Thursday, June 26, 2014
Napoleon May Have Been Right
I am a history geek. You have to know this going in. At any given point I am reading 4 or 5 books simultaneously, and at least 1 of them will be a history book. As we speak I am reading a history of the New Testament churches as well as an introduction to a study of the Middle Ages. My specialties tend to be American history with a Civil War emphasis, and church history( which is why most of my examples in this article come from those two worlds). I have read more church history than anybody I know , except maybe Doug Stauffer. I have read Esebuis and Plutarch and Josephus. I have multiple copies of Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Philip Schafer's work on church history. I have Mannheim's ecclesiastical history , and reports from most of the major English missionary societies from the 1830's. I've got books on the major revival movements in Scotland and Wales, and at least 2 or 3 books on the Waldensians and the Lollards. I have even tried my hand at writing a history book which apparently will never be finished. In researching it I read scores of obscure smaller histories, and it has become apparent to me that the thing I love so much about history also completely validates the Napoleonic sentiment.
The truth is that you never have all the facts. It is literally impossible to have all the facts. When I was researching my own history book I found that, at a certain point you no longer have any primary sources. What you have is somebody who quotes an earlier work; you don't have the earlier work itself. You have to, by necessity, trust that the quoter is giving you the proper context of the information. In case you have ever wondered what the big deal was about the library at Alexandria; that's it. A lot of primary sources went up in smoke, and all we have is people citing other people.
But even if you have the primary sources, the problem of not having all the facts doesn't end there. As an example, most of the early church history (the first 3 centuries especially) we have was written by the enemies of the church. We know who the martyrs are because their oppressors kept records of who they killed, but all you know about them is what their murderers wrote down. It's hardly an unbiased source, and hardly gives you the complete picture of who that person was. All you have is a brief snapshot of that persons life, usually at the very end of that life, written by people who thought the subject was deluded or dangerous, or both.
Even if you have the primary source, and the source is unbiased, the next problem is that any attempt to chronicle history involves, by necessity, oversimplification and generalization. If you take one life, that life literally touches dozens or hundreds of other lives, and to get the story that you're trying to get, you have to at least briefly touch these other lives. For example, General Robert E. Lee's father was 'Lighthorse' Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War hero who, after the war, acquired such massive debts through bad business deals that he only way his son Robert could afford college was to attend West Point. Without Lighthorse squandering the family funds, Robert never goes to West Point and never becomes the famous general. He would most likely have studied engineering like his older brother and died in complete obscurity. Nobody exists in a vacuum and any story leads to a hundred other stories. It's impossible to have all the facts, and the facts you do have almost require a certain amount of omission.
Part of this oversimplification process involves making sweeping statements, some of which are pretty hard to back up by themselves. Groups don't have beliefs, people do, and to make a statement like "The early church believed.." or "Antebellum Southerners felt.." means you have to take the opinions, convictions, and passions of hundreds of thousands of people and condense them into one or two statements. It's impossible to say the early church 'believed' anything because within that community you could literally find scores of opinions on any given subject, just as you could today. But the attempt to tell a history sometimes forces you to present a group of people as a homogenous glob of opinion whether you intend to or not. It's easier with individuals. I could say "Robert E. Lee said.." and then provide a quote, or "General Lee did.." and then describe a concrete, verifiable action. But the further you get away from the individual, the less accurate your history becomes, and I don't know of any way around that.
Undaunted by all these hurdles, the historian will sit down with his incomplete facts and his tangential accounts and try to make a coherent narrative of it all. Here is where the Michael Alford Principle of Life #2 comes into play; to wit "Everybody has an agenda." I have an agenda, you have an agenda. Everybody has an agenda. Having an agenda isn't a bad thing, but to understand anything about a history, you have to understand that the agenda exists. You don't have all the facts, and all the facts you do have aren't relevant, so you as the historian have to decide what facts to include. Whatever your agenda is will determine what you include and what you discard. Generalizations and simplifications are almost always crafted to fit a narrative.
Let's say two men sit down to write a biography on Elvis Presley. One of them doesn't care very much for him, so he chronicles the drug habits, and the constant fornication. He mentions the obsession with the bizarre, and he touches on Elvis's poor hygiene. He highlights the manipulation from Elvis's inner circle that eventually contributed to his death. The picture of Mr. Presley that he presents would be one of, as Steven Banks would say, "poor white trash turned rich white king".
The other biographer mentions Elvis's start in and lifelong love for gospel music. He talks about Elvis's strong family connections and his perpetual generosity. He dwells on the isolation that Presley's fame brought him, and the very real tragedy of such a good man trying to satisfy the constant demands from the not-so-good people around him. Both biographers are presenting facts, and both sets of facts are completely true. Both biographies are crafted to fit a narrative.
When you consider all this, you have to agree with the famous Frenchman, (who may not have even actually said it) that history really is a fable we all agree upon. I would go a step further though and say that most history is not only a fable we all agree upon, but a fable carefully crafted to present a certain view and to fit a certain narrative. There's always more to the story, and always something you're not being told. Frankly, that's the part I love, and also the part that drives me crazy.