History has three levels: First, the physical and mechanical facts about people and events, caricatured under the heading of “dates, kings, and wars.” Second, a deeper level looks at the ideas, trends, and movements underlying the first level, “-isms”, politics, and ideologies. Finally, there is a history to the development of philosophy, religion, and worldviews.
Higher level critical thinking about history is possible only when the individual is in command of the lower level data. Attempts to wax philosophical about history in the absence of specific evidence result merely in vacuous generalizations.
History begins with text, with written records of human activity; anything prior to writing is speculative and not part of history, and properly belongs under headings like “archeology”, “paleontology”, and “prehistory.” For the nearly simultaneous start of writing, civilization, and history, a certain amount of stability was needed: the continental drift which now moves land masses a fraction of an inch a year used to move them miles in the same time; volcanic activity was many times what it is now, causing entire mountains to rise and fall rapidly. Geological instability delayed the widespread use of writing and the founding of communities.
History is ultimately about constructing and analyzing narratives, sometimes competing narratives about the same facts; a mere list of facts is a chronicle and not properly a history. A mere list of facts would also be useless and uninformative. The quest for an “objective” history is absolutely necessary, yet elusive. The absolute and objective historical narrative exists, and we seek to discover it, not invent it. Yet human reason and human cognition remain limited, and so our ability to discover is limited; we may be happy that this ability is limited, rather than completely nonexistent.
When we examine a historical person, we can choose the method by which we will conduct our historical evaluation: we can either confine ourselves to the texts written by that person and the actions performed by that person, or we can include other personal data about that individual. The latter approach is called ad hominem, and often includes a quasi-psychological investigation into the childhood relationships to the parents.
Historians also distinguish between primary texts and secondary texts. Primary texts were written at or near the time and place of the events which they describe, and written by eyewitnesses or someone with direct knowledge or experiences of the events. Secondary texts are written by people at removed in either time or space from the events they describe.
One constant factor in history is human nature: from the earliest recorded human thoughts, roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, until the present time, human beings have asked the same questions, encountered the same problems, and sought the same goals. This is what makes you as human as Aristotle or Cleopatra. This is why we can understand the concepts and passions of texts which are thousands of years old: because the authors shared the same unchanging human nature which we all have.
Partly because we all share this same human nature, and perhaps partly for other reasons, there are “eternal questions” which recur throughout history. Historians disagree on exactly how many “eternal questions” there are, but here’s an example of what three of them might be:
- How can I escape my “subjective bubble” (my ideas, perceptions, and opinions) and obtain objective knowledge?
- Does God love me or hate me, and why?
- How should a community or society be organized? How should society and government interact?
There are many other candidates for “eternal questions”. The reader’s imagination should suggest some.
It becomes necessary to clearly and rigorously define some words: “history”, “religion”, and “philosophy”.
The role of religion in civilization and history is both significant and obvious. The emergence of religion from early, non-religious phases of civilization is not so obvious.
Early civilization embraces myth, magic, and manipulation, and lacked religion. Myth explained; magic and manipulation were attempts to control the forces of nature, obtain fertility, and ensure military victories. This type of polytheistic paganism prescribes some ritual or sacrifice designed to persuade a deity to deliver the goods.
Religion concerns relationships: the individual’s relation to God, and to other humans. A religion has a text and a founder. Religion is an attempt to bridge the gap between the perfect/infinite deity and the imperfect/finite human. Religion is personal, inasmuch as it treats both the human and the deity as person, i.e., having beliefs, desires, emotions, and agency. Religion is not private, inasmuch as it encompasses visions of society. A religion is related to a way of life; it has various forms in different times and places; it can be related to geography.
Religion is not ethics and morals, is not traditions, rules, culture, opinions, beliefs.
To directly contradict what has been stated immediately above, there is a different paradigm in which ‘religion’ is defined as exactly those those things: culture, tradition, institutions, and organizations. In such a paradigm, then, religion is an artifact, and the word ‘religion’ then does not refer to the relationship between the individual and the deity, and does not refer to a state of affairs in the world.
We can see how such great confusion has emerged about religion: the word ‘religion’ itself is subject to two quite different definitions. Does it refer, on the one hand, to social and cultural artifacts, or on the other hand, to the deity’s personal agency and relationship to human beings?
Three cornerstones of civilization, as it emerged in the ancient world: (1) the alphabet replaces other symbolic forms, (2) monogamy is valued, (3) human sacrifice is gradually phased out.
Another recurring theme in history is the tension between centralized and decentralized forms of government. From Persia to Rome, from Alexander the Great to the Holy Roman Empire, this will be a consideration; feudalism, often derided as an archaic system, proves to be, in this light, a champion of local independence and of decentralization. It is also no accident that the series of “Star Wars” films by George Lucas echoes the events of Roman history.
Feudalism also introduced a mutuality of obligation: the feudal lord was obliged to his vassal to the same extent that the vassal was obliged to his lord.
As we look at historical texts, we will need to be alert to issues of translation and transliteration.
Maps are also an important part of studying history.
There are different ways to look at historical change: it might be an organic process, working its way gradually through societies and populations in the attitudes and decisions of the average person, or it might be the decisive choice of one man at a crucial moment. History is either a series of historical choices by great men at decisive moments, or it can be told as a gradual process of growth and change in slow waves and trends through entire communities, cultures, and civilizations.
Population and Economics: the pattern seems to be that a steadily growing population is the best circumstance for economic prosperity and stability, as well as political tranquility. If the population grows too quickly, too slowly, or erratically (i.e., the annual rate varies too much from one year to the next), or if the population does not grow at all, or even shrinks, then economic hardship is inevitable. This pattern is relevant to events both in the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. It is relevant also to the study of Thomas Malthus, whose brilliant, but sadly misunderstood, views have been reinterpreted in light of the discovery of the fact that our planet has always produced more food than was needed by the humans living on it, and that all hunger and starvation has been unnecessary, and the result of human incompetence or greed. The deeper insight of Malthus was the imperfectability of the world.
Since the time of Moses, we see that the majority trend within “western” or “Euro-centric” civilization has held a certain “sympathy for the underdog”, a tendency to consider, and act in, the interests of those who are most vulnerable in society. Notable exceptions, of course, exist, in the persons of Nietzsche, Hitler, and Stalin. But general trend has held, and perhaps even gained in predominance, over time. This strength, however, of our civilization has also recently become a weakness, because those who wish to gain power by claiming to be victims can exploit this sentiment. It has now become necessary to distinguish between those who are at the bottom of societal structures and those who merely claim “victim status” as a path to political power. In non-western, or non-Eurocentric societies, this path to power is not open.
The events of history take place within the framework of time, space, matter, and energy. Another way of saying this is that the events of history involve elements that are, at least in principle, directly or indirectly detectable by the five senses. We need to be aware that these are the minority of events. The majority of events are composed of elements that lie outside of space and time, which are therefore not composed of matter or energy, and not detectable to the five senses. Strictly speaking, history does not concern itself with such things. Practically, however, we will concern ourselves with them to some extent, when we consider the history of philosophy and the history of religion. We need to be aware, then, that we have, at that point, left behind history, narrowly defined, and entered a separate field of study.
Given that text is central to historical study, issues of language will interface; at a minimum, we will need to continuously acknowledge that we are dealing with texts that are either translated into our language, or written in an older form of our language. Philology is relevant to history.