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History: The Study of the Subjective and Unimportant

Ben Adams wants to humanise history.

History as it is studied today begins with the earliest civilizations which left visual and literary evidence which historians can collect, analyse and interpret. By and large, Western historians begin with the Mesopotamians, the Ancient Egyptians, and especially the Ancient Greeks (earlier cultures are usually left to archaeologists and anthropologists). These were arguably the first civilizations to produce complex texts, art and architecture to which we in the twenty-first century still have some access. The study continues through the major historical epochs, with varying degrees of overlap, from the Classical world, to our Postmodern era today. Historians study the source evidence left by the people of these periods in order to understand who, how, why and what they were. We are then taught to weave differing interpretations by other historians within our own theories and research, in order to create a balanced, informed and analytical article, book or documentary. (This is historiography.) The key areas of analysis are context-specific, and include the political, economic, religious, cultural, geographic, occasionally racial, and so on, as each directly or indirectly affects and is affected by the evidence we interpret. The prose must remain dispassionate and aim toward objectivity – removing any subjective biases or preconceptions which might emerge before and during research. This is the basic formula of a modern historical piece, and the results of this work become the main medium of historical knowledge and understanding for the general public, and for other professional historians.

This is a logical and intelligent way of deriving and communicating our theories and interpretations of the past. It is, however, too restrictive, and can paint a false picture of the past to both professional and recreational readers, by focusing too narrowly on certain events or individuals and completely ignoring other seemingly less important events, through a lack of either evidence or interest. Furthermore, to be objective in an historical essay, one must be detached from one’s study, having no emotional reaction to the evidence and maintaining a tolerance and relativity bespoke to historical context, so that the evidence will not be marred by modern preconceptions. It is for this reason that studying the more recent deplorable aspects of our past, such as the Third Reich, for example, is difficult for students and recreational readers, as objectivity in such events seems impossible. Yet the further we look back, the less likely we are to be emotionally affected by the past. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars horrified Europe and Russia for decades, because of both the erosion of traditional forms of monarchy and the millions of lives lost in the bloody battles for French hegemony. The mind-set during the Reformation, the most important and schismatic event in European history, is almost unimaginable to a modern European disillusioned with organised structures of religion.

However, absolute detachment, whether through attempted objectivity or distance of time, is both futile and a disservice to historical study. Objectivity can never be realised because we are all highly subjective, emotional, contextual beings, and what we write will always reflect this: it is what makes us human, and humanity is what we study. So to try and study the Holocaust objectively would be to remove every human aspect concerning the events – to try and detach ourselves from the suffering and genocide of over six million men, women and children, and ‘objectively’ answer the questions of how and why this occurred, is impossible. Equally, ‘detaching’ ourselves from the people and events of the French Revolution or the Reformation, we remove ourselves from the essence of why these events occurred – how they affected individuals, groups, communities, dynasties, wars, politics, religion, ad infinitum, and what these events meant to millions across Europe, whose understanding of their lives, afterlives and spiritual authorities – their entire universe – had been turned upside down forever. We cannot write about this unless we understand it, and to understand human existence is to have an emotional and intellectual attachment to it. Why do people die for some, and kill for others? Why does an untitled Rothko painting make some men and women weep, and others lambast the mess that postmodernism has made of art? We are not above emotions and irrationality – we are these things. So to write in dense, dispassionate prose on a subject as comedic, sad, spontaneous, beautiful, decrepit, selfish, and wrathful as humanity can never succeed in portraying the complexity of its many faces. An immersion in a deep understanding of humanity within its context is the only way to write and read about the past.

A Brief History of History

History as a series of events covers the lives of billions upon billions of people from every country for thousands of years. Each individual’s actions, omissions, and everyday life, from their birth until their death, whether emperor or peasant, is history, and worthy of study in its own right. We tend to see history as a grand theatre – a stage for magnificent battles, dialogues, love, deaths, torments, and victories. This view is only heightened by the modern media in historical documentaries and film-making, where grand musical themes and highly charged scenes are created for entertainment, not for accuracy. Real history can be banal, mediocre, quiet and unassuming. History (and this must never be understated) is humanity; and humanity can be unpredictable, boring, difficult and cowardly. History is not a film: there are no leading roles, and equally, no less-important extras who meander in the background. Each individual, their entire life, their loves, their passions, their sadnesses and their death, affected the people around them, would have moved them to tears, to smile, to anger. This is what we study: people and their effects on others. It should not matter whether they were queen or serf, philosopher or illiterate. The ‘utilitarian’ kind of grand history – where the important area of history to study concerns the men and women who affect the most people – is redundant. The effects of history are created by every individual in a myriad differing ways. The ‘great men’, as Tolstoy once ironically wrote of them, are not so, and we must always be prepared to ask bigger and leading questions over why and how. A quote from the ever-contentious yet shrewd A.J.P. Taylor makes the point with an example about wars:

“Wars are very much like road accidents. They have a general and a particular cause at the same time. Every road accident is caused in the last resort by the invention of the internal combustion engine … [But] the police and the courts do not weigh profound causes. They seek a specific cause for each accident – driver’s error, excessive speed, drunkenness, faulty brakes, bad road surface. So it is with wars.” A.J.P. Taylor, Origins of World War II

And so it is with historians.

The mind and free will of Homo sapiens sapiens is the internal combustion engine of history. We create the context – we are politics, religion, economics, culture – these things are not metaphysical entities in the sky, they are real, they are us. Humanity cannot properly be studied only when it’s at its most grand or interesting. Nor can we detach ourselves from the people of the past with a lofty objectivity which removes the essence of our study. To truly do the service required to the past, we, as the writers of our history, must be passionate, engaged, emotional, understanding, subjective. We must also ask and attempt to answer the larger questions of history: its causes, and its meanings for individuals. Empathy and comprehensiveness must replace objectivity and localisation; and the study of humanity must always be at the forefront of history.

© Ben Adams 2012

Ben Adams is a journalist for John Wiley & Sons Publishers and a freelance writer.

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