What really matters?

Is what matters about history the narration of the events that came before or the interpretation of the events? Are the events themselves, or the historians’ perception thereof, more significant than the analysis of how the causes? Are there historical events with a deeper truth that are more valuable than those without? Is the true value of history the series of stories that may be used to provide solid basis for analytical arguments? How much about history is sequencing and descriptions, and how much is nothing more than an exercise in self-discovery?

Whether consciously or not, these are all questions that must be addressed by a historian at some point or another and even more so by a would-be history teacher. Sciences tend to be about facts, statistics, proofs; history has no such luxury. There is no such thing as truly unbiased source information, be it modern or historical. Historical research is a journey into the human condition, biases and perceptions, as much as it is a journey into the story of what came before. Successive generations of historians seek to surpass their predecessors in point of style or in revealing new inner truths, to paraphrase Livy. Most often these author’s merely bring to light a new or, at most a slightly varied, perspective. Whether this validates the acclaim (or lack thereof), accorded to them is another matter entirely.

This point about perspective can be seen clearly in a brief review of two famous scholars and their work: the late N.G.L. Hammond, and Victor Davis Hanson. In his time, the former was the best known scholar of Macedonian and Illyrian history, concentrating on the time before and after Alexander III (the Great). To read his obituary is to discover a man who threw himself completely into the pursuit of ancient Macedonia. As a senior at Brandeis University, I found myself sputtering at what I wryly derided as the prattling of a dead Englishman. I wanted to throttle, argue and prove him wrong all at once. In time that feeling subsided and I was able to laugh at the presumptiveness of this upstart college student, full of himself and still sophomoric, despite two years’ removal. Later, I found renewed respect for this esteemed scholar, but I was no less convinced that his conclusions were wrong. This is an argument that will never be resolved; he is incapable of providing me with any more counterexamples or clarifying his argument; likewise, I am unable to elucidate my argument to him. However, I am able to use his work and perspective as a foundation for my own analysis.

Victor Davis Hanson is best known for his theory about the Western Way of War, which, simply put, is that “the West” prefers to settle conflicts and disputes with a decisive conflict or battle that is often horrifying. In contrast, “the East” prefers a prolonged conflict with light-armed troops, one that is less likely to provide a decisive victory, but will also prevent catastrophic loss. I would not call his views on this and other matters scripture, but I tend to agree with most of what Professor Hanson argues. In the grand conflict between East and West, as is the setting for the history of Herodotus, scholars may point to other fundamental differences or claim that Hanson’s is nonsensical, but their argument is as indicative of their perspectives as is Hanson’s. Neither One is not more valid than another. Once a perspective exists, the only barometer of validity is the ability to persuade; the ability to persuade resides in argumentation.

Alexander is the perfect example of this challenge of validity. At times it seems as though everyone under the sun has written a book on the greatest and worst of humans, and, invariably, entitled it “Alexander the Great.” Many of these are “whodunits” built around the claim that the author has discovered who really killed Alexander. Two of the more recent books claim that either Ptolemy or Roxane killed him and offer “definitive” proof that the cause of death was poison based on the symptoms. Neither of these books is persuasive, in large part because of the unreliability of the sources to the required degree of detail, and Alexander’s death will forever remain one of the world’s great mysteries, because of the dearth of evidence. If, on the other hand, someone were able to provide evidence and afterwards argue their theory, then it would gain validity and come into vogue.

My own thoughts on the subject of Alexander’s death not withstanding, for merit is these core philosophical truths about history that move it from the beyond the simple memorization of names and dates and into the realm of higher learning. To embrace the fundamental concepts of discourse, research, analytical thought, the written word and to connect it to the personal—and the more general human—story, is to embrace history. To embrace history is to embrace not only the stories, the events and the dates, but also the nature of people and the beauty of language. Whether an idle pastime or a vocation, history transcends names and dates of the simple timeline and the arbitrary boundaries of subjects; history is universal and should be taught as such instead of tedious memorization.

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