Thursday, May 12, 2016

Apologetic History

I've noted what I think is a disturbing trend, or tendency, in modern works of history I've been reading lately (mostly regarding ancient Rome, with which I'm fascinated).  Each book I read sports a preface or introduction of on average some twenty pages in length, in which the author in tedious detail explains and justifies the approach he/she takes towards history in general and the subject of the book in particular.  This requires that many other authors, presumably of some note, be referenced and quoted.  In addition, the regrettable excesses of past historians are described.  The grave difficulties involved in analyzing ancient cultures and peoples is detailed.  A painstaking explanation of the approach adopted and support for the approach is provided.  Finally, the nearly impossible task engaged in by the author is acknowledged but nonetheless accepted in the hope of providing some insight.

I find myself longing for historical works which are not so studiedly timid and defensive.  I suppose such apologetics are deemed necessary in academic circles to circumvent criticism, and it may be that these exercises are intended only for that purpose.  Perhaps such introductory excursions are history professors writing exclusively for other, rival, history professors.

However, I suspect that they are also indicative of a realization on the part of historians that their efforts will always be considered unworthy in some sense by non-historian colleagues and intellectuals.  It's possible that the efforts of postmodernists to render dubious all efforts at obtaining or purporting to obtain anything resembling knowledge, even such knowledge as is not absolute and contingent, has had this effect--that any work which might be even thought accurate or valid must be accompanied by a kind of penance.  The creator of such a work must be seen to don a hair shirt and beat his or her breast while reciting caveats and qualifications, or at least with many a wink and nod demonstrate that he or she knows that the work cannot be "true" in any sense.

Regardless of their source or cause, these extended attempts to explain and justify are dreary and uninspired.  In fact, they discourage anyone, or at least me, from reading any further.

I personally don't read works of history believing them to be absolutely true accounts of past events, peoples, societies or cultures, and am uncertain even absent a prolonged apology that the authors of such work purport them to be such accounts.  I think it is nonetheless possible to identify and relate certain information regarding what has taken place, and to indicate what if any evidence there may be that they have taken place.  That's all I require of a history; that should, I think, be all that anyone requires.  That's indeed all that can be done. 

It strikes me as counterproductive and even poisonous to so vilify any effort at studying or analyzing the past as to make it appear that it's unworthy of consideration or in effect a waste of time to read; a mere expression of opinion necessarily tainted by all sorts of socio-cultural conditions which make it suspect.   I think that's what takes place, though, as part of the diminishment of all human endeavor which it seems is the particular object of our current intellectual class.  Perhaps it isn't all human endeavor that is mere pretense, though--only those endeavors engaged in by others, particularly those which have taken place in the unknowable past.

I wonder sometimes whether postmodernism is in its own way as insistent that humanity is as fallible and corrupt as the Catholic Church has been in the past, for different reasons.  But that should be the topic of another post.

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