Sharp Blue: Sketch of a defence of history


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Last week, a colleague challenged me to explain my reasons for being so interested in history. At the time I was taken somewhat by surprise and more or less failed to present any kind of coherent defence of its study. What follows is a better attempt, but one framed entirely in terms of the utility of studying of history. History being useful is not, of course, the only reason that it’s worthwhile, but I won’t digress into the innate fascination of past societies and their cultures, religions, art, architecture, literature and so forth. Nor will I talk about history as a “school of morals” in any sense. (Perhaps I will write more on those subjects in the future.) Instead, I will focus on investigating history as a means of understanding the present and future. I think that there are two significant types of relationship between past, present and future situations - causal and explanatory relationships - and I will outline the value of each type of understanding.

Studying history in terms of causal relationships between past and present is essentially the quest to understand present situations in terms of the conditions at earlier periods, the way those conditions changed with time, and the reasons for the changes. One might, for example, study the roots of the current difficult relationship between Israelis and Arabs by studying the history of Zionism, the effects of the carving up of the Ottoman Empire by the western powers on the politics of the Arab countries and so forth. By doing so, one could gain a deeper appreciation for the circumstances of the various parties and perhaps some insights into how current problems might be resolved.

However, as we look further back in time, the chains of causality linking past to present become ever more tangled and complex, and this complexity will soon overwhelm attempts at even the most cursory analysis. For example, I think that it would be essentially impossible to trace a line of causation from the New Kingdom of Egypt in the second millennium BC to the Palestinian problem in the third millennium AD. The value of the study of the New Kingdom and its foreign policy is not that it was a cause of current problems, but that it serves as a model for modern concerns that is sufficiently distant that it can be considered with a degree of dispassion. One could, for instance, try to draw an understanding of imperialism from the Egyptian expansion into Nubia and western Asia, or of superpower confrontation from the struggle between Egypt and the Hittites, or perhaps of the effects of military expansionism on internal stability from the aftermath of the age of Ramses II. Each one these is something well worth examining if one wishes to understand the dynamics of the modern world, and Egyptology is a domain in which one can test theories against evidence without, I hope, becoming mired in ideology. For these kinds of analyses, distant and exotic periods of history, so long as sufficient evidence exists, can be even more useful than recent and familiar periods.

In particular, past civilisation can serve as laboratories in which we can test theories formulated to explain the reasons why societies prosper, and the intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for their failure. Here, at the start of a century which promises to be one of the most stressed and turbulent in human history, and one in which the stakes have never been higher, understanding the processes by which complex societies have unravelled is more pressing than ever. The study of history is one of the key avenues of attack on these vitally urgent problems.

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