Sunday, May 11, 2008

Quotations from Tosh #4: Progress

"The aim of history I believe, is to understand men both as individuals and in their social relationships in time. Social embraces all of man's activities -- economic, religious, political, artistic, legal, military, scientific -- everything, indeed, that affects the life of mankind. And this, of course, is not a static study but a study of movement and change. It is not only necessary to discover, as accurately as the most sophisticated use of evidence will allow, things as they actually were, but also why they were so, and why they changed; for no human societies, not one, have ever stood still. Although we carry within ourselves and within our societies innumerable relics of the past, we have discarded, outgrown, neglected and lost far more." -- J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 50.

"But blind optimism has rarely been the fault of the perceptive historian; Voltaire and Gibbon, the greatest historians of the Enlightenment, were conscious enough of the follies, the iniquities, the stupidities of mankind. But they were sufficiently detached to qualify their pessimism and to use a balanced judgment. To them the gains made by mankind were obvious and remarkable. They still are. Any historian who is not blindly prejudiced cannot but admit that the ordinary man and woman, unless they should be caught up in a murderous field of war, are capable of securing a richer life than their ancestors. There is more food in the world, more opportunity of advancement, greater areas of liberty in ideas and in living than the world has ever known: art, music, literature can be enjoyed by tens of millions, not tens of thousands. This has been achieved not by clinging to conservative tradition or by relying on instinct or emotion, but by the application of human ingenuity, no matter what the underlying motive might be. The great extension of rationalism has been a cause and a consequence of this development. In field after field, rationalism has proved its worth. It still has vast areas left to conquer in politics and social organization which may prove beyond its capacity, owing to the aggressive instincts built so deeply into man's nature. Nevertheless, the historian must stress the success, as well as point out the failure. Here is a message of the past which is as clear, but far more true, than the message wrung from it by our ancestors. The past can be used to sanctify not authority nor morality but those qualities of the human mind which have raised us from the forest and swamp to the city, to build a qualified confidence in man's capacity to order his life and to stress the virtues of intellect, of rational behaviour. And this past is neither pagan nor Christian, it belongs to no nation and no class, it is universal; it is human in the widest sense of that term. But this past must not be too simple. Just as the Christian past stressed the complexity of the battle between good and evil, so should the historian's past dwell on the difficulties which have faced those who have fought for intellectual and moral enlightenment. Nor need we gloss their motives. The historian's duty is to reveal the complexities of human behaviour and the strangeness of events. The past which mankind needs is no longer a simple one." -- J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 53.

"And it is the duty of the historian to teach this, to proclaim it, to demonstrate it in order to give humanity some confidence in a task that will be cruel and long -- the resolution of the tensions and antipathies that exist within the human species. ... We need to teach people to think historically about social change, to alert them to the cunning of history which, as Lenin emphasized, always contains a quality of surprise." -- J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 54.

"Progress does not and cannot mean equal and simultaneous progress for all. It is significant that almost all our latter-day prophets of decline, our sceptics who see no meaning in history and assume that progress is dead, belong to that sector of the world and to that class of society which have triumphantly played a leading and predominant part in the advance of civilization for several generations. It is no consolation to them to be told that the role which their group has played in the past will now pass to others. Clearly a history which has played so scurvy a trick on them cannot be a meaningful or rational process. But, if we are to retain the hypothesis of progress, we must, I think, accept the condition of the broken line." -- E. H. Carr, What is History? (1964) cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 58.

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