'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

20 January 2011

Is History Important?

In words borrowed from Herodotus (The Histories) 
"I here display my inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds may not be without their glory."
Images can be enlarged
I recall from my own dim dark past an occasion when I came first in a History exam, but even though I scored more then twenty percent higher then my fellow class mates I still got abused by my teacher for not doing better. In those days and with that 'encouragement' I found history a chore; in fact I found all study fearful. It was not until my later, largely wasted, university days did I begin to awaken to an interest in the tales and achievements of those who came before. Not until then did I see that we are the result of the glories and also the shame of our past. Today I like to say our past because I see every people and land as contributing to the collective wisdom of the human race. I claim all races as my own. Never have we been totally isolated. The ancient Greeks travelled to Africa, Italians travelled to China, Chinese travelled to the Americas as possibly did the Aborigines of Australia. We have much in common. Just like the unresolved appearance of pyramids found in Africa, the Americas, Tibet and elsewhere, our interpretations of the heavens and of life appear to have emerged along strikingly similar lines. 
 Out of Africa, we seem to have all emerged and the collective memory of man is a source of commonality that expresses itself in our similar goals, beliefs and attitudes, even if we fail to recognise this from time to time.
 It has been suggested that a discovery in Spain a few years back now is the oldest evidence of human creativity: a 350,000-year-old pink (an unusual colour) stone axe in what may be a burial site. The placement of this artefact with a body in a grave may represent the first funeral rite by human beings and indicate that man was capable of symbolic thought far earlier than previously assumed. The artefact comes from the species Homo Heidelbergensis, around 600,000-200,000 years ago. They are thought to have given rise to both the Neanderthals and to our species, Homo Sapiens. Caution still exists however as others suggest that the axe may have been deposited with the skeletons by either sludging or placed there by later inhabitants.
Whether or not 'Lucy' is our mother, the sky is full of diamonds.
The skeleton of Lucy whose bones are shown left and image right (believed to be our oldest upright walking ancestor 3.2 million years ago -discovered in 1974) got her name from the Beatles song 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' which was playing on the radio. - 1470 Man was around 1.8 million years old and the more recently unearthed Kenyanthropus dates at 3.5 Million years has arrived as possibly a more distant relative. None are yet us but the history of our emergence continues to be debated. Did we have an Adam and Eve, and from where and when did they emerge? Genetic research of the 'Y' chromosome traces Adam to around 60,000 years ago in East Africa. Did civilisation spring forth from one place and did ideas stretch across the face of the earth from Africa, or as some like to think the lost continent of Mu or some yet undiscovered beginning or did much happen in a simply logical manner at various birthplaces. What we know today will no doubt be challenged tomorrow. Nothing is set in stone except unrelenting uncertainty. History, or what we think it to be today, is far from dead, but the most alive and changing guide to understanding ourselves.

"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."  Napoleon Bonaparte

When I struggled through History in my youth, I was taught biased, isolated and sterile facts of power and rulers. The trend now is for archaeologists to delve into the remains of the common man, and to unearth the lives of people who died in the belief that their privacy had followed them to the grave. Do we have a right to invade what was once secret? Should we dissect, exhibit, discuss or even contemplate that which was not given to us freely? By what right do we expose the sins or successes of our dead predecessors? Like a family secret suddenly revealed, it just is and judgement is not required.

"Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher theory than history; for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular."  Aristotle

Often it is said that we study history to learn about the self, understand the present and prepare for the future. I wonder if it is ever possible to learn from what others have done. When I look at a situation in my own life, I find it hard if not impossible for any other existence to have the ability to understand the truth and depth of what I feel. This is a reciprocal experience, as in truth, I find it difficult to honestly empathise with the interests and events of people other then those of a parent or lover. It appears to require an intense relationship to create the spark which ignites true interest and understanding. I do not say that we do not try, but do we really achieve empathy or honestly care? What hope is there for a historian or novelist to get to the truth, if writing about one who is not only not an intimate, but is separated by years, if not centuries. Theories abound and change, for like so many events, historical analysis becomes subjective, distorted and more often self revealing of the author then is obviously the intention, or I would say, is generally understood and accepted. Fiction is perhaps closer to the truth of what it sets out to be; one person's imagination. Fiction creates its own reality and pretends to do nothing else. Just what is to be learned from history? Probably that we are an infinite number of minute variations on a theme, a complex and unpredictable assortment of individuals who share some thoughts, but diverge on others. The only problem I can see is when one assumes to have the key to 'Truth'.

What is history? Art, music, literature, sculpture, architecture, stories, mountains, oceans, bones, thoughts, and the collective consciousness of human existence, and still it is recreated, modified and adapted over and over until we eventually lose track of what may have been the truth. We love to elaborate and embellish. A story can always be better and it is better if it fits our current views of the world and ourselves. Even our own life is being rewritten over the years. How many people do you know who hold to beliefs about you that you can claim as ill-informed? How many do you know who have different views on events from the past and the present. 

So what is history except a discussion that flows according to the whims of our ever changing mind. This said, there is no reason why we should abandon study. With all the distortion apparent, we still learn. Unlike obsessive fundamentalism, I believe the exact 'facts' of what went before are unimportant to a large extent. If we read much we are exposed to a range of observations that reflect the complexity of human understanding.  The narrow egotism of a little knowledge is not only dangerous, but stupid. Knowing a few 'facts', whether true or false, will not shape our personality or enable us to live life with any more fulfilment. However history is fun, it is a game, it is a discussion, it holds our interest. Who cares if it is true or not, for who knows what is true. If we look a lot we should gain a little. The telling of a story is not always an expression of  truth. Be careful, for what I write is not necessarily the truth. As I said, I try, but so must everyone and none of us should accept without reservation the dictates of anyone including our political or religious leaders. Conscience is a lone journey. My memory is selective, subjective and prone to error, but I write from what I am, in the hope that I will understand more each day.  One should never leave school until you close your eyes for the last time.  

"Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph." Haile Selassie

I happened to read the following in a book on The Egyptian Philosophers by Molefi Kete Asante. Ptahhotep, who lived around 4400 years ago, passed on the wisdom of his experience and that of those who came before. For new and subsequent generations, age was his authority and he began with:-

'O king my lord, I am old, old age has finally arrived. I was first feeble, but now I am weak also. Like a child I sleep all day and when I wake, my eyes are dim and my ears deaf. My strength wanes with weariness, my tongue is silent, my memory is dead and arthritis wreaks havoc on my bones. Sweetness becomes bitterness, my taste is gone - surely old age affects everything. The sinuses are clogged and it is painful to stand or to sit.'

'May old age serve me as a staff, so that I may repeat the words of those who heard the words of the ancestors who listened to the gods. I want the same thing done for you, so that strife may disappear from among the people and the people of both banks of the river serve you! The majestic God said, therefore, - Instruct him in the words of the past, that he become a model for posterity. May he be obedient. May he be devoted to the one who speaks to him, because no one is born with wisdom.'     

I am far from that old and venerable; he claimed to be 110 years old, but  I have been around for a while and I have recorded the things I have observed from our past and from those who are wiser then I. You and I are the result of what has gone before and where we go will influence those who come later. Hopefully I may occasionally create some interest in our history. 
"Any fool can make history, but it takes a genius to write it." Oscar Wilde

"Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results." Machiavelli

"I believe that history is capable of anything. There exists no folly that men have not tried out." C. G. Jung

"Indeed, history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes." Voltaire 

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