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History of History

            People often wonder about the value of studying history.  When history is presented as an interesting story, though, few can successfully argue against the fact that history is compelling.  Nevertheless, there is the stigma that all historians do is study old or dead people. This being said, there is, in fact, much more to history.  History is the study of humans in the past.  It is through history that people can gain a more comprehensive understanding of themselves.  One must understand the past in order to understand his or her present time.  In essence, one must question the causes that lead to the present.  If, for example, America is at war with Iraq, one must ask why.  The answer could be that the Iraqi leader did not follow rules that were set up for him.  If this be the case, though, one must then figure out who set up the rules, what the rules were, and why were they set up.  The answers to these questions will undoubtedly bring up more questions that will need to be answered. It is the historian’s job to understand the causes, and as Historian Marc Bloch so eloquently wrote, “in history, as elsewhere, the causes can not be assumed. They are to be looked for...”

            Looking for the causes, however, is what brings interest, change, and disagreement to the field of history.  Some historians seem to believe, for example, that history is cyclical, while others believe it is linear.  Furthermore, some historians believe that history is a science, while still others believe that it is a humanist study that can not focus on the historical evidence as empirical data.  Lastly, some historians believe that a historian should do nothing more than produce the cold hard facts, while others believe that it is the historians job to analyze the facts in order to share a comprehensive understanding of history.  Essentially, history is a changing field in which historians have to adapt to new ideas, new facts, and new theories.

            One of the first questions that historians are forced to answer is whether history is cyclical or linear. Although most historians have taken the view that history is in fact linear, there is still a prominent minority of people who believe that history is cyclical.  Much of the view can be based on religious or cultural beliefs, although one’s view on the matter can also be reflective of his or her personal understanding of the historical past.  

            The cyclical model of history basically focuses on the idea that history repeats itself.  History is constantly moving in circles where there is no real beginning and no real end.  Cultures that have a strong focus on cyclical history might have a strong sense of historical unity.   An event that happened to the culture three hundred years ago might have the same significance as an event that happened one week ago. The idea of cyclical history fits well with the rotating flow of the seasons and the seemingly repetitive pattern of human life.  Seasons repeat from Spring, to Summer, to Fall then to Winter.  These Four seasons fit well into the cycle of life that includes childhood, adulthood, old age, then death.  As people started to perceive the apparently repetitive patterns in life they concluded that history must be the same.  In the cyclical view there is a predictive path that all events will take.  When a civilization rises, it is only a matter of time before it will fall.  Many ancient civilizations such as the Greeks have supported the idea of cyclical history. This idea is often repeated today, as well, as many historians take interest in comparing the United States to the Roman Empire.  Between the two civilizations there are many likenesses.  The comparison leads many people to conclude that it is only a matter of time before the American civilization collapses and a new civilization will rise.  Additionally, in the Buddhist belief there is a sense of cyclical history as Buddhists believe that one is born and reborn into a continually repetitive life pattern. Essentially, with cyclical history events will happen again because they have happened before.

            Linear history, on the other hand, is the opposite of cyclical history.  With linear history there is the idea that history is moving in one direction.  Furthermore, with linear history there is a beginning and an end.  One of the major sources for the view that history is linear was the Hebrews.  They, like many people that followed, believed that history started with a definite beginning, in this case with God creating the heavens and the earth.  They also held that history will eventually end.  Linear history fits well with many modern religions such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  There is a sense of meaning and direction with linear history because there is an over-all goal.   Most Christians believe, for example, that in the end all of mankind will be judged by God and that his will shall be done on earth is it is in heaven.  Moreover, with linear history there is a sense of progression.  Mankind is moving somewhere, be it the end of time, or simply into a more or less advanced civilization.   Nevertheless, man is going somewhere, and wherever it is can not be solely determined by knowing where mankind has been.  This being said, though, the majority of historians take the view that history is in fact linear, and have done so for a very long time now.

            Some of the founding fathers of historical thought were Greek.  Herodotus of Halicarnassus, for example, often referred to as the Father of History, was one of the first to compose a “critical history” by telling “the truth” about the Greek wars against Persia.  Herodotus used a variety of sources including eye witness accounts, his own observations, and official state records.  Herodotus apparently loved to go into detail in order to tell everything and anything about whatever subject he wrote about. Another great Greek historian was Thucydides.  Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War in which he attempted to explain what went wrong.  During the Peloponnesian War Greeks fought against Greeks. Thucydides, during the war, was a commander for Athens and was exiled after he suffered a military defeat.  He then spent 20 years collecting data so that he could compose his work.  Thucydides figured that the information would be useful to future generations so that when in the future Greeks ever found themselves in a similar situation they could learn from the past. Thucydides believed in a cyclical pattern to history, meaning that his work would have particular meaning in the future.[1]  The significance of Herodotus and Thucydides is that they helped to move away from the idea of history as myth and moved into the idea of history as true recorded events of the past.  The Greeks, in this sense, paved the way for future historians such as Titus Livy, and all other historical writers to start sharing the past’s truths with future generations.

            One of the major ground breaking historians to follow the Greeks was Saint Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa. Augustine rejected the idea that history is cyclical. He lived during the time that Rome, the center of Christendom, was being ravaged by heathens.  After these traumatic events Augustine set out to write his book The City of God.  In this book Augustine attempts to explain the history of mankind from a Christian point of view. He asserted that there is a dualism running throughout history.  There is the profane “city of man” and the sacred “city of God.”  In this incredibly influential linear piece of work Augustine showed that the bad fortune of Rome was not the fault of the Christians, but was indeed part of an overall historical trend.  Augustine argued that the “city of man” is centered on the temptations of the flesh and earthly delights, whereas the “city of God” is centered on the desire for a meaningful and deep spiritual relationship with God.  He covered both of these aspects of history up until his own time.  Just as a modern historian tries to do, Augustine looked for the causes of historical events. Augustine’s seeming overall goal in The City of God was to show that throughout all of history God was, and is, the all powerful guiding hand that determines what happens.  In sum, Augustine argues that the cause of all events in history is God.[2]

            For hundreds of years after Saint Augustine western historians stuck to the notion that God is the guiding hand behind all human events.  Even today many people still argue that all of history’s causes are the sole responsibility of the all mighty God himself.  One post-Augustine philosopher that kept God in the picture was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  Hegel attempted to make the entirety of the human past intelligible.  In order to do this Hegel described “nature and history as the manifestations of divine will in space and time.”[3]  History, in other words is the end result of God’s will and if man is to understand history then man must first understand God’s will.  In this way history is not a mixture of “mad and foolish happenings.”[4]  Hegel did admit that there were seemingly unexplainable chance occurrences throughout history that were not the doing of God, but argued that these events are insignificant and not noteworthy. Hegel insisted that the meaning of history itself could be found in the will of God.[5]

            Hegel also came up with the interesting idea of the thesis and antithesis.  Hegel, himself a product of the enlightenment and seemingly working in a world of thought, agued that things derive their meaning from their direct opposite.  Hot, for example has no meaning without cold, nor does dry have any meaning without wet.  To further this idea Hegel starts with the idea of a thesis, or an existing element of thought. He then argues that with the existence of a thesis there is automatically engendered the existence of an antithesis, or the direct opposite of the thesis.  With the creation of the antithesis there starts a period of brief conflict between the thesis and the antithesis.  Eventually, though, the conflict works itself out and a synthesis is created.  This synthesis then becomes its own thesis and the whole process starts all over again.[6] 

            Not all historians bought into the idea that God is the sole cause of history.  Other enlightenment historians such as Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and David Hume argued that religion is only an impediment to human progress.[7]  These historians sought to show that history is the story of the continual growth of mankind form barbarity to the enlightened society of their time.[8]  Voltaire, as a matter of fact, even went as far as to declare that priests are some of the most devious people of all time.[9]  Many of the historians of this time also thought that history is one of the sciences.  They took the view that history could be reconstructed through meticulous research and observation.  As a replacement for God, many of these historians started coming up with theories to explain the causes of history.  Ibn Khaldun, an earlier non-Western philosopher (circa 1350 A.D.), argued that there were two aspects of society which included the nomads and the city dwellers and used this split as part of his attempt to explain the causes of history.

            Auguste Comte, a Eurocentric 17th century thinker, had his own ideas to explain history’s causes.  Comte focused his attention on Europeans whom he considered the best of the human race.  Furthermore, Comte liked to push the big picture, often leaving out the importance of individual names or even countries.  He broke history up into three categories.    In the first, humans figured that the world was controlled by an external force that they could not control.  The force, though, could be manipulated by prayer or perhaps even sacrifice.  In the second stage, “abstract forces,” such as the needs of man or the requirement of nature, controlled history.  Finally, in the third stage, man would positively come to an understanding that it is the relationship between occurrences that explain history.  Comte also argued that “scientifically speaking, all isolated, empirical observation is ideal…”[10] He essentially wanted to find a scientific cause for history.    

            Hume also believed in the science of history.  He alleged that one should not claim more than the examination of observable facts can merit.  Hume said that impressions are the direct result and product of immediate experiences and that “ideas are merely feeble copies of these original impressions.”[11] He also believed that the occurrence of phenomenon in the past does not necessarily imply that it will occur again in the future.  In this light, Hume argued that the study of history will not be useful for any sort of political or moral gain.[12]

            As history progressed, historians started to come up with central ideas, or metanarratives, that they used to try and find the causes of history.  One of the most influential metanarratives was contrived by Karl Marx.  Marx believed that the controlling factor of all of history is capital.  In one of his books, The Communist Manifesto, Marx argued that there are essentially two classes of people in the world; the haves and the have-nots.  In this split world the haves, or the bourgeoisie, are able to control the have-nots, or the proletariat, because the bourgeoisie control the means of production.  Fundamentally, the causes of history are the control of capital and the resulting class struggle.  Furthermore, Marx argued that the proletariat will eventually rise up to overcome the bourgeoisie in order to implement the perfect utopia.[13] 

            Another influential empiricist thinker was Leopold von Ranke.  Ranke argued that it is the historian’s job to do nothing more than simply present the historical facts as they are found.  Ranke did not like the idea that historians were judging the past, or interpreting the past through the lens of their modern thinking.  To Ranke, the facts were the most important part of history.  If historians try and interpret the facts then they are only clouding the real truth behind the information.  Many people followed the foot steps of Ranke.  These thinkers of Ranke’s school of thought lived and worked all the way up until quite modern times. 

            Ranke’s ideas about the utter importance of the facts, and nothing but the facts, did not stick around forever.  Historians started to claim that analyses of facts are, in all actuality, some of the most important jobs for historians to do.  The facts by themselves can be quite useless without the analytical processes of the historian.  If, for example, historians find that a pound of wheat cost the average 17th century Englishman £0.05 it might be an interesting fact.  This information, though, is useless without the understanding of how much £0.05 was worth in today’s standards.  Through historical analysis historians can bring meaning to Ranke’s beloved facts.  This meaning, in the modern notion, is what the historian is supposed to create.  Furthermore, Ranke’s ideas essentially take the humanity out of history.  People must interpret the facts in order to put emotions and meanings into the text.  The hypothetical fact that wheat cost £0.05 a pound, for instance, could mean that wheat was in short supply and that families could not afford to feed them selves, or it could also mean that wheat was very cheap and that life was good for the average Englishman.  Without the interpretation of the facts the average person might have no idea what £0.05 for wheat really meant on a humanistic level. 

            Humanistic ideas helped to lead historians away from Ranke’s school and the ideas of the empiricists into the current mode of thinking known as postmodernism.  Postmodernism is centered on the idea of deconstruction.  A postmodernist starts off with a sign, or a specific meaning.  When signs are combined in order to make several meanings then discourse is created.  Discourse is fundamentally conveyed meaning.  Furthermore, discourse should be immediately obvious to anyone that uses it.  If, for example, someone called a man gay in 1942 then it would be perceived that the man was happy and that the comment is a positive statement.  On the other hand if a man was called gay in 2005 then it would be perceived that the man is homosexual and the comment could be potentially shrouded in negative meaning.  Another example is if some one referred to another as a rascal in today’s day and age, the rascal would most likely think nothing of the comment.  If, though, that same comment was made in 1804 then the rascal might be tempted to partake in a duel that could potentially lead to death.[14]  In essence, the discourse around the words rascal and gay have dramatically changed between the past and the present. 

Once a postmodernist has established the discourse then he or she must establish the text. The text is basically a concept.  Nothing is supposed to be outside the text.  This in mind, postmodernists also believe that historians should not use history as a guide for future morals, nor should they judge the past according to current morals.  Seeing as morals and discourse change overtime, to judge the past with one’s own morals would not be truly understanding how the people of the past lived and thought. Postmodernism let many thinkers analyze history in new and controversial ways. 

            One of the historians who embraced postmodernism is David M. Wrobel.  Wrobel counters Fredrick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” which said that Americans were not just extensions of European society, but were in fact exceptional because the frontier challenged them to adapt to the hardships of the wilderness.  Turner said that the frontier is what made America great and that Americans should work hard not to lose the frontier mentality.  Wrobel calls the Turner’s idea of American Exceptionalism a myth.  He argues that the myth of the frontier was created to illustrate the qualities that Americans wanted as part of their national image. Once the people bought into the myth it then became a tool that could be used to manipulate the masses.  The government, for example used the myth to promote imperialism and to create support for their public land policy. Sales men, on the other hand used the myth to promote and sell their products.  Since the people bought into Turner’s thesis they found comfort in the myth and would do what they were told in order to hold on to the frontier mentality.   In essence, Wrobel argues that the Frontier Thesis created a myth that had long lasting effects on the American culture and on American policies.[15] 

            Another of the postmodernist thinkers was Michel Foucault.  Foucault argues that the people who control the discourse in any given society have all of the power.  To prove his point Foucault uses the discourses regarding sexuality.  He says that society should not be concerned with who has the power, but instead with why they have the power.  It is society that supports the power structure, so if the power structure supports the repression of sexuality, or any other discourse for that matter, it is society that must ask why.[16]

            Throughout the ever changing field of history, man’s understanding of the past has been in constant flux.  Men at one time shared their history as merely myth that took place sometime in the continual cycle of the past.  Eventually thinkers such as Herodotus and Thucydides came up with the notion that history should be a collection of past truths and events.  From there, men such as Saint Augustine claimed that history is in fact linear and that mankind is continually progressing toward the end of time.  With the notion of linear history deeply ingrained in the texts of history, thinkers started looking for the causes of history.   Metanarratives, such as Marx’s theory that capital controls all, started to define historical thinkers.  Finally, historians started to work at the deconstruction of history as postmodernism worked its way into the modern historical though.  Throughout history, though, historians have agreed that their overall goal has been to find the causes of history. Whether the cause is God’s divine will or the simple interplay between phenomena, cause must be looked for.


[1] Mark T. Gilderhus, History and Historians: A Historiographical Introduction Fifth Edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Pearson Education, Inc. 2003) 5-21  

[2] Gilderhus, History and Historians 16-18

[3] Gilderhus, History and Historians 44

[4] David Burrell, A Historian Looks at Hegel Philosophically: Critical examination of Hegelian dialectic ( accessed 11-19-2005, 1991)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Burrell, A Historian Looks at Hegel Philosophically; Gilderhus, History and Historians 44

[7] Gilderhus, History and Historians 36

[8] John Tosh, the pursuit of history, third edition, (London: Pearson Education, 1999) 13 

[9] Gilderhus, History and Historians 36

[10] Auguste Comte, The Positive Philosophy (Translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau), Vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1854)

[11] Hume: Empiricist Naturalism

[12] Gilderhus, History and Historians 38

[13] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. (England: Penguin Books. 1967)


[14] This is in reference to the dual between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

[15] David M. Wrobel, The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 1993)

[16] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction Volume 1. New York: Vintage Books. 1976



© All words and music written and owned by Shawn Nelsen.