Is History Bunk?


I was really hoping that Tom Holland’s book would give me the Persian Version of the history of the ancient world. However, I mostly had to content myself with a little review of the stories told to us by Herodotus.  Apparently, there really is no extant Persian Version. And since the book, Persian Fire, is a work aiming for mass appeal, there is of course an emphasis on the salacious, soap-opera-y elements– which truly, is probably no less worthy than some account emphasizing kings and wars, or food and costume.

What IS the purpose or function of history anyway? Especially the telling of tales we KNOW to be inaccurate and incomplete. Is History merely for entertainment purposes? For moral propaganda? For the creation of “ethnicity?” For the instillment of patriotism? Why DO we think it is important that these tales be passed down?

Personally, a large reason behind why I have read history during my life-time is so I can “get” the references when they come up. If lots of people are reading the old tales for the same reason I am, then the studying of History is little more than a self-perpetuating cycle: we read History to understand historical allusions– and then, knowing History, we make allusions using that knowledge.

Many people will give lip service to this idea that we study History so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past. But that’s probably an imperfect reason…

We humans don’t even learn that well from the mistakes we make in our OWN lives, or that our generation or the generation before us made. And when we do think we’ve learned something, we often draw the wrong conclusions anyway, filtering past experiences through untrustworthy and deteriorating memories or being led astray by prejudices and cultural spin doctors. It is really impossible that the limited human mind could ascertain and analyze ALL a situation’s contributing factors and their complex interplay.

When we try to apply the lessons that we’ve think we learned, we often mis-apply them to situations –owing to the complexity of the world and the incompleteness of our view of it– to which they do not really apply.

I cannot begin to count how many times I’ve heard people pronounce hysterical warnings of “encroaching Big Brother” or “Hitlerism” about situations that truly have little or no similarities to those previous situations. Funny, that I cite Big Brother here, for that is Literature, not History– and yet sometimes the uses of Literature and History can be almost identical. Whether outright Fiction or “factual” History– in both cases, we are just passing down stories from one generation to the next.

On the other hand… Stories are the way in which we expand the boundaries of Experience– from the narrow domains of our own little lives– to the unimaginably broader realm of Experience containing a multitude of human lives and generations. In terms of Experience, stories enable us to gather-up the wisdom of thousands upon thousands of life-times. And where else does Wisdom come from except from Experience– either personal or collective?

So I suppose stories are important whether true or untrue. But the wrong lessons learned– or the right lessons applied to wrong situations– can be treacherous.

Perhaps the most dangerous story of all is the one filled with half-truths and surmises. We must always keep in mind that everyone has an agenda. History should be nibbled at– suspiciously and around the edges– like a cookie with a poison center.


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