I was reading an article a few weeks ago written by an historian about the nature of history. I have been thinking about what that article said since then and I think that today I’ll write about it.
Get ready, Faithful Reader. This might bake your noodle a little bit.
I have always loved the subject of history. I had two particularly excellent history teachers at El Dorado High School, Mrs. Sylvia Thompson and Mr. Bart Reed. Mrs. Thompson taught me AP U.S. History in 10th grade and Mr. Reed taught me Honors World History and AP European History in 11th and 12th grade, respectively. I learned a great deal from both of them in those three classes.
Mrs. Thompson and Mr. Reed, if either of you read this, consider this a very belated invitation to lunch as a show of gratitude.
Mr. Reed’s obvious love of history was particularly infectious, at least to me. I have never met anyone more passionate or more broadly knowledgeable about the subject. I visited his house one time and books on different aspects of history from every part of the world for the past 6,000 years were absolutely everywhere, many opened to different places or marked on different pages. A real scholar, that man.
Anyway, that article got me thinking.
For the longest time, I thought of history as a complete picture, a relatively static thing that could be looked back upon objectively, thanks to the assiduous work of historians from age to age that has been passed down to us. But after reading that article I have begun to think about history a bit differently. This, according to the article, is how professional historians think about history.
History exists in two ways. The first way is in the objective past. That is, the past as it actually existed when it was happening. The second is the past as we know it from the historical record we have inherited.
It is often impossible for us to know the objective past, as beyond a certain point none of us were around to witness or record it. No one who fought in the American Civil War is still around today, let alone anyone who walked the streets of medieval Paris, ancient Rome, or the Sumerian city of Ur. And even if we have people who survive a certain period in history and can recount certain historical events, they are subject to the impersistence of human memory and may not have ever known some pertinent facts about the thing they are remembering.
In short, the picture we have of history is almost always incomplete.
And because it is incomplete, that means it can change. At any moment, an historian can make some monumental discovery that radically alters our understanding of an historical event, a period of history or a person remembered by history.
For example, take the burning of the Library of Alexandria, an event I have been mad about since I first learned of it during my freshman year of undergrad. The Library of Alexandria, located in Alexandria, Egypt and built between 285 and 246 BC, was a scholarly center of the ancient world. It contained an enormous number of books. It burned late in the 3rd century A.D., and an untold amount of knowledge was lost.
I don’t know about you, but that still makes me mad.
Let us suppose that some of those books have survived and were discovered today. There could be things in such books which would completely change our understanding of the ancient world. If such was the case, those things would still have been true this whole time, part of the objective past, but we would just now be learning about them, and our picture of history would change.
The world we presently inhabit is the culmination and result of that objective past, but how we understand and live in it, the ideas that motivate us and cause us to shape the world how we do, are a product of that incomplete picture of history we have inherited. We act on that because it’s all we’ve got. The two aspects of history exist simultaneously side by side, forming the foundations and contexts of civilizations, though the latter can almost never know the former.
Yet here we are, on the edge of whatever’s coming, able to see whatever we can by the light of the burning torch that has been passed to us by our ancestors going back millenia, still surrounded by the darkness of what we do not, and maybe cannot, ever know.
Our steps forward are ever into that darkness. They always have been.
In the face of all that, we keep walking.
It’s really remarkable when you think about it.
Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]