To study history is to learn about oneself. And to fail to grasp the importance of the past—to remain ignorant of the deeds and writing of previous generations—is to bind oneself by the passions and prejudices of the age into which one is born. John Lukacs, one of today’s most widely published historians, explains what the study of history entails, how it has been approached over the centuries, and why it should be undertaken by today’s students. This guide is an invitation to become a master of the historian’s craft.
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A Student's Guide to the Study of History
By John Lukacs
ISI BooksCopyright © 2000 Intercollegiate Studies Institute
All rights reserved.
THE HISTORY OF HISTORY
* * *
Everything has its history, including history. And in the history of mankind we can see a certain evolution: from historical being to historical thinking and then to historical consciousness.
Let us begin by asserting what is unquestionable: only human beings are historical beings. All other living beings have their own evolution and their life span. But we are the only living beings who know that we live while we live—who know, and not only instinctively feel, that we were born and that we are going to die. Animals and other living beings have an often extraordinary and accurate sense of time. But we have a sense of our history, which amounts to something else.
This sense of history—in other words, the knowledge that we are historical beings—is detectable in some of the oldest human records and achievements left to us from the most ancient of cultures. It is there in the Bible, in the Old Testament. There, unlike in other mythological scriptures, is a mass of material that is not only spiritual or exhortative but historical: accounts of men and women and places and events that have since been proved by archaeology and by other evidence. Yet the Old Testament often combines history and legend; that is, material or genealogical information on the one hand, and symbolic descriptions of people and events on the other. The New Testament—that is, the life of Jesus Christ—is more historical. Consider the very words of the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 2:
And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled. / This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. / And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. / And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David. To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. / And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. / And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn....
This description—or account—is exactly and thoroughly historical. There is nothing even remotely comparable to that in the accounts of the coming of other gods or founders of religions, whether Greek or Roman or Oriental. Unlike other founders of religions before him, Jesus Christ was a historical person. For believing Christians he was not only a historical person of course, but that is not our argument here. The historicity of Jesus Christ (which we may regard as God's great gift to mankind) is incontestable: there exist Jewish and Roman and other sources about the fact of his existence, though not of course of all his deeds and sayings (or of their meaning). The very writing of St. Luke is marked by the evidence of something new at that time: of historical thinking.
However—in this sense St. Luke had his forerunners. They were the Greeks. As in so many other instances, the Greeks were the creators of many of the fundaments of our entire culture and civilization. Among them we find the first examples of historical thinking (and, therefore, of historical writing)—indeed, the very word "history," which in ancient Greek meant something like "research." The three greatest classical Greek historians were Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. It is interesting to note that all of them wrote something like contemporary, or nearly contemporary, history about events and people that they knew and that they had witnessed. (Xenophon had marched with ten thousand Greek soldiers across Anatolia—today's Turkey—to the sea and described that in his book Anabasis, that then became near-immortal.) Herodotus was sometimes called the Father of History: he was a man of the world, and perhaps his most lasting achievement was the ease and the clarity of his style. But for our purposes here, running through the history of history, perhaps the most telling achievement is that of Thucydides. In the Introduction to his History of the Peloponnesian War he asserts his purpose. This war is not yet over, he writes: but there are already so many false stories of this event or that, of this man or another, that he is compelled to tell what really happened. This search for the truth—which most often consists of the reduction of untruths—is the essence of historical research: a fabulous achievement of the Greek mind. There is also Thucydides' conviction of the permanent value of history. He hoped, he wrote, that his History would be read "by those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past. This work is meant to be a permanent possession, not the rhetorical triumph of an hour."
And now we must note that for the next two thousand years (Xenophon, Thucydides, Herodotus all lived in the fifth century B.C.), there was no profound change in the nature of historical thinking. Important and readable historians existed during the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, and the Middle Ages; but their achievements, though often considerable, were not very different from those of the Greeks. At least the names of Tacitus or Livy or even Julius Caesar (who "made" history as well as wrote it) must be known to you. There were many others—Polybius, Plutarch, Procopius, Symmachus (necessarily a very incomplete list)—Roman and Byzantine and Christian historians, writers in the Middle Ages. Let us pause, if only for a minute, at Plutarch, who is eminently readable. He was a biographer. (That word did not exist in his time; it is only relatively recently that we have come to consider biography as history.) His portraits of famous and infamous Greeks and Romans are most readable and inspiring even now. But there is one great difference that separates Plutarch from every modern biographer. When Plutarch describes, for example, the Emperor Tiberius, he describes him in the way he was, including certain acts during his reign; but he writes nothing about how Tiberius had come to be that way; he writes almost nothing about his childhood and his adolescence—in sum, about his becoming. In this sense it is not psychoanalysis but our historical consciousness that has taken another step forward—in the sense of being profoundly aware of becoming and not only of being.
This kind of historical consciousness was only dormant during the Middle Ages. There were important historians then, too, but many of them were chroniclers rather than historians. They and their masters found it important to record what happened and when5—but were seldom inspired by a finely developed critical sense. And then came the Renaissance, with a suddenly flourishing of interest in history, inspired by an admiration of all that was grand and fine in Greece and Rome. (Consider that more people in Europe spoke and read Latin in 1500 than in 1000 A.D.—a fact unknown to those who think that Latin has been a "dead" language for ages). But, in an important way, the Renaissance respect and admiration for men and things past were still inadequate. They idealized the Greeks and the Romans, with a kind of idealization that was often insufficiently historical—though not without grand results of their own.
Here are a few examples of the difference between our consciousness and that of the greatest thinkers, writers, and masters of art four hundred years ago. Shakespeare's attraction to and interest in history was already amazing. Consider his many plays about kings of England. Yet in his famous Globe Theater the most ancient of kings or Romans were dressed in his contemporary, that is Elizabethan, robes and costumes. Or: when Titian or Raphael painted Biblical scenes, their immortal paintings show figures dressed in sixteenth-century Italian clothes, and in the background there are villas and carriages typical of sixteenth-century Italy. But then, less than two hundred years later, even the most amateurish theatricals would drape Caesar or Marc Antony in some kind of a toga; and the classical landscapes of a Rembrandt or a Poussin will represent Joseph or Mary or Herod in biblical costumes.
That is a mark of our then-developing historical consciousness, which is a sudden evolution of the Western mind as important (and as profound) as the evolution of the scientific method in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The latter resulted in an entirely new view of the Earth's (and of man's) place in the universe. The former resulted in recognizing a new dimension of human consciousness. One example (or, rather, symptom) of this new kind of consciousness was the appearance of the word "primitive" in English, French, and other Western European languages about four hundred years ago. It marked a new concept of evolution (or even of education)—indeed, of "progress." To the Greeks, for example, "barbarian" meant people who lived outside Greece, beyond Greek civilization. It was a designation of certain people in a certain place, rather than at a certain time. But the word "primitive" obviously designates people who are behind us in time, rather than beyond us in space. And then, in the seventeenth century, especially in France, England, and Holland, this new sense of progress and of historical evolution multiplies. It is there in the appearance of a spate of new words, for example "century," "age," "modern"—words that either did not exist before or that had then acquired an entirely new meaning. ("Century," for example, before about 1650 had meant only a military unit of one hundred men.) And it was only toward the end of the seventeenth century that some people began to look back and call the Middle Ages the Middle Ages.
There are two matters to consider about this. First, in the Middle Ages people did not know that they lived during, or even near the end of, the Middle Ages—whereas we know that we are living at the end of the Modern Age. Second, the notion of the "Modern" (meaning: today's) Age reflected a certain kind of enlightened optimism, meaning that this "Modern" Age would last and progress forever; that, even through many difficulties, things (and probably human nature, too) were bound to get better and better all the time. We have (or ought to have) a more chastened view about that; but it is more and more obvious that the so-called Modern Age itself is a recognizable historical period, one approximately from 1500 to 2000 A.D. (hence, its very designation, "Modern," may eventually change in the language of our descendants).
This growing consciousness of history went apace with a growing interest in history. That, in the eighteenth century, led to more and more fine books about history, to the extent that we may generalize about history having become in that century a branch of literature. Probably the greatest example of this development was Edward Gibbon who, suddenly inspired in Rome by his view of the sunken monuments of the Roman Forum, decided to re-search and write a monumental book. The result, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, remains to this day not only one of the greatest histories ever written but, even more, an enduring monument of English prose literature. Besides that tremendous achievement it must be noted that while Gibbon was not a professional historian (he lived just before the beginning of professional historianship), he was historian enough to rely on original Latin sources, which he would amply cite in his footnotes. There are many things in the Gibbonian interpretations that we have come to see differently; but there can be no question that two hundred or more years ago he exemplified a new sense of history, when a wide spreading of historical interest and of historical consciousness was in the air. Symptoms and examples of this were so numerous that there is no space here to detail them or even to sum them up.
One (but only one) example of this burgeoning interest in history was the birth of professional historianship in Germany, which resulted in the first academic degree in history established by the University of Göttingen around1777: the first Ph.D. in history, a university doctorate. One hundred years later this concept and practice of professional historianship had spread around the world. By 1900 there were very few nations where universities did not grant a Ph.D. in history. In sum, whereas in the eighteenth century history was regarded as literature, in the nineteenth century it had become a Science. This was mostly (though not exclusively) the achievement of German historians. The results were enormous. The position—and the recognition—of the professional historian was born. The methods of professional historianship became established: the insistence on "primary" sources, the requirements of seminars and of doctoral dissertations, monographs, bibliographies, footnotes, professional journals. Great historians, in every country, produced astonishingly learned and detailed works, shedding light into some of the remotest recesses of history. All of this went together with the general interest in history in a century when, among other things, the historical novel was born, and when architecture tended to emulate many historic styles. By the end of the century there was hardly anyone who would question the famous phrase of the German historian Leopold von Ranke, that the historian's task was to reconstruct a past event "wie es eigentlich gewesen," "as it really was." Indeed, most people accepted the professional historians' claim to Objective History; as the great English historian Lord Acton said, civilization was now able to produce, say, a history of the Battle of Waterloo that would not only be acceptable to present and future English and French and Prussian historians but that would be complete and definite and perfect—because of its objectivity, and because of the rigor of the scientific method of its research.
One hundred years later thinking historians do not share such an optimistic belief. We must recognize that history, by its very nature, is "revisionist." To put it in other terms, history, unlike law, tries its subjects through multiple jeopardy. History is the frequent, and constant, rethinking of the past. There may be 1,000 biographies of Abraham Lincoln, but there is no reason to doubt (indeed, it is almost certain) that sooner or later there will be a 1,001st one, with something new in its contents, and not necessarily because of new materials that its author had found, but because of his new viewpoint. In any case, the general cultural and civilizational crisis of the twentieth century has also reached the historical profession. While in the eighteenth century history was seen as a branch of literature, and in the nineteenth as a branch of science, for the twentieth century we cannot make such a summary statement. One general tendency, which most historians accept or at least share, is the view of history as a form of social science. This does not merely mean the application of such "disciplines" as sociology, economics, geography, and psychology to history, but the recognition that history cannot be exclusively, or perhaps not even primarily, the history of politics and of wars and of rulers (as the English historian Sir John Seeley said around 1880, "History is past politics, and politics is present history"); it must deal with the lives and records of large masses of people. Another tendency is to recognize history as a predominant form of thought—as, for example, the American philosopher William James put it: "You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures." In other words, "Science" did not and does not exist without scientists; and the history of science is the history of scientists and of their achievements. Thus Science is a part of history, rather than the reverse: for in the history of the world, Nature came first, and then came Man, and only then the Science of Nature.
Excerpted from A Student's Guide to the Study of History by John Lukacs. Copyright © 2000 Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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Table of Contents
- An Introduction—To Yourself
- The History of History
- Professional History
- The Methods of History
- The Interest in History
- The Greatness of Historical Literature
- Student Self-Reliance Project: Embarking on a Lifelong Pursuit of Knowledge?