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  • Bruce Boyce

(Re)Framing of History


Bust of Herodotus (left) and Thucydides (right)

"For the principle and proper work of history being to instruct and to enable men, by knowledge off actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently in the future: there is not extant any other (merely human) that doth more naturally and fully perform it than this of my author."

Thomas Hobbes, introduction to a translation of Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1629.


“Studying history will sometimes make you uncomfortable.

Studying history will sometimes make you feel deeply upset.

Studying history will sometimes make you feel extremely angry.

If studying history always makes you feel proud and happy, you probably aren’t studying history.”


This meme made the rounds of social media in late 2020 into the first half of 2021. It arose from the debate around what should be included in the school history curriculum. Here in the United States, conservative critics focused on critical race theory suggesting falsely that it was being taught in K12 schools. Yet the issue was part of a broader conversation about whose history we should be teaching and how we should teach it. On one side are those who feel we need to shy away from anything that diminishes the image of America as exceptional and a divinely ordained leader of the freedoms and rights of humankind. On the other side, some wish history to be more inclusive, for it to be an honest examination of both America’s greatness and its failures. I’m not going to wade into the mud of this particular issue, but the debate relates to some fundamental questions. What is history? What is the purpose of history? Why does history matter? How should history be presented?

Livy

In some ways, the conservative argument about history echoes those of classical antiquity. We study men like Washington or Jefferson because they embody American virtues (or at least what people chose to define as American virtues). This is the history that matters. Anything else is superfluous and tangential. The Roman historian Livy perhaps exemplifies the attitude of classical authors. History was a blend of nostalgia and moral philosophy. The present times were always a period of decline, and the past was a glorious model to emulate. In his History of Rome, Livy gives his attention to individuals' virtues and values, to moral and political questions. He espouses law and order, piety, and discipline. These are the qualities Livy celebrates as those that allowed Rome to rise to greatness. At the same time, he laments the lack of these same values in his contemporaries. He lays this out right at the beginning. In the historical record, “you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” Like Herodotus and Thucydides, Livy conceives of history as being cyclical. Events turn on the wheels of fortune and fate and depend on the whims of unappeased deities.


The writing of history was implicitly connected to the art of rhetoric. Many authors intended their works to be read, and therefore they employed the techniques used by orators. The rhetorical principles of Cicero, as outlined in his work On Oratory, became the gold standard in the writing of history. Speeches by vital historical figures were centerpieces of many classical histories. In the late Roman period, writing styles vacillated between pretentious and restrained. Literary methods were essential for historians who wished to transform the past into something useful. The goal was to create a readable narrative and a meaningful analysis to support an argument. There was little attempt at objectivity despite protestations by every author to adhere to the “truth.”

Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (British Library)

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, the historical tradition in Western Europe during the Medieval period took two forms. There were the chronicles. These were listings of events. They were straightforward, with minimal commentary or analysis. The other tradition was to understand the passage of history in terms of theology. Historical writing was framed within the context of Christian thought. History, like many other of life’s endeavors, was meant to illuminate the divine within the world.


Many Ancient Greek and Roman authors were lost or forgotten in Europe during the Early Medieval period. The gradual rediscovery of the works of antiquity brought about a shift in the intellectual climate beginning in the 13th century. A new intellectual movement centered in Italy arose called humanism. Humanists stressed the importance of the individual rather than the divine. They looked for rational solutions to human problems. They believed that these solutions were to be found in classical texts. Early humanists, such as Francesco Petrarch in the early 14th century, considered the Medieval period an age of decline and sought to revive the intellectualism of the classical world. They viewed Ancient Rome as the ideal intellectual tradition and culture worthy of emulation. The humanistic approach would influence many aspects of Renaissance thought and culture, from the arts to politics to religion.

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Within the context of humanism, the purpose of history would shift from the theological and the divine back toward classical models with an emphasis on ethical and moral questions. Petrarch would describe history as “political and moral instruction.” By the start of the 16th century, two approaches to historical writing coexisted. The Medieval tradition of chronicles continued throughout the Renaissance. But they differed from their Medieval predecessors by moving away from allusions to the divine or supernatural. These chronicles were meant to preserve the memory of political and cultural contemporary events. They used vivid language and imagery within the vernacular of the period. Counter to this was the humanist approach. These were histories that were organized and linear in their narrative, and they were structured around classical rhetorical devices. They used Livy and Thucydides as their models and focused on politics and warfare. The purpose of history was to illuminate moral and political lessons. These two approaches would be synthesized in the works of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540). This synthesis would lay the foundation of modern historical thought.


The French invasion of Italy in 1494 over the succession to the throne of the Kingdom of Naples became a seminal event in the collective psyche of Italians. To contemporaries writing in the early years of the 1500s, the invasion marked the destruction of Italy as the cultural and intellectual heart of Europe. The glory days of the Renaissance were gone. Both Machiavelli and Guicciardini had witnessed these events firsthand, and both men served in government positions in Florence during this period. In Guicciardini’s own words, “the French invasion, like a sudden storm, turned everything topsy-turvy.”

Niccolo Machiavelli

Of the two men, Machiavelli is the most familiar to us. He is widely known for being the author of The Prince, a political guidebook for rulers of a nation-state. Unfortunately, he has been vilified for proposing the concept that “the ends justify the means.” Hence the term Machiavellian describes ruthless, amoral behaviors. Machiavelli never wrote those exact words, and a close reading of The Prince makes Machiavelli’s position more complex. As a student of history, he more than likely was suggesting that people tend to remember the great achievements, not necessarily how those achievements were reached. Machiavelli appreciated the value of history and understood its importance to the running of a state. He lays it out succinctly in The Prince: “As to exercise for the mind, the prince ought to read history and study the actions of eminent men, see how they acted in warfare, examine the causes of their victories and defeats in order to imitate the former and avoid the latter.” If this sounds like it echoes Livy’s words at the beginning of the History of Rome, it is not by coincidence. Every other field of learning, such as law and medicine, had been revived by classical scholarship. Why shouldn’t politics, Machiavelli argued, benefit from studying history? In the Discourses on Livy, he sought insight into human nature and political power. He compared his contemporary times with the Roman experience, Roman virtues, and Roman government. In the spirit of Thucydides, history was not just finding out about the past; history was essential in crafting rational policy.

Francesco Guicciardini

Guicciardini is not as well known as Machiavelli. Part of this was because much of Guicciardini’s work was not published until after his death. With Machiavelli, Guicciardini shared similar experiences and attitudes about the value of history. More so than Machiavelli, he saw the invasion of 1494 as a critical turning point and used it as the starting point of his History of Italy. Like earlier historians, he wedded his analysis of events to political reflection. He agreed that lessons could be learned from history, and there was a cyclical nature to history. Still, he was more pessimistic than Machiavelli, believing humans were too unpredictable in their nature. Therefore history could not be used to foresee the future. He was critical of his fellow Florentine, feeling Machiavelli oversimplified history and overused the analogy between Rome and Florence. Guicciardini concentrated on the particulars of history rather than the broad themes. And this is where he begins to differentiate himself from the humanist and chronicle traditions. In his works, he focused acutely on the character and motivations of individuals. He detailed their background, family and political ties, their temperament. History was understood on the individual level. In his research, Guicciardini utilized various sources: personal accounts, humanist histories, chronicles, and official government records. Yet he moved closer to the modern critical evaluation of source material. He employs the rhetorical stylings of the humanist and classical authors but provides a richness of detail. As a result, he crafted a complex yet concrete account of Italian politics in the first decades of the 16th century. The History of Italy bridges the older historical traditions and the more rational, science-based modern approaches to studying history. In terms of historiography, whereas Herodotus is considered the “Father of History,” Guicciardini is considered by many to be the “father of modern history.”


Today we still debate the meaning of history and its value. This debate has spilled out into our political discourse. Still, studies have shown a significant disconnect between how the public views history and how professional historians view their discipline. The general public sees history as discrete facts and that the goal of history, like science, is to achieve an absolute truth. Because of this, any perception of changing the “facts” about history is met with resistance. There is little understanding that history is about interpretation and analysis. And what is the purpose? Is history a hobby? A way of thinking? About great men doing great things? Is it a means to inform the present? Is it all these things? Recently the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit think tank, and the American Association of State and Local History published a report entitled “Making History Matter: From Abstract Truth to Critical Engagement.” The report was the summation of evidence-based research and outlined how historians, especially those who engage with the public, can re-frame the conversation over what history is and its value or purpose. First, emphasize that history is about critical thinking, not absolute truths. Second, engage in concrete and locally specific ways. And lastly, the purpose of history is not only to learn about the past but learn so we can move forward toward a more just society.


With this essay, I have hit a milestone. This is my 100th essay for this blog. My very first post is entitled “Damn it, Jim! I’m a historian, not a fortune teller.” Here I have come full circle again to explore the meaning of the historical process, historical thinking, and its value in creating a better understanding of where we have been to enlighten us on where we might be heading.

 

Further Reading

Faces of History Historical Inquiry From Herodotus to Herder Donald R. Kelley

History Why it Matters: Lynn Hunt


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