History, Right Or Wrong , Part 4 to blupete's Essay
"An Essay on History"
"For in all historical inquiries we are dealing with facts which themselves come within the control of human will and human caprice, and the evidence for which depends on the trustworthiness of human informants, who may either purposely deceive or unwittingly mislead. A man may lie; he may err." (Freeman, "Race and Language.")A further reason is that, as every lawyer would know, people tend, all too readily, to accept hearsay.
"Men accept one another's reports of past events ... So impatient of labour are most men in the search for truth, and so prone to jump to ready-made conclusions." (Thucydides.)At any rate, if one subscribes to the skeptical school, all knowledge is but a belief, an opinion, a theory. And while it is so that nothing is for sure, we must, nonetheless, proceed at some point to classify certain of our theories as knowledge. What happens, in real science, in real life, is that we build on our "knowledge" which, in the final analyses, is but a mass of theories that have been held up and exposed to testing, unabated over long periods of time; and, because these theories have never been falsified (as apposed to being proven right, which, in the nature of things, cannot be done) they become part of our store of human knowledge.7 (I should say, in passing, that we are obliged to continue to hold up and expose to testing even our most used and trusted knowledge; the plain fact is that there is not a thing we can take for sure, though our collective experience will show that some things are more sure than others.)8
The history book that you have determined to spend your precious time to read, might, just be a re-write of a re-write. A history writer is bound to go back and in his research and dig out, if they exist, the original documents. On the other hand, contemporary history writers, while fresh to the facts, are often influenced by contemporary pressures.9 A researcher, therefore, is equally bound to come ahead in time and read the historic accounts of related matters; and then, finally, to put the whole matter fully in a historical perspective. Thus, a history may therefore be wrong because it is based, either on the biases of the contemporary writers, or on the inadequate or absent records used by future writers, or simply because it is an inadequate or an improper mix of events. So, as one can see, the writing of history for a conscientious person, becomes, indeed, a most difficult task, one of synchronizing and synthesizing many different accounts of the same and related events.
Whether historians transmit erroneous accounts, or not, is separate from that which people believe to be history. Peoples' perception of history is often wrong because they have accepted fictional accounts (often plainly represented as such) as being the gospel truth. Whatever they get out of a popular paperback, or at the movies, or out of the TV: is, for them, the way it is. The stories of many historical figures are wrong, often embellished stories to be sold. Most people today will readily tell you that Kennedy was killed by an army of sharp shooters taken from the ranks of the CIA, all because a film maker by the name of Stone did not either know of the historical facts, or did not care for them. This kind of thing has been going on for a long time, for instance, Shakespeare, gave a false depiction of Caesar as "a pompous, posturing old gentleman without an idea in his head, who for some obscure reason had managed to become the uncrowned king of Rome ..." And the reading of the autobiographies of historical personages, while interesting, may not necessarily give an accurate picture of historical events: memoirs especially need critical reading. Not only have we to bear in mind the proclivity of most memoir-writers to speak well of their friends and ill of their enemies; so too, we must remember that memoir-writers are a select class (not one of the "Dumb Millions," but one of the speaking thousands).
Then, there are history writers "the most learned, the most accurate in details, and the soundest in tendency, [who] frequently fall into a habit which can neither be cured nor pardoned the habit of making history into the proof of their theories."10 One can see that Macaulay was of the same view as Lord Acton when he observed that even the best historians "have fallen into the error of distorting facts to suit general principles."11 Then there are those historians who were too sentimental and emotional and should have kept their hands out of history altogether. It is not well for historians to be become too impassioned about their historical subjects. Feeling for their subject is important, but it is essential that they should have knowledge of it. "We prefer history to be written by those who know -- if they feel too, so much the better; but the more knowledge they have, the better chance they have of being read." (Birrell.) It maybe, in the final analysis, that a person with some legal training, or, at least, acquainted the rules of evidence is the type of person who would make the best historian: Macaulay thought so.
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