on his revisionism. Not sure if he adopted a Great Apostasy theory, but such a moment of presumed fracture is required, as was recognized within a century or so.

The Protestant Reformation represents the first major attempt at rewriting history, both in the formal sense of drafting new texts that tell a different story according to new selection and embellishment criteria, and in spreading new stories among the people. Ever since 1517, a second set of stories parallel to the existing set have been developed and told, with written histories revised accordingly. The old set, dating back to at least Ignatius of Antioch if not the Apostle Paul, tells of Jesus founding a Church and commissioning very fallible Apostles to spread and maintain it, so that the history of the West consists of stories about very human men taking boneheaded if not out and out evil actions over and over again AND of a Church nonetheless effecting the conversion of the known world from India to Ireland and Russia to Ethiopia within a couple centuries of the Founder’s birth, despite 300 years of secular persecution and zero political power. The newer second set tells of Jesus founding a church which quickly all but vanished, to be replaced by evil men enforcing vile lies as dogma, only for a 16th century German Augustinian monk and a couple of other firebrands, building on Wycliffe and Hus, to reestablish the original Church, bring it out of (presumed) hiding and fight the Antichrist, which is the Pope, and his horrible church.

“To be deep in History is to cease to be a Protestant.” Newman may be overstating it a little. To have any grasp of history at all is to cease to be a Protestant, because the essential claims, such as the Great Apostasy and Sola Scriptura are historically unsupportable: no one ever imagined them, until Protestantism required them. I have great sympathy with people raised as Protestant intellectuals, who have inherited and personally invested in the second set of stories with the hope that they might thus be saved. That’s powerful stuff, and not to be denigrated. But on a simple, logical level, I have to fight off the ‘Oh, come on!’ response to patently nonsensical historical positions.

This theological division not only lead to the historical division described above, but to a corresponding philosophical division. The mundane, work-a-day, logical process described by Aristotle and greatly enhanced and developed by Aquinas and that crowd, was hopelessly tainted by its association with the Antichrist. Therefore, and, evidently, because of something like boredom (Descartes, I’m thinking of you!), new or at least recycled philosophies were developed.

These philosophies, like Protestantism itself, quickly metastasized. As I’ve mentioned before, the difference in Philosophy results from or at least reflects the theological division: Sola versus Scola. Catholicism and the Perennial Philosophy are team efforts, with the archetype of St. Thomas leading students through the Questions Method, where different views are expressed and refined before being being challenged, and the result is almost always a ‘given what we know now’ conditional truth. Protestantism’s end point is a man, a plow boy even, alone with his Bible, enlightened without the mediation of church or priest. The final authority is the Good Book itself, trumping anything a priest or scholar or anyone else might say. Similarly, Descartes, Hume, and Kant speculate not in a classroom with their fellow man, but in their own private rooms, alone, with the shades drawn. TRVTH must be found looking inward; the rough and tumble of the Schools is not for them.

A function of their protests against the Church, the one thing that unites our Protestant brethren no matter how fragmented their theologies, is a dismissal of the Church’s history. But as Belloc points out, the history of Europe IS the history of the Church. Awkward.

A little timeline:

  • 1781 – Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
  • 1800 – Age of Enlightenment ends (more or less)
  • 1822 – Hegel begins delivering his lectures the Philosophy of History at the University of Berlin

Busy time. Kant pushes reason, in the sense of reasoning alone within one’s own head, to its extreme. He famously states that “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” What could go wrong with that? Note that Catholic doctrine, the Scholastics, as well as pretty much every Catholic thinker back to St. Paul and back on into the Old Testament writers, states that, while God is beyond our mind’s grasp, we can know His existence by very straightforward use of reason. Kant denies this. After him, the non-perennial philosophers seem to have had enough with reason. Today, such lines of thought are labeled metaphysics and largely shoved under the rug.

Hegel changed the way people talk about history. The emphasis is taken away from recounting What Happened as honestly as possible, and even away from telling a good story, to deciphering what the Spirit is unfolding ™. History is seen as having a direction and goals; the historian’s job is to get himself aligned with the Spirit such that he knows that direction and those goals.

Hegel considered himself a good Lutheran. Luther was an Augustinian. Augustine developed the idea of Salvation History as the hermeneutic for understanding Scripture. So the God of History, in the sense of history as the stories that tell us about ourselves, informs our lives and aides our salvation through the story of salvation as told by Him in Scripture.

One catch: the God Who Is becomes, under Hegel, the God Who Becomes. Being, far from the ultimate reality, is illusion. What is real is Becoming. Since logic depends on statements of being, and the Law of Noncontradiction upon which all logic hangs is a statement about being, logic in the form everyone had understood it up to that point must be jettisoned.

Again, what could go wrong? The filters used from the beginning of mankind to select what stories would be told are now replaced by a filter that selects stories, and how they re to be told, for how they best illustrate the historian’s idea of what man is Becoming, to best show Progress.

In the hands of a really humble and honest historian, this might not be too bad; in the hands of a Marx, it becomes a blunt object with which to beat people. In the hands of his even less stable followers, it was used to beat 100 million innocent women, children, and men to death.

The switch from the primacy of Being to the primacy of Becoming leads, with an irresistible logical gravity, to a dismissal of the past. This switch is clear in the now-fashionable formulation of Marxist dogma: everything is a social construct. Under this rubric, nothing *IS*. Everything is no more than an evanescence of some mystical social consciousness, as real as a dream and in any event merely a meaningless and mutable moment along the way toward Progress.

While Protestants had practiced historical revisionism to move the Church from a white hat to a black, they all still very much wanted Jesus at the center of the story. The philosophical giants – Kant and Hegel – certainly wanted not just God, but a recognizably Christian God, playing the central role, and remaining in some sense the eschaton. When Marx came along and set Hegel upright, God Himself was cast into the dustbin of history into which the Protestants had long cast the Church.

The sheep must be lead gently at first. When the Fabian communist H. G. Wells wrote his Outline of History in 1919, all he did (so I am told – not an historian) was remove Christianity from the center of the story, where it had appropriately been since the time of Christ. The story remained recognizable in outline, naturally, it just now made different points and punchlines.

Wells was not an historian, but that hardly mattered. To write this work, he needn’t do any beyond reading what historians had written, and then apply his Marxist hermeneutic to it: History is unfolding itself, leaving behind outdated concepts such as God and personal responsibility and the individual as more than a bee in a hive. We are where we are as the result of huge, irresistible forces. History will lead us inevitably into the future, where outdated ideas (and the people who hold them) will be excised. The eternal God and the poor saps who worshipped him didn’t really do anything, they were just along for the ride, at best an expedient used and now discarded by History.

Belloc, a real historian, promptly wrote a long essay in rebuttal. He traces how the West is the Church and the Church is the West, in that it was in the Church that all the good new ideas were developed, the good old ideas were preserved, and both old and new were promulgated and physically expressed. The story of the West – of Christendom – is the story of martyrs and missionaries, monasteries and monks, who, inheriting a Roman social order, spread order and rational hierarchy and learning with the Good News. Bloodthirsty tribal cultures, admiring the Romans and drinking deep of the Christian ideals, became feudal societies where rights and duties bound peasant, priest, and prince to each other and to God. These Europeans built the great cathedrals, the first universities and hospitals, invented modern science, saved ancient learning, and slowly and imperfectly turned barbarians into civilized peoples. The Church forbade divorce and the bartering off of daughters into marriages against their wills: she condemned the endless cycles of revenge murders; she placed the mother and father in the center of the home, with rights and duties no king could justly violate.

Likewise, Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man, in which he, tongue firmly in cheek, thanks Wells for have removed the barrier to non-historians writing history. (1) Thus justified, Chesterton lays waste to Well’s underlying and unspoken assumptions, destroying the idea that we know the history of prehistory, for example, or that cosmic generalizations somehow reduce individual men to dust grains in a breeze, or that ‘comparative religions’ is comparing like things.

In a broader sense, Belloc and Chesterton were assuming their customary good cop/bad cop roles, each taking Wells to the woodshed. Much of educated society, however, was on the side of Wells, including specifically the Fabians, who saw no need to play fair (what is ‘fair’ anyway, in a world of becoming?) when working for something as noble and desirable as the Worker’s Paradise.

Thus, Well’s approach of setting Religion, by which he meant Christianity and most especially Catholicism, aside, and teaching history as if it were a string of inevitable developments under the guiding hand of (the totally not a god!) Progress, has won the day. That’s the history taught K-18 to this day. Any attempt to acknowledge the role of the Church in history in a positive way is shot down before it can arise. By now, with our education system in the unchallenged hands of Marxists for at least 30 years, there will be very few with credentials able to even raise the issue. It would be career suicide.

Since before Wells, but evidently much accelerated since, the rewriting of history, of the stories that tell us who we are, where we belong, and what is important in life, have been a major academic endeavor. As time has gone on, as academia has been more and more taken over by Marxists and their Useful Idiots, history as taught is a slate upon which to expound Marxist dogmas. No longer is history an art meant to convey important information about what has happened, what the people involved did and thought, what lead up to events and what followed. History as the stories that help us see who we are has been denied to almost everyone. The individual is nothing, the collective everything. What is truth?

History is today taught in America to convince our children that they are victims of vast forces of oppression who can only be overthrown by a revolution. Nothing they do matters for good or ill: the only cause of unhappiness is oppression. Therefore, the only valid academic exercise is to search out the oppression that causes any particular unhappiness and oppose it with activism designed to bring about the revolution. The Useful Idiots may not know this – dear God, I hope not! – but the true believers do.

As Chesterton say about dragons: children don’t need to be told they exist. Kids already know that. Children need to be told that dragons can be defeated. A history in which personal action is pointless, in which all victories and defeats are inevitable or meaningless, and in which the only goal is destroying a ‘system’ without the faintest understanding of what that system is: such a history leaves the heart terrified and the body petrified. Here be dragons, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

  1. Belloc and Wells were at the time engaged in a rather heated public exchange over Well’s playing fast and loose with the facts. Chesterton enters with: “As I have more than once differed from Mr. H. G. Wells in his view of history, it is the more right that I should here congratulate him on the courage and constructive imagination which carried through his vast and varied and intensely interesting work; but still more on having asserted the reasonable right of the amateur to do what he can with the facts which the specialists provide. ” – intro to the Everlasting Man

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “An Outline of The History of History”

  1. The Hopi party ambushed on their way home from Ft. Defiance by a Navajo war party and the way the story changed over the years is told in Jan Vansina’s book “Oral Tradition as History” around pp 17 et seq. IIRC.

      1. Yes, he is. You are, too. This is a fantastic missive. I think it would wonderfully instruct my college freshman son, but worry he has not the background and therefore, the attention to read it through.

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