In Memoriam. Wilson J. Warren and Shirley A. Ort May 1, E rnst A.
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By Ernst Breisach. Rather it grew over many years together with my fascination with historiographical problems. Again and again I confronted the question, Why has Western culture so persistently exhibited a concern for the past and produced so great a variety of historiographical interpretations? The expectation I held as a youthful historian, that I could find clear and ready answers, has long since yielded to a sense of awe for the complexity of the problem and the perplexing if not embarrassing realization that history, the discipline identified with reflection on the past, has no satisfactory account of its own career in English or any other language.
In tranquil times that might not matter, although it seems hardly proper even then. But in the late twentieth century, when there is much talk about a crisis of historiography and when historians attempt to construct theories of history in order to justify the discipline and defend its territory, the lack of a comprehensive survey of historiography is more than an annoyance. It leads even historians to make ad hoc judgments on the nature and theory of history which—irony of ironies—fail to understand the problems of historiography historically.
There exist excellent monographs on aspects and periods of historiography. They are most valuable but cannot substitute for a continuous account. The desire to demonstrate that whole made me stubbornly stress the main lines of development and reject the temptation to write a handbook or encyclopedia with the obligation inherent in such works to mention as many worthy historians and their works as possible.
The present work, which shows the role history and historians have played in the various societies and phases of Western culture, proved substantially more difficult to write than a Who wrote what, when book. The latter would demand much time and patience but little sense of development or interpretation. Readers who fail to find expected names and works here should remember that this book is designed to narrate and interpret, not to recite lists.
Omission signifies not a lack of distinction but only that the historian or the work was not needed to illustrate a development or the thought of a school. Readers will also notice that I have avoided judgments on historians and schools of thought.
I entrust these judgments to the readers and to life. The former will wish for that freedom and the latter has its own ways of judging—harsh, relentless, and final. Finally, those who would have preferred a topical to a narrative account will find sufficient guidance in the detailed Table of Contents and the Index. As for dates, I have included many but relied in other instances on the context of narration to fix the time of a historiographical development.
In addition, the life spans of the authors discussed are given in the Index. My own expectations for this book are well measured. If the work will make discussions on the nature of history a bit more informed, help define the dimensions of the so-called crisis of history in a more realistic manner, kindle enthusiasm or simply respect for the discipline, and even lead some to read more in the works of past historians, its purpose will have been fulfilled and the many years of labor on it well spent.
At the beginning of all acknowledgments must stand the general and sincere one to the dozens of scholars who have written monographs on special periods and without whose labor my own would have been prolonged by many years. The select bibliography is in this sense also part of the acknowledgments. My expression of gratefulness to them is no mere formality but the result of sincere appreciation.
During the nineteenth century—often called the Golden Age of History—historians counseled kings, were leaders in the unification of Germany and Italy, gave a prime minister and a president to France, provided identities to new and old nations, inspired the young American nation in its mastery of a continent, endowed revolutions with the authority of the past, and ascended to the rank of scientists.
Above all, they convinced most scholars that everything must be understood in terms of development; in short, historically. No wonder that Thomas Carlyle proclaimed history to be immortal: Some nations have prophecy, some have not: but of all mankind, there is no tribe so rude that it has not attempted History.
Living in this skeptical age they miss in the passage a proper measure of doubt and caution, if not a share of their suspicion that history has become a bit old-fashioned. Had not the historians of the nineteenth century proclaimed that everybody and everything changes and that there are no timeless concepts? Our age, these skeptics argue, may simply require new methods for and new approaches to the final explanation of human life or, as some would put it, new intellectual instruments for mastering the world; a world in which it no longer suffices to observe how things had gradually come to be, as traditional historians have been doing, but one in which historians have to be content with unearthing the raw materials for the social scientists who alone explain, maybe even reorder, human life in a scientific manner.
More recently, others have exhorted historians to realize that the aim to reconstruct the past in its actuality—even imperfectly—was an illusion altogether.
History was a special type of literature. Hence literary criticism and theory were the proper models of explanation. Historians have reacted to such skepticism with bewilderment and, sometimes, with indignation. But in a world fond of new theories of history with either scientific or literary preferences, they have been increasingly drawn into theoretical discussions. When pressed to answer the query Why history? The history of historiography has shown the role these uses of history have played, mostly in combinations.
Yet their pragmatic functions have pointed to a more basic insight. The claim of history to be perennial cannot be based on a limited list of functions; it can only be sustained by demonstrating the existence of a necessary link between history, as reflection on the past, and human life. An examination of the list of functions history has performed over the centuries reveals that these functions stem from the central fact that human life is subject to the dictates of time.
At this point it is best to refrain from asking what time is unless one wishes to share in the exasperation of an ancient questioner: What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not St.
Psychologists, whose love for experiments and expressing results in numbers provides them with proper contemporary credentials, have in their way reaffirmed that the dimension of time is central to all of human existence. They have found that the span of time which we actually experience as now, the mental present, is only a fraction of a second long. It does not matter that in everyday life we mean a longer time span when we refer to the present, the conclusion is inescapable that human life is never simply lived in the present alone but rather in three worlds: one that is, one that was, and one that will be or better, that people envisioned to be.
In theory we know these three worlds as separate concepts but we experience them as inextricably linked and as influencing each other in many ways. Every important new discovery about the past changes how we think about the present and what we expect of the future; on the other hand every change in the conditions of the present and in the expectations for the future revises our perception of the past.
That linkage constitutes a nexus in life and hence in the historical study of life. One that is best called the historical nexus.
Historians of historiography have discerned the historical nexuses people of the past have shaped in their lives as they have tried to make sense of the human condition—a condition marked by the full dimension of time, that is, change and continuity alike.
The nexuses, with their concrete manifestations of change and continuity, have always testified to the unbreakable connection between life and historical thought. There we observe how expectations for the future turn first into the realities of the present and then become the memories of the past—whether it be the fading of day into night, the change of seasons, the rise and fall of governments and states, or our own maturing and aging. They all testify to the continuous flow of time, although at a first look they accentuate the phenomenon of change.
However, if we were to conclude that change is the only fundamental aspect of human life we would err seriously. Histories of seemingly unconnected changes, even if they were brilliantly written, would affect the reader like a thousand-hour-long look through a kaleidoscope; at first the observer is gripped by a fascination with the ever-changing patterns, then by increasing boredom, and finally by a deep sense of futility.
History cannot for long remain the record of changes alone because that would deny the true nature of human life in which the experience of change is counterbalanced by that of continuity. Individuals and groups have long since discovered that even in the aftermath of the most radical revolutions the new age still carries many marks of the past.
This continuity displeases advocates of sudden and complete change but contributes to human life a sense of stability, security, and even comfort. Once we accept that human life is marked both by change as that which makes past, present, and future different from each other and continuity as that which links them together, we begin to understand why historians have played so central a role in Western civilization.
They have designed the great reconciliations between past, present, and future, always cognizant of both change and continuity. In other words, they have made sense of or, as some would put it, have given meaning to human life without denying its development throughout time. This link between life and historiography also explains why in generation after generation and in society after society historians have created ever new interpretations of the past.
Those who use these changing views of the past for proving that historical truth is unreliable ignore the fact that it is life which goes on creating the ever different worlds—not quite new, but also not quite the same—to which historians must respond. All other branches of scholarship dealing with human life have so far shared in this failure to bring forth the unchanging truth, although many of them have claimed timelessness for their theories and insights.
The task of historians of historiography then does not seem too difficult to describe; it is to trace the ways in which people in Western culture have reflected on the past and what these reflections have told them about human life as it passes continuously from past to present to future. But time is not a type of space in which things happen, but it rather is interwoven into all aspects of life at any given moment. It introduces a tension into human existence between inescapable change and the human need for continuity.
All of that happens in awareness of the unalterable linearity of individual and collective lives. Historical accounts tell of the events and thoughts of people in the past—all of them marked by the historical nexuses that guided these people.
Historians of historiography record how life tested and modified these nexuses often in dramatic fashions. But how should historians of historiography relate that seemingly wave-like development, ever rising and falling? They could simply compile an inventory of past historical views, perhaps even produce an encyclopedia of historiography.
But that would deny the assertion by historians that chronological sequence is crucially important. Yet it would settle little if one arranged narrative portraits of historians and their views chronologically, as pictures are arranged in a gallery along a corridor. It still would leave unresolved the all-important question whether there is more to historiographical development than a record of historiographical views that reflect merely the idiosyncratic attitudes of period after period.
The life experiences and insights gained in these periods would become invalid outside of their settings. Even modern historical science would be peculiar just to our period and have no special claim to universal validity. These arrangers have discerned no inherent direction in historiography or indeed in life itself. In contrast, other historians of historiography have given preference to those historians whose views have presumably helped guide historiographical development toward a clear and known goal.
By far the best known and presently most influential version of this view has equated the story of historiography with the emergence of the modern historical science. In their accounts these historians of historiography sort the wheat from the chaff, that is, they separate in all of past historiography those views which have contributed to the forming of the modern science of history from those which were based on wrong perceptions; the former earn praise, the latter reproach.
No simple technical trick enables us to make an easy choice between these two views or others. Once the link between history writing and the human condition is grasped in all its complexity, simple solutions vanish. Aware of that, I have endeavored to trace the complex story of history writing in a manner that will enlighten readers but will not satisfy the lovers of simplifications.
Just as history as a human endeavor has persisted and will persist, despite contemporary doubts and criticisms, because it has rejected arid theoretical schemes and has remained sensitive to the complexity and the creativity of life, so the study of historiography is most fascinating and worthwhile if it is not reduced to catch-words and formulas but is studied in its fullness. Only then can it inform us about the career of history throughout Western history and its service to human life.
We and the bards. The Homeric epics, now innocuously enshrined in the treasure house we call Great Literature, were in centuries past sources of inspiration and pride. The ancient Greeks found them endlessly fascinating, edifying, and particularly useful for the education of the young.
The Romans traced their origin to the Trojans, and so did other people in their quest for prestige. Its conquerors were a motley lot of Mycenaean nobles bent on destroying and looting. The Trojan campaign may have been the last hurrah of the Mycenaeans or Achaeans who, between and B. Four to five hundred years after Troy had been laid waste, Homer or, as some scholars would have it, a number of rhapsodes or bards composed the Iliad and the Odyssey , either by creating through artistic imagination new epics from traditional material or by simply coordinating a few existing epics.
More troubling to the historian is the fact that the surviving versions of the two epics which so greatly influenced Western civilization were, of course, those versions somebody wrote down. Yet, the first of these appeared only during the sixth century B. The most influential version was that by Aristarchus of Samothrace from the second century B.
Gradually and still dimly, the modern image of the Mycenaean period and the Greek Dark Age is taking shape. Its elements are trade relationships, empires, expeditions of plunder and destruction, strategies of war and trade, and intricate social hierarchies: conceptual schemes which would puzzle the bards of the Homeric period.
Ernst A. Breisach (1923-2016)
Historiography: ancient, medieval, & modern
Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Third Edition