Why Bother With History?

Francesco Galassi (BA 1981 UC)
Magazine Section: 

Clio, the Greek muse of history

History, pontificated Henry Ford in 1916, is “more or less bunk.” How deliciously ironic that he unburdened himself of this gem in the pages of The Chicago Tribune. You could not pick a more historical newspaper name than The Tribune: a tribune was an elected officer in ancient Rome.

Still, is history bunk? If used as political propaganda, it is—but then is that history? Probably not. But other than that—no, it’s not bunk.

Historical novels and films are blockbusters—think of Gladiator some years back, the success of which cannot be explained solely by Russell Crowe’s athletic frame. Audiences the world over pay their hard-earned wages to read or watch historical tales and documentaries that have cost millions to make. You cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

Jungian archetypes may be trotted out to explain history’s appeal: it presents the fight of good against evil, light and rebirth against darkness and death. But not all history shows light’s triumph over darkness, and in any event this may account for an interest in storytelling in general, not specifically historical storytelling. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the drug-fuelled violence in Mexico, the bloodbath in Sudan, embody archetypes just as well.

Yet we like historical tales: we keep watching and reading them. They matter to us. Why?

Historians offer two reasons. The first is that the past explains the present. Why is Canada a bilingual country? Because settlements in New France were too numerous and well rooted to be absorbed by the British after the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Why is China suffering terrorist attacks by Uighur nationalists? Because they feel culturally distinct from China’s Han majority, and greatly resent control from Beijing.

This is history as regression: x happens in time t because y and z have happened in t – 1, and they in turn happened because… all the way back to a notional Garden of Eden. History matters because we all live with the result of historical choices.

The second answer is more involved. The idea is that history matters because it hides in the folds of its cloak “lessons” for today. If you understand what happened in the past, you will understand what is happening today.  Pick a recent example: Putin’s contention that his invasion of Crimea in spring 2014 was meant to protect local Russians, echoed Hitler’s equally egregious nonsense about protecting Sudetenland Germans in 1938. We all know what followed. This is history as repetition, and its lesson is, don’t appease dictators. Again, an eminently sensible reason why history matters.

There may be flaws in both “history as regression” and “history as repetition.” The former leaves little space for free choice, the latter depends on conditions really being quite the same.  Neither reason is obviously wrong, but they are, shall we say, bloodless. Cold. Insightful in an intellectual way, objectively important, useful to interpret events. But students yawn at them, and find refuge in the thought that history is bunk.  Nobody went to watch Gladiator better to understand power politics in an imperial court.

Something is missing in our explanation of why historical tales speak to us. What?

I suggest looking to Greek mythology. Zeus, father of the gods, took a fancy to Mnemosyne, the personification of memory. No one knows exactly how she felt about him, but he was after all top god. Their tryst produced nine sister goddesses, the Muses, representing knowledge and the arts. Two of them—Calliope (“the beautiful-voiced”) and Erato ("the desired")—embodied epic and lyric poetry. A third—Clio (“she who recounts and makes famous”)—personified history.

History, then, is the twin sister of the poetry of conflict and the poetry of love.

This is the third (and, I submit, the real) reason why we bother with history: we read and write history because we are human. And humans are filled with passions: love, hatred, anger, empathy, envy, greed and generosity, lust and regret, pity and arrogance, fear and joy, hope and despair. When we read history, we read about the passions of the past. They are, we soon discover, the same as our own today. That discovery reveals who we are: we share with people from the past the core of our being. History identifies, expands, and refines our humanity.

This is not rhetoric.  Let me quote from a letter written by a soldier the night before a decisive battle. He knows the enemy force is much larger and better equipped. He knows his chances of survival are virtually nothing. He can only give one letter to a messenger who will slip across enemy lines and ride through the cold of a January night. He writes to a friend:

I would like to write more, but an army is marching against me. Now all I can do is beg you to take care of my wife, asking that you should protect her, and help her in all things, for the sake of your own children. It is all I ask.

You understand his feelings. He is afraid, the enemy is powerful. He asks you to help his wife, who will survive him. Why should you? Because you love your own children, and in that love you recognize his love for his family. If you recognize it you will see why he asks you to protect the object of his love. Nothing could be simpler. Or more human.

Those few lines are a mix of pain, fear, love, hope, trust, and regret. Each is familiar to you, to me, to all of us. In fact you can imagine a Canadian soldier writing the same words in the veldt during the Boers’ War, or in the mud of Passchendaele, or before embarking for Juno Beach.

In fact, those words are 21 centuries old. The writer was a Roman nobleman who rebelled against the corruption of his native city and died in battle the day after writing that letter. But the messenger got through, and 2100 years later we can still read the soldier’s words. And his words build a bridge between him and us: across an unimaginably wide span of time, they tell that you and I share the same feelings as this man. He was one of us, just like uncounted soldiers over the centuries. You don’t need to have been there: read his words and feel what he felt.

Realizing that others share our own feelings is the source of human empathy. And history gives us access to the passions of people we will never meet but who were motivated by the same feelings as ourselves. Even the feelings of madmen improve us as human beings. Mein Kampf teaches us as much about our weaknesses as Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth teaches us about our strengths. The awareness of shared passions builds empathy and extends tolerance and acceptance to all humanity. You can’t kill people whose feelings you understand and share.

So read history.

It makes you human.


Ed. Note: Author Francesco Galassi (BA 1981 UC) submitted this piece to UC Magazine in late 2014, but sadly passed away before he could see it in print. We have published it with the permission of his wife, Caroline Sewards (MLS 1988 UofT).


Artist: Pierre Mignard