I’m going to miss school a bit this time, which makes the first time in my entire public-school career. But there’s only one class I’ll really be missing — the rest is the occasional friend, and orchestra nights. It’s a Tuesday and not only am I not in class right now (by the time this is posted, after noon, that would be a moot point anyway), there’s no rehearsal tonight, and no chance of us having dinner with any of our usual crowd.
Historiography was my favourite, and no surprise: it doesn’t get much better than looking at the philosophy of writing history through reading primary sources.
We started off reading the first few chapters of Joshua, which the professor said he’d call a theological history — but does that make it any less reliable? No. (I knew already that I’d like him.)
We read Herodotus, who’s variously known either as the Father of History or the Father of Lies, depending on the view the speaker takes of his telling tales about heroes (it’s right in his name!). He writes an epic, but his methods of research might be questionable, and he freely and cheerfully admits that he’s not sure about the truth of all the stories he tells, but this one is a good story, even if it doesn’t tie in to the plot as closely as it might, so why not go down this fun rabbit-trail?
Then we read Thucydides, who sounds like a Calontir victory song, and says at the outset he’s not going to write about heroes, because they don’t exist, and incidentally the story he’s going to tell about the Peloponnesian War is going to present a shocking view of your childhood heroes, but it’s all researched very carefully and you can be sure he’s got his facts down right. Life in general is depressing, and especially the historian’s job, as the point of studying history is to learn from past mistakes in order not to repeat them, but from studying the past we learn that people very likely will repeat their mistakes anyway, so it’s doubtful that anything will do any good.
One of the students liked him the best, and said, when it came down to a choice between him and Augustine, that he’d take Thucydides because he had a realistic view of man’s shortcomings causing his fall. I asked whether Augustine gave the impression of not being realistic about man’s shortcomings causing his Fall, and the professor said “All I’ve got to say is, if I’m ever on the ledge sometime, I’m not calling him to get me down off it. ‘Oh, sure, well, considering your shortcomings you’re probably not going to get any better, so you might as well just let go’.”
We read some Tacitus, whose view of history seems to have been something like anthropology.
We read some of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (just the early part), and Bede. The latter is actually quite triumphant — he may have had some influence from the writing of Augustine of Hippo — about the Gospel spreading even to his out-of-the-way corner of the Empire. Also he includes a story about Gregory the Great and the Angles even though he says he’s not sure how accurate it is, but it’s a good story, and besides, it’s got puns in it (Angles-angels not being the only one).
We read Augustine (of Hippo, not Canterbury), who tears to bits with wit and skill the position of evolutionists centuries before anyone posited the theory of evolution, and who says that as the Cross cannot be repeated, nothing in history can be repeated: history has a beginning, a middle, and is going on to a glorious end. It’s an essentially Christian view of history and much more cheerful than, say, Thucydides, moaning about a neverending cycle of people repeating their former misdeeds. The bit we read was Book XII of The City of God, which I’d like to read more of this holiday, but we shall see. I like Augustine, anyway.
We read the first few pages of Ibn Khaldun’s three-volume introduction to his history, one which he unfortunately never wrote. He came from about the same area as St Augustine, but in the fourteenth century, and the resemblance stops there. He was very scientific and thought things went in cycles, though that at some point things would end.
Hegel was a bit of a thick read, partly because, as the teacher said, the translation was written in German with English words.
Marx swore till he was Red in the face that he had nothing to do with Hegel, but he had more similarities than he thought, only he went about his history very sloppily, and came to the wrong conclusions, and was generally a touch irrational about everything. . . I’m trying to be generous and think of something he got right, but nothing comes to mind.
Nietzsche had some good things to say about not getting stuck in sentimentality and dwelling too much in history, because he thinks the purpose of history is to serve life. He was also a bit funny in spots, and of the three Germans the easiest to read. He disagreed with the idea which he saw the historians of his time espousing, “Fiat veritas, pereat vita” — to which I reply, Veritas liberabit vos (also thank you, Pendragon’s Heir), because where the truth is, life won’t perish. What the men of science were thinking was truth must not have been.
At the end of the last class the professor asked us if we noticed that he hadn’t had us read any feminist historians, and we all kind of woke up and noticed that, no, he hadn’t. “I’d get some grief from my colleagues for doing it, sometimes,” he said. “I suppose, if you held a gun to my head — and some of them might — I’d have to say, the idea of history being a constant struggle between oppressors and oppressed? and now the oppressed have to rise up and overthrow their oppressors and make a new society without any differences? It all boils down, in the end, it’s all in Marx — don’t shoot!”
* * *
I started revising The Colour of Life yesterday and got a fair bit done on it, though I didn’t start any of the new scenes. I’ve got quite a few thoughts jotted down. I think it’s going to turn out all right. I mustn’t forget to send in the form that says I’m entering by Saturday, and it has to be sent in electronically by the 31st. I still hold out hope that I can do it, if I concentrate. Apart from the usual Christmas things toward the end of the break, I’ only got that as a high priority; the rest, like the reading, is just a natural part of having a holiday, and goes without saying. The title of this post is a line from one of the nesting-doll dwarves.