Why I Read History


I mainly read history because it is fun. I do, however, occasionally have other reasons. For example, I think that reading history can be an important part of our moral education. Aristotle argues in his Ethics that one ought not to expect a greater level of certainty from a field than the field can deliver. In context, he was making the point that abstract ethical precepts and concepts will only get one so far when it comes to leading a good life. At some point or another, judgment is inevitable. Judgment is not a matter of deducing conclusions from abstract premises. Rather, it is a matter of making good decisions based on wisdom accumulated by experience. History is useful, I think, because it can be a surrogate for experience. We can only live so much, but by reading about the past we can accumulate a vast fund of particulars from the lives of others that can yield a kind of wisdom.

One might also read history to understand the way that human societies work. One has to be careful with this, however. It seems to me that at its best history is a kind of constrained story telling. One constructs a narrative where the sorts of statements one can make are limited by one’s sources. This is no small task, and those who can do it well have mastered a very difficult skill. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to me that the tools that one must become proficient with to do this sort of thing — the collection and interpretation of primary sources — are all that good for making broad generalizations about human societies. To be sure, historians from time to time say good and profound things about human society, but there is a sense in which their insights are serendipitous rather than the yield of a disciplined methodology. In this sense, historical insight into human society is very much like Aristotle’s judgment. It is less a matter of constructing and defending abstract theories than it is about wisdom that emerges from the piling on of particulars.

Of late, I have found another reason for reading history. It helps me to find a sense of place. For the last ten years or so, I have been a fine example of modern American mobility, moving almost annually sometimes within a city or state but often across much larger distances. This kind of mobility can have a corrosive effect on one’s sense of belonging and connection with place. Despite over a decade away from it, I still feel in some sense as though Salt Lake City is home. In large part this is because that’s where my family (or at least a large chunk of it) lives, and it is where I grew up. But it is also because I know the history of Salt Lake. My knowledge of the city is not merely geographic but also temporal and this two-dimensionality binds me to it.

It looks as though we are finally settling down. I don’t anticipate the nearly annual ritual of moving that has characterized my married life thus far. We are now where we are going to live, at least for some time. As fate would have it, we have been cast upon the shores of the James River in the Virginia tidewater. My own roots in America are almost entirely New England and Canadian. I am not descended from Virginians. Hence, I can claim no genetic relationship to my new community. Yet just as history can be a surrogate for experience, it can also be a surrogate for lineage. And so I am reading books about the history of Jamestowne and colonial Virginia, trying to trace out the geography of past events onto my surroundings: I’m two miles from the first English settlement, just down the road from Green Spring, the 17th century plantation of the colonial governor. If I take route 31 into town, I find myself crossing the line that Nathaniel Bacon’s rebels occupied when they besieged the colonial capital in the 17th century. I am learning about Powhatan and Pocahontas, both of whom left their names for creeks that bisect my surroundings. I am not looking for a grand theory of the Virginia tidewater, just a thicker set of particulars in which to live my life.

Ultimately it is the particulars that are the great virtue of history.

(Originally posted on Times & Seasons)

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2 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    Nate, great post. My own view of history is that it provides a framework for understanding, a conceptual scheme that makes our present and our future more comprehensible. You definitely need “strong timbers,” to continue the metaphor, to make a good structure. But you also need someone who can imagine an overall blueprint. I see local studies as the timbers, and more general histories as the blueprint. Both are necessary. But given the increasing pressure in the discipline in recent years toward specialization, I worry that too many timbers are being produced and not enough blueprints. There’s only so many small-town studies that are useful before a “grand theory” is needed to tie them all together and give them significance.

  2. Jeremy says:

    A few years ago, I experienced what you’re talking about. I took a course in Texas history in which we were required to write a paper about the history of a Texas county of our choice. The class was small enough that I picked the county I grew up in. Despite eighteen years here, I had only a general understanding of the city’s history and no idea of the particulars. After researching and writing the paper, I wanted to come back home and walk the streets, identifying landmarks. Before the paper, I had no loyalty to the city beyond my family; now I consider myself a native son.