The Judgment of History

The Judgment of History

The Judgment of History

The Judgment of History

Excerpt

A COMMON PROPOSAL TODAY is that history should frankly renounce its pretensions to know the past as it was, together with the claims to omniscience, and impartiality. Uncritical acceptance of the historian as a kind of overarching spectator with power to grasp the actual passage of events, to read the secrets in men's hearts, and to allot to them their just deserts, is said to have been superseded. Talk of the 'verdict' and 'lessons' of history, of 'niches' and 'Places' to be assigned in its 'eternal page' is held to be gone forever. The old notion of it as a superior court of appeal dispensing decisive praise and blame, passing sentence on men and movements, deeds and empires, is dismissed as an outworn delusion. On the contrary, histories are now said to be always partial, relative, circumscribed, incapable in any respect of finality.

Here as elsewhere scientific knowledge is held to have been the great enlightener, apprising us that chronicles are written by specific individuals situationally attached, reflecting their conditions of life and local factors. Inevitably the account written by a man of one temperament, social class, and political persuasion will not agree with the presentation of the same subject offered by a man of different background, period, and place. History must accordingly, on this view, be rewritten for every age, if not for every social group as well. From this new vantage-ground Thucydides, in presuming to make men "know the exact nature of events that once took place" and in offering . . .

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