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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 the man himself — fascinating, seductive, intriguing, and spectacular. It may be, 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.

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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 today.”

While its primary allure is like that of gossip, history is important because it is the story of the collective self, the story of a 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 principal 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, The Fatal Conceit, p. 33.)

While hardly able to tell of their origins, a diligent historian can tell of custom, the great guide to human life, can tell of the experiences (upon which custom is built) of ordinary people; and thus, show how rules for a living have evolved, and how these evolved rules for a living have contributed and influenced the stable development of society. In such an approach, history might well prove to be more interesting; it certainly is more instructive.

“When the oak tree is felled, the whole forest echoes with it; but a hundred acorns are planted silently by some unnoticed breeze. Battles and war-tumults, which for the time din every ear, and with joy or terror intoxicate every heart, pass away like tavern-brawls; and, except some few Marathons and Morgartens, are remembered by accident, not by the desert. Laws themselves, political Constitutions, are not our Life, but only the house wherein our Life is led: nay, they are but the bare walls of the house; all whose essential furniture, the inventions and traditions, and daily habits that regulate and support our existence, are the work not of Dracos and Hampdens, but of Phoenician mariners, of Italian masons and Saxon metallurgists, of philosophers, alchemists, prophets, and all the long-forgotten train of artists and artisans, who from the first have been jointly teaching us how to think and how to act, how to rule over spiritual and over physical Nature. Well, may we say that of our History the more important part is lost without recovery.” (Carlyle.)

History: Right or Wrong:

Not all of our histories are accurate records that, for good or bad, reflect the true course of events. This could be, in certain instances, because the author was not as careful in his research, which, as a historian, he must be; or, in other instances because the author has some ulterior purpose6; or, simply because the writing of an accurate history is an impossibility.

“For in all historical inquiries we are dealing with facts which themselves come within the control of the human will and human caprice, and the evidence for which depends on the trustworthiness of human informants, who may either purposely deceive or unwittingly mislead. A man may lie; he may err.” (Freeman, “Race and Language.”)

A further reason is that, as every lawyer would know, people tend, all too readily, to accept hearsay.

“Men accept one another’s reports of past events … So impatient of labour are most men in the search for truth, and so prone to jump to ready-made conclusions.” (Thucydides.)

At any rate, if one subscribes to the skeptical school, all knowledge is but a belief, an opinion, a theory. And while it is so that nothing is for sure, we must, nonetheless, proceed at some point to classify certain of our theories as knowledge. What happens, in real science, in real life, is that we build on our “knowledge” which, in the final analyses, is but a mass of theories that have been held up and exposed to testing, unabated over long periods of time; and, because these theories have never been falsified (as opposed to being proven right, which, in the nature of things, cannot be done) they become part of our store of human knowledge.7 (I should say, in passing, that we are obliged to continue to hold up and expose to testing even our most used and trusted knowledge; the plain fact is that there is not a thing we can take for sure, though our collective experience will show that some things are more sure than others.)8

The history book that you have determined to spend your precious time to read, might just be a re-write of a re-write. A history writer is bound to go back and in his research and dig out if they exist, the original documents. On the other hand, contemporary history writers, while fresh to the facts, are often influenced by contemporary pressures.9 A researcher, therefore, is equally bound to come ahead in time and read the historic accounts of related matters; and then, finally, to put the whole matter fully in a historical perspective.

Thus, history may therefore be wrong because it is based, either on the biases of the contemporary writers, or on the inadequate or absent records used by future writers, or simply because it is an inadequate or an improper mix of events. So, as one can see, the writing of history for a conscientious person, becomes, indeed, a most difficult task, one of synchronizing and synthesizing many different accounts of the same and related events.

Whether historians transmit erroneous accounts, or not, is separate from that which people believe to be history. Peoples’ perception of history is often wrong because they have accepted fictional accounts (often plainly represented as such) as being the gospel truth. Whatever they get out of a popular paperback, or at the movies, or out of the TV: is, for them, the way it is. The stories of many historical figures are wrong, often embellished stories to be sold. Most people today will readily tell you that Kennedy was killed by an army of sharpshooters taken from the ranks of the CIA, all because a filmmaker by the name of Stone did not either know of the historical facts or did not care for them.

This kind of thing has been going on for a long time, for instance, Shakespeare, gave a false depiction of Caesar as “a pompous, posturing old gentleman without an idea in his head, who for some obscure reason had managed to become the uncrowned king of Rome …” And the reading of the autobiographies of historical personages, while interesting, may not necessarily give an accurate picture of historical events: memoirs especially need critical reading. Not only have we to bear in mind the proclivity of most memoir-writers to speak well of their friends and ill of their enemies, so too, we must remember that memoir-writers are a select class (not one of the “Dumb Millions,” but one of the speaking thousands).

Then, there are history writers “the most learned, the most accurate in details, and the soundest in tendency, [who] frequently fall into a habit which can neither be cured nor pardoned the habit of making history into the proof of their theories.”10 One can see that Macaulay was of the same view as Lord Acton when he observed that even the best historians “have fallen into the error of distorting facts to suit general principles.”11 Then there are those historians who were too sentimental and emotional and should have kept their hands out of history altogether. It is not well for a historian to become too impassioned about their historical subjects.

Feeling for their subject is important, but it is essential that they should have knowledge of it. “We prefer history to be written by those who know — if they feel too, so much the better; but the more knowledge they have, the better chance they have of being read.” (Birrell.) It may be, in the final analysis, that a person with some legal training, or, at least, acquainted with the rules of evidence is the type of person who would make the best historian: Macaulay thought so.


I. Mankind is Continuously Struggling; He is Evolving.-

“Every thoughtful student of history is confronted by these alternative interpretations. Is there discernible in history taken as a whole anything which we can call progress, or is the record one of an aimless struggle among a species of higher apes, in which any apparent gain is offset by equal or greater loss? The idea of automatic progress must be ruled out at once. No one is so naive as to maintain that from the mathematics of Egypt and Babylon to the philosophy and art of Greece, the jurisprudence of Rome, the theology of the Middle Ages, and the science and social conscience of the modern world runs a continuous line of advance in which each segment represents a clear gain on the last.

On the contrary, it is evident that the emergence of Greek civilization from the background of ancient Asia, the appropriation of the Greek achievement by Rome, the decline and fall of Rome before Gibbon’s ‘barbarism and religion,’ and the overthrow of medieval Catholicism by modern commercial civilization were in each case attended by cruel struggles, and in each case created problems which the succeeding order could not solve without creating new ones in their place.” [Archibald Robertson, How to Read History (1952) (New York: Ungar, 1963).]

II. What Counts Over Time is the Aggregate of All the Simple, Regular, and Little Events of Life.-

“The circumstances which have the most influence on the happiness of mankind, the changes of manners and morals, the transition of communities from poverty to wealth, from knowledge to ignorance, from ferocity to humanity – these are, for the most part, noiseless revolutions. Their progress is rarely indicated by what historians are pleased to call important events. They are not achieved by armies or enacted by senates. They are sanctioned by no treaties and recorded in no archives. They are carried on in every school, in every church, behind ten thousand counters, at ten thousand firesides.” (Macaulay, “The Task of the Modern Historian.”)

III. There is no Good; There is no Evil.

We are apt to think that in the great battles of history, it is good that triumphs over evil; but what is presented in history is the winning side’s account of the matter. “There is no Persian history of the Graeco-Persian wars. All pagan accounts of the victory of Christianity over paganism have perished.” (Robertson, op. cit.)

IV. Power is the Name of the Game?

“Long before we reach our generation we see that the same issues are always present, that the same fundamental qualities of thought and character are permanently dividing men, that the struggle for the concentration of power for the limitation and division of power is the mainspring of history.”12 (Lord Acton.)

V. In Spite of the Greatest Reverses the Human Spirit continues, Invincible.-

“The lesson of life is, practically to generalize, to believe what the years and the centuries say against the hours; to resist the usurpation of particulars; to penetrate to their catholic sense. Things seem to say one thing and say the reverse. The appearance is immoral; the result is moral. Things seem to tend downward to justify despondency, to promote rogues, to defeat the just; and by knaves as by martyrs, the just cause is carried forward. Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, yet, general ends are somehow answered.

We see now events forced on, which seem to retard or retrograde the civilization of ages. But the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his fingers at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years, and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.” (Emerson, Representative Men.)


The first challenge to one who would choose a history book is to make a determination as to whether what they have in hand is a true history book, or is it but a fable. Some works, undoubtedly are fables but time has allowed them to be rested on our history shelves.

“No anchor, no cable, no fences, avail to keep a fact a fact. Babylon, Troy, Tyre, Palestine, and even early Rome, are passing already into fiction. The Garden of Eden, the sun standing still in Gibeon, is poetry thenceforward to all nations. Who cares what the fact was when we have made a constellation of it to hang in heaven an immortal sign? London and Paris and New York must go the same way.” (From Emerson’s Essays.)

Fables can, of course, make for interesting reading; but if one wants a true account of the past one generally must first carry out some research on the historian (just as one should on all writers) before plunging into his books. A person can not go wrong if he or she sticks to the classics, which by definition are those which have been tested with time.13 A sampling:

Edward Gibbon,

Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire;

Thomas Babington Macaulay,

History of England;

Thomas Carlyle,

The French Revolution;

Francis Parkman,

France and England in North America;

George Macaulay Trevelyan,

British History in the Nineteenth Century;

Will Durant,

The Story of Civilization.

Through the reading of history, we gain knowledge of our past. It can be an exciting and entertaining adventure; but, importantly, it is one of the primary methods by which we gain knowledge, an essential guide to our future conduct. In the process, as we gain new ones, we are bound, at times, to throw out old beliefs, ones that are often more comfortable and possibly more widely held; but, if it is properly concluded that the old belief is wrong, then throw it out we must. The test for knowledge is whether the particular belief or hypothesis is true, or not; not whether it may or may not be offensive.

To initiate the process we must examine the beliefs of other men; history books (as well as good literature) is one of the best sources. But, time is short and books are many; so, first, in the order of things, as I hope I have been able to get across in my pages, one must choose a good history book: best to start (as with any book) by carefully choosing the author: by first getting to know the historian and his reputation.




[1] “This history of Herodotus lays stress on the weakness of Persia. This history is indeed what we should now call propaganda for Greece to unite and conquer Persia.” (H. G. Wells, History of the World.)

[2] History, as Edward Gibbon cynically put it, is no more “than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” Tennyson: “The trouble of ants in the gleam of a million of suns.”

[3] A marxian view can be traced back to the French philosopher and founder of the school known as positivism, Auguste Comte (1798-1857). In Comte’s aphorism, “Progress is the development of order,” one can see the roots of all socialistic or collectivist thought, viz., the belief that man is perfectible and through “science” can be “guided” toward a superior state of civilization.

[4] “A nation is assigned the accomplishment of one of these stages, it flourishes for a while and then gives way to another. It then disappears and another, superior State emerges.” [Alphern, An Outline History of Philosophy (Forum House, 1969) at p. 168-9.]

[5] See Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism. “The fundamental thesis of this book [is that] the belief in historical destiny is sheer superstition, and that there can be no prediction of the course of human history by scientific or any other rational method … [it is dedicated to] the memory of the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.”

[6] This, of course, brings Napoleon’s declaration to mind: “History is but a fiction agreed upon.”

[7] Except possibly for Euclidian theory (and that has been questioned) nothing can be conclusively proved; one, however, may be able to falsify a proposition. See the works of Sir Karl Popper.

[8] For anyone who doubts this proposition I need only refer to the Newtonian theory which held sway for better than two hundred years, until, in the 20th century, the quantum theory came along.

[9] It was Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) who said, “Whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth.” (History of the World, 1614.)

[10] Lord Acton’s The History of Freedom.

[11] “The Task of the Modern Historian.”

[12] Vol. III, p. 520.

[13] There are bound to be current works that are good, but I have not the time to wade through them. Paul Johnson, a history writer with some sense of philosophy and economics, is most readable and invariably full of the most interesting tidbits; check out his works, particularly, Modern Times and The Birth of the Modern.

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