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Looking to the Past
Peter Adamson on when philosophers write history.
Being a historian of philosophy, I have a soft spot for philosophers who were also historians. I don’t mean those who wrote about the history of philosophy, though I admit it is flattering to be in the company of figures like G.W.F. Hegel and Bertrand Russell. What I mean is philosophers who wrote straightforward history, often gaining more renown for their work as historians than for their philosophy. There are many examples. Two key figures in Byzantine philosophy, Michael Psellos and Anna Komnene, are best known to modern-day Byzantinists for their historical writing. The same goes for Miskawayh, a contemporary of the great Ibn S ī n ā (Avicenna) who was not nearly as innovative or influential as him philosophically but did write a massive historical work called The Experiences of the Nations (c.1000 CE), which is still today consulted by historians of the Islamic world.
Turning to the English language, Thomas Hobbes is probably known to you as the author of a ‘social contract’ political theory designed to avoid violent conflict. But he also wrote at length about one such conflict he’d lived through, the English Civil War. Then there was David Hume. In his own day he was at least as well known for his six-volume History of England (1763) as for his philosophy. His approach to history, as we might expect from a famous skeptic and empiricist, was marked by a cautious and critical attitude towards the evidence. When common sense tells us that a claim in a historical text is intrinsically implausible (for instance the huge number of soldiers supposedly involved in ancient battles), we should dismiss the evidence as unreliable. Here we may be reminded of Hume’s statement about reports of miracles requiring exceptional evidence – and so we should be. Among the miracle reports he scoffed at were those mentioned by the ancient historian Livy.
It’s rather satisfying to see Hume’s philosophy mirrored by his work as a historian in this way. But we should ask why he and so many other philosophers wanted to write about history in the first place. One suspicion might be that if war is, as Clausewitz put it, the continuation of politics by other means, then history is the pursuit of political philosophy by other means. Since medieval historical works were written in an age where autocratic rule (or to be more polite, monarchy) was the norm, writers tend to put the personality of rulers at the center of attention. The aforementioned Byzantine historians illustrate the point well: Psellos’s Chonographia consists of a series of portraits of emperors whose individual strengths and weaknesses are closely linked to the success and failure of the state. Komnene, meanwhile, writes a history centered on the excellent character of her own father, Alexios. Similarly favorable treatment was given by Miskawayh to rulers such as ‘Adud al-Dawla, and his own patron, Abu l-Fadl. The unwritten philosophical claim in all these texts is that virtuous rulership is both the necessary and the sufficient condition for a flourishing state.
Right up to the time of the Renaissance, only a blurry line separated historical writing from so-called ‘mirrors for princes’ – works of advice for rulers. Thus the Renaissance humanist Lipsius, best known for his revival of Stoicism, wrote a pair of linked works, one on political philosophy, the Politica (1547), and one gathering examples of good rulership from which powerful readers might learn.
Or consider a more famous name from the Renaissance: Machiavelli (1469-1527). His most important works were that notorious contribution to the ‘mirrors for princes’ tradition, The Prince, and his Discourses on the histories of the Roman historian Livy. (We also have a History of Florence from Machiavelli’s own pen.)
The Prince and the Discourses were intimately related. In The Prince, Machiavelli illustrates many of his points with examples from ancient Rome. His typically cynical advice to found and then exploit colonies comes along with the observation that the Romans did very nicely out of this strategy. When he strikes the more inspiring note of encouraging the princes of his own day to seek glory, he advises them to imitate great rulers of the past. Of course they are likely to fall short of that standard, but like archers aiming too high, they will none the less reach as far as possible. Already in Machiavelli’s Discourses, though, we start to see misgivings about this personality-based approach to history as politics. Here his preference for Roman republican government becomes clear. It’s an early example of the use of history to explore successful kinds of political institution rather than to learn the individual traits of successful rulers.
This tendency is fully developed by the time we get to Hume, who is interested in large-scale structural explanations for historical change. Thus Hume explains the growth of liberty in England by pointing to the impact of wealth flowing from the so-called New World; this wealth empowered the gentry to stand up against the crown. He celebrates this shift away from despotic forms of government, regardless of the personal virtue of the ruler: “even when good Queen Elizabeth sat on the Throne, there was very little Roast Beef, and no Liberty at all.”
What a modern European philosopher-historian such as Hume had in common with his medieval forebears was the conviction that history can tell us about the present and future. The experiences of past generations reveal universal patterns, if not ironclad laws. Machiavelli assumed that whatever worked for the Romans before the birth of Christ would still work for Renaissance Italians; on these grounds, he even doubted the importance of gunpowder! No less a reader than Adam Smith praised Hume for discerning one such general rule: that with the growth of trade between nations, peace between them becomes more likely.
Whether this search for universal patterns should be the goal of the discipline that attracted Hume, Machiavelli, and the others, I can’t really say. You’d have to ask not a historian of philosophy, but a philosopher of history.
© Prof. Peter Adamson 2022
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-6, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.