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Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians

Author(s): William H. McNeill


Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 1 (Feb., 1986), pp. 1-10
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1867232 .
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or
Mythistory,
Truth, Myth,History,and Historians
WILLIAM

H. McNEILL

Mythand historyare close kin inasmuchas both explain how thingsgot to be the
waytheyare bytellingsome sortof story.But our common parlance reckonsmyth
to be false while historyis, or aspires to be, true. Accordingly,a historianwho
rejectssomeone else's conclusionscalls themmythical,whileclaimingthathis own
viewsare true. But whatseems true to one historianwillseem falseto another,so
one historian'struthbecomes another'smyth,even at the momentof utterance.
A centuryand more ago, when historywas firstestablished as an academic
discipline,our predecessors recognized this dilemma and believed they had a
remedy. Scientificsource criticismwould get the facts straight,whereupon a
conscientiousand carefulhistorianneeded onlyto arrangethefactsintoa readable
narrativeto produce genuinelyscientifichistory.And science,of course, like the
starsabove, was trueand eternal,as Newtonand Laplace had demonstratedto the
satisfactionof all reasonable persons everywhere.
Yet, in practice,revisionismcontinued to prevail withinthe newlyconstituted
historicalprofession,as it had since the timeof Herodotus. For a generationor
could be attributedto scholarlysuccessin discovering
two,thiscontinuedvolatility
new factsby diligentwork in the archives; but early in this centurythoughtful
historiansbegan to realize thatthearrangementof factsto make a historyinvolved
subjectivejudgments and intellectualchoices thathad littleor nothingto do with
source criticism,scientificor otherwise.
In reactingagainstan almostmechanicalvisionof scientificmethod,itis easy to
underestimateactual achievements.For theideal of scientific
historydid allow our
predecessors to put some formsof bias behind them. In particular,academic
historiansof the nineteenthcenturycame close to transcendingolder religious
controversies.Protestantand Catholic histories of post-ReformationEurope
ceased to be separate and distincttraditionsof learning-a transformation
nicely
of
a
Roman
illustratedin the Anglo-Americanworld by the career Lord Acton,
Catholic who became Regius Professorof Historyat Cambridge and editorof the
firstCambridgeModernHistory.This was a great accomplishment.So was the
accumulationof an enormous fundof exact and reliabledata throughpainstaking
FromMythistory
and OtherEssaysbyWilliamH. McNeill. Reprintedbyarrangementwiththe University
of Chicago Press. C)1986 by The Universityof Chicago. All rightsreserved.

1,

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WilliamH. McNeill

source criticismthatallowed the writingof historyin the westernworld to assume


a new depth, scope, range, and precision as compared to anythingpossible in
earlier times. No heir of that scholarlytraditionshould scoffat the faithof our
predecessors,which inspired so much toilingin archives.
Yet the limitsof scientifichistorywere far more constrictingthan its devotees
believed. Facts that could be establishedbeyond all reasonable doubt remained
trivialin the sense that they did not, in and of themselves,give meaning or
intelligibility
to the record of the past. A catalogue of undoubted and indubitable
information,even ifarranged chronologically,remainsa catalogue. To become a
history,factshave to be put togetherinto a patternthat is understandable and
credible; and when thathas been achieved, the resultingportraitof the past may
become useful as well-a fontof practicalwisdom upon which people may draw
when making decisions and takingaction.
Pattern recognitionof the sort historiansengage in is the chef d'oeuvre of
human intelligence.It is achieved by payingselectiveattentionto the total input
of stimulithat perpetuallyswarm in upon our consciousness. Only by leaving
thingsout,thatis,relegatingthemto thestatusofbackgroundnoise deservingonly
to be disregarded,can whatmattersmostin a givensituationbecome recognizable.
Suitable action follows.Here is the great secretof human power over nature and
over ourselves as well. Patternrecognitionis what natural scientistsare up to; it
is what historianshave alwaysdone, whethertheyknew it or not.
Only some factsmatterfor any given pattern.Otherwise,useless clutterwill
obscure whatwe are after:perceptiblerelationshipsamong importantfacts.That
and that alone constitutesan intelligiblepattern,giving meaning to the world,
whetheritbe theworldof physicsand chemistry
or theworldof interactinghuman
groups through time, which historianstake as their special domain. Natural
scientistsare ruthless in selecting aspects of available sensory inputs to pay
attentionto,disregardingall else. They call theirpatternstheoriesand inheritmost
of them frompredecessors. But, as we now know,even Newton's truthsneeded
adjustment.Natural science is neithereternalnor universal;it is instead historical
and evolutionary,because scientistsaccept a new theory only when the new
embraces a wider range of phenomena or achieves a more elegant explanation of
(selectivelyobserved) factsthan its predecessor was able to do.
No comnparably
firmconsensus prevails among historians.Yet we need not
despair. The greatand obviousdifferencebetweennaturalscientistsand historians
is the greater complexityof the behavior historiansseek to understand. The
principalsource of historicalcomplexitylies in the factthat human beings react
both to the natural world and to one another chieflythroughthe mediation of'
symbols.This means, amnongother things,that any theoryabout human life,if'
widelybelieved, will alter actual behavior,usuallyby inducing people to act as if'
the theory were true. Ideas and ideals thus become self-validatingwithin
remarkablyelastic limits.Aniextraordinarybehavioral motilityresults.Resort to
loosened up theconnectionbetweenexternalrealityand human
symbols,in eff'ect,
responses, freeingus from instinctby settingus adrifton a sea of uncertainty.
Human beings therebyacquired a new capacityto err,but also to change, adapt,

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Mythistory

and learn new waysof doing things.Innumerableerrors,correctedbyexperience,


eventuallymade us lords of creationas no other species on earth has ever been
before.
The price of this achievementis the elastic, inexact character of truth,and
especially of truthsabout human conduct. What a particulargroup of persons
understands, believes, and acts upon, even if quite absurd to outsiders, may
nonethelesscement social relationsand allow the membersof the group to act
togetherand accomplish feats otherwiseimpossible. Moreover, membershipin
such a group and participationin its sufferingsand triumphsgive meaning and
value to individual human lives. Any other sortof lifeis not worthliving,for we
are social creatures.As such we need to share truthswithone another,and notjust
truthsabout atoms,stars,and moleculesbutabout human relationsand thepeople
around us.
Shared truthsthatprovide a sanctionforcommon efforthave obvious survival
value. Without such social cement no group can long preserve itself.Yet to
outsiders,truthsof thiskindare likelyto seem myths,save in those(relativelyrare)
cases when theoutsideris susceptibleto conversionand findsa welcomewithinthe
particulargroup in question.
The historicrecord available to us consistsof an unending appearance and
dissolutionof human groups,each unitedbyitsown beliefs,ideals, and traditions.
Sects, religions,tribes,and states,fromancient Sumer and Pharaonic Egypt to
modern times,have based theircohesion upon shared truths-truthsthatdiffered
fromtime to time and place to place witha rich and recklessvariety.Today the
human communityremains divided among an enormous number of different
groups, each espousing its own version of truthabout itselfand about those
excluded from its fellowship.Everythingsuggests that this sort of social and
ideological fragmentationwill continue indefinitely.
Where, in such a maelstromof conflictingopinions, can we hope to locate
historicaltruth?Where indeed?
withthe varietyof human
Before modern communicationsthrustfamiliarity
idea-systemsupon our consciousness,this question was not particularlyacute.
Individuals nearlyalwaysgrew up in relativelyisolatedcommunitiesto a more or
less homogeneous world view. Importantquestions had been settledlong ago by
prophets and sages, so there was littlereason to challenge or modifytraditional
wisdom.Indeed therewerestrongpositiverestraintsupon anywould-beinnovator
who threatenedto upset the inheritedconsensus.
To be sure, climatesof opinion fluctuated,but changes came surreptitiously,
usually disguised as commentaryupon old texts and purporting merely to
explicate the original meanings. Flexibilitywas considerable, as the modern
practice of the U.S. SupremneCourt should convince us; but in this traditional
ordering of intellect,all the same, outsiders who did not share the prevailing
orthodoxywere shunned and disregardedwhen theycould notbe converted.Our
predecessors' faith in a scientificmethod that would make written history
absolutelyand universallytruewas no more thana recentexample of such a belief
system.Those who embraced it feltno need to pay attentionto ignoramuseswho

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WilliamH. McNeill

had not accepted the truthsof "modern science." Like other true believers,they
were thereforespared thetaskof takingothers'viewpointsseriouslyor wondering
about the limitsof theirown visionof historicaltruth.
But we are denied the luxury of such parochialism. We must reckon with
multiplex,competing faiths-secular as well as transcendental,revolutionaryas
well as traditional-that resound amongst us. In addition, partiallyautonomous
professionalidea-systemshave proliferatedin the past centuryor so. Those most
importantto historiansare the so-calledsocial sciences-anthropology,sociology,
politicalscience,psychology,and economics-together withthe newer disciplines
of ecology and semeiology.But law, theology,and philosophyalso pervade the
fieldof knowledge withwhich historiansmay be expected to deal. On top of all
this,innumerableindividualauthors,each withhis own assortmentof ideas and
assumptions, compete for attention.Choice is everywhere;dissent turns into
cacaphonous confusion;mytruthdissolvesinto your mytheven before I can put
words on paper.
The liberalfaith,of course, holds thatin a freemarketplaceof ideas, Truth will
eventuallyprevail. I am not ready to abandon thatfaith,howeverdismayingour
present confusion may be. The liberal experiment,after all, is only about two
timescale that
hundred and fifty
yearsold, and on theappropriateworld-historical
is too soon to be sure. Still, confusion is undoubted. Whether the resulting
uncertaintywillbe bearable forlarge numbersof people in difficulttimesahead
is a question worthasking. Iranian Muslims,Russian communists,and American
sectarians(religiousand otherwise)all exhibitsymptomsof acute distressin face
of moral uncertainties,generated by exposure to competingtruths.Clearly,the
willto believe is as strongtodayas at any timein the past; and truebelieversnearly
always wish to create a communityof the faithful,so as to be able to live more
comfortably,insulated fromtroublesomedissent.
The prevailingresponse to an increasinglycosmopolitan confusion has been
intensifiedpersonal attachment,firstto national and then to subnationalgroups,
each withitsown distinctideals and practices.As one would expect,the historical
professionfaithfullyreflectedand helped to forwardthese shiftsof sentiment.
Thus, the founding fathersof the American Historical Association and their
immediate successors were intent on facilitatingthe consolidation of a new
American nation by writingnational historyin a WASPish mold, while also
claimingaffiliationwitha traditionof Westerncivilizationthatran back through
modern and medieval Europe to the ancientGreeks and Hebrews. This version
of our past was verywidelyrepudiated in the 1960s, but iconoclasticrevisionists
feltno need to replace what theyattackedwithany architectonicvision of their
own. Instead, scholarlyenergyconcentratedon discoveringthe historyof various
segmentsof the population thathad been leftout or ill-treatedbyolder historians:
mostnotablywomen,blacks,and otherethnicminoritieswithinthe United States
and the ex-colonial peoples of the world beyond the national borders.
Such activityconformedto our traditionalprofessionalrole of helpingto define
collectiveidentitiesin ambiguoussituations.Consciousnessof a common past,after
all, is a powerful supplement to other ways of definingwho "we" are. An oral

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Mythistoay

fromthe practicalwisdomembodied
tradition,sometimesalmostundifferentiated
in language itself,is all people need in a stable social universe where in-group
boundaries are self-evident.But with civilization,ambiguities multipled, and
formalwrittenhistorybecame useful in defining"us" versus"them."At first,the
centralambiguityran between rulers and ruled. Alien conquerors who lived on
taxescollectedfromtheirsubjectswereat besta necessaryevilwhenlooked at from
the bottomof civilizedsociety.Yet in some situations,especiallywhen confronting
natural disasteror external attack,a case could be made for commonality,even
between taxpayersand tax consumers.At any rate, historiesbegan as king lists,
royalgenealogies,and boastsofdivinefavor-obvious waysofconsolidatingrulers'
morale and assertingtheirlegitimacyvis-a-vistheirsubjects.
Jewishhistoryemphasized God's power over human affairs,narrowingthe gap
between rulers and ruled by subjecting everybodyto divine Providence. The
Greeks declared all free men equal, subject to no one, but bound by a common
obedience to law. The survivalvalue of both thesevisionsof the human condition
is fairlyobvious. A people united by their fear and love of God have an
ever-presenthelp in timeof trouble,as Jewishhistorysurelyproves. Morale can
survive disaster, time and again; internal disputes and differencesdiminish
beneath the weightof a shared subjectionto God. The Greek ideal of freedom
under law is no less practicalin the sense thatwillingcooperation is likelyto elicit
maximal collectiveeffort,whetherin war or peace.
Interplay between these two ideals runs throughoutthe historyof Western
civilization,but this is not the place to enter into a detailed historiographical
analysis.Let me merelyremarkthatour professionalheritagefromtheliberaland
nationalisthistoriographyof the nineteenthcenturydrew mainlyon the Greek,
Herodotean model, emphasizingthe supreme value of politicalfreedomwithina
defined state.
territorially
World War I constituteda catastropheforthatliberaland nationalistvisionof
human affairs,since freedom that permittedsuch costlyand lethal combat no
longer seemed a plausible culminationof all historicexperience. Boom, bust,and
WorldWar II did nothingto clarifytheissue,and themultiplicationof subnational
historiographiessince the 1950s merelyincreased our professionalconfusion.
What about truthamidstall thisweakeningof old certainties,florescenceof new
themes,and wideningof sensibilites?What reallyand trulymatters?What should
we pay attentionto? What must we neglect?
All human groups like to be flattered.Historiansare thereforeunder perpetual
temptationto conformto expectationby portrayingthe people theywriteabout
as they wish to be. A minglingof truthand falsehood, blending historywith
ideology,results.Historiansare likelyto selectfactsto showthatwe-whoever "we"
may be-conform to our cherished principles:thatwe are free withHerodotus,
or saved with Augustine,or oppressed with Marx, as the case may be. Grubby
detailsindicatingthatthegroup fellshortof itsideals can be skatedover or omitted
entirely.The resultis mythical:the past as we want it to be, safelysimplifiedinto
a contestbetweengood guysand bad guys,"us" and "them."Most nationalhistory
and most group historyis of thiskind,though the intensityof chiaroscurovaries

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WilliamH. McNeill

greatly,and sometimesan historianturnstraitorto the group he studiesbysetting


out to unmask its pretensions.Groups strugglingtoward self-consciousnessand
groups whose accustomed statusseems threatenedare likelyto demand (and get)
vivid,simplifiedportraitsof theiradmirable virtuesand undeserved sufferings.
Groups accustomed to power and surer of theirinternalcohesion can affordto
accept more subtlymodulated portraitsof theirsuccessesand failuresin bringing
practiceinto conformitywithprinciples.
Historians respond to this sort of market by expressing varyingdegrees of
commitmentto, and detachmentfrom,the causes theychronicleand by infusing
varyingdegrees of emotionalintensityintotheirpages throughparticularchoices
rest far more on this level of the
of words. Truth, persuasiveness,intelligibility
historians'artthanon source criticism.But,as I said at thebeginning,one person's
truthis another'smyth,and the factthata group of people acceptsa givenversion
of the past does not make that versionany truerfor outsiders.
as silly,contemptibleerror.
Yet we cannot affordto rejectcollectiveself-flattery
A nationor any otherhuman group that
Mythsare, afterall, oftenself-validating.
knows how to behave in crisis situations because it has inherited a heroic
historiographicaltraditionthattellshow ancestorsresistedtheirenemies successthana group lackingsuch a tradition.
fullyis more likelyto act togethereffectively
Great Britain'sconductin 1940 showshow worldpoliticscan be redirectedbysuch
does morethanassista givengroup to survive
a heritage.Flatteringhistoriography
by affectingthe balance of power among warringpeoples, for an appropriately
idealized versionof thepastmayalso allowa group of human beingsto come closer
to livingup to itsnoblestideals. What is can move towardwhatought to be, given
collective commitmentto a flatteringself-image. The American civil rights
movementof the fiftiesand sixtiesillustratesthisphenomenon amongst us.
are of verygreatimportance.Beliefin thevirtue
These collectivemanifestations
and righteousnessof one's cause is a necessarysort of self-delusionfor human
beings, singlyand collectively.A corrosiveversionof historythatemphasizes all
the recurrentdiscrepanciesbetweenideal and realityin a given group's behavior
makesitharderformembersof thegroup in questionto actcohesivelyand in good
conscience. That sortof historyis verycostlyindeed. No group can affordit for
long.
On the other hand, mythsmay mislead disastrously.A portraitof the past that
denigratesothersand praises the ideals and practiceof a given group naivelyand
withoutrestraintcan distorta people's image of outsidersso thatforeignrelations
begin to consist of nothing but nasty surprises. Confidence in one's own high
principlesand good intentionsmaysimplyprovokeothersto resistdulyaccredited
missionariesof the true faith,whateverthatfaithmay be. Both the United States
and the Soviet Union have encountered theirshare of this sort of surprise and
disappointment ever since 1917, when Wilson and Lenin proclaimed their
respectiverecipes for curing the world's ills.*In more extreme cases, mythical,
versionsof the past may push a people towardsuicidal behavior,as
self-flattering
Hitler'slast days may remind us.
versionsof rivalgroups'
More generally,itis obviousthatmythical,self-flattering

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Mythistory

pastssimplyserveto intensify
theircapacityforconflict.Withthe recentquantum
jump in the destructivepower of weaponry,hardeningof group cohesion at the
sovereign state level clearly threatensthe survival of humanity;while, within
nationalborders,thecivicorder experiencesnew strainswhensubnationalgroups
acquire a historiographyrepletewithoppressorslivingnextdoor and, perchance,
stillenjoyingthe fruitsof past injustices.
The great historianshave alwaysresponded to these difficulties
by expanding
theirsympathiesbeyondnarrowin-groupboundaries. Herodotus setout to award
a due meed of gloryboth to Hellenes and to the barbarians; Ranke inquired into
whatreallyhappened to Protestantand Catholic,Latin and German nationsalike.
And other pioneers of our professionhave likewiseexpanded the range of their
sympathiesand sensibilitiesbeyond previouslyrecognized limitswithoutever
entirelyescaping,or even wishingto escape, fromthesortof partisanshipinvolved
in accepting the general assumptionsand beliefsof a particulartime and place.
Where to fix one's loyalties is the supreme question of human life and is
especiallyacute in a cosmopolitanage like ours when choices abound. Belonging
to a tightlyknit group makes life worthlivingby givingindividuals something
beyondtheselfto serveand to relyon forpersonalguidance,companionship,and
aid. But the strongersuch bonds, the sharperthe break withthe restof humanity.
Group solidarityis alwaysmaintained,at leastpartly,byexportingpsychicfrictions
across the frontiers,
projectinganimositiesonto an outside foe in order to enhance
collectivecohesion withinthe group itself.Indeed, somethingto fear, hate, and
attackis probablynecessaryforthe fullexpressionof human emotions;and ever
since animal predatorsceased to threaten,human beings have feared,hated, and
foughtone another.
Historians,by helping to define "us" and "them,"play a considerable part in
focusinglove and hate, the two principalcementsof collectivebehavior knownto
humanity.But mythmakingforrivalgroups has become a dangerous game in the
atomic age, and we may well ask whetherthere is any alternativeopen to us.
In principle the answer is obvious. Humanityentire possesses a commonality
whichhistoriansmay hope to understandjust as firmlyas theycan comprehend
what unites any lesser group. Instead of enhancing conflicts,as parochial
historiographyinevitablydoes, an intelligibleworld historymightbe expected to
diminish the lethalityof group encounters by cultivatinga sense of individual
identificationwith the triumphsand tribulationsof humanityas a whole. This,
indeed, strikesme as the moral dutyof the historicalprofessionin our time.We
need to develop an ecumenical history,withplentyof room for human diversity
in all its complexity.
Yet a wise historianwillnot denigrateintenseattachmentto small groups. That
is essentialto personal happiness. In all civilizedsocieties,a tangleof overlapping
social groupingslaysclaim to human loyalties.Any one person may thereforebe
expected to have multiplecommitmentsand plural public identities,up to and
includingmembershipin the human race and the wider DNA communityof life
on planet Earth. What we need to do as historiansand as human beings is to
recognize thiscomplexityand balance our loyaltiesso that no one group will be

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WilliamH. McNeill

able to command totalcommitment.Only so can we hope to make the worldsafer


for all the differenthuman groups thatnow exist and may come into existence.
The historicalprofessionhas, however,shied away froman ecumenical viewof
the human adventure.Professionalcareer patternsreward specialization;and in
all the well-troddenfields,where pervasiveconsensus on importantmattershas
already been achieved, research and innovation necessarilyconcentrate upon
minutiae. Residual faith that truth somehow resides in original documents
confirmsthis direction of our energies. An easy and commonly unexamined
corollaryis the assumptionthatworld historyis too vague and too general to be
true,thatis,accurateto thesources.Truth,accordingto thisview,is onlyattainable
on a tinyscale when the diligenthistoriansucceeds in exhausting the relevant
documentsbefore theyexhaust the historian.But as my previous remarkshave
made clear, thisdoes not strikeme as a valid view of historicalmethod. On the
contrary,I call it naive and erroneous.
All truthsare general. All truthsabstractfromthe available assortmentof data
simplyby using words,whichin theirverynature generalize so as to bringorder
flowof messagesin and messagesout thatconstitutes
to theincessantlyfluctuating
human consciousness. Total reproduction of experience is impossible and
undesirable. It would merely perpetuate the confusion we seek to escape.
Historiographythat aspires to get closer and closer to the documents-all the
documentsand nothingbut the documents-is merelymovingcloser and closer
to incoherence,chaos,and meaninglessness.That is a dead end forsure. No society
willlong support a professionthat produces arcane triviaand calls it truth.
Fortunatelyfor the profession,historians'practicehas been betterthan their
epistemology.Instead of replicatingconfusion by paraphrasing the totalityof
relevantand available documents,we have used our sources to discern,support,
and reinforcegroup identitiesat national,transnational,and subnational levels
and, once in a while,to attackor pick apart a group identityto whicha school of
revisionistshas taken a scunner.
If we can now realize that our practice already shows how truths may be
discerned at differentlevels of generalitywith equal precision simplybecause
differentpatternsemerge on differenttime-spacescales, then, perhaps, repugnance forworldhistorymightdiminishand ajuster proportionbetweenparochial
and ecumenicalhistoriography
mightbegin to emerge. It is our professionalduty
to move toward ecumenicity,however real the risks may seem to timid and
unenterprisingminds.
Witha more rigorousand reflectiveepistemology,we mightalso attaina better
historiographicalbalance betweenTruth,truths,and myth.Eternaland universal
Truth about human behavior is an unattainablegoal, however delectable as an
ideal. Truths are what historiansachieve when theybend theirminds as critically
and carefullyas theycan to the task of making their account of public affairs
credibleas wellas intelligibleto an audience thatsharesenough of theirparticular
outlook and assumptionsto accept what theysay. The resultmightbest be called
mythistory
perhaps (though I do not expect the termto catch on in professional
circles),forthe same words thatconstitutetruthforsome are, and alwayswillbe,

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Mythistory

mythf(orothers,who inheritor embrace differentassumptionsand organizing


concepts about the world.
and
This does not mean that there is no differencebetween one mythistory
another. Some clearlyare more adequate to the factsthan others.Some embrace
more timeand space and make sense of a wider varietyof human behavior than
others.And some, undoubtedly,offera less treacherousbasis forcollectiveaction
than others.I actuallybelieve thathistorians'truths,like thoseof scientists,evolve
across the generations,so thatversionsof the past acceptable today are superior
in scope, range, and accuracy to versions available in earlier times. But such
evolution is slow, and observable only on an extended time scale, owing to the
self-validatingcharacter of myth. Effectivecommon action can rest on quite
fantasticbeliefs. Credo quia absurdummay even become a criterionfor group
membership,requiringinitiatesto surrendertheircriticalfacultiesas a signof full
commitmentto the common cause. Many sects have prospered on thisprinciple
and have served theirmemberswell for many generationswhile doing so.
But faiths,absurd or not,also face a long-runtestof survivalin a world where
beings mustinteract
noteveryoneaccepts any one set of beliefsand where humnan
one another.Such
of
as
well
with
as
withexternalobjectsand nonhumanforms life,
"foreignrelations"impose limitson what any group of'people can safelybelieve
and act on, since actionsthatfailto secure expected and desired resultsare always
costlyand oftendisastrous.Beliefs thatmislead action are likelyto be amended;
too stubbornan adherence to a faiththatencourages or demands hurtfulbehavior
is likelyto lead to the disintegrationand disappearance of any group thatrefuses
to learn fromexperience.
Thus one may,as an act of faith,believethatour historiographicalmythmaking
that
and mythbreakingis bound tocumulateacrosstime,propagatingmythistories
more
human
sustaining
in-groups
often,
better
and
survival
fitexperience
allow
and to theirneighborsthanwas once
in waysthatare less destructiveto themiselves
willindeed become
the case or is the case today. If'so, ever-evolvingmythistories
the reallyimportantaspects
truerand more adequate to public life,emnphasizing
efficiently
of human encountersand omittingirrelevantbackground noise mnore
is
so thatmen and women will know how to act more wiselythan possible for us
today.
This is not a groundlesshope. Future historiansare unlikelyto leave out blacks
of the United States,and we are unlikely
and women f'romany futuremythistory
of the
fromany futuremythistory
Arnerindians
and
to exclude Asians, Africans,
world. One hundred years ago this was not so. T[he scope and range of
historiographyhas widened, and that change looks as irreversibleto me as the
widening of physicsthat occurred when Einstein'sequations proved capable of
explaining phenomena that Newton's could not.
It is far less clear whetherin wideningthe range of our sensibilitiesand taking
a broader range of phenomena intoaccount we also see deeper intothe realitywe
seek to understand.But we may.Anyonewho reads historiansof thesixteenthand
seventeenthcenturiesand those of our own time will notice a new awareness of
social process thatwe have attainied.As one who shares thatawareness, I findit

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10

WilliamH. McNeill

impossible not to believe that it representsan advance on older notions that


focused attentionexclusively,or almost exclusively,on human intentionsand
individual actions,subject only to God or to a no less inscrutableFortune,while
leaving out the social and materialcontextwithinwhich individual actions took
place simplybecause thatcontextwas assumed to be uniformand unchanging.
Still,whatseemswiseand trueto me seemsirrelevantobfuscationto others.Only
timecan settletheissue,presumablybyoutmodingmyideas and mycritics'as well.
Unalterable and eternal Truth remains like the Kingdom of Heaven, an
is whatwe actuallyhave-a usefulinstrumentfor
eschatologicalhope. Mythistory
pilotinghuman groups in theirencounterswithone anotherand withthe natural
environment.
To be a truth-seeking
mythographeris thereforea high and serious calling,for
what a group of people knowsand believes about the past channels expectations
and affectsthedecisionson whichtheirlives,theirfortunes,and theirsacred honor
all depend. Formal writtenhistoriesare not theonlyshapers of a people's notions
about thepast; but theyare sporadicallypowerful,sinceeven themostabstractand
academic historiographicalideas do trickledown to the levelof'thecommonplace,
if theyfitboth what a people want to hear and what a people need to know well
enough to be useful.
As membersof societyand sharersin the historicalprocess,historianscan only
expect to be heard iftheysaywhatthe people around themwantto hear-in some
degree. rhey can only be useful if theyalso tell the people some thingstheyare
reluctantto hear-in some degree. Pilotingbetween thisScylla and Charybdisis
the art of the serious historian,helping the group he or she addresses and
celebratesto surviveand prosperin a treacherousand changingworldbyknowing
more about itselfand others.
Academic historianshave pursued that art with extraordinaryenergy and
considerable success during the past century. May our heirs and successors
persevere and do even better!

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