a revisionist's burden

This is by H.W. Brands via LRC:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “but not to his own facts.” Samuel Butler, the nineteenth-century English author, wrote that “though God cannot alter the past, historians can.”

Whether modifying facts or opinions, historians have been fiddling with history since Herodotus proclaimed his goal of “preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.” Herodotus divorced history from Homeric myth; he consulted written sources, traveled and conducted interviews, and explained to readers what he knew and what he only inferred. But he rarely let informational accuracy get in the way of a good story, and he had a purpose beyond glorifying the past—namely demonstrating the superiority of Greek self-government to Persian despotism.

Subsequent historians followed his lead. Thucydides strove for balance in his treatment of the Peloponnesian War, or said he did; but he admitted to having made up speeches of his heroes based on “what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.” Plutarch was unabashedly moralistic, drawing lessons from the lives of the Greeks and Romans he portrayed in parallel. Julius Caesar justified his conquest of Gaul as a way of legitimating his conquest of the Roman state. The Venerable Bede infused his history of the English church with miracle stories that revealed the hand of God behind the whole development. Edward Gibbon, by contrast, blamed Christianity for undermining the Roman Empire; he concluded his magnum opus acidly: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” Karl Marx generalized generously in declaring that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Even when they aren’t motivated by politics or ideology, historians muddle what really happened. They have to: reality is too unruly to fit between the covers of one (or several) volumes. The historian picks facts the way a mountaineer finds a route across a boulder field: one fact leads to another and then another and yet another, allowing the historian to cross the ground in reasonable time. Important boulders are inevitably bypassed; rocks of lesser significance are included on the route for what they lie between.

Histories, moreover, require plots—the networks of causality that distinguish histories from mere chronicles. But causality, beyond the most trivial kind, is nearly impossible to prove. Most of us like to think we are rational, at least some of the time, and perhaps we are. But often rationality is a polite name for rationalization, and the stories we tell ourselves about our motives are simply that: stories. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature,” Benjamin Franklin observed, “since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” A. J. P. Taylor put the same point differently. “History is not another name for the past, as many people imply,” the British historian explained. “It is the name for stories about the past.”


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