View Through the Ages

Canberra, 16 August 2012

An unequivocal understanding of the past is essential to the progress of society and because it forms an indelible part of understanding the past, a clear understanding of history becomes a necessity for all human advancement. Understanding history is based on three major factors. First is the nature of available evidence. Evidence that suggests that an event in the past should be considered a ‘historical fact’ and analysed accordingly will have to be verified for its authenticity and completeness. The nature of the ‘fact’, whether it has potentially long-term impact, or it is only influential in the short-term also needs to be cleared determined. Second is the question of the analysis itself. The analysis must be objective and devoid of any bias so that the event or the historical fact is understood for what actually happened and why. This is a primary requirement to deliver the correct insights and comprehend the influence of the event based on the analysis. Third is the ability of the analyst to extrapolate the event or fact to arrive at logical conclusions regarding its influence. It is important to study the impact of a historical fact at the time it occurred and even more so to trace its influence to the current day or alternatively prove that the influence faded away at some given time in the past. However, even if there is no direct influence that can be ascertained, there will always be indirect influence—stemming from how an event affected the activities and events sometime in the past, which in turn creates a ripple effect that impinges on contemporary undertakings or behaviours.
History through the Ages: A Brief Survey
The classical historians recorded events very close to the time of their occurrence and also endeavoured to record the stories that until then were part of an on-going oral tradition. The most noticeable trend in these narratives is that the historians—Herodotus being considered the first person to record history systematically—took the liberty of fictionalising the activities of the historic leaders and their followers whose deeds they were recording. In order to emphasise the criticality of a particular event, they even wrote fictional speeches thought to have been delivered by the hero or the leader. Unfortunately this methodology tends to give these recordings a biased one-sided nature with almost no analysis being done or cognisance taken of the opposing or even contrary views to that of the heroic leader. Obviously the understanding of history that comes from this will also be biased. Further, in the classical times all writings were fundamentally oriented towards morally improving the reader. This imposed an onerous responsibility on the historians and resulted in their having to foist the philosophy of good and bad, right and wrong, and values that were considered necessary within the interpretation of history. It also became necessary to derive strong moralistic conclusions from the deeds of the heroes. The influence of this requirement was all pervasive in analysing historical fact during ancient times. Over time it has become difficult to differentiate the actual event, and therefore the fact, from the embellishments that were necessarily imposed on the narrative.
By the 12th Century, there was a plainly visible but gradual shift from this one-sided and exaggerated reworking of historical facts and events to attempts at ascertaining facts and recording them clearly. History was still stories of monarchs, wars, and battles and epic poems were still the norm in recording the flow of events and their repercussions. However, it is possible to delineate the fanciful accounts of battles or deeds of the king and understand the sequence of events that were being recorded. Another boost was given to introducing more scientific methods to the theory of history by the works of Muslim thinkers around the same time who debated and published extensively on Islamic ethics, political science and philosophy. Ibn Khaldun, a 14th Century philosopher, is often considered to have been the first to introduce scientific methodology to the theory and philosophy of history. He laid the foundation for the analysis of the state, society, communication, trade etc., in a systematic and unbiased manner. By the beginning of the European Renaissance (14th to 17th Century) this process was fairly well understood, even though not universally practiced.
During the Renaissance and into the beginning of the 18th Century the progress of recording history in a scientific manner was gradual, and at times even sporadic, but the evolution was almost always visible. The slow development of the process can be traced through the different historical accounts that are available for perusal. Around this time pure recording of facts—most of the time without any interpretation or accompanying analysis—began to be considered a facet of the theory of history and was undertaken by different groups like clergymen, philosophers and court historians. Dependent on the historian and his proclivities the recorded histories still continued to have elements of moralist arguments and instructions on values to be embedded in them. It was only in the 1850s and thereafter that the focus of recorded history shifted from the ‘magnificent’ deeds of kings and heroes to one of chronicling events with a view to understanding them and their influence through analysis and interpretation. There is considerable work that is on-going to create a body of knowledge on similar lines for the events and records of ancient and pre-modern history.
Contemporary History
Modern historical thought and practice is based on the fundamental belief of history being a linear progression. It is also a fact that an event of the past, from which history evolves, is irreversible and that the future is unpredictable. Ideal history, therefore, would be the recording and unbiased interpretation of what is real, which is only the past.  There are three distinct aspects to understanding history based on the premises given above. One, since history is accepted to be a linear progression, then it is also founded on cause and effect in a continuous manner. The second stems from the first. If history is a continuous and interconnected cause and effect cycle, then it will also be a continuous mingling of ideas that could either be harmonious or conflicting. Historically it is seen that in more instances ideas will be contrary, if not fully opposed, than conciliatory. This normally leads to clashes of ideas and associated upheavals that could be small and domestic, or large and engulf neighbouring states as well. Three, since the future is unpredictable all decisions—from the most irrelevant to those that have great significance to the wellbeing of the state itself—are primarily based on experiences and understanding of the past.
If the three aspects are analysed in a combined manner, few conclusions can be drawn. Since the past is irreversible, they will influence and change the present and the future. This change must not only be recognised, but also recorded to be considered for its historical importance into the future. Change that is not recorded does not translate to historical fact and is lost to antiquity. Viewed in this perspective, human history must be a catalogue of change, manifest as social progress that is recorded as historical facts. Further, from a vantage point of contemporary understanding the societal changes should automatically be towards peace and prosperity, not war and destruction in order to be considered progress. Here is where the hypothesis falters. From an academic perspective, this is what should happen—history should be the record of an inexorable movement of human being from ignorance, in some far away time, to enlightenment, here and now. The here and now is the time the analysis is being done whether it is the 14th or the 21st Century. However, the fundamentally intangible element of human behaviour impinges on this idealistic assessment of history and makes it more realistic, aligning it with what happens in the real world. Even though the past is recorded to a large extent, it is a combination of progress and regression, and of peace and war. It is, therefore, not possible to extend a linear line that indicates the progress of human beings. Further, since the line is not a clear linear projection, it is almost impossible to extend it forward to predict the future with any assurance. The unpredictability of the nature and behaviour of human beings percolates into the ethos of nations and makes it difficult to conceive of a peaceful and prosperous future that a purely academic analysis of societal progress tends to predict.
There is another important issue that must be discussed in terms of its impact on recording history. History is a record of clashes—of will and ideology whether religious or political; of territorial ambitions; and possession of riches and resources. Further, history is normally written by the victors—of war, colonisation, and/or religious imperialism. This means that the narrative is generally about wars, conflicts and battles and the aftermath of these activities. Invariably the account of the conflict will be one-sided because the defeated people are not given an opportunity to voice their version and the victors will not have a deep enough understanding, nor will they attempt to gain such information, of the societal norms and other unique features that affect the defeated people. In ancient days, the defeated people were often completely annihilated or made into slaves and ceased to exist as a people or nation. Along with physical subjugation, religious conversions or impositions were also carried out, leaving very limited or no record of previous beliefs and religious practices of the defeated region or nation. Such eradication of the existing religious and social practices of the defeated people leaves an elementary gap in the ability of later historians to understand the people and events.
In more recent times, there has been a trend for the losers also to put forward their viewpoint. The Vietnam War is a prime example. Although the US lost the Vietnam War, there are more books and studies of the war that have been done, and are being done even now, by analysts and historians in the US than in Vietnam. However, this particular instance is not a normal state of affairs. In addition, the accounts that are done in the US are not overly anti-Vietnam, but are generally attempts at analysing the failures of the US Government and military forces. Another aspect is the reinterpretation of history in the newly independent post-colonial nations. A number of these nations have gradually reinterpreted the events that took place during the colonial period and converted them to align with the nationalistic feelings being cultivated in the post-colonial era. This is a visible trend in nations that gained independence in the second half of the 20th Century. While the correctness of such actions can be debated, it illustrates the point made earlier that the victor writes the history and also the fact that historical facts can be interpreted and understood in different ways, especially when the analysis is separated by time.
Contemporary history encompasses the study of geography, demography, economics, societal developments, religious activities and a horde of other sub-sets. It is a far cry from the ancient model of extolling the virtues of larger than life heroes and praising the values of a nation—primarily those of the victors. It has also moved away from a fundamental analysis of human conflict as the primary event that overshadows all others as an indicator of the progress, or otherwise of the human race.
 [to be continued…]   

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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