Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Observations on History by Thomas Lane Butts

I majored in history in college. I do not remember why unless it was because I was fortunate enough to encounter some history professors (such as Auxford Sartain and Merlin Cox) at Troy University who made the subject come alive. It seemed to be the logical thing to do when I was in the theological school at Emory University to major in church and biblical history. My academic background not only left me with a love for history, but to my consternation, a lingering ambivalence about it. I have studied enough history to realize in my ambivalence that it is both essential and dangerous.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn alluded to this in the preface to his monumental work, "The Gulag Archipelago." He quoted an old Russian saying: "Dwell on the past and you will lose an eye. Forget the past and you will lose both eyes." Early in my life I thought of history as an objective and uniform account of reality. Then I learned enough history to raise considerable doubt about that initial opinion. If you read a variety of accounts about the same event, the differences in what is reported and how it is reported will gradually, if not quickly, disabuse you of the illusion that history is a uniform account of reality.

In one of Samuel Johnson’s conversations with Boswell he pays his respects to the accuracy of history. "We must consider how very little history there is; I mean real authentic history. That certain kings reigned, and certain battles were fought, we can depend on to be true; but all the colouring, all the philosophy of history is conjecture." Johnson had earlier expressed his dismay with the subject when he said: "What are all the records of history but narratives of successive villainies, of treasons and usurpations, massacres and wars."

The philosopher, Voltaire was even more pessimistic when he wrote "All history of the past, as one of our wits used to say, is only an accepted fable." Thomas Carlyle called history "a distillation of rumors". Who would not be amused at Jane Austen’s observations on the subject: "History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in . . . I read it a little as duty; but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilence in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all."

Hegel in his "Philosophy of History" writes with his characteristically caustic dismay in the introduction: "What experience and history teaches us is this – that people and governments have never learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it." That, my friends, is not only true, but scary.

My experience leads me to agree with Disraeli who counseled: "Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory." If I dared to apply my understanding of personal history to a broader understanding of the subject I would say that there is some danger in accepting conclusions of history written too soon. Personally, I have discovered that experiences which seem to be bad at the moment often, with time, become blessings in disguise. Enemies may become friends and friends may become enemies with the passage of time. Never write your conclusions of an event on the day it happens. It may change. It often does. Sir Walter Raleigh opined that if you follow too near "the heels of truth" it may kick your teeth out. Hegel expresses the same thought more classically and more beautifully in his observation that "the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk." The meaning of that quote is worth researching.

One of my most treasured books is "Man’s Unconquerable Mind," by Gilbert Highet, in which he writes: "People who know no history always learn wrong history, and can never understand the passing moment as it changes into history."

If you have read this essay to the end, let me remind you that truth, even hard truth, is not meant to discourage anyone about history. It is meant to caution. If you are a faithful student of history, you will always be ahead of the crowd in your understanding of yourself and the world in which you live.

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for July 19, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

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