Past perspectives

Published : Nov 07, 2008 00:00 IST

A book on the writing of history in Europe from Herodotus time.

JOHN BURROW, one of Britains distinguished historians and author of acclaimed books on Victorian historians and European thought, has written a work of stupendous erudition in its sweep and contents. It begins with the father of history , Herodotus, born around mid-480 B.C., and ends with the 20th century.

History, to be true to its name, is varied from pure narrative to analyses and inquisitions. It is contiguous with many other genres, from epics to social sciences, not to forget biographies and studies on politics. Herodotus used the term historia (inquiry) for what is now called history.

In Homer, a histor was someone who passed judgment on the basis of facts after investigation. The two are inextricably linked inquiry and judgment. History can be written for its own sake, or for the lessons it could yield. Opinions might differ but there was enough consensus to provide the basis for a selective grand narrative of the history of historiography, in which past historians were highlighted and assessed for their roles, necessarily partial, but helpful (or perhaps backsliding), in the general progression to the twentieth century historians views and approved practice. In this scene it was possible to write The History of History.

In Europe, historiography, the study of historical writing, is at least as old as La Popelinieres LHistoire des histoires (1599). It acquired vogue only in the 20th century. Burrows book is confined to the European tradition to which Egypt and Babylon contributed. One hopes a work of comparable quality on the history of histories in India, China and the Arab world will appear before long.

The legendary Ibn Khaldun wrote his study of history, the Muqaddimah (Introduction), in 1377 as the preface and first book of a world history. Arnold J. Toynbee regarded it as undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place. In 1959, the Princeton University Press published a translation by Franz Rosenthal in three volumes. An abridged edition in one volume appeared in 1969.

Burrows work aims to provide answers to questions commonly raised: What did people in the past find interesting in their past, and why did they? Which pasts did it lead them to focus attention on, as well as shaping how they chose to present them, and how and why did these change over time or how did different answers to these questions in a single period reflect and express differences within the culture?... I have tried to focus here on the question of the pasts that people have chosen for themselves and why, as well as on how they investigated and presented them.

Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, an immortal classic, has received great attention in recent years for its insights into realpolitik. It was notable for Pericles funeral oration, which has a contemporary ring: Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law, when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law.

The political wisdom in the Melian Dialogue, between the Melians and the besieging Athenian army, also receives great attention. The Melians spoke of morality and did not surrender. The Athenians annihilated them.

Here, in one volume, you have the entire sweep from those days, from Tacitus to the last century which saw historians such as Namier and Butterfield. Some like Gibbon, on whom Burrow wrote a book, receive more attention than others. He was a philosophic historian, someone who would be learned in the literature of antiquity devoted to factual accuracy, but also capable of seeing in history a tissue of events connected by deeper causes than those most apparent, and able to present them coherently and perspicuously. Until the last century Gibbon was ignored in England.

Burrow had two purposes in mind. First to convey the particular qualities of the histories discussed, and particularly what makes them readable with pleasure by non-specialists. In doing so, I have also tried to convey the authors intentions in writing them. Second, I have tried to trace and if possible to explain major shifts in the ways in which attention to the past was directed and applied. Both aims are ably accomplished.

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