Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

A Primer for Thinking and Writing About History

Anyone who has contemplated researching and writing about the past would benefit from a careful reading of Livy’s History of Rome.

In his introduction, he offers a compelling apology for studying history:

There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past, that you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid.

Though Hegel may argue the only thing humans learn from history is that they never learn from history, it seems, ironically, history has sided with Livy.

To think and write about the past is synonymous with humanism: an attempt to fulfill the human desire to know and understand our condition in the universe.

Or as William McGill, in his preface to The Columbia History of the World, explains it, history as “man’s effort to understand the universe in which he finds himself, the processes by which he evolved, and the historical context of his being.”

In other words, writing about history is essential to human flourishing.

In this short post, I want to offer a primer to writing about history by sharing three essential aspects of the work.

Due Diligence in Research Efforts

First, there is the matter of research. While there is a sense in which research is common among all academic disciplines, there is a sense in which historical research needs to be approached more cautiously, or at least more deliberately–some might say, scientifically, but I would take issue with that. (More on that, later, and in another post.)

The writer of history must conduct research that helps him locate the correct primary sources.

Then a historian has to also be aware of whether he ascertained all the important sources. If at all possible, he should work to know whether or not he is missing something significant.

Finally, sources have to be weighted, prioritized, and arranged. For example, a historian might have to make an educated decision when authoritative and credible sources seems to contradict one another.

Something like this is more common than one might think. To solve this riddle, the writer will have to spend valuable resources doing more research tracing out which reference is mistaken, and where the mistake first presents in the lineage of available sources.

Every writer of history will inevitably gain a keen sense of how inadequate research methods could easily impede an accurate recounting of a historical event.

Further, he’ll likely acquire a subsequent curiosity of how closely extant historical narratives actually approximate with reality.

Historical Causation

Next, there is the dissonant matter of causation. The essential work of the historian is to discover the real cause of things.

And wouldn’t you know it, there are myriad “philosophies of history” among writers, all purporting to explain the real reason when and why something happened as it did.

As one might intuit, this complicates the treatment of history.

While there are a plethora of approaches to consider, the most significant of these seem to boil down to whether history is caused by man’s free will or by some determinate force.

Tolstoy’s “Second Epilogue” in War and Peace is helpful in addressing this very issue. He writes,

For the solution of the question of free will or inevitability, history has this advantage over other branches of knowledge in which the question is dealt with, that for history this question does not refer to the essence of man’s free will but to its manifestation in the past and under certain conditions…History surveys a presentation of man’s life in which the union of these two contradictions has already taken place. In actual life each historic event, each human action, is very clearly and definitely understood without any sense of contradiction, although each event presents itself as partly free and partly compulsory.

Tolstoy is not here challenging something like Augustine’s theological explanation for the coexistence of man’s free agency and God’s determinant will; rather, he is asserting there is a sense in which the historian’s treatment of free will and providential determinism stands above the theological construction to afford the historian a way to explain the cause of an event while avoiding the pitfall of relinquishing human responsibility on the one side and the pitfall of infinite regress on the other.

In this way, a man’s actions, and the historical influence of those actions, can be evaluated in the immediate context of the person or event being researched without dismissing the Christian confession of God’s providential rule over history.

 Historical Consciousness

Finally, and probably most importantly, the writer of history must consider the matter of historical consciousness.

John Lukacs, in the postscript of his book, Historical Consciousness, explains the history of his book’s development as a way of explaining the book itself.

This illustrates the essence of his meaning that, “the history of anything may form a reasonable explanation” of the thing itself.

In other words, to truly understand a person or event, the historian needs to have an extensive awareness of the development of said person or event.

That is, the historian needs to understand more than just the facts surrounding the thing; he must possess an understanding of its history based on a personal consciousness of the human condition.

Thus, Lukacs can opine that historical thinking is akin to humanism.

To summarize, writing about history is rewarding, but it requires some extra diligence.

The three most important aspects of researching and writing about history are historical research efforts, historical causation, and historical consciousness.

Together these functions like a three-legged stool. Of course, history is made up of more than just the three legs; Nevertheless, it’s these three, standing in equal measure, that insure the stability and integrity of the work of the historian.

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he’ll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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