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Examining a Philosophy of History

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Examining a Philosophy of History

That history contains errors, will not come as news to a person who has reflected on the topic. The very first history, a Greek one, History of Herodotus, written around 450 BC, likely had quite a number of fictional details so as to effect its purpose.1 Those parts of our history which are suspected to be fiction are, at least, through research and comparison, salvageable. What, however, is possibly more disturbing than the realization that, in general and throughout, our history is wrong (a sub-topic which I shall treat to a greater extent further on, herein) is the realization that there are great gaps in it. We have failed to record and gather together the little human events which make up the fabric of history: it is little events, strung together and accumulated over time, which account for our place in history.

Though it may have been, in certain of its parts, reconstructed incorrectly and small shards are missing here and there, history, by a well-read and descriptive author, like a Grecian urn, is a spectacle to behold; like man himself -- fascinating, seductive, intriguing, and spectacular. It maybe, that I, like most, enjoy looking in on, at a safe distance, the follies and misfortunes2 of his fellow man, a method to gratify the natural curiosity that most of us have about such things. History, written in a lively and descriptive manner as the best are, so to grip and hold the reader, have, veiled and concealed as it might be, a lesson or moral such that the reader might modify his view of the present and his forecast of the future. This, incidentally, is the principal reason that history ought to be at the core of any scheme of education. In this light, as John Morley observed, the actual twists and turns of the great historical happenings are not so important in themselves, "except as it enables me to see my way more clearly through what is happening to-day."

While its primary allure is like that of gossip, history is important because it is the story of the collective self, the story of passionate man. Fiction, coming as it does from the imagination of some fellow human being, does not have the same attraction, at least, not for me, simply because it is not true. What I need from my reading is to learn something, and while I shortly will come to listing the lessons of history, the principle lesson is this: that while the ages and the settings change, the actors in history are guided by the same passions of human nature: there is in all histories a similarity. As Emerson wrote in his Essays: "Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations."

Theories of History:-

There is no reason that I can think of that makes it necessary to make history a complicated subject, but strange thinking men have attempted to do just that, to make history into something that it is not; everything from the moving hand of God to that which resembles a living creature, metaphorically moving in a progressive way from stage to stage.

The biblical theory can best be briefly dealt with by quoting Leslie Stevenson of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland:

"When the Jews fail to obey God's laws, there comes the idea of God using the events of history, such as defeat by neighbouring nations, to chastise them for their sin (a theme which recurs throughout the histories and prophets in the Old Testament). And then there is the idea of God's merciful forgiveness, His blotting out of man's transgressions, and His regeneration of man and the whole of creation (Isaiah chapters 43-66)." [Seven Theories of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 1987) at pp. 48-9.]

As the living creature theory: one of the strangest, and, as it turned out, one the most destructive, was the Hegelian theory of history. Hegel was a philosopher and his view was that there are fundamental laws which drive the development of a culture or a country; that a culture or a country has a kind of a personality of its own, and its development is to be explained in terms of its own character. In later years, a fellow German, Adolf Hitler, rose to this Hegelian bait, and through the Third Reich brought misery to millions of our fellow human beings.

Marx picked up on the Hegelian view and asserted that there were fundamental laws which drove the development of a culture or a country.3 These notions of historical development and of alienation were to play a crucial role in the thoughts of Marx. Marx had a deterministic view that all events (economic stages) come about as a result of the inevitable progress of history.4

Well, personally, I do not subscribe to any of these fancy theories. History is but a series of past events of which we have become conscious.5 Each event is a very thin and a very short fibre like that of the countless number which make up the great rope of humanity. The position of any particular fibre and its contribution to the whole is almost entirely a matter of chance. I doubt, to continue this metaphoric vein, that the rope of humanity has any particular purpose or that it has a predestined end.

History and Tradition:-

Generally speaking, our childhood experiences in school have given us a rather poor image of history books. The trouble with the typical school history book is that it is, like most surveys, too synoptic. To most people when a mention is made of a history book what comes to their mind is a dry thick tome filled with listed events in order of time, interspersed with columns of causes and consequences. History, however, can be, in the hands of a proper history writer, just as sensational, sexy, and spectacular as the best fictional sellers of the day. But the point to be made, and that which is more essential to us in the reading of history, is, that we may find it more interesting to go beyond the reading of the lives and battles of the politically powerful, and, though more difficult it seems to come by, to read of our customs and traditions.

"Nothing is more misleading, then, than the conventional formulae of historians who represent the achievement of a powerful state as the culmination of cultural evolution: it as often marked its end. In this respect students of early history were overly impressed and greatly misled by monuments and documents left by the holders of political power, whereas the true builders of the extended order, who as often as not created the wealth that made the monuments possible, left less tangible and ostentatious testimonies to their achievement." (Hayek,



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