Saturday, 29 November 2008

An Apology for the Human Person in History

I have, of late, been reading H.G. Wells' The Outline of History, which was kindly loaned to me by a dear friend. In covering the annals of ancient Mesopotamia, I was struck particularly by the following passage:

"The story of the Tigris and Euphrates civilizations, of which thus far we have given only the bare outline, is a story of conquest following after conquest, and each conquest replaces old rulers and ruling classes by new: races like the Sumerian and the Elamite are swallowed up, their languages vanish, they interbreed and are lost; the Assyrian melts away into Chaldean and Syrian, the Hittites lose distinction, the Semites who swallowed up the Sumerians give place to rulers of these new Aryan tribes from the north. Medes and Persians appear in the place of the Elamites and the (Aryan) Persian language dominates the empire until the Aryan Greek ousts it from official life.

"Meanwhile the plough does its work year by year, the harvests are gathered, the builders build as they are told, the tradesmen work and acquire fresh devices; the knowledge of writing spreads; novel things, the horse and wheeled vehicles and iron, are introduced and become part of the permanent inheritance of mankind; the volume of trade upon sea and desert increases, men's ideas widen and knowledge grows." (H.G. Wells,
The Outline of History, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), pp. 143-144.)

These paragraphs put me in mind of much which I had heard during my undergraduate studies. For most of human history, great lords and priests have been the historian's focus. In large part, the everyday affairs of the lower classes were left out of the annals, simply because they weren't viewed as critical. In a very Nietzschean fashion, they were simply the substratum whose labour made possible the great and worthy achievements of more important people. Starting on a large scale in the 1960s, this changed profoundly. American and European academia were heavily infiltrated by Marxism, and a sudden upsurge of interest in 'everyday' people seized history faculties throughout the Western world. From this arose such disciplines as "social history", which eschews the "great man" theory, and focuses on wide social analysis of the mode of life of ordinary folks in past civilizations. Political history entered a marked decline.

Wells originally authored The Outline of History in the space between the wars, but the passage I have quoted could, in many ways, be read as a forerunner of that change. (It is worth remembering in this context that Wells was an avowed socialist--indeed, he was a member of the Fabian Society.) It seems to imply, as university professors have tended to do for the past fifty years, that the works of rulers are, in some sense, superficial. They gloss back and forth over the surface, depositing a thin veneer of history on a much more substantial layer of everyday activity. For Wells, as for the later Marxist historians, it is in the economic and familial affairs of the peasant that we will find the clues to the real forward march of the human race.

I have no wish to challenge the assertion that the study of the lives of ordinary people is essential if we are to create a reasonably holistic vision of our past. I do, however, wish to contest the thinly veiled notion underlying much of this work. The fact that an event persists for only a short time, or is undone shortly thereafter, should have no impact on our understanding of its cosmic significance. If it does, we have fallen prey to the sort of mass-importance reasoning against which Kierkegaard tried so hard to warn us. We seem to believe that because something is bigger, in the number of people affected or the duration of the effect (which are, for obvious reasons, intimately related), it should be accorded more significance. We regard the transient comings and goings of princes and prelates with a snobbish derision, certain that we are now sufficiently enlightened to see through their pomp and circumstance to the really important people. The fact is, the evanescent joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats, of any little Sumerian prince from long forgotten ages, are no less significant from the standpoint of our humanity than the greatest grassroots changes to societies.

We, of all the generations who have ever lived, are uniquely positioned to appreciate this fact, because we alone enjoy the perspective of a four-dimensional understanding of unified space-time. In this way, it is easy to see that it is no more sensible to regard one petty noble's achievements as being less noteworthy for having only occupied a year's time, than it is to view the glories of Persian civilization as less noteworthy for having only occupied the territory of Persia. If we can conceive of time as an extension of space, we might imagine that, for that little lord's brief victory, there is always a 'place' in the annals of the world where, no matter how briefly, a human person triumphs. As historians, what could be more important to us than that?

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