I picked this quote up when Hitchins died, and all the news websites felt they should start compiling his sayings or something:
"History is more of a tragedy than it is a morality tale."
And I thought: what does that actually mean? Sure, it's punchy, pithy, and quite Hitchins-esque, but what does it mean?
Well, it's referencing two other famous quotes about history that you might know:
"Those who do not understand the past are condemnded to repeat it" -Santayana
'History happens twice, once as tragedy twice as farce' - Hegel
These are pretty commonly bandied around; chances are you recognise them from a poster in your history classroom at school. All Hitchins seems to mean is that history does not teach us anything about morality, but simply provides us with examples of things going wrong (and the implication is that these are moral wrongs), and then bad, sad stuff happening as a result. Is that really the case? Is that what history is?
What's History Good For, Then?
I'd like to start with the disclaimer that almost every historian today has been asked, or has asked themselves this question, and if there are two answers exactly the same I will be very surprised.
This is also a question I get asked a lot, as an ancient history and archaeology student, and it's one I've read or heard many different answers to. Here are the main headings they fall under.
"Those who do not understand the past are condemnded to repeat it"
As above, this is one of the most common. Thinking back, I can remember asking, and recieving this very answer from a teacher at school. Then, as now, I found it unconvincing. What do they mean? People don't rise from the dead; technology moves on; clearly this is all nonsense. I've grown up a bit since then, but there is still something I don't like about it. It seems to imply that history is in some way circular, and that there is a finite number of outcomes from every concieveable situation: and that they have already happened.
I don't find this convincing, so let's move on.
History tells us where we come from, and if we don't know that, where are we going?
This one rings a few bells for me, and it's one I hold in quite high regard. Of course, I'm not certain that, say, ancient Mesapotamia has had such a hand in shaping our world that not to know about it would render me incapable of going forwards. However, this works well for modern history. I can't rememeber Thatcher, but I certainly know about her, and chances are I'd find a lot of current affairs very confusing if I didn't. But if this is the only reason that we do history, surely we can stick to just recent things, or just things that we can say have directly influenced our culture? This brings us to the next part.
It's our heritage.
History is ours. Implying it is somehow not someone elses? Who is this other person? And how do we decide which history belongs to whom? There is no question that 'local' history is important to people. Just look at the fuss over the Elgin Marbles, or the museum on Orkney that houses all their prehistoric stuff, because they didn't want to send it all the way to Edinburgh. Zimbabwe is even named after an archaeological site. However, does that make Chinese history my heritage? And the Mayans or Aztecs, can I really study them, since they lived so far away?
This is an interesting point, but not one I feel explains very much.
History satisfies some human need for a past.
I'm not sure I disagree with this one. As far as I can tell, all cultures and all societies have a history. It might not be rigorous academic history, or even something we might recognise as true or possible, but they have a past for themselves. A founding myth, or some idea of where they are and how they got there. This tradition continues even today, and not just among 'primitive' peoples. In Northern Ireland, the Unionists and the Republicans both have different reconstructed ideas about Long Kesh/ HM Prison The Maze. Both claim it as their history, but it represents something very different to both groups. (I won't go on about this, but I personally find it fascinating. I'd advise you to check out Laura MacAtackney's work on it if you're interested.)
I think this is why people are interested in history, but I'm not sure if it explains why academic rigour is important (and according to my lecturers, getting the facts right is really important. This argument does not pursuade them to overlook that.)
It's just interesting, it serves no practical purpose
I have heard this one from quite a few people. It takes two forms: either, they're not a historian (and forgive me, they're usually a scientist), and they genuinely just think history is interesting, but not important, like Lord of the Rings. Or, and this one is more for historians, they are kicking back against the idea that history must be for something, like helping people. Physics? Mapping the universe. Chemistry? Investigating the molecular basis of life. Biology? Saving lives. Engineering? Building things. Next to all of that, history can start to look like it's not doing very much, and it's easy to see why historians are so keen to justify it with one, or more, of the above points. Next to that, kicking your heels and going: "It's just interesting!" becomes quite appealing.
You might have noticed that I haven't really answered the question. That's because I don't think I have an answer yet, though I really hope to someday. But enough about what I think: what do you think?
Do you agree with my assessment of the above points, or (more likely) disagree? Have I missed something?