Saturday, March 08, 2008

Quotations from Tosh #2: For History's Sake

"Because its materials are necessarily partial , and the products emerging from individual minds more partial still, history always has posed and always will pose the sort of problems which give rise to dispute, acrimony, and the writing of hostile reviews. Why, at the very beginning of our science stands the prototype of all these arguments: history had barely begun when Thucydides attacked the methods and purposes of Herodotus. Debates among historians are coeval with the writings of history, and like the heresies of Christianity all the possible positions were worked out quite early, to be repeated in resounding counterpoint through ages of controversy." -- G.R. Elton, The Practice of History (1969), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 27.

"Historical writings can do harm; they have done so; and any thoughtful historian must at times ask himself whether he has a purpose beyond his own satisfaction." -- G.R. Elton, The Practice of History (1969), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 27.

"Montaigne pondered on this way of feeling, in the sixteenth century: `Is it nature, or by some error of fantasy, that the seeing of places that we know to have been, frequented or inhabited by men whose memory is esteemed or mentioned in stories doth in some sort move and stir us up as much or more than hearing their noble deeds?'" -- C.V. Wedgwood, "The Sense of the Past," (1957), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 35.

"The exact scientists are a kind of pre-Reformation clergy, and their function is to perform their miracles, to continue their Church, not to make themselves intelligible to laymen: for their control of the means of salvation and damnation makes the lay world so dependent on them that it will tolerate and subsidise them even without understanding. But the humane subjects are quite different from this. They have no direct scientific use; they owe their title to existence to the interest and comprehension of the laity; they exist primarily not for the training of professionals but for the education of laymen; and therefore if they once lose touch with the lay mind, they are rightly condemned to perish." -- H.R. Trevor-Roper, 'History: professional and lay' (1957), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 328-329.

"Lorsque, dans le silence de l’abjection, l’on n’entend plus retentir que la chane de l’esclave et la voix du dlateur; lorsque tout tremble devant le tyran, et qu’il est aussi dangereux d’encourir sa faveur que de mriter sa disgrce, l’historien parat, charg de la vengeance des peuples. [When, in the silence of abjection, one no longer hears the clanking of the chain of slavery or the voice of the informant; when everyone trembles before the tyrant, and it is as dangerous to incur his favor as to earn his displeasure, the historian appears, responsible for the people’s revenge.]" -- Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Memoires.

1 comment:

Terry said...

"Historical writings can do harm; they have done so; and any thoughtful historian must at times ask himself whether he has a purpose beyond his own satisfaction."

This makes me think of the damage done by nationalistically slanted history writing, such Hitler's passion for Germany's "lost Aryan past." The problem is currently highlighted in Serbia's claims to Kosovo, as well.

We choose to remember myths sometimes that transform themselves into "history" because more so that other areas, I believe, history without context is nothing and he who provides the context controls the message.