I’m a surgeon with training in critical care and trauma, so my actual reading during the current surge in COVID cases has been limited by work and fatigue. I’m slowly working my way through The Storm Before the Storm, by Mike Duncan. It’s a non-fiction telling of the events from 146 to 78 BCE during the upheavals and Civil wars that doomed the Roman Republic and led to Julius Caesar’s rise to power. The writing is creative non-fiction at its best, telling the story using many of the tools of the fiction writer while scrupulously adhering to the known historical record. It’s well researched with citations and footnotes but doesn’t read like a dry recitation of them. I’m an amateur historian and appreciate the history writer who can tell a good story while sticking to historical fact.
I have always regarded the study of history as much like the study of literature. There are real people with personalities, flaws, blind spots, and petty vanities behind the facades of “Great Men (and Women)” that our childhood history classes presented. The study of history tends to adhere to broad themes or schools. What we were likely fed in grade school and even most high school history classes is usually the Great Men, or Great Nation presentation of events. Individual people or individual nations stepped forward in turbulent or pivotal times to Make A Difference. Thus the canonization of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and both TR and FDR. Interestingly relegated to side notes in this school are guys like Hamilton and Adams, Garfield and McKinley, and virtually all of the black and indigenous people who also contributed to the national story.
Another common school is the Great Theme form of study. These historians tend to pick an overarching thematic context into which they stuff all the events and people as forwarding or impeding that, usually progressive, fulfillment of their particular theme. Thus the Marxist view of history as class struggle and economic exploitation, or the current fascination with the 1619 project, or the Lost Cause theme of the American Civil War. There is often truth in this point of view, especially when it looks at the under studied and under represented people left out of the Great Men/Nation school. But to ascribe everything to a single theme is just as limiting and just as distorted, in my opinion, as the classic Great Men study of history.
There are a number of other approaches that I won’t go into, but my belief is that history needs to be studied in the context of the times in which the events occurred. This sounds simple – like of course we’d want to study that way – but it’s not. We must understand that everyone brings their own context to the study of events in the past and it can be difficult to leave them behind. Contextual understanding begins with the understanding that what we see as history was current events to the people who lived then. No one knew how it would turn out and even the Great Men were groping in the dark when they tried to see the consequences of their actions. Further, people acted in the context of the society and times in which they lived. It is not valid to bring our values and standards into the study of events and people of even the recent past and condemn or praise based on how people followed what we deem acceptable or enlightened behavior. Indeed, unless we can see the context of the past, we can’t begin to really understand the decisions made, the opportunities gained or lost, the real motivation of the people living in that time. This way of looking at history leans heavily on original source material, economics, mundane sources like railway and ship schedules, the letters and observations of ordinary people, even the fashions and fads of the time. Only by seeing the society of the past as the equal to our own in terms of complexity of relationships, sophistication of thought, and complexity interactivity of trades, workers, managers, rich and poor, can we understand the real context of the times. There was never a ‘simpler time’ or ‘golden age’. Things have always been as chaotic and complex as they are today. The only differences are in technology and which issues occupy the concerns of the population.