The History Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained – Book Sample
Introduction – The History Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
The ultimate aim of history is human self-knowledge. In the words of 20th-century historian R. G. Collingwood: “The value of history is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.” We cannot hope to understand our lives without it.
History itself has a history. From earliest times, all societies—literate or pre-literate—told stories about their origins or their past, usually imaginative tales centering around the acts of gods and heroes. The first literate civilizations also kept records of the actions of their rulers, inscribed on clay tablets or on the walls of palaces and temples. But at first these ancient societies made no attempt at a systematic inquiry into the truth of the past; they did not differentiate between what had really happened and the events manifest in myth and legend.
Ancient historical narrative
It was the Ancient Greek writers Herodotus and Thucydides in the 5th century bce who first explored questions about the past through the collection and interpretation of evidence—the word “history,” first used by Herodotus, means “inquiry” in Greek. Herodotus’s work still contained a considerable mixture of myth, but Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War satisfies most criteria of modern historical study.
It was based on interviews with eyewitnesses of the conflict and attributed events to human agency rather than the intervention and actions of the gods.
Thucydides had invented one of the most durable forms of history: the detailed narrative of war and political conflict, diplomacy, and decision-making. The subsequent rise of Rome to dominance of the Mediterranean world encouraged historians to develop another genre of broader scope: the account of “how we got to where we are today.”
The Hellenic historian Polybius (200–118 bce) and the Roman historian Livy (59 bce–17 ce) both sought to create a narrative of the rise of Rome—a “big picture” that would help to make sense of events on a large timescale.
Although restricted to the Roman world, this was the beginning of what is sometimes called “universal history,” which attempts to describe progress from earliest origins to the present as a story with a goal, giving the past apparent purpose and direction. At the same period in China, historian Sima Qian (c.145–86 bce) was similarly tracing Chinese history over thousands of years, from the legendary Yellow Emperor (c.2697 bce) to the Han dynasty under Emperor Wu (c.109 bce).
Moral lessons – The History Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
As well as making sense of events through narratives, historians in the ancient world established the tradition of history as a source of moral lessons and reflections. The history writing of Livy or Tacitus (56–117 ce), for instance, was in part designed to examine the behavior of heroes and villains, meditating on the strengths and weaknesses in the characters of emperors and generals, providing exemplars for the virtuous to imitate or shun.
This continues to be one of the functions of history. French chronicler Jean Froissart (1337–1405) said he had written his accounts of chivalrous knights fighting in the Hundred Years’ War “so that brave men should be inspired thereby to follow such examples.” Today, historical studies of Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. perform the same function.
The “Dark Ages” – The History Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
The rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire fundamentally changed the concept of history in Europe. Historical events came to be viewed by Christians as divine providence, or the working out of God’s will. Skeptical inquiry into what actually happened was usually neglected, and accounts of miracles and martyrdoms were generally accepted as true without question.
The Muslim world, in this as in other ways, was frequently more sophisticated than Christendom in Medieval times, with the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) railing against the blind, uncritical acceptance of fanciful accounts of events that could not be verified. Neither Christian nor Muslim historians produced a work on the scale of the chronicle of Chinese history published under the Song dynasty in 1085, which recorded Chinese history spanning almost 1,400 years and filled 294 volumes.
Whatever the undoubted merits of other civilizations’ traditions of history writing, it was in Western Europe that modern historiography evolved. The Renaissance—which began in Italy in the 15th century, then spread throughout Europe lasting until the end of the 16th century in some areas—centered upon the rediscovery of the past.
Renaissance thinkers found a fertile source of inspiration in classical antiquity, in areas as diverse as architecture, philosophy, politics, and military tactics. The humanist scholars of the Renaissance period declared history one of the principal subjects in their new educational curriculum, and the antiquary became a familiar figure in elite circles, rummaging among ancient ruins and building up collections of old coins and inscriptions.
At the same time, the spread of printing made history available to a much wider audience than ever before.
By the 18th century in Europe, the methodology of history—which consisted of ascertaining facts by criticizing and comparing historical sources—had reached a fair level of sophistication. European thinkers had reached general agreement on the division of the past into three main periods: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern.
This periodization was at root a value judgment, with the Medieval period, dominated by the Church, viewed as a time of irrationality and barbarism and separating the dignified world of the ancient civilizations from the newly emerging, rational universe of modern Europe. Enlightenment philosophers wrote histories that ridiculed the follies of the past.
The Romantic spirit – The History Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
In stark contrast, the Romantic movement that swept across Europe from the late 18th century found an intrinsic value in the difference between the past and the present…
Those who cannot remember
the past are condemned to repeat it.
The Life of Reason (1905)
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