John Burrow's A History of Histories.

Reading between the lines.
April 14 2008 7:29 AM

The Mirror of History

What hinders historians from discovering the strangeness of the past?

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Yet this very willingness to embrace Herodotus and Thucydides as colleagues—almost as compatriots—leads Burrow to play down one of the most important contrasts between classical and modern history writing: namely, the modern sense of the strangeness of the past. While ancient historians could certainly discern long-term changes (for instance, the decline of Roman virtue lamented by Livy), they did not see fundamental differences between patterns of thought and behavior in successive epochs. In the medieval and early modern worlds, historians and nonhistorians alike continued to collapse different epochs—think of the way that artists portrayed biblical figures in costumes of their own times (as in Pieter Bruegel's Adoration of the Magi).

The modern consciousness of historical difference began with Renaissance advances in textual analysis, which allowed scholars to see how differently classical authors had approached issues of law and custom. It grew during the 19th century, when self-proclaimed "historicists" heavily inspired by G.W.F. Hegel insisted that particular historical contexts can give radically different forms to a society's mental structures at different moments in time. More recently, historically minded post-structuralist philosophers like Michel Foucault have even argued that systems of thought in different periods can be radically incommensurable.

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Today, much of the best history-writing bears the influence of this tradition. It starts from the premise that what one society regards as normal, "natural," and "human" may strike another as arbitrary, bizarre, and perhaps even unintelligible. Intimate attitudes toward the body, sexual practices, definitions of madness and criminality—all of these things have their own, often surprisingly discontinuous, histories. A good deal of modern scholarship, for instance, has shown that modern racism, with its assumption of vast, biologically grounded differences between races, took shape over a matter of decades, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The most potent resistance to historicist ideas has come from nationalism and the belief that cultural and/or genetic continuity trumps chronological change. Few Western historians still have overt nationalist agendas, but the unquenchable public appetite for stories of past national glories (something particularly strong in the United States, as HBO's John Adams has shown yet again) pushes scholarship subtly back in this direction.

Though Burrow's Anglocentrism hardly qualifies as stridently nationalist, his vision of a "community of the dead and the living" is not one that allows much room for consideration of these issues. He acknowledges the significance of Renaissance scholarship, but flits inconsequentially over historicism, and pays more attention to the ways that 19th-century Germans professionalized the discipline than to the ideas they developed. As for the post-structuralists, he barely even mentions them, except insofar as they have contributed to the demolition of "Whig History." Throughout the book, his emphasis on the bonds among historians across time (facilitated by the Anglocentrism) keeps him from drawing significant connections between historians and the philosophy of their day.

Yet these connections, if not always obvious, are usually profound. Historians, like all practitioners of the human sciences, operate with a particular idea of what makes human beings tick—of how the mind works. You cannot really understand their writing unless you have a sense of how they understand the mind itself—in other words, their psychology and philosophy, which are things that change over time. A writer like Burrow, who sometimes seems to see Thucydides and Xenophon as modern Englishmen born by odd happenstance into ancient Greece (he refers to the latter as a member of the "Athenian gentry … a country gentleman"), is almost certain to resist sticking more than a toe into these deep waters.

Of course, those who study a canon, like nationalists, will always stress continuities across history rather than the gulfs that separate us from the past. It's a worthwhile perspective but one that can easily be taken too far. For if we fail to pay due attention to the profound and surprising ways that patterns of thought can change, our canon will all too easily end up becoming a mirror.

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