MAKING SENSE OF HISTORY

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi
A sense of the past is a light that illuminates the present and directs attention toward the
possibilities of the future.
There are two primary points of view about the historical process, and adherents of neither side
can prove their conclusions. One says that history is nothing more than a disordered collection
of random happenings. Therefore no meaning can be found in history any more than one can
find meaning and purpose in the world of nature.
The opposite point of view, the majority opinion, asserts that there is a design, purpose, or
pattern in history. This viewpoint has its origins in the religious traditions of the West--in
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--but primarily in the Bible itself. Religious beliefs have
concluded that history is an unfolding of God's plan for the world. Therefore it has purpose. St.
Augustine elaborated this thesis in the 5th century, and in the 17th century the French
theologian Jacques-Benigne Bossuet carried the idea further in his 'Discourse on Universal
History' (1681). The rise and fall of empires depend, in Bossuet's thought, on the secret designs
of Providence.
The scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton changed the way people think about the world. It
became possible to regard history as a process set in motion perhaps by God but left mostly to
the decisions and actions of humanity. The thinkers of the Enlightenment underscored this, as
they looked to humanity itself as the prime mover in history.
In the 19th century history was interpreted by the German philosopher G.F.W. Hegel as a
process of change caused by action, reaction, and the result, or synthesis, of the two. History
cannot be interpreted mechanistically. Humans have freedom, but this freedom can only be
fulfilled through overcoming obstacles. History is not a series of smooth transitions but rather
progress through struggle and conflict.
A similar view was presented by Karl Marx. History is subject to laws just as nature is. History
has a direction. It is governed by economic realities, by the way in which people produce and
use wealth. Inevitably classes develop, and these struggle with each other for the control of the
means of production. The goal of these conflicts is reached in the classless society, toward
which there was an inevitable progress.
Two writers in the 20th century put forward complex and influential philosophies of history:
Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. Spengler's pessimistic 'Decline of the West' was
published from 1918 to 1922. Coming out as it did under the cloud World War I had cast over
Europe, it was widely accepted, though he had actually written it before the war. It describes
culture, or civilizations, in biological terms, as though each were a natural organism. Cultures,
he believed, are born; they mature, and they die through a process of growth and decay. The
problem with this notion is that if cultures are individual biological organisms they cannot
influence each other for good or ill. Nevertheless, his thesis agreed well with the disillusionment
felt in much of the world after the war.
Toynbee, too, undertook to study the development of civilizations. He rejected the notion that
the past can be viewed as a straight line of progress or development. He also disagreed with
Spengler's assertion that the West is doomed. Toynbee, in his 12-volume 'Study of History'
(1934-61), declares that civilization arose in societies through a response to challenges. If the
challenge is too great or too little, there is no significant advance. Hence the Eskimo have not
proceeded beyond a rudimentary culture because the challenge of their environment is too
great. In the perpetually warm climates societies find the challenge too small. It is in the
temperate areas of the world, such as North America and Northern Europe, that humanity has

best been able to meet challenges and create high civilizations
HISTORY
A sense of the past is a light that illuminates the present and directs attention toward the
possibilities of the future. Without an adequate knowledge of history--the written record of
events as well as the events themselves--today's events are disconnected occurrences. History
is a science--a branch of knowledge that uses specific methods and tools to achieve its goals.
To compile a history records are needed. Some of these are written records: government
papers, diaries, letters, inscriptions, biographies, and many others. For ancient history,
especially of the Middle East and China, there are lists of kings, of wars, and of significant
events such as the building of temples or natural disasters. Archaeology uncovers many of
these records. The laws promulgated by the Babylonian king Hammurabi (18th century BC)
were inscribed on a stone pillar. The pillar, or stela, was discovered in 1901
In the modern period written records are much easier to obtain. Governments and other
institutions keep records of nearly everything they do. Sometimes records are discovered by
chance. When Germany was defeated in World War II, the fleeing Nazis left behind a huge
amount of material documenting the Nazi era. These have been used to reconstruct the history
of Germany between 1933 and 1945.
Records today are mostly written or printed on paper. In the past they could be inscribed on
stone, written on parchment or papyrus, or drawn on buildings, monuments, or even household
pottery or coins. Much has been learned about the reign of the Indian emperor Asoka because
of the many edicts he issued. These were inscribed on pillars or rocks at public meeting places
around India
The modern science of historiography--history writing--developed as recently as the 19th
century. It emerged in Germany, first at the University of Gottingen, then at other schools.
Gradually the German influence spread to the rest of Europe and the United States. Behind the
German decision to take a methodical and scientific approach to history there lie thousands of
years of experience in dealing with history in many quite different societies.
SENSE OF THE PAST
The Earth, the world of nature, and the universe all have pasts, but they have no history. Nor do
individuals have histories, though every person has a past. The written past of an individual is
called a biography. Only human societies have histories, based on collective memories from
which they reconstruct their pasts. Not all attempts to reconstruct the past have resulted in
histories. Before history emerged as a way of recounting past events, there were myth, legend,
and epic. Even after ancient societies decided to keep written records, these did not necessarily
constitute histories. Often they were no more than lists of kings or accounts of battles.
To be a true history an account of the past must not only retell what happened but must also
relate events and people to each other. It must inquire into causes and effects. It must try to
discern falsehood in the old records, such as attempts of kings to make themselves look better
than they really were. It must also present the evidence on which its findings are based.
Achievement of Israel
The ancient Greek writer Herodotus has long been known as the father of history. It is a title he
was given by the Roman statesman Cicero. Long before Herodotus did his investigations in the
5th century BC, however, a stunning achievement in historical writing had been accomplished
in ancient Israel. Most of the historical writings of nearby kingdoms, such as Egypt and
Mesopotamia, had been records of events at the time they occurred; they were not researches
into the past to discover national origins. This kind of effort was mostly left to writers of epics
and the tellers of myths
Israel, alone in the ancient world, was a nation with a sense of its history. It was a history rooted

in a single and unforgettable event--the Exodus (departure) from Egypt under a dynamic leader
named Moses. Behind Moses stood other notable personages dating back hundreds of years to
Abraham and his descendants. Yet they too were somehow preserved permanently in the folk
memory of the nation.
Over a period of centuries Israel compiled what is the first true national history. The documents
were preserved in the Hebrew Bible, also called the Old Testament. The remarkable feature of
this history is its inclusion of all the faults and failures, as well as the successes, of the nation
over its long history. There was no attempt to color the record to make Israel look good to its
descendants or to anyone else. Even the heroes of the narrative are depicted with all of their
weaknesses and strengths.
Israel's national history is distinctive for other reasons as well. By the inclusion of a Creation
narrative at the beginning, it became the first attempt to construct a universal history, a story
that included the whole human race. The story as told in the Hebrew Bible is also an
interpretation of history. It asserts that history has both a beginning and a goal. This was in
contrast to other societies that looked upon the passing of time as a series of repetitive cycles,
much like the passing of the seasons.
In time Israel's history was taken up by Christianity, which both adopted it outright and adapted
it to its own uses. Still it remained a universal history and a story that would keep unfolding to
the end of time. In the 5th century ADthis history was reworked by St. Augustine in his book
'The City of God'. In this book he presents history as a progress toward the kingdom of God.
The book is the source of later theories of inevitable progress. Some emphasize a natural
progress and improvement in the human condition, while others--especially those inspired by
Karl Marx--see history moving through violent revolutions toward a classless society, a heaven
on Earth.
Greek Achievement
When the Greek city-states emerged, they were societies without a past. The previous Cretan
and Mycenaean civilizations had been swept away, leaving no trace in the collective memory of
the Greeks. What they had were such epic traditions as the books of Homer and accounts of a
long-gone age as told in purely mythological and legendary terms by Hesiod
The first historian of any significance in Greece was Hecateus, a native of Asia Minor who lived
in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Only fragments of his 'History' and 'Tour Around the World'
have survived. He looked critically at the Greeks' attempts to account for their past and
concluded: "The stories of the Greeks are numerous and in my opinion ridiculous."
When Hecateus traveled to Egypt and visited the priests (the official record-keepers), he
commented that he was able to trace his ancestry back 16 generations. An Egyptian showed
him evidence of the ancestry of their high priests back 345 generations. This overwhelming
antiquity impressed him, as it did his successor Herodotus. They determined to inquire into the
real origins of the nations they visited. (The word history is derived from the Greek historia,
meaning "knowledge gained from inquiry.")
Greek historians, especially Herodotus and Thucydides, made at least two significant
contributions to the writing of history. They weighed the evidence, attempting to separate the
true from the false or fanciful. They also wrote about the recent past. Herodotus dealt with the
Persian Wars in his 'History'. Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, an event
through which he lived. He says of his research: "With reference to the narrative of events, far
from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust
my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me,
the accuracy of the report always being tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible." It
was this way of dealing with history that was revived by the Germans in the 19th century.

Chinese Achievement
China produced a mass of historical writings long unequalled by any other country until modern
times. In this case, the purpose of history was primarily political. It was meant to serve as a
guide for making decisions, in formulating public policies by recalling the way things had
previously been done. Confucius (died 479 BC) stressed the need to transcribe all records
carefully in order that they be transmitted faithfully to the next generation.
The origins of history writing seem to lie with scribes who kept careful records on the
performance of rites honoring ancestors. Kings and emperors had such scribes at court to keep
them aware of how things had been done before. These scribes became temple archivists, who
eventually had charge of all past records. Slowly there grew a government bureaucracy just for
the purpose of keeping records.
The most notable of ancient Chinese historians was Ssu-ma Ch'ien (died 85 BC). He was an
astronomer, calendar expert, and grand historian of the imperial court. He authored 'Historical
Records', the most significant history of ancient China to the 2nd century BC. In it he brought
order to all the complex events of the past, recorded his sources, kept tables of chronology,
gave detailed accounts of each Chinese state, and added a collection of biographies. Several
centuries later Liu Chih-Chi (661-721) wrote the first treatise in any language on historical
method. This was followed in the 11th century by a comprehensive history of China written by
Ssu-ma Kuang.
Muslim History Writing
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is grounded in historical events, especially the life of
Muhammad (see Muhammad). Much of Islamic historical writing was written primarily for
religious reasons, to inspire the faithful, or as an explanation of legal precedents. Some writers,
however, were careful in dealing with their sources, even if all they wrote were essentially
biographical sketches of famous men.
By far the greatest of the Muslim writers of history is Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). His
'Muqaddimah' is only an introduction to his universal history, but he presents a philosophy of
history in which he accounts for the rise and fall of civilizations. He formulated general laws that
govern the fates of societies, and he established rules for criticizing historical sources in order
to get a correct reconstruction of the past. Arnold Toynbee in the 20th century called the
'Muqaddimah' "the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind."
MODERN HISTORY
The writing of history during the Middle Ages did not languish entirely, but it made few
significant advances. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment, however, brought major
changes. Of great significance was learning how to analyze and criticize texts in order to
guarantee their authenticity or prove their falsity. This field of textual criticism, called
diplomatics, was pioneered in the 17th century by Jean Mabillon. His 'De Re Diplomatica' (1681)
is the first formulation of the principles for determining the authenticity and dates of medieval
documents. This branch of study has grown dramatically, embracing criticism of all ancient
texts, especially those of the Bible.
Another achievement of the age was the secularizing of history--taking it out from under the
control of God, the gods, or fate--and telling it simply as the story of human societies. Events
and institutions were explained as the result of processes of development, dependent on
human decisions and actions. The secularists looked carefully at all the influences that shaped
a society. The best-known such history is Edward Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire' (1776-88), one of the prose masterpieces in the English language. The leading theorist
of this type of history was Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), whose brilliant work was largely
ignored until the 20th century.

German Achievement
It was in Germany, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, that the bulk of historical
writing came to be done by professional historians. For the professionals this was a matter of
necessity in order to get good teaching appointments in universities or to consolidate their
positions with their colleagues. This abundance of historical writing was aided by a climate of
intellectual freedom and an increased tolerance by governments toward historiography.
Governments became willing to open their collections of records to historians. The British
Public Record Office was founded in 1838 to give access to large collections of documents. The
Vatican archives were opened to historians in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII. Today there are large
library collections, both public and private, in many countries for use by historians and other
scholars. Among the largest are the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the British
Museum in London.
The impetus for historical studies in Germany was provided in the 18th century by Johann
Gottfried von Herder. He believed that the historian's task is to reconstruct what has actually
happened. All periods and countries are equally deserving of study, according to Herder. He
was followed in the 19th century by Leopold von Ranke. He believed that history evolves as the
separate development of individuals, peoples, and states. He was especially interested in the
continuity of cultural development that results in the nation. His main insistence was on
objectivity--to describe how the past really was. Ranke's influence dominated German
historiography until after World War I.
Much of German history writing is nationalistic, exalting the German state. This tendency arose
from the defeats inflicted upon the German states by Napoleon prior to 1815. The center of the
nationalist movement was in Prussia at the University of Berlin (founded in 1809). Eventually it
was Prussia that brought about the unification of Germany in 1871, just in time to inflict a major
defeat on France. The leader of the movement was Wilhelm von Humboldt. After unification,
writers turned their attention to evaluating and praising the new German Empire.
Although the emphasis on nationalism was overdone, it exerted an influence on the growth of
national histories in other countries. Jules Michelet, for example, wrote the first history of
medieval France based on researches in the French national archives. In England Thomas
Babington Macaulay's 'History of England' is a remarkably readable reconstruction of the past.
It is considered flawed, however, by his nationalist views
Early American Historiography
Prior to the arrival of German influences, there were several outstanding writers of history in the
United States. Only a few are read in the 20th century. George Bancroft was the first American to
plan a comprehensive study of the nation's past--from the colonial era through the
Revolutionary War. His work, 'History of the United States', was published in ten volumes over a
period of 40 years (1834-74). He used a vast number of original sources, including material from
European archives. William H. Prescott wrote about Spain's empire in America. The best of his
books is 'History of the Conquest of Mexico' (three volumes, 1843). He too used a great number
of documentary sources, including material from Spain. Henry Adams, descendant of the
second and sixth presidents, wrote 'History of the United States During the Administrations of
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison' (nine volumes, 1889-91). It is still one of the landmarks
in American historical writing
As leading scholars from other nations spent time studying in German universities, the German
techniques and methods in history spread throughout Europe and to the United States. The
most influential organizer of the new American historiography was undoubtedly Herbert Baxter
Adams, who made Johns Hopkins University the center for American historical studies between
1876 and his death in 1901. He was, in addition, a founder of the American Historical

Association in 1884.
Woodrow Wilson, later president of the United States, wrote 'A History of the American People'
(1902) as an attempt to present a chronicle on a broader base than politics. At the same time
James Henry Breasted became one of the world's most eminent Egyptologists and
archaeologists. In 1919 he organized the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago as a
repository for Egyptian relics.
The movement for creating a purely American history was launched by Frederick Jackson
Turner of the University of Wisconsin in 1893, with his address to the American Historical
Association on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". Twenty years later
Charles A. Beard set forth a new point of view on American history with his 'Economic
Interpretation of the Constitution' (1913). In it he presented American history as successive
conflicts between groups of economic interests.
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