Albert Rodda, California State Senator who passed away in 2011, wrote a series of extraordinary works. This one on history and the import of it is something you should read if you are a person on the path of understanding yourself in this chaotic world:
Course Syllabus Supplement – Western Civilization
Sacramento Community College
History: Does It Have Meaning?
By Albert S. Rodda
Asiatic nationalism, the population explosion, the demand for immediate democracy and freedom, the urgent need to industrialize the backward nations, relative scarcity of natural resources, and the fragile nature of the earth’s environment create today world conditions which might well drive the course of world events toward a third world war. Since this would be disastrous to world civilization, we are justified in making it, the possibility of world war, the number one world problem confronting mankind.
In a world situation such a ours, characterized by a peaceful coexistence resting on a delicate balance of terror, any number of conditions can serve as destabilizing factors and bring the world to the threshold of war.
We are compelled, therefore, to raise several questions: Is there anything that can be done to establish peace? Has mankind the freedom of will to do what is necessary? Has he the social intelligence?
On this point Arthur T. Hadley comments most interestingly as follows in “The Nation’s Safety and Arms Control:”
“…necessity has never been a particularly impressive argument to mankind. Nor is there any guarantee that the skills necessary to handle the nuclear world lies within human capacity.”
He observed, also, that in Scottish law there is a verdict of “not proven” – not innocent and set free; not guilty and condemned, simply not proven. This would seem, he said, to be the only verdict on mankind’s ability to survive in the nuclear age: “not proven.”
Emery Reves in The Anatomy of Peace rejects the contention of many that war cannot be abolished. War, in his view is neither “inexplicable” nor “inevitable.” It is the consequence of clearly definable conditions; and occurs with the “mathematical regularity of natural laws…..”
Reves predicates his argument upon two verities of history: (1) that war between groups of men organized into social units always occur when such groups exercise sovereign power and (2) that wars between social groups cease immediately upon the transference of sovereign power to a larger or higher unit of social organization.
It is the contact between “non-integrate social units of equal sovereignty,” he reasons, that produces the juxtaposition of conflicting social forces which inevitably lead to war, or organized destruction engaged in by mutually incompatible sovereign entities.
History, in Reves’ view, consists of recurring periods of armed truce or peace interrupted by recurring periods of conflict or war. The period of a power balance is better understood, therefore, not as a condition of peace but a pre-condition to war. In seeking to organize rationally the conditions of peace, Reves suggests, therefore, that it cannot be accomplished by the device of a power balance.
History provides ample evidence of the futility of such endeavor. On this point he wryly comments that “technical equipment, and arms, has as much to do with peace as frogs with the weather” and that “conscription and large armies are just as incapable of maintaining peace as no conscription and disarmament.”
He concludes and I quote:
“Logical thinking and historical empiricism agree that there is a way to solve this problem…once and for all. But with equal clarity they that there is one way and one way alone:…The integration of the scattered conflicting national sovereignties into one unified, higher sovereignty, capable of creating a legal order within which all peoples may enjoy equal security, equal obligation and equal rights under the law.”
Assuming the correctness of Reves’ analysis, the question remains: Does mankind have the freedom to structure a world in which peace can survive? Admittedly, human beings are, in a sense, victims of the social, economic, and political context in which they are born and live. If the structure of society possesses an inherent orientation toward social conflict, can man change it? Is there reason to believe, or even hope, that some latitude exists for man to create an environment in which peace, and not war, is the reasonable probability?
In his War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy comments significantly in describing the Napoleonic invasion of Russia as follows:
“We are forced to fall back upon fatalism in history to explain irrational events…The more we try to explain events in history rationally, the more irrational and incomprehensible they seem to us:”
“The higher a man’s place in the social scale, the more conspicuous is the inevitability and predestination of every act he commits.”
“The King,” says Tolstoy “is the slave of history.” “Every action that seems…an act of (individual) freewill, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity.”
The question might very well be asked: Is Tolstoy right? Does history reveal that man is helplessly swinging upon the hinge of fate?
Definition of History
We might very well, in exploring this question, begin by defining what history is.
History is not the event itself – not the deeds of yesterday themselves–it is the written record of the significant events of the past which is developed from surviving evidence, written and unwritten. It is each generation’s interpretation of what happened.
A good definition of history is that of John Huizinga: “History is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past.”
It is not “bunk” as observed by Henry Ford and it is not, as described by Napoleon Bonaparte, the number of lies that men will agree to believe.
History is as close to the truth as historical method can attain. Even so it has its limitations. Anatole Mazour, professor of history at Stanford University, described them when he wryly observed that “History is complicated truth transformed into simplified falsehood.” Here he was simply trying to emphasize that the truth about a thing suffers as a result of the process of generalization or abstraction. This observation should not encourage the view that generalization should not be attempted since it tends to distort the truth; since generalization and abstraction are the result of intellectualizing about something, the statement should serve only to caution us about hasty and reckless generalization.
During the 19th century, German historians made an effort to place historical research upon a scientific or empirical basis. They contributed substantially to the development, therefore, of modern historical method–a method for determining and presenting the record of the past and scientifically as possible.
The historical method involves the utilization of deductive and inductive reasoning, the development of hypothesis, the careful and objective organization and examination of historical data, and, whenever and to the extent possible, the verification of hypothesis and interpretation.
Essential to sound historical scholarship are the following:
(1) a rational interpretation of the data
(2) an objective attitude toward historical evidence and fact
(3) careful and comprehensive research in order to uncover as fully as possible the relevant historical evidence
(4) establishment of the validity and meaning of the evidence–and internal criticism–establishing the real meaning of the historical record
(5) utilization of auxiliary aids: such as the sister disciplines of anthropology, sociology, economics, statistics and technology, for example, aerial photography, computers, the chemical laboratory, etc. (carbon-14 time dating and x-ray)
Today historians are troubled about their discipline. They recognize that history can provide only limited and not absolute truth and they are afraid that it has only limited usefulness.
Modern scholars are, therefore, less optimistic and certain than were the 19th century German, scientific historians. These men, confident in their methodology, believed that history could determine the past as it actually happened–“Wie es eigentlich gewesen”–both the facts and the casual relationships.
Historians today, influenced by Freudian and behaviorist psychology, philosophical pragmatism, existentialism, and scientific indeterminism are most modest. They are aware of the tendency of man toward irrationalism; they are aware of his non-objectivity, and they recognize the danger in intellectual generalization or simplification.
Historians, therefore, tend to regard historical truth as tentative, not permanent; relative, not absolute; and subjective, not objective. They believe that each generation must write its own history, reach its own idea of truth, and give to history its own meaning–if it has meaning.
Does History Have Meaning
In this respect there are different approaches to the study and interpretation of history. And one’s approach to history will depend upon whether one assumes or believes that history is determinant, non-determinant, or whether it does or does not have meaning, purpose, or ends.
There is an approach called historicism. When used in the Popperian sense, it is a belief in determinism or law in history. The historian who accepts this view of the meaning of history regards historical truth as the unfolding of historical law. History becomes revelation. Marxists are determinists—economic determinists. They hold to the belief that economic institutions and forces govern the historical process, and they view historical development, therefore, as a movement toward a classless, socialistic society–the certain outcome of natural law.
In this, the determinists view, man possesses both the freedom and the power of mind and will to put history to work, to make it a tool for his own self-chosen purpose through knowledge of the laws and principles to which it responds.
Edward P. Cheney stated this point of view in 1927 in an essay on Law in History as follows:
“May I repeat that I do not conceive of these generalizations as principles which it would be well for us to accept, or as ideals which we may hope to attain; but as natural laws, which we must accept whether we want to or not; whose workings we cannot obviate, however much we may thwart them to our own failure and disadvantage; laws to be reckoned with, much as are the laws of gravitation, or of the chemical affinity, or of organic evolution, or of human psychology.”
“Man historically has been in much the same position as men individually. He has been able to deflect slightly to one side or another, the law-controlled course of events. He has been able to give social shape to general movements. If his action has been conformable to law it has been effective; when he has worked along with the great forces of history he has influenced constructively the course of events; when his action has violated historic law the results have been destructive, momentary, subject to reversal. Men always have been free to act; the results of their actions will depend on the conformity or nonconformity of these actions to law.”
There is a view that history is pure description–another approach which is also referred to as historicism. It is, of course, non-Popperian. Such historians see no relationship, no pattern in history. They are romanticists; they see only separate, disconnected, discrete historical events. History has no end, no purpose–no meaning. Their study of history is justified solely by an antiquarian interest in the past for information about the past and for information only.
Another, perhaps, the oldest concept of history is the teleological or providential concept in which history is seen as the development of God’s purpose or plan. It reflects a theistic faith and perspective and tends toward fatalism and the denial of freedom for the individual to give to life’s existence a human meaning or purpose–since man’s fate is the fulfillment of God’s will. It is God directed.
Sometimes referred to as the Augustinian approach to historical meaning, the teleological approach is encountered in the reflections on history of St. Augustine, and, at least inferentially, in the “The Second Inaugural of Abraham Lincoln,” when he said:
“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it–all sought to avert it. All parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came. The Almighty has His own purpose. Woe unto the world because of offenses: For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”
The Germans, in applying the methodology of science to historical study, did not view history as determinant, yet they did not regard it as meaningless. German scholars interpreted the historian’s task to be the discovery of the facts of history and their true casual relations. And they did not visualize history as determinant in the natural of theistic way, nor did they regard it as a pragmatic study. They saw historical study and analysis primarily as a scientific endeavor to understand, for its own sake, what happened and why.
These are the principal views of history as having meaning. How can they answer, one might ask, the question: Can man influence his fate and, thus, avoid world war?
Obviously, several of the views of the historical process are fatalistic, since they regard historical processes as beyond human influence or determination. This is especially true of those who accept the providential concept of historic meaning and, to a less extent, the non-determinist historicists and the adherents to the German ort scientific school of historiography.
The determinists, whether Marxian, Hegelian, economic, geographical, or morphological, interpret history as having an end and as moving under the influence of natural law toward that end. They allow a slight area of human freedom–the liberty to act within the limits of natural law–a circumscribed freedom.
Two contemporary historians assign greater freedom to man than do the traditional determinists. They can be thought of as historical pragmatists. They are Carl Popper and Arnold Toynbee.
In “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Popper categorically states that history has no meaning in the philosophical or metaphysical sense and joins those who see history as leading no where and being without sense or meaning. And yet, he does not capitulate completely to historical nihilism; for he assigns to history a meaning in a pragmatic or existentialist sense. In his words: “Although history has no meaning, we can give it meaning.”
“…there can be no history of the past as it actually did happen; there can only be historical interpretations and none of them final.”
And so it follows that every generation must write its own history. To Popper, it is not only the right of each generation to rewrite history, but to do so is its duty, since it must discover for itself the historical direction it wishes to take.
The conclusion must not be inferred that history, because it has no meaning, is therefore to Popper a huge joke. He is not saying that; he is merely saying that the purpose of history is not external to man, and that it will baffle us if we seek to find in it the purposes of a divine providence, or the laws of nature which usher man from one stage of development to another–from cocoon to larva, from larva to moth.
History must be of man’s own making; for example, he can strive to make institutions more rational; he can fight for the open society against its enemies; and he can make the rule of reason, justice, equality, freedom and world peace his goals.
But history cannot dictate such a role for him; it must be of his own choosing. The facts of history have in themselves no meaning; they gain meaning only through human evaluation. In other words, meaning is not discovered in history; it is imparted to it. People who study history cannot become prophets; but they may become the makers of their fate. This is Popper’s offering to those seeking meaning in history.
Upon us, then, depends whether there will be historical progress, since history itself is not self-directing, not moving with purpose, but inert. Man’s destination on earth is not then predestined; man is left with the freedom to choose the end and the way.
Popper leaves unanswered whether man has the intelligence to choose rightly, but he more than infers that he will choose rightly, if he chooses righteously–if he chooses human freedoms, social justice, individual equality–and world peace.
Popper hurls a challenge, not a promise.
So does Arnold Toynbee in “A Study of History” in which he develops the challenge-response interpretation of history. Briefly Toynbee contends that civilizations usually die by war and that the historical record is reasonably explicit on this point. Toynbee believes, however, that man himself is responsible for the tragic historical fate which befalls him, since civilization takes direction from human response to historical confrontation. Death comes to civilization because human beings, when challenged by crises, react unrealistically and irrationally. In the past they have borne the consequences of their ways, and they must and will continue to, today and in the future. Toynbee also hurls a challenge and makes no promises.
The Definition and Purpose of History
Before commencing the course an attempt should be made to explain what is meant by history. Unless we can arrive at a reasonably satisfactory definition of the term, we can hardly succeed in our study.
There have been many definitions of history. Napoleon, for example, called it the “number of lies that men agree to believe.” The English historian, Freeman, defined it as the study of politics. Professor Edward Hulme of Stanford University defined it as the study of the best men have thought and done. Other writers have had different conceptions of the meaning of history. To Allan Nevins of Yale University it means the “study of the development of the national character.”
A number of historians have argued that history is a science and that its study makes possible the discovery of the laws which govern the development of civilization and the prediction of the future of civilization. I regard history as the systematic study of the past behavior and thought of man. Its purpose is better to explain why man behaves and thinks as he does today. I believe that history can do this. However, I believe, also, that history is not governed by law and that it cannot, therefore, be predicted. At best, the historian can suggest probabilities for future historical development. Despite this confessed limitation upon the power of history, its significance must not be underestimated. Historical study is tremendously important; it can be of great practical value to mankind.
The purpose of history is to explain how and why human beings respond as they do to their environment.
Scientifically, man is regarded as an anthropoid–a higher animal form, certainly possessed of intelligence, and thought by some to posses a human soul. Sociologically, man is regarded as a social animal existing in both a natural and an artificial environment. Scientifically and sociologically, human behavior, therefore, can be regarded as either an instinctive, emotional, or rational response to the stimuli provided by the environment.
If the historian can contribute to our understanding of this behavior, he may assist the human race to behave in a fashion which is in true harmony with the best interest of mankind. A better understanding of history as a basis of action might, for example, have made possible the avoidance of the awful dilemma of in which human society finds it’s self today.
In studying the history of particular periods and societies, it must be kept constantly in mind that the purpose of the study is the explanation of human behavior during those periods. This is the first purpose of history–the explanation of historic behavior. Its final end purpose is completely dependent upon the success with which this is done. This final purpose, as you have undoubtedly concluded, is the understanding of the behavior of living man and the improvement of that behavior.
An analysis of human action reveals that much of it is essentially animalistic. It is simple, instinctive, and automatic response to environmental stimuli. It is, therefore, very often extremely irrational, being impulsive, emotional, and involuntary. As such, it is frequently the outcome of the natural compulsion of all life toward self-preservation ands self-perpetuation. It is this basic fact with which all students of individual and social behavior have to deal if their work is to be meaningful.
Much human activity is what may be termed conditioned behavior. It, too, is automatic, irrational, impulsive and involuntary. Such behavior results from the development of unconscious human response to environmental conditions, artificial and natural. This fact explains why human types which are essentially similar in physiological characteristics exhibit such wide variations in behavior. Only a moment of reflection on this will show how much of this type of activity in the human being is undesirable and not in the true interests of humanity.
A third type of behavior is that which is directed by the human intellect. This directive force produces conscious, responsible conduct in mankind. They produce responses in human beings which may be highly ethical, moral, and social. This is behavior which is essentially humanistic and not animalistic; it is this type of behavior which distinguishes Homo sapiens from the lesser animals.
Human progress, if we may be optimistic enough to accept the idea of progress, will depend upon the capacity of the human race to achieve a more human behavior–that is–to bring individual and social behavior more fully under the direction of the conscience, the intellect, the beneficent environmental conditions, and at the same time to free it from the influence of pure animalistic promptings and undesirable social surroundings.
The ultimate purpose of history, therefore, is to help the human race in its creeping progress toward moral, spiritual, and ethical living, or the fulfillment of his innate capacity. It is not exclusively the responsibility of history to give this direction to mankind. It is the joint responsibility of all fields of knowledge; it is also the most important function of education. The success of humanity in this endeavor is of vital significance. Socially and individually we must become superior moral men, or we will cease to exist as all.
If there is any one lesson in history, it is a moral and spiritual one.