I must confess I have read little of the historian/essayist/poet Thomas Babington Macaulay. But apparently very few historians read him either even though he is reputed to be one of the best historians ever to have set pen to paper (as was done in the old days). Indeed, the breed of new historians, about whom I have written in the past, regard the old historians as part of the problem with the world today: yesterday’s news, not important enough to waste time on. Many of them prefer the New History that makes few demands on their time or effort (how symptomatic of our times, eh?). They would prefer to do such things as psychoanalyze Hitler and determine that his hatred of the Jews, if not his reasons for declaring war on the rest of the civilized world, was the result of the failure of a Jewish doctor to save his mother who was dying of cancer. Or they would like to rewrite history “from the bottom up,” focusing on the little people whom past historians have ignored because of a lack of documentation to create accurate pictures. Lack of documentation is not a problem for these “historians.” They just make stuff up!
In any event, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (yes, her again: she is brilliant) the tireless defender of the Old History and a great admirer of Macaulay notes not only that historians don’t read him anymore, she notes that the problem goes even deeper:
“a commentator [on Macaulay in 1959] thought it safe to predict that Macaulay would indeed be read half a century hence, ‘if there are readers left.’ It is not clear whether the ominous proviso referred to a nuclear catastrophe or simply to the death of the written word as a result of television or a debased mass culture. What was not anticipated was that professional historians would turn against Macaulay, making him seem . . . unreadable and unmemorable. . .”
I have commented on the death of old ways of doing history in previous posts so I shall not go there again. But the broader point is worth some serious reflection. The notion that we would lose our desire to read because of “television or a debased culture” is prescient — written as it was in 1987. It would be hard to argue against the fact that we now live in a digital age that has replaced the reading of books with television, iPads, wifi, and video games.
A critic recently noted the spike in interest of late in Orwell’s 1984 (are people actually reading it?) in light of the recent ascendency of a man into high office who looks more and more each day like a dictator and less and less like the leader of a democracy whose citizens are the ones he works for. The critic noted that Huxley’s Brave New World was more appropriate because while Orwell warned against the burning of books, Huxley warned against the loss of any desire to read in the first place. Huxley looks increasingly like he saw things everyone else was missing.
The point of all this is that we lose so much in turning our backs not only on great minds like Macaulay’s but on all of those who have brought us to this place in time, a time when we have come to realize the ills of former days, the lack of respect for persons world-wide; the persecutions of those who differ from us (though there are those who would prefer to keep the persecutions alive); the wholesale exploitation of other countries in the name of profit; the need for a more cosmopolitan and less nationalistic outlook on the world around us of which we are a part — also seeming of late to have lost much of its appeal. For all our problems and challenges, in many ways we have made moral progress and much of that progress is due to the great thinkers, not only in the West but in the East as well, who have informed our thinking and created the categories by means of which we seek to make sense of the world we share in common and which seems so confounding at times. In any event, before we turn our backs on those great minds altogether we should at least make sure we have read them. It is very sad indeed that we seem to have become determined to ignore our past and especially those who created out of that past a deeper and more interesting world, people like Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Hugh, do you think Himmelfarb amd Huxley envisioned emoji’s or Twitter replacing reading content with some detail? We have a bad habit of ignoring the past, even recent past, so we make the same mistakes again. Not learning Vietnam lessons brings us to our never-ending involvement in the Middle East, e.g. This nationalist chestbeating is reminiscent of the pre-WWII bragging. Then, we have a president who treats everything as a transaction and does not appreciate history and relationships. Belittling the EU and NATO makes the US less safe. Since that is his stated goal, he is heading down the wrong path. Keith
We have come much farther than either Himmelfarb or Huxley imagined in their wildest imaginings! And, as you say, we seem determined to cut ourselves loose from the past and ignore all the lessons we might otherwise have learned.
I prefer “History in the Grand Manner”, i.e. Gibbon, Churchill, Xenophon,rtc.
Noita bad choice!
Gibbon for sure.
“The point of all this is that we lose so much in turning our backs not only on great minds like Macaulay’s but on all of those who have brought us to this place in time…”
Who has brought us to “this place in time” after all? I have to wonder if it wasn’t those who failed to suade the current of Events in the direction our more ideal, intelligent and moral ‘kind’ would, rightly if weakly, recommend….or still do, with apparent little effect. Perhaps a failure of Method? Or, is it the dullness or moral-static of mankind in general that is unreceptive or unresponsive to the Higher Calling? Whatever the ‘fault’, it could be laid at the doorstep of ANY generation of mankind, methinks. We are no more depraved than our ancestors in that respect, while you have it that we are all-the-more enlightened in others.
Whatever the merits of the Historical Discipline of ‘facts’, as past practiced (parsimonious at that) and relayed to “this place in time,” it is clear that they have never been then, nor are now, persuasive to evidently over-ride in our culture the current of mankind’s more central thrust of ambition and values. Or, it could be that these same ‘facts’ were NEVER as persuasive as they are here made-out to be; but are the kind of thing that any civilization might rely upon to justify itself, to itself, be it Greece or Rome or Italy or Germany or the “make it great again” USA.
Your personal and original notions are always keen, Professor, and ever worth following. I’ll save you the burden of what remains outside as much; but I imagine you can guess the rest.
I dare say: The day will one time come, when every man shall stand before the Gate of St. Peter and be posed with a question: “How, how shall ye enter Here?” And the opening line of every Good response, echoing the Voice of the Realm, shall begin with the lines: I shall enter, because…
I recently wrote about the fact that we fail to learn lessons from history, and thus keep repeating our mistakes. But your post makes an excellent point: if we don’t even bother to read good, in-depth history, how CAN we learn from it? And when many of our elected officials likely have read little history beyond what was required in high school …
It’s really, in the end, about WHAT history one reads. The Conquer’s, or the Conquered. Fact.
I don’t know who the hell Historians think they are, but they are most certainly NOT witness upon the Stream of Event that constitutes TIME. They are merely Speculators. More often than not, workers bent on proving something they first conceived to be true. Yes. History is BUNK.
The answer to your question is more simple than you suspect. Facts remain, that none of us will ever be a part of History, so the Matter of memory as regards History is altogether moot. We may be wise to History as regards our own experience, possibly, but very likely ignorant of what comes after.
I would argue that we CAN learn from history, even that which we did not personally experience. But there are two requirements in order for this learning to take place: 1) we must actually READ and comprehend it, and 2) we must engage our brains and THINK. It is no different than learning science or math … it requires comprehensive abilities, reasoning abilities, and the desire to learn.
I concur. History is the kind of thing that requires an appreciation for the concept of Fact, even if that eludes certitude…which it most certainly does, always.
History, in fact is “bunk”. Not because it’s not relevant, but because nobody is listening.
If history is “bunk”, as you say, then all life is basically meaningless … and I do not believe that. Some of us contribute to the world, others take from it … but life has meaning.
I do not believe that History is bunk. I love history, like I love my friends…like I love Kant…Kierkegaard…Emerson. That is not the same to say that I love them for what they are, or what they were. I love them for what I perceive them to be, and they survive in me for that very reason. It is THEIR virtue to survive the translation from their time to mine…I do not pretend to know, EXACTLY their mind…but am grateful, at lest, to know a little part of that.
I’ve met an Historian or two in my days, but never one who believed that their version of Event was a replica of the Historical “fact”. I’ts just not part 0f their game as much, knowing better to make absurd assumptions.
The issue here is not if anyone can reconstruct the past, rather it is if there is any point in even trying! The new historians regard history as a form of literature, and the result is that they end up talking about themselves. Himmelfarb knows full well that there are no solid historical “facts” as such. What the historian should attempt to do, however, is get as close to what happened as is humanly possible — accepting the limitations of bias and limited and possibly questionable sources. Her problem with throwing the baby out with the bathwater and I think she has an important point to make.