To understand our past, historical context is a critical starting point. But to design the future, it cannot also be the endpoint.
People should be judged within their historical context.”
Historical Context as an Endpoint
I was speaking at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities about my book, which begins by considering the horrors generated by conquerors. My thesis begins with Hitler’s personal heroes, Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Napoléon. The person who made the above comment was a respected scholar from the Department of History there.
I had heard the same objection from other historians, and I had given some thought to the problem of historical context. So I pointed out to her that as a physician and a research biologist, I’m a scientist, not an historian. I wasn’t attempting traditional historical research, and I wasn’t interested in one particular historical period. I was interested in all of history, and I was taking a scientist’s view in order to consider consistent, repeated patterns throughout civilization.
The Conqueror & Historical Context
She was collegial, but persistent. “To understand Napoléon, we should study his times, and the forces that shaped him and pushed him toward his conquest of Europe.” I responded that the historical context provides little help here: no one forced Napoléon to do what he did. No country attacked France. Instead, without provocation, Napoléon led the French to go out and slaughter, rob, and subjugate millions of peaceful, innocent people, in order to feed Napoléon’s wealth and narcissism. She did not appear convinced, but nevertheless politely dropped the topic.
Since then I have given more thought to the problem of historical context. An important insight in my book (at right) is that Napoleon’s behavior was basically the same as all conquerors throughout history, including Alexander, Julius Caesar, and again, Hitler. If a behavior is consistent among many people, regardless of historical context, then it suggests that the historical context is secondary, or even unimportant.
And upon writing this, it occurs to me that science focuses on phenomena which exhibit great repeatability. As a pattern becomes more consistent, the topic moves into science; as a pattern become fuzzier and less consistent, it moves into the humanities. Psychology and anthropology aren’t clearly one or the other, so at some universities they are included in the sciences, at others they are housed in liberal arts, and at a few, I am told, they are part of the college of education. So again, I am looking at the problem as a scientist looking at large, repeating & predictable patterns, rather than a humanist considering the uniqueness of historical context.
Historical Context vs Moralizing
This idea of analyzing historical figures within the historical context represents a paradigm, and a recent paradigm, at that. Earlier historians were very generous in their moralizing, and in critiquing earlier figures from sensibilities that may have appeared much later.
The modern approach is to reject that approach, but for my objectives, I reject that position in turn. I am very much moralizing. I can see no other path: if we are to use history to sound warnings about modern perils, if we are to learn from the past to create a better world, then I don’t see how moralizing can be avoided. In considering the different stages and conditions of human history and comparing them to our own, we must decide: Which is the better strategy for our condition? The historical approach, or more modern ones? We must make value judgments, and moralize: some historical situations were better than others.
Consider that Vico, Voltaire, Kant, Marx, and many other philosophers and historians attempted a philosophy of history. They tried to draw moral meaning from history, and to convince us that there is an ascent to human progress. These critical approaches would not be possible if those philosophers had limited themselves to analyzing people and events solely within their historical contexts.
The Usefulness of History
Which is my overriding concern here: if we remain entirely within various historical contexts, if we cannot look across history for patterns, insights, and yes, even morals, then it seems to me that history starts to become a sterile discipline, one divorced from function. It becomes what biology was before Darwin, a gentleman’s diversion, a collection of oddities which serve little purpose beyond serving as an upper crust hobby, a shibboleth to show that one had ample time and money for distractions, and to prove one’s status & cleverness within the leisure class.
So if we were only to examine the past through historical context, then history would become of limited use to the citizen and the democracy.
Historical Context as a Starting Point
Fortunately, that is not the case. As I have thought about it, however, I would only slightly alter the historian’s opening proscription: “People should be judged by starting with their historical context.” The context should be the first step, but it should not be the last. The historical context should only be one item in the scholar’s toolbox, a lumberman’s saw for felling the facts of history.
But after that, other, finer tools must be used if we are to shape the timber into useful ideas.
Detail from Delaroche’s ‘Napoléon abdiquant à Fontainebleau‘ (“Napoléon abdicating at Fontainebleau”).