Sunday, August 10, 2014

On Knowing the Past

AN apprehension of the past demands two kinds of information.

First, the mind must grasp the nature of historic change and must be made acquainted with the conditions of human thought in each successive period, as also with the general aspect of revolutions and progressions.

Second, the actions of men, the times, that is the dates and hours of such actions must be strictly and accurately acquired.

Neither of these two foundations, upon which repose both the teaching and the learning of history, is more important than the other. Each is essential. But a neglect of the due emphasis which each one or the other demands, though both be present, warps the judgment of the scholar and forbids him to apply this science to its end, which is the establishment of truth.

History may be called the test of true philosophy, or it may be called in a very modern and not very dignified metaphor the object-lesson of political science; or it may be called the great story whose interest is upon another plane from all other stories because its irony, its tragedy and its moral are real, were acted by real men, and were the manifestation of God.

But whatever brief and epigrammatic summary we make to explain the value of history to men, that formula still remains an imperative formula for them all, and I repeat it; the end of history is the establishment of truth.

A man may be ever so accurately informed as to the dates, the hours, the weather, the gestures, the type of speech, the very words, the soil, the colour, that between them all would seem to build up a particular event. But if he is not seized of the mind which lay behind all that was human in the business, then no synthesis of his detailed knowledge is possible. He cannot give to the various actions which he knows their due sequence and proportion; he knows not what to omit, nor what to enlarge upon, among so many, or rather a potentially infinite number of facts, and his picture will not be (as some would put it) distorted: it will be false. He will not be able to use history for its end, which is the establishment of truth. All that he establishes by his action, all that he confirms and makes stronger, is untruth. And so far as truth is concerned, it would be far better that a man should be possessed of no history than that he should be possessed of history ill stated as to the factor of human motive.

A living man has to aid his judgment and to guide him in the establishment of truth, contemporary experience. Other men are his daily companions. The consequence and the living principles of their acts and of his own are fully within his grasp.

If a man is rightly informed of all the past motive and determining mind from which the present has sprung, his information will illumine and expand and confirm his use of that present experience. If he know nothing of the past his personal observation and the testimony of his senses are, so far as they go, an unshakable foundation. But if he brings in aid of contemporary experience an appreciation of the  past which is false because it gives to the past a mind which was not its own, then he will not only be wrong upon that past but he will tend to be wrong also in his conclusion upon the present. He will for ever read into the plain facts before him origins and predetermining forces which do not explain them and which are not connected with them in the way that he imagines. And he will easily come to regard his own society, which as a wholly uninstructed man he might fairly though insufficiently have grasped, through a veil of illusion and of a false philosophy, until at last he cannot even see the things before his eyes. In a word, it is better to have no history at all than to have history which misconceives the general direction and the large lines of thought in the immediate and the remote past.

This being evidently the case one is tempted to say that a just estimate of the revolution and the progression of human motive in the past is everything to history, and in that an accurate scholarship in the details of the chronicle, in dates especially, is of wholly inferior importance. Such a statement would be quite false. Scholarship in history, that is an acquaintance with the largest possible number of facts, and an accurate retention of them in memory, is as essential to this study as of that other background of motive which has just been examined.

The thing is self-evident if we put an extreme case. For if a man were wholly ignorant of the facts of history and of their sequence, he could not possibly know what might lie behind the actions of the past, for we only obtain communion with that which is within and that which is foundational in human action by an observation of its external effect.

A man’s history for instance, is sound and on the right lines if he have but a vague and general sentiment of the old Pagan civilization of the Mediterranean, so long as that sentiment corresponds to the very large outline and is in sympathy with the main spirit of the affair. But he cannot possess so much as an impression of the truth if he has not heard the names of certain if the great actors, if he is wholly unacquainted with the conception of a City State, and if the names of Rome, of Athens, of Antioch, of Alexandria, and of Jerusalem have never been mentioned to him.

Nor will his knowledge of facts, however slight, be valuable; contrariwise it will be detrimental and of negative value to his judgment if accuracy in his knowledge be lacking. If he were invariably inaccurate, thing that which was blue, inverting the order of any two events and putting without fail in the summer what happened in winter, or in the Germanies what took place in Gaul, his facts would never correspond with the human motive of them, and his errors upon externals would at once close his avenues of access towards internal motive and suggest other and non-existent motive in its place.

It is, of course, a childish error to imagine that the knowledge of a time grows out of a mere accumulation of observation. External things do not produce ideas, they only reveal them. And to imagine that mere scholarship is sufficient to history is to put oneself on a level with those who, in the sphere of politics, for instance, ignore the necessity of political theory and talk muddily of the “working” of institutions—as though it were possible to judge whether an institution were working ill or not when one had no ideal that institutions might be designed to attain. But though scholarship is not the source of judgment in history, it is the invariable and the necessary accompaniment to it. Facts, which (to repeat) do not produce ideas but only reveal or suggest them, and form the only instrument of such suggestion and revelation.

Scholarship, accurate and widespread, has this further function: that it lends stuff to general apprehension of the past, which, however just, is the firmer, the larger and the more intense as the range of knowledge and its fixity increase. And scholarship has one more function, which is that it connects, and it connects with more and more precision in proportion as it is more and more detailed, the tendency of the mind to develop a general and perhaps justly apprehended idea into imaginary regions: for the mind is creative; it will still make and spin, and if you do not feed it with material it will spin dreams out of emptiness.

Thus a man will have a just appreciation of the thirteenth century in England; he will perhaps admire or will perhaps be repelled by its whole spirit according to his temperament or his acquired philosophy; but in either case, though his general impression was just, he will tend to add to it excrescences of judgment which, as the process continued, would at last destroy the true image were not scholarship there to come perpetually and check him in his conclusions. He admires it, he will tend to make it more national than it was, to forget its cruelties because what is good in our own age is not accompanied by cruelty. He will tend to lend it a science it did not possess because physical science is in our own time an accompaniment of greatness. But if he reads and reads continually, these vagaries will not oppress or warp his vision. More and more body will be added to that spirit, which he does justly but only vaguely know. And he will at last have with the English thirteenth century something of that acquaintance which one has with human face and voice: these also are external things, and these also are the product of a soul.

Indeed—though metaphors are dangerous in such matter—a metaphor may with reservation be used to describe the effect of the chronicle, of research and of accurate scholarship in the science of history. A man ill provided with such material is like one who sees a friend at a distance; a man well provided with it is like a man who sees a friend close at hand. Both are certain of the identity of the person seen, both are well founded in that certitude; but there are errors possible to the first which are not possible to the second, and close and intimate acquaintance lends to every part of judgment a surety which distant and general acquaintance wholly lacks. The one can say something true and say it briefly: there is no more to say. The other can fill in and fill in the picture, until though perhaps never complete, it is a symptotic to completion.

To increase one’s knowledge by research, to train oneself to an accurate memory of it, does not mean that one’s view of the past is continually changing. Only a fool can think, for instance, that some document somewhere will be discovered to show that the mass of people of London had for James II an ardent veneration, or that the national defence organized by the Committee if public Safety during the French Revolution was due to the unpopular tyranny if a secret society. But research in either of these cases, and a minute and increasing acquaintance with detail, does show one London largely apathetic in the first place, and does show one large sections of rebellious feelings in the armies of the Terror. It permits one to appreciate what energy and what initiative were needed to overthrow the Stuarts, and to see from how small a body of wealthy and determined men that policy proceeded. It permits one to understand how the battles of ’93 could never have been fought upon the basis of popular enthusiasm alone; it permits one to assert without exaggeration that the autocratic power of the Committee of Public Safety and the secrecy of its action was a necessary condition of the National defence during the French Revolution.

One might conclude by saying what might seem too good to be true: namely, that minute and accurate information upon details (the characteristic of our time in the science of history) must of its own nature so corroborate just and general judgments of the past, that through it, when the modern phase of willful distortion is over, mere blind scholarship will restore tradition.

I say it sounds too good to be true. But three or four examples of such action are already before us. Consider the Gospel of St, John, for instance, or what is called “the Higher Criticism” of the old Hebrew literature, and ask yourselves whether modern scholarship has not tended to restore the long and sane judgment of men, which, when that scholarship was still imperfect, seemed to imperil.

~Hilaire Belloc: This and That and the Other

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