What is history? Is it just a record of a series of objective events? Do we somehow discover, or ‘unearth,’ history in these events? Is the historian just an impartial recorder of events from the past? Of course, with these questions I don’t mean to ask if history can be biased or deliberately falsified – of course it can – nor am I asking if history is necessarily incomplete because we never have perfect knowledge of what and why something happened – of course it is. In this article, I want to aim a little deeper, and see if we can’t uncover something more substantial about history by approaching the topic from a direction somewhat less travelled, but one that will hopefully leave us with a more illuminated understanding of history than the one we started with.
Being vs. Essence
A key distinction we need to make before we really get going is that between the words ‘being’ and ‘essence.’ Other people use these terms differently, but for me, a thing’s ‘essence’ is what makes the thing the specific kind of thing that it is, the property or characteristic that cannot be altered or removed without changing the thing into a different kind of thing; in other words, the aspect that is essential to the thing. ‘Being,’ on the other hand, denotes that by which the thing comes to be the thing that it is. This means that the being of a thing is never something internal to the thing itself, never a property of the thing, because if it were, it wouldn’t be able to explain how the thing (including its properties) comes to be the thing that it is.
So, what is the essence of history? What is the one thing that makes history history, the one thing we cannot alter or remove without at the same time turning history into something else? This one thing, I would suggest, is pastness. This isn’t to say that pastness is identical to history, nor is it supposed to define history. All we are noting is that for history to be history, it must be past. If an event or thing ceased to be past, it would no longer be history.
What about the being of history then? What is that by which history comes to be history? Pastness won’t do here because pastness, while being essential for history to be history, doesn’t explain how history comes to be history in the first place. Unlike the essence of history, we are going to have to put in a little legwork to uncover its being… which is just as well or this article would be far too short!
What is History?
If we ever hope to get to the being of history, we had better have some idea of what this thing called ‘history’ is. A first approximation might see us define history as a collection of objective (and, of course, past) facts. While being true, this doesn’t really lead us anywhere useful or interesting. It’s like saying a book is a collection of atoms. Of course a book is a collection of atoms, but if we are trying to understand books, this definition is completely useless. Like the atoms of the book, objective events are just the ‘particles’ of which history is comprised. History, as with the book, is more than the discrete ‘events’ that go into it; it is these events, but these events understood as a whole. And the events of history are made into a cohesive whole through a narrative that connects them, an invisible thread running through and between the visible events, organising and weaving them into a tapestry that brings sense to the individual pieces, which are senseless on their own.
So, history is a narrative. What can we add to this? All narratives need an arc; better, all narratives are an arc. They follow a trajectory that starts from a beginning, works through a middle, and concludes at an ending. That is to say; narratives are polarised. They move in a certain direction with a certain endpoint in mind. What is this endpoint? Now. The present. All history culminates in the present. Of course, we know it will continue beyond this point, but history (whose essence is pastness, remember) has no concern for the future. Thus, history is the narrative whole that binds, and confers sense upon, individual events in the form of an arc that charts a course towards, and terminates, in the present. Nice.
The next question we might ask ourselves is exactly how this narrative arc comes to be. When we look back over past events, what is it that binds them together to yield this meaningful whole that is history? Fortunately, we have a ready answer to this in the form of causality; that ubiquitous concept that so effectively structures existence, and in terms of which we are naturally predisposed to understand everything. Event A caused event B, which in turn caused event C, and so on. As undeniable as it is clean and tidy. On this view, history is the unfolding of events with a mechanical, objective inevitability. Every event appears to take place as the natural and unavoidable consequence (effect) of a prior event (cause). Looking back over history reveals a perfectly consistent thread. Although we might not have been able to predict where that thread was going at the time, retrospectively the situation reveals itself to have been unequivocal. Event C happened because of event B, and that event happened because of event A; perfectly ordered and perfectly coherent. Moreover, once having seen the rigorous unfolding of the causal chain in the past, it takes little effort to imagine that same rigorous unfolding continuing into the future. Hence, the intuitive sense many have that determinism is true.
Even quantum probability, rather than overturning this model, is more an adjustment to it. The unfolding of history is still purely mechanical and objective, event A still causes event B just as rigorously as it did under classical mechanics; only now, the inevitability is shifted from the specific events themselves to the laws governing quantum probability.
This also means that the arc of history is something we discover. In other words, events have their historical meaning within them when they happen; we just have to discover what this is. History, then is a completely objective, third-person endeavour. Casting our gaze back over the jigsaw pieces which are the events, we attempt to put them together the ‘right’ way, to tell the narrative that is already contained in the events. There will, of course, be an element of guesswork involved in this, but the important thing is that there is a ‘right’ way to assemble the pieces, a ‘true’ history to be revealed.
All of this is an illusion.
Imagine you are walking through a field. There is a path stretching out ahead, which you simply follow until you get to the other side. When you reach your destination and turn around, what do you see? The path, of course. The path that shows you the route you took to get to where you now stand. Now imagine you are walking through a field of tall grass, such that as you walk, you are trampling the grass down, flattening it. When you get to the other side and turn around, what do you see? You see exactly the same thing as you saw in the first example; i.e. the path that marks the route you took. The point, of course, is that, although in the first example you were simply following a path that was already there, and in the second, you made the path as you walked it, in both cases the path looks exactly the same once it has been walked. Reflecting on history, precisely because it is always retrospective, will always produce the determinist illusion that the path was either always there or a pure mechanical, objective phenomenon, the inexorable playing out of laws of cause and effect. The point then is that even if it were true that we were free and not determined, the past would still appear exactly the same as it would in a deterministic, mechanical universe.
This reminds me of what Wittgenstein once said concerning the solar system. At first the heliocentric model appears counter-intuitive; after all, it looks as if the sun orbits the earth, right? But, Wittgenstein countered, what would it look like if the earth orbits the sun? The answer is it would look exactly the same. Now, this definitely doesn’t get us all the way to freewill – the arguments that lead to that conclusion fall well outside the scope of this article – but it does show us that the ‘intuitive’ sense we get that history is nothing more than the rigorous unfolding of objective, mechanical laws of cause and effect, is worth questioning.
We have said that history is a narrative whole with an arc that culminates in the present, which means that we always perceive history only when it has already been completed, giving it the appearance of being determined according to laws of cause and effect. However, this retrospective viewpoint doesn’t just influence how we perceive history; much more radically, it also influences what that that arc of history is. By this I mean that the narrative of history is something we construct by interpreting past events relative to the present precisely because the present is the ‘end’ of the narrative. Note, I’m not suggesting that history is written by the victor. To say this is to say nothing more interesting than history can be falsified. Rather, the point is that the same sequence of events can make sense in narratives that are nevertheless completely different.
Consider Christian history. If Michael is someone sympathetic to Christianity and Mary is an atheist who sees religion as a blight on humanity, their respective views on Western history will be quite different, even if they acknowledge the exact same past events. Michael’s historical narrative traces an arc that has ups and downs, like any good narrative, but that eventually winds up in a present where Christianity is a force for good. Yes, there were times when Christianity lost its way, Michael would admit – the various pogroms against the Jews, the darker moments of the Inquisitions, the various repressive and purely self-interested policies implemented by the Church, the paedophile scandals that still plague the Church today… well, you get the message – but there were many high points as well – the message of love and charity, the notion that we are all God’s children, the many inspirational and truly good people the Church produced, and so on. For Michael, it isn’t so much that the good outweighs the bad (there is no way to objectively measure these things); rather, it’s that his present (the ‘end point’ of any historical narrative), in which Christianity is seen as a force for good, traces the ‘positive’ (not ‘positive’ as in ‘good,’ but ‘positive’ as in ‘dominant’ or ‘main’) narrative arc through the high points, while the low points are aberrations, or ‘negative’ moments that run counter to the dominant narrative thread. Mary, on the other hand, sees exactly the same events, but because the ‘end point’ of her arc is different; namely, Christianity being seen as a repressive force, her ‘positive’ narrative arc runs through the low points while the high points make up the moments counter to the overall theme of Christian history.
One way to think of this is to think of a movie with two different endings. If, in one, the protagonist turns out to be a ‘good guy,’ perhaps after tracing a morally rocky path to get there, all of the questionable things he did in the movie take on a different hue. Rather than being seen as events that reflect his character as a ‘bad guy,’ they become the challenges or trials he had to go through in order to come out the other side as the ‘good guy’ he will be in the end. If, in the second ending, he turns out to be a genuine ‘bad guy,’ those same events are interpreted as having more direct significance. Rather than being ‘teething pains’ he had to work through, they were moments that reinforced his character, or contributed to moulding the ‘bad guy’ he was to become by the end. The important point here is that neither narrative is objectively ‘true’ until the ending is taken into account. If we don’t know whether the protagonist becomes a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy,’ we have no grounds on which to construct a narrative of the events in his life because the narrative significance is not contained within the discrete events themselves.
Returning to Michael and Mary then, which account reflects the ‘truth’ of Christian history? Both; or better, neither; or better still, there is no answer to this because the question is meaningless. History doesn’t admit of objective truth or falsity because individual events on their own have no meaning outside the narrative arc we impose on them; a narrative arc that is unavoidably conditioned by the present we live in, and from which we look back upon past events. History is, thus, not discovered; it is created; or, bearing in mind the influence the present moment has as the anchoring point from which the narrative takes shape, maybe we would do better to say that history is interpreted.
There are two interesting consequences of all this worth mentioning. The first is that one never sees history unfolding in the present. We sometimes look back on momentous moments in history and think how amazing it would been to have actually been there at the time, witnessing history being made. We can now see that this desire is quite literally nonsense. History only becomes history retrospectively; i.e. when viewed by some future people (maybe even your own future self) in relation to a present which subsequent events have converged upon, providing, for the first time, a context that allows the event to acquire historical significance. No matter how momentous the event, at the time that it happens it can never have the being of the historical. You might feel that you are witnessing something important, an event that will one day be historically significant, but at the time, it will never be anything more than an important present event.
The second consequence is that history is never over and done with. Events themselves are fixed and objective, but the narratives into which people weave those events are always subject to change. In our movie example above, we said that if the protagonist becomes a ‘good guy’ at the end, the narrative of his life is different from what it would be if he becomes a ‘bad guy.’ This is fine for movies, which have a nice, clear ending in the form of the final credits, but when do the final credits roll in real life? The answer is never. There is no moment where we can declare an end (perhaps to an era, or an age), tally up everything that happened, and write a ‘final’ history. Future events will always undermine such an endeavour, as they inevitably encompass the events in the ‘final’ history in their own narrative arcs.
The Being of History
Finally, we are in a position to answer the question we started with; what is the being of history? History comes to be history through the imposition on past events of a retrospectively created/interpreted narrative arc. The being of history, then, is retrospective, narrative creation/interpretation. History is a narrative because, rather than being a mere collection of discrete events, what makes history history is the invisible thread that runs through them, connecting them, and drawing them into a cohesive whole. Included within narration is the idea that history is also an arc; i.e. it has a direction. History progresses from a start point to an end point, and the end point for history is always the same; the present. History is retrospective because it always, and only ever, appears to a glance that looks backwards from the end point of the arc; i.e. a position in which a series of events have already been completed. Finally, history is created, or interpreted, because the events themselves don’t contain their own meaning; rather, they acquire meaning only when taken up relative to the present moment that is the ‘end,’ the destination, the final act, of the narrative arc.