Seeing the big picture

The most enduring historical work reveals eternal truths about the human condition


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a pioneering Arab scholar and one of the most important historians of the Middle Ages. He is best known for his three-volume masterwork the Muqaddimah, written in 1377, which integrated politics, sociology, economics, demography, and culture — all of which we now treat as separate disciplines — into a “universal history”.

At the outset of his justly famous study, Khaldun put his finger on something fundamental about why people look to the past. The whole purpose of studying history, he argued, was to allow both the historian and their reader to approach the “inner meaning” of events and decisions.

Doing so necessitated informed “speculation” about “causes and origins”, as well as “deep knowledge” of “the how and why”. Khaldun was unequivocal about what this amounted to. History was, he concluded, “firmly rooted in philosophy”. Indeed, he went further still: “it deserves to be treated as a branch of philosophy”.

Even centuries later, this remains a striking statement. To many modern historians, the notion that history is a branch of philosophy will sound alien. Yet Khaldun was making a crucial point. He knew that reflecting seriously on the past hones our grasp of psychology and human nature.

By exploring specific events and individuals, we learn to think about human beings in the round

It encourages us to think about why people behave as they do, and the passions that move them. He understood that history sheds light on the dynamics of huge social forces, the impact of powerful ideas, and the fate of idealism. To immerse ourselves in the past is to gradually enrich our understanding of humanity itself. By exploring specific events and individuals, we learn to think about human beings in the round.

Khaldun captured the possibilities of historical insight in a profound way, but he was not articulating a novel idea. The idea that history was a form of philosophy was commonplace in antiquity. This was most pithily expressed by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian living at the time of Rome’s ascendancy over the Mediterranean basin, who remarked that “history is philosophy teaching by examples”.

Dionysius understood that historians are better equipped than most — including philosophers — to test the truth of philosophical propositions about human behaviour. After all, history is the only laboratory of evidence and experience available to us.

If we want to examine whether, for example, Plato was right that the three constituent parts of the human psyche are reason, appetite, and passion, we need to look to the historical record in order to weigh that hypothesis against evidence. Only through history might the expansive arguments of philosophers be brought down from the level of abstraction and applied to concrete people and events.

Other eminent minds of antiquity took a similar view. The Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero contended historia magistra vitae — history is the teacher of life. Another Roman, Tacitus, was a brilliant exponent of philosophical history, aiming in the Histories and the Annals to seek out higher truths through the medium of history.

For Edward Gibbon, he was “the first of historians who applied the science of philosophy to the study of facts”. Ronald Syme judged Tacitus to be “the crown and summit of imperial literature”. And the Greek historian, Thucydides, fully intended that his epic account of the conflict between his native Athens and Sparta that tore apart the Mediterranean world of antiquity should be a work that was of value “for all time”.

Thucydides hoped it would remain useful “so long as men are men”. There was an important assumption nestled in this statement: that human nature does not change, therefore decisions made in ages past would still be intelligible to readers decades, centuries, or even millennia later.

As with Khaldun and Dionysius, Thucydides invited his audience to come to grips with the essence of human beings. He was concerned with permanent problems, that which does not change. The book converted real-world events into philosophical meditation. To read Thucydides is to think not merely historically but, still more so, philosophically. His ambition for what the past might teach was soaring.

In sum, history and philosophy are naturally complementary. Few understood this more instinctively than Niccolò Machiavelli. In December 1513, the Florentine wrote to a friend that, every night after dinner, he would don his most “regal and courtly garments” and retire to his study to read the great authors of antiquity, many of whom were historians. In his study Machiavelli would, as he put it, “enter into the ancient courts of the men of old, where they receive me with love … I feel no shame in conversing with them and asking the reason of their actions”.

Whereas philosophy explores what ought to be, history tests this against what was and is

When Khaldun, Thucydides, Dionysius and others looked to history as the proving ground of philosophy, they were concerned above all with human nature itself, the impulses, urges, appetites and motives that move us to behave in certain ways. Whereas philosophy explores what ought to be, history tests this against what was and is. In the hands of the philosophical historian, study of the past becomes a tool to seek comprehension of deeper realities of life. It is a means of asking questions and conversing with ourselves. And it is a more accessible means of doing so than abstract philosophy.

The eighteenth century was perhaps the high point of the approach articulated by David Wormsley of philosophic history as “a style of historical thought and an agenda of historical problems”. It had a keen eye for paradox, irony, and delusion.

There was a rich tradition of philosophical history associated with Edinburgh University, embodied by David Hume (an important philosopher but also the author of a six-volume History of England), William Robertson (who wrote a classic study on the reign of Habsburg monarch Charles V), and Adam Ferguson (another philosopher who wrote the landmark An Essay on the History of Civil Society), accelerating the development of the discipline of sociology).

Their countryman Adam Smith shared similar inclinations. In The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he integrated analysis of the past and reflections on the present to offer striking intuitions about the future. Part of Smith’s genius was that he saw many dilemmas of modernity coming before they arrived — not least the fact that ideologues may be tempted to treat people like pieces on a chessboard.

On the European continent, Voltaire and Montesquieu also wrote philosophical histories. But we can detect the tendency most gloriously in Edward Gibbon, the iconic historian of the eighteenth century and an eloquent advocate of philosophical history. Fully conscious of the scale of what he attempted across six volumes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon composed not only a masterpiece of imagination and literary flair, but a tragedy of the erosion of civilisation.

He sought out the roots of action — whether the ruling passions, national character, or the interplay between imperial expansion and national corruption — and traced their mutual reinforcement over many centuries. Civilisation advanced or decayed as a result of collective virtue and vice.

Gibbon believed that deep reflection on this strengthened moral character. He sought to combine the command of detail of the antiquarians with philosophical imagination, writing, ‘If philosophers are not always historians, it were, at any rate, to be wished that historians were always philosophers.”

The philosophic approach to history manifests a human impulse that extends beyond the writing of history. It is implicit in how we think about history. Take, for example, the most famous works of the English-born American landscape artist, Thomas Cole (1801-1848). In a remarkable sequence of five paintings, The Course of Empire, created between 1833 and 1836, Cole offered a visual meditation on the essential unity of history (albeit an idealised version of the past) with philosophy.

Through these paintings we witness a group of hunter-gatherers develop into an idyllic agrarian society and the rise of a magnificent city and powerful empire on the same site. We see the violent sack of the city and, lastly, its desolate ruins. Cole ruminated on the struggle that drives the elevation and decline of societies.

The universe itself tends towards darkness; Father Time always wins

The paintings are a reminder of the rise and fall of civilisations, and the inescapable pull of entropy on all things. The universe itself tends towards darkness; Father Time always wins. But the effort to stave him off for another day may just be the story of the human species.

Despite the gradual recession of consciously philosophical history, some twentieth-century scholars kept the flame burning. Elie Kedourie, a gifted historian of the Middle East based at the London School of Economics, placed himself within the philosophical tradition of Michael Oakeshott, testing Oakeshott’s conviction that ambitious political reform tends to produce unintended consequences against historical events.

This, too, was history as philosophical tragedy. Anyone who reads Kedourie’s seminal 1956 work England and the Middle East, subjecting British policy in that region following the First World War to coruscating analysis, or his brilliant essays on the interplay between political aims and social realities, will come away chastened. Kedourie’s work constitutes a vivid demonstration of “philosophy teaching by examples”.

So what is at the core of philosophical history? Its defining feature is that, far from being fixated with narrow problems and granular detail, it uses them to fertilise exploration of bigger problems. It probes the most challenging issues, just like pure philosophy. And it grapples with conundrums to which there are no obvious or even achievable solutions.

Philosophical history is comfortable with this. Ambiguity is part of its appeal. Conclusions will necessarily be tentative; what matters is making the attempt. To do so requires a degree of imagination and a concern for primal impulses. Causes are teased out in ways that shed light on what it means to be human. It unites the philosophic drive to ask big questions with the historian’s ability to comb minute detail for evidence.

Importantly, the philosophical historian is willing to traverse what are now the arid deserts separating intellectual inquiry into distinctive academic disciplines. Where scholars have done this in recent decades, they have generally helicoptered in assistance from cultural studies and literary theory. One imagines that the state of the discipline would be healthier if philosophy had been to the fore.

In practice of course, nobody — not even the most gifted polymath — can hope to master more than a fraction of this knowledge. But the point is the ambition to range widely, and the willingness to search beyond the suffocating ethos of ever narrower specialisms. This remains integral to what Matthew Arnold described as the peerless value of education: exposing ourselves to “the best that has been thought and said”.

It is vital that the historical profession spells out what makes it distinctive

It is vital that the historical profession spells out what makes it distinctive, not least in an educational context in which many students query the “relevance” of a History degree and the transferable skills they will develop. In truth there is no more “relevant” subject, because history teaches us to reflect deeply on humanity itself. What is more “transferable” than that? Some will not like to hear this, but the pervasiveness of student anxieties serves as irrefutable proof that the profession has done a very poor job of conceptualising and communicating the wider value of the field.

History has been written in a kaleidoscopic array of ways. That is all to the good. Yet the historical work that has endured has very often been that which addresses timeless problems about the human condition.

For Gibbon, philosophical history requires a degree of intellectual altitude from which “he comprehends a great expanse of territory, of which he forms a clear and unique image”. Importantly, “other minds just as exact, but more confined, discern only a part of the expanse”. If more current historians were willing to pursue Gibbon’s “altitude”, the discipline would be all the stronger for it.

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