The Doubter’s Companion: History

“History: A seamless web linking past, present and future.

Contemporary Western society attempts to limit history to the past, as if it were the refuse of civilization. Individuals who hold power tend to see history only as mythology which can be manipulated to distract the citizenry, but is not useful in itself.

Among the different humanist areas of, history has nevertheless survived best the pseudo-scientific reduction of non-scientific learning to theoretically objective standards. The other cornerstones of humanism—literature and philosophy—have been severely damaged by the drive to quantify and objectify everything in sight. Intellectual accounting is not a synonym for thinking. Driven by this vain search for objectivity, literature and philosophy have come to resemble the obscure and controlling scholasticism of the Middle Ages.

If the historical approach has been able to resist these trends, it may be because power structures require a comforting background of mythology and mythology requires a sweep of civilization. Thus, history is welcome as a superficial generalization viewed at a hazy distance.

Our technocracy is frightened by the idea that ideas and events could be part of a large flow and therefore less controllable than expertise would like to suggest. For them, history is a conservative force which blocks the way to change and to new answers. In reality, history only becomes an active force when individuals deform it into a weapon for public manipulation. By that process it ceases to be history.

The twentieth century has been dominated by a catastrophic explosion of ideologies of which communism and fascism have been the most spectacular. Neo-conservatism is a recent minor example. The fleeting success of these ideologies has been made possible in part by the denial of history—or rather, by freezing history into narrow bands of logic, the sole purpose of which is to justify a specific ideology.

This does not mean that history becomes a beacon of truth when it is separated from ideology. History is not about truth but about continuity, and not about a limited dialectic but about an unlimited movement. To the extent that ethics remain in the foreground, history cannot be grossly deformed. The ethics which Western civilization has attempted to push forward for two and a half millennia are scarcely a secret. If anything, they have remained painfully obvious as one set of power structures after another has sought to marginalize or manipulate them. It is in this context that ideology most typically seeks to fix our attention on a single, conclusive pattern which can be presented as inevitable and which therefore carries a deformation of ethics.

These destructive experiences illustrate the value of history as a guarantor of both stability and change. It is neither a conservative nor a revolutionary force. Instead, history is a constant memory and its value lies in our ability to make it a highly conscious part of our lives. In an age which presents abstract analysis—a method that denies continuity and memory—as the sole respectable method of exercising power, history is perhaps the sole intact linear means of thought.”

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

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