Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Problem of History

In my free time, I love to read. When I read, I like to read pieces about history. I find that a study of history is at once very important, yet most difficult. As I see it, the field of history has problems which make it difficult, if not impossible, to come to many sure conclusions about anything.

First, history is terribly incomplete. We do not have an accurate record of every event that ever occurred since time began. If we did, then perhaps we might be able to make some accurate conclusions about all those events. Chroniclers are inherently limited on how much they can report or record; they are forced to include only the “most important” details and leave out all the “inconsequential” ones. To chronicle all that ever happened in the lives of all human beings would be painstakingly impossible. Thus we are left with a very truncated version of history which is hardly adequate.

As mentioned, the more mundane details of every-day life are not included in most ancient records, thus leaving historians, archeologists, and anthropologists to reconstruct those details by conjecture. The story is told of a group of archeologists who, upon finding an intact skeleton with an ancient pot delicately placed over the skull, began to reconstruct the significance of the supposedly ancient practice of covering a deceased person’s head with a symbolically significant earthenware pot.

The archeologists’ newly formed theory quickly fizzled, though, when the farmer, on whose land the dig was taking place, explained, “Well, I found that there pot and then I found this here body. I figured I oughter tell somebody ‘bout it. But right before I left fer home, it began ter rain. So I put the pot o’er that feller’s head to keep the rain off ‘o it.”

I fear that in many instances there isn’t a farmer to advise our learned scholars on the actual circumstances of things; so probably much of what we hear concerning ancient civilizations and history is to some extent fabricated. To say that many good guesses aren’t made and that many of those good guesses aren’t close to the mark would be unjust. But the public would be wise to take with a grain of salt all that historians, archeologists, and anthropologists say (for that matter, the same probably holds true for most scholars’ utterances).

Additionally, much of once-recorded history is now lost. For example, historians tell us that there was once a great library at Alexandria in Egypt. I suspect that this library had a fair number of volumes, if we can call them that, which contained many great and important accounts concerning the ancients. However, and scholars can’t even agree on the details about this, at some point, the great Alexandrian library was destroyed. Its records were lost. What a boon it would be to us now to have those old scrolls, papyri, and parchments.

Moreover, the types of materials used for record-making in the ancient days disallowed the long-term preservation of records. No doubt the Dead Sea Scrolls is quite the treasure trove, but, unfortunately, some of the scrolls are so delicate it is impossible to unroll and read them. Clay tablets break and crumble into dust. Papyri decay. Paintings flake. And so on and so forth. Only metal plates that do not oxidize extensively have managed to stand the tests of time.

Furthermore, many ancient languages are difficult to decipher. If we can decipher texts, often we do not understand them because we are so removed from the original cultural context in which they were written. For example, the reason why the Egyptian Book of the Dead makes no sense to us is because we are not ancient Egyptians. Anything taken out of its organic, living, breathing context is rendered practically unintelligible.

Second, and probably more problematic than the incompleteness of historical records, is the degree of bias inherent in recorded history. Ambrose Bierce once said, "History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools." Always, it is the powers that be which decide what constitutes "official," "orthodox" history. Chroniclers and historians in the employ of the Sate must always portray the powers that be as benevolent, victorious, and larger than life. Dissenting opinions were never vogue in the ancient world; dissenters generally met with the greatest resistance from those in charge of maintaining the status quo.

Much of history is passed through the lenses or filters of individual experience. We are reminded of the story of the blind men who each examined a part of an elephant and then gave a description of the elephant based on his observations. “An elephant is like a tree,” explained the man who examined the beast’s leg. “An elephant is like a snake,” said the man holding the elephant’s trunk. The man at the elephant’s tail remarked that the elephant is like a brush. The man at the tusks exclaimed that an elephant is like a spear. “An elephant is like a fan,” reported the man holding the animal’s ear. And so each man left the elephant with a very different concept of the exact same animal.

Such is also the case with reporting events in history. Feminism interprets history in one way; Communism in another. Environmentalism sees things yet differently, and so on with all the other ideological “isms” which abound.

In some instances certain interest groups falsify record to meet their needs. The Communists in the Soviet Union expended monumental efforts in expunging any trace of Stalin after his death, once he was viewed as unpopular. Who’s to say that such a practice never occurred in ancient times as well as modern? Was the embarrassment of Pharaoh so great after his encounters with Moses and the Israelites that he had most if not all the accounts changed to ignore the issues altogether?

Along the same lines, many of the extant records are forgeries. Take the Pseudepigrapha, for example. Many texts claim to be gospels and other accounts written by the earliest of Christians. However, many of these texts are actually falsely named, hence pseudepigrapha, that is, the names that the texts bear aren’t the names of those who wrote the texts.

Lastly, there is little objectivity in history, though its professors claim strict, dispassionate objectivity. The problem here is not the lack of objectivity, but the historians who affect the airs of objectivity. One of the strengths of good history is its subjectivity, or its admission that not all ideas or philosophies, theories, hypotheses, or ideologies are equally valid or true. There is Truth and then there is that which masquerades as truth. If every idea is of equal value and equally True, then all ideas are relative, nothing is absolute, and history (as is our present and future) is meaningless. Hitler, and Stalin, and Pol Pot couldn’t rightly be considered evil unless their particular ideologies were inferior in some way.

We do ourselves a great disservice by our efforts at maintaining strict objectivity. Truly, facts are facts, but the person (or media organization) who claims objectivity in interpreting the facts is probably lying. No one and no organization is without some type of agenda, whether good or evil. And so we needn’t be lulled by anyone’s claims of objectivity.

And so you see, in accurately interpreting humankind’s history we are confronted by a great many challenges. But rather than giving up altogether, we can learn the real reasons for studying history, a discussion of which will comprise a future post on this blog; so stay tuned.

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