Herodotus reading his history

Rebadging the past as feel-good therapy

The discipline faces not so much a crisis of history, as a crisis of historicism


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

History and Human Flourishing, Darrin McMahon, Ed. (Oxford University Press, £19.99)

The American Historical Association recently asked social media users to vote on a slogan for its annual meeting, from a shortlist which included “I’m a historian. I’m here to help” and “Study the past to understand the present”. A better one might have read, “Where did the jobs go?” The number of full-time, permanent posts in history across the United States has fallen from over 150 a year to just under a hundred in the past ten years.

When combined with fading student enrolments, the withdrawal of major philanthropic trusts from funding research, and the explosion of rows within the AHA over “presentist” approaches to scholarship, these statistics prompted one New York Times editorialist to wonder if the end of history was nigh.

The nosedive in the discipline’s fortunes may yet level off to a glide, but it has been dramatic enough to provoke American historians, even comfortably-tenured ones, to brood on possible course corrections. When it comes to the past, historians emphasise the structures which curb individual actors; when it concerns their own profession, they remain incurably optimistic that a determined overhaul of their methodology can turn things around.

History and Human Flourishing is the latest clarion call to do better. Whilst it emanates from American academe and is dominated by its problems, it will interest anyone who worries about the prospects of academic history. Its editor, Darrin McMahon, is a prolific intellectual historian who has gathered a crew of similarly eminent professors to stake out a promising new role for academic history: advancing human flourishing.

That may sound like a naïve undertaking, but McMahon points out it is a new way of asking a question originally posed by Friedrich Nietzsche, a disenchanted professor. What, Nietzsche mused in his Untimely Meditations, are the “uses and disadvantages of history for life?” In his time, as in ours, there was not so much a crisis of history as a crisis of historicism.

Precise, “antiquarian” reconstructions of the past poured from the presses, as did what he called “critical” scholarship, which anatomised the myths by which societies had lived. Yet although 19th century historicism believed it was inherently important to trace the origins of modern beliefs, Nietzsche held that its investigations merely distracted us from a pressing crisis of value: why should we hold those beliefs?

Perhaps yoking history to the study of human flourishing could answer Nietzsche’s still-smouldering question. This academic industry, which has taken off in the United States, is a form of “positive psychology” which seeks to understand and advance the healthy operations of the human mind, rather than to dwell on its pathologies.

Students flock to positive psychology courses, which promise to unveil the meaning of life — or at least strategies to get ahead. Government agencies consult national happiness indexes for the promotion of economic growth, and philanthropic funders are generous with their support. It is no wonder that McMahon wants to investigate how history could revive its prospects by assisting in its social mission.

American historians, unlike British ones, still write from within an empire

Most of his authors are nevertheless nervous about delivering themselves to a discipline which seems tinged with snake oil. Some are prepared to consider how history could rebadge itself as a therapeutic discipline. McMahon’s own essay suggests that history could help people to face their mortality by bringing them to consider how earlier generations endured shocks and reverses. Courses framed like this might draw in older people and in his experience could be particularly attractive to military veterans in the classroom, who may process their experiences of Afghanistan or Iraq by studying the Peloponnesian wars or the Peninsular campaign. The example is a reminder that American historians, unlike British ones, still write from within an empire.

Dan Edelstein similarly appeals to the example of Goethe in Rome and Stendhal in Florence to suggest that the “historical sublime” — an emotive reflection on the wreckage of noble pasts — might be a powerful source of consolation. That seems convincing, even if he concedes it may take “a certain melancholic disposition” (which not a few readers of The Critic may share) to fall for the wistful charms of the historical sublime.

Yet private consolation is not the same as public usefulness. Two Harvard professors hope that history can make wider and more direct contributions to human flourishing. Maya Jasanoff’s essay argues that academic historians can regain their standing as public educators by becoming storytellers. They can hook the public by dropping their cautious qualifiers and writing bravura set-pieces, before patiently explaining their context and bearing on the present.

Historian narrators will be following the example of Barack Obama, who has taken to making Netflix documentaries, in spreading enlightenment through story. Yet Jasanoff seems to be urging a shift that has already taken place. Few historians have her literary chops, but many already start their books and articles with the tale of how such and such a person arose at eight o’clock on a frosty morning in 1546, then did something which turned out to create the modern world.

A literary tic is hardly a life-raft for the discipline. Moreover, whilst very online historians have not prospered as fact checkers of the political right’s tall tales, there is no reason to think they will fare better by setting themselves up as rival story tellers. Their political message may be the problem, not just the medium.

Perhaps it is not literary reticence but rather anxieties over “presentism” which have denied historians a public hearing. David Armitage argues that before rushing to absolve themselves from the sin of presentism, historians should investigate what the term means. In the first place, they put themselves on a path to antiquarian irrelevance if they insist that the past be understood only with reference to itself.

They are also pursuing an impossibility. As philosophers note in their (neutral) use of the term “presentism”, the present is our only reality. Roman ruins or the signature of Guy Fawkes are tangible and visible, but also present-day things. The pasts they recall are fabrications which inevitably reflect our current concerns and needs, albeit ones produced according to scholarly conventions.

Armitage doesn’t want to frighten us. He is not calling for the full-blooded use of anachronisms or for bending the past into shapes which crudely parallel liberal fears in the present. Trump isn’t Hitler, or vice versa. His vanilla “defence” of presentism therefore offers historians a rousing way of describing how they already work rather than a new way to be heard. It seems no more likely to rescue the profession than his History Manifesto (2014), which cautiously exhorted historians to embrace Big Data.

Cutting the chains of pain might seem like a job for religion

If McMahon’s more optimistic contributors fail to convince, then two of his contributors have given us essays whose radiant pessimism might have cheered Nietzsche. Suzanne Marchand suggests that history’s problems are deeply — maybe incurably — rooted in its own institutional history.

As late as the 18th century, Herodotus remained the mentor of a motley crew of history writers, men and women who sought to emulate his “panoramic curiosity” about the customs and especially the beliefs of other peoples.

The rot had already set in, however: Voltaire scorned the credulity of Herodotus and urged historians to adopt a clearly secular approach. By the mid-19th century, German scholars had rebadged history as a masculine and scientific discipline. Its practitioners had doctorates. They followed a different ancient exemplar, Thucydides, and his obsessive concern with politics, causation and the rise and fall of states.

The implication of Marchand’s impish essay is that the diminution of the historical profession would be no bad thing if it encouraged a revival of lively, “Herodotean” writing about the past.

D. Graham Burnett shares Marchand’s concern that academic history has made itself too dull to last in an essay whose raw speculations are the best thing in this book. Burnett agrees with McMahon that the question of human flourishing is now “the big one” for historians. His world view is remote from the lifehacks of positive psychology, however: the “basic catastrophe of human being that we are, functionally, little hollow passages for the transmission of pain”.

Cutting the chains of pain might seem like a job for religion, but Burnett alleges that historians inherited spiritual and metaphysical assumptions from theologians, which they long ago hid in the interests of scientific respectability. If they were more open about the private “credos” which shape their research, we would all stand to benefit. Burnett’s own desire to battle against the “demons” of human nature culminates with a deliberately “daft” proposal. Historian humanists should “teach us what is eternal”.

By turning from a scientific preoccupation with explanation to the aesthetic recovery of past states of being and feeling, historians can refine our sense of what is temporally determined. In doing so they promise to “surface” what is not, granting us “momentary apparitions of what might redeem us — beauty, truth, love”.

Graduate training programmes in history are not going to incorporate such “soulcraft” any time soon, but Burnett’s speculations are not meant to be bullet points for university reform. They urge us to recognise that what is at issue when we talk about history (especially in our disagreements about its subject matter and implications) are values which come from outside the discipline.

So long as we live in societies where shared values are in flux or decline, there seems no reason to hope or perhaps even to wish that history as practised in universities should be a power in the land, rather than merely a respectable, modestly-sized academic field.

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