The Virtue of History

Commentary on Tosh’s Pursuit of History, chapter 2

With the study of history naturally comes the question of the virtue of history, a question which is critically connected to the method in which we not only write history but also perceive the past. Two systems which seek to provide a utility of history are metahistory and the rejection of history. As we will observe, neither of these perspectives do service to the task of explaining the true complexities of the past and how they relate to the present.

A metahistorical approach seeks to impose an ideological lattice on the entire past in order to explain the present and future; it proposes that what we must study history in order to discover our destiny. Rather than reporting indifferently on the ancient past metahistories tend to include logic of cause often stemming from cultural and philosophical maxims. These latter maxims apply, at least to the proponents of the metahistorical account, to all of history and are the basis of why history has unfolded, and will continue to unfold, as it has. Essentially metahistories are tasked with answering the question of why does history unfold, why do nations go to war and why do human beings seek to fulfill desires; what is the cause of change.

The Sumerians, for example, believed that as the cursed blood of Kingu, they were tasked with pleasing the gods by laboring in their stead as beasts and burden[i][ii], and so perceived the disasters and wars of the past (and indeed their current predicament) as punishment from on high. These people would have looked to the future as one of labor to the gods, a capricious lot that would strike them with flooding and locusts if they failed to work hard enough to satisfy them.

To the south west in 609 BCE the Egyptians would slaughter Josiah, the king of Judah, at Megiddo in what is now northern Israel. Within a generation Judah was destroyed, Jerusalem’s temple and palace was leveled and its people became exiles, profoundly influencing the content of the Old Testament and inspiring its authors to reconsider the pattern of history. Confronted with having to explain the suffering inflicted upon them and the apparent abandonment of God in the stewardship of the people, the biblical authors through an 7th century BCE addendum in the book of Isaiah charged the people with enduring the “sin of the nations” (idol worship) in order to bring them into the grace of God, that their suffering and rejection would be relieved through a new Eden brought about in the end of days by virtue of a Messiah[iii]. This view of history explains the past suffering of the Jewish people as voluntary cosmopolitan atonement rather than as simply a symptom of being conquered by foreign invaders. This notion of atonement for the sin of all nations would come to serve as a metahistory to explain both Jewish origins as well as the role of a Jewish people in the future to come, enduring the ridicule and rejection of others in order to bring about the return of the Messiah.

Yet it is not only religion and mysticism which tends to view the past metahistorically. Historical materialism for example proposes that history can be studied in terms of economic production, with all societies evolving toward a system in which the needs and desires of the people would be abundantly and justly provided. Proponents of such a perspective hold that societies which are enslaved by capital and profit will eventually adopt a “higher” form of production which caters indifferently to all citizens on the basis of needs rather than social prestige and rank. For Karl Marx, the originator of such thought, capitalism was a barbaric economy which awarded the members of a society not for their merits but for their deceptions and led to dysfunction and inhumanity in a culture. Through a series of implosions and self-liberating action by the working class, Marx believed that such an inequitable system could be abolished and be replaced by a just one of equal economic distribution. Following this line of logic, all the suffering and failure of the past age could be attributed to a lack of communistic government while we could expect the future to fail if it did not adopt a communistic system.

Contrasting these metahistorical views is the rejection of history as being relevant, the notion that there are neither patterns in the past or in the future to come. Proponents of this perception have either adopted it as a defense against the sort of demagoguery which enabled the autocrats of the 20th century to rise to power spouting racial metahistories and capitalistic oppression, or as a means of highlighting the virtue of modernity. This latter proposition holds that clinging to the past only inhibits the human potential of the present and deludes us into believing that we live in a cycle of past experience. In this sense knowledge of history is said to only to contribute to degeneration rather than progress in a society as we become absorbed in delusions of recreating a grand age that never was.

In truth neither metahistorical analysis nor rejection of history may be a proper way to judge the use and virtue of history. History’s value is in itself and it is not the domain of the study to define how it is to be applied to a country or philosophy but rather it is the domain of the individual. Just as science stands on its own without need of commentary so should the study of the past: history should serve as an indifferent report on what once was, without call for moral judgment. While we can look to the past and observe the errors of our ancestors we cannot assume that current conditions are identical enough to warrant a metahistory, nor can we reject them outright as to claim they are of no influence. We must instead contend that the past may influence the present but does not define the present and that the burdens of the past era may be righted by the will of those in the current era; we are not shackled to some preordained story which has yet to unfold but instead create our own destiny by virtue of free will, a will influenced by the record of the past as submitted to us by our parents and community. As historians we can seer through mere opinion and instead observe the state of things inherent by carefully scrutinizing what is actually known, evidenced and submitted rather than being seduced by ideological schematics or the obediently cynical outrage of modernists.


[i] Sumerians. Washington State University World Civilizations. http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/SUMER.HTM

[ii] Sumerian Religion. Minnesota State University Mankato. http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/middle_east/sumer_religion.html

[iii] Who Wrote the Bible?. First broadcast 25 December 2004 by Channel 4. Directed by Polly Morland and written by Robert Beckford.