When Historians Write About the Past, Are They Nearly Always Writing About the Present?

On one level, one must agree with the statement entirely: every historian, in the act of writing, is implicitly chronicling his or her own times. In a basic sense, this can be seen in the language or dialect they use, even in the vernacular of their work. Each is connected with history, but each is still of the present, directed by the exigencies of the present day. The words themselves might also have political connotations from which they cannot be entirely dissociated. E. H. Carr, in his seminal work of historiography What is History?, provides a pertinent example:

The names by which successive French historians have described the Parisian crowds which played so prominent a role in the French Revolution ­­– le sans-cullottes, le peuple, la canaille, le bras-nus – are all, for those that know the rules of the game, manifestos of a political affiliation and of a particular interpretation.[1]

Terms which have extant political connotations can be almost impossible to avoid, and in the use of such words and phrases, we may glimpse the mind of the historian. This choice of words may be conscious or unconscious, but the impression to be gleaned from it can be entirely concrete.

Further, this influence is present in the analogies the historian might employ, or even the method of critical analysis that they might use to marshal their material. The deployment of Marxist analysis a la Christopher Hill or Eric Hobsbawm, for example, would most likely date a historical work between the mid 20th century and the millennium. Any allusions or references also will come with their own set of indicators; some analysts of the American rise to pre-eminence – especially those who see the present situation as one borne of imperial overstretch, an example being Graham Allison – are particularly keen to cite Thucydides. In this respect, and on an elemental level, all historians can be seen to write about the present. Other ways historians could be seen to write about the present include: geopolitical realities; the political biases of the historians themselves and public morality of the time in which they write; ever-present financial pressures; and personal experience, which might influence the tone in which the work is written. It could also be argued convincingly that some historians write directly and unambiguously with the present in mind.

Roman historians, such as Suetonius and Tacitus, wrote on Roman issues and about Roman men. They did so because Rome was worth writing about. Even Greeks, such as Polybius, who lived and wrote during the period of Roman control of his native land, wrote about primarily Roman actions and Roman matters. Tacitus wrote about Germania, a thoroughly foreign place; but he did not do so at great length, and his narrative is completed with a descriptive fascination which did not allow for anything other than shallow analysis.[2] Rome was seen as being worth writing about due to its pre-eminent position among nations at the time. This tendency in historical writing is echoed in the contemporary world with the relative abundance in which histories of China are now seen (especially ones which focus on that country’s coming economic dominance);[3] this could be perceived also as a shift away from a more Eurocentric nature of historical writing which dominated until recently. In this respect, it can be demonstrated that an important factor in the writing of history is the immediate reality of the political situation at the time of writing.

Political viewpoints can also inform the writing of history, sometimes with potentially distorting effects. Writers such as Niall Ferguson – as I have written before – have very strong and visible opinions relating to both the contemporary and the historical. Ferguson recently stated in an interview with The Guardian that Britain should not have fought the First World War. [4] This interview was undertaken ‘as a historian’, and this indicates a degree of political interest and involvement which cannot be entirely detached from his historical perspective. When he sits down to write about the First World War (as he did in his superb book The Pity of War, which I have reviewed at length), practical reasons dictate that he cannot entirely divorce this output from the rest of his thinking, be it political or not. For that reason any works of his – and works of other historians too – will bear the maker’s mark of a political perspective.

A historian who has been criticised for conflating his subject with contemporary politics is Andrew Roberts. Roberts’ book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, was criticised in The Economist as being ‘less a history than a giant political pamphlet larded with its author’s prejudices’.[5] It must be remembered that book reviews are also heavily influenced by the zeitgeist – and therefore hardly objective in a historical sense (and the custom of anonymity for writers in The Economist also presents something of a barrier to credibility). In this particular case, Robert’s book does bear the stamp of his politics: they suffuse the nature of his historical narrative – making the resultant work more a product of both the present and the past.

Roberts’ work can be excused this apparently grave sin on two counts: i) his book is substantial and impressive in its scope and scholarship; and ii) he is explicitly echoing and following on from Winston Churchill’s own History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which were hardly written with reticience on the behalf of the author. Such works demand character, both from the writer and the historical dramatis personae; and in any case, there are some definite redeeming factors to personal politics influencing the writing of history. In What is History?, Carr writes that the ‘19th century fetishism of facts’ at the expense of interpretation negates some important aspects of historical writing.[6] For him, designating historians as the compliers of facts alone – without the interpretation, some of which may contain political biases and interventions and original opinions – relegates historical works to mere compilers of information in the encyclopaedic style. Some supplementary politics, as it were, is acceptable in this case. Others disagree with that view. Professor Jason Peacey of University College London takes issue with Carr. When I spoke to him he suggested that Carr’s view ‘gets historians off the hook’. For Peacey, the nature of modern archival work allows the historian a degree of separation from the contemporary that is entirely without parallel. He is therefore able to avoid his own politics impacting on his writing, lessening the extent to which his work effectively reflects the contemporary.

The inherent morality of history is greatly affected by public mores in ways other than through the opinions of historians; public opinion and market pressures each play a part. If historians wrote nothing but neutral history – that which is denude of personal insight, opinion and morality – the end result in too many cases could be colourless; and that would not sell well. But the reading public can react in a less than delighted fashion to opinions expressed within historical works. An example of this occurrence is the furore which followed the publication of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Despite its sweep and elegance, his great achievement was criticised by some corners of the established church, as it was inferred that he was treating the faith with a lack of deserved reverence. His sales and reputation were so affected by this that he felt it necessary to write a rebuttal to this assertion.

Much like George Orwell, who penned a response to his critics in the second edition of Nineteen Eighty-four, Gibbon wrote that the duty of the historian was to the ‘sacred obligations of truth’.[7] (As ever with Gibbon, an opportunity to quote his exquisite prose must never be wasted. The full context of this remark is beautifully expressed: ‘Whatever subject he has chosen, whatever persons he introduces, he owes to himself, to the present age, and to posterity, a just and perfect delineation of all that may be praised, of all that may be excused, of all that may be censured. If he fails in the discharge of this important office, he partially violates the sacred obligations of truth[.]’) This echoes Ranke’s famous observation that the task of the historian is ‘simply to show how it really was’. C. P. Scott, the proprietor of the Manchester Guardian for many years, declared that ‘facts are sacred, opinion is free’. Carr simply declares of such sentiment: ’Now this clearly will not do’.[8]

As well as it being difficult for historians to attain neutrality, there appears to be little popular demand for the purely objective stance which I term ‘amoral history’. In this respect, historians’ works, whether consciously or not, are likely to reflect the morality of the time in which they lived and wrote.

There are also other pressures on the historian beside those of politics and morality. The most basic of these is the need for financial return – the need, which lurks ever-present at the back of many a writer’s consciousness, to sell books and to make money. An example of this in history is the writing of Herodotus’ Histories. Herodotus, it is theorised, wrote his magnum opus as a series of public lectures. When he would address the citizens of each separate city-state, his narrative would be adapted; new stories pertaining to this particular city would be included at each event. This process of addition, initially introduced to draw the crowds, created the overlapping narrative which characterises the finished product.[9] Historians may also be tempted to forecast the future for the same financial reasons. Paul Kennedy, in his 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, proposed a future in which the USSR and USA would decline together, being superseded by China and Japan. There is also the lure of the epigram; and there is a temptation to eschew nuance in favour of memorable, lyrical phrases with which to attract potential customers. Declarations such as Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 statement of the ‘end of history’ fall into this category.[10] The fact that such books were written, and that they sold well, demonstrates that Fukuyama and Kennedy were affected by the spirit of the age: contemporary politics led to their writing, and that writing can still inform later readers about the thinking of the time.

Herodotus’ work was shaped in another respect. He also travelled, visiting mainland Greece as well as Egypt and Babylon. The journeys he undertook and his personal experiences in foreign countries informed and shaped his writing. Similarly, personal experience can also influence the degree to which history reflects the time in which it was written. Winston Churchill’s early books are classic examples of this, as his most common theme pertained to the histories of military campaigns to which he was attached; the accounts by Julius Caesar of his own campaigns in Gaul and Spain are annexed from the same historical territory. Churchill’s early books (such as The River War and The Story of the Malakand Field Force) can be seen as autobiographical in composition – it was later said that his history of the First World War, The World Crisis, was ‘brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe’.[11] These books were also journalistic in tone and in the sources which the author employed. This furthers the argument that a historian’s work is always written about the present, in that the histories of Herodotus and Churchill were greatly affected by their own actions and travels, both of which were features of the time.

Caesar’s works can be seen in two further ways which are relevant to this question: first, in that they are books written from the perspective of one who participated in the events they contain; and second, in that they are also political documents as well as histories, which give future historians greater insight into Roman politics in the first century BC. (I have personally written about Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire.) In both of these respects, it is reasonable to state that the writings in question tell us a great deal about the time in which they were written. Caesar’s first-hand experience of the things he took for his subject about adds immediacy to his history; and it adds credence to the suggestion that his work tells more modern historians a great deal about the times in which he lived. His works especially inform us about the conventions regarding that sort of writing in his day. Caesar’s use of the third person when describing his actions could be seen as an attempt at professional distance. [12] Or, and this is perhaps more likely, the feature could be included due to his desire for self-promotion.

The tone of a work is also important in determining how much it can tell us about the present. If a book is journalistic or polemical, it is highly likely to be focussed on the present. An example of a writer of ‘journalistic history’ was Christopher Hitchens. He wrote numerous books about historical figures or events, yet these books were not strictly historical (at least if one accepts the form of writing as dictating whether a book is ‘historical’: Hitchens never footnoted, for example). His biography of Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson: Author of America), to take one work in particular, indicates his politicisation of history; he emphasised the Enlightenment aspect of Jefferson’s character, directly relating it to modern events. His history of Anglo-American relations – Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship (first published in 1990 as Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies) – too, was written from a definite political perspective – that of a supporter of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in general, and the recent Iraq War in particular. Hitchensian polemic was firmly rooted in the immediate political scene and so books such as his, while containing aspects of historical writing and research, do not escape reflecting the present; writing about history to explain the present is their only purpose. Other examples of this genre include a rash of books about ISIS, one of which – the very fine ISIS: Inside the Army of TerrorI have written about previously.

That is not to say that such writing does not have historical utility (or that Hitchens’ writing in particular is anything other than superbly argued and brilliantly written journalism). It can be stated that this sort of writing has redeeming, even historical, features. In books such as Hitchens’ output, the intended audience is emphatically not exclusive to academic historians and those of a similar bent. His writing is aimed at a far wider group of people: the general public. In this, his works – and those like them – brought historical ideas to non-professionals, those uninitiated in the customs and reading habits of professional historians; and there must be something to be said for that.

In accordance with Professor Peacey’s view, there are reasons to suggest that historians might now have the facility to write history divorced from the settings of their own times – namely, to write with virtually no peripheral interference from the present. The nature of modern scholarship can place special emphasis on detachment from one’s own surroundings; the opportunity to immerse oneself in documentation from the time in question, in archives the world over – although it allows for a partial picture – creates the possibility of writing without many of the biases of the present.

There are persuasive criticisms of that view, however. In Francis Blourin, Jr.’s work History and Memory: the Problem of the Archive, he posits that the historian can no longer occupy ‘the same space’ as his subject. In this respect, the notion of objective scholarship is to some degree discredited; historians can no longer empathise and sympathise with those about whom they writes; their ‘world’ was just too different to their own. When Carr tackles the issue of history and morality, he does so with recourse to near contemporary events. When it comes to passing judgement on Hitler or Stalin, he says, historians may feel drawn to engage in moral commentary. They do so, in his words, because

they were the contemporaries of many of us, because hundreds of thousands of those who suffered directly or indirectly from their actions are still alive, and because, precisely for these reasons, it is difficult for us to approach them as historians and to divest ourselves of other capacities which might justify us in passing judgement on their deeds[13]

He does also write, however, an implicit criticism of the same position: ‘what profit does anyone find today in denouncing the sins of Charlemagne or Caesar?’[14]

This gives strength to Blourin’s contention in a way: when a historian has no moral stake in an event, and when they do not occupy the same space, physical or chronological, as their subject, Carr says the historian can distance themselves from moral judgements. What Carr and Blourin disagree on, however, is the utility of such thoughts. Carr, with his pointed rhetorical question, appears to suggest that moral empathy is unnecessary when applied to the less than recent past. Blourin seems to disagree. But it is clear that the two interpretations can be married to some degree. One aspect which stirred Carr to write the above was the presence of moralist historians: those who made overt statements of personal feeling – itself motivated by recent history – in their works. That does not discount, it appears to me, attempting an understanding of circumstance. Carr merely wishes to avoid the cloying influence of those like Isaiah Berlin, who declares (according to Carr) ‘with great vehemence’, in one of his essays that the historian must ‘judge Charlemagne or Napoleon or Genghis Khan or Hitler or Stalin for their massacres’.[15]

It can be said that historians do not write directly about the present. It would be more accurate to say that they write for the present and that this, in turn, can tell us about the past. Through the virtual impossibility (and, to some degree, undesirability) of writing ‘amoral history’ we can learn about contemporary morals. Observing trends in publishing, we are able to analyse what topics piqued the interest of the reading public at certain times. The trends in historical writing can also reflect recent events – for example the increase in the writing of women’s history after the beginnings of modern feminism in the 1920s. In this respect, the works historians produce can become historical documents in their own right.

In conclusion, I think that a great deal of contemporary factors affect the study of the past and what is written following that study. The political landscape, or individual political beliefs, may dictate a historian’s choice of subject, while the cultural and moral customs of the time could dictate the prism through which history was seen. Literary conventions shape the form that historical writing takes, and the intentions of the author play their part. Because of all of these disparate strands, I believe that historical writings can always be used to learn about the present at the time of their composition and its reality.

[1] Carr, E. H.: What is History?, p. 28

[2] Tacitus: Complete Works, p. 709

[3] For example: When China Rules The World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order by Martin Jacques (2012) and A Short History of China: From Ancient Dynasties to Economic Powerhouse by Gordon Kerr (2013).

[4] Kennedy, Maev: “Britain entering first world war was ‘biggest error in modern history’”, The Guardian, 30 January 2014

[5] “Going out in the midday sun”, The Economist, 2 November 2006

[6] Carr, E. H.: What Is History?, p. 15

[7] Gibbon, Edward: A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p. 131

[8] Carr, E. H.: What Is History, p. 7

[9] Dewald, Carolyn: Introduction to Herodotus’ Histories, pp. x–xi

[10] Fukuyama, Francis: The End of History and the Last Man

[11] A remark attributed to Arthur Balfour.

[12] This is particularly evident throughout The Gallic War.

[13] Carr, E. H.: What is History?, p. 100

[14] Ibid.

[15] Berlin, Isaiah: Historical Inevitability. Cited in Carr, E. H.: What is History?, p. 98

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  1. Pingback: Past and Present: Writing About the Collapse of International Order | James Snell

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