Rethinking history



Over winter break, I met with some friends at my favorite diner, a place where finding hair in your food is an expectation, and where you hope to exit covered in a coat of grease. My friend’s friend, an engineering student who tagged along, asked my major, to which I responded “History, English and Philosophy,” bracing myself for the assault. Impracticality, impoverishment, early death — my typical prognosis.

Instead, he proceeded to share his wisdom, having (evidently) given past thought to the purpose of studying history, perhaps with his elite liberal arts education. As I learned, history is a progressive, forward-moving tidal wave, and from history we may make sound predictions about the future. Just look at how far we’ve come, and look at where we’re headed!

Normally, the hash browns, pork chop juice and watered-down coffee lift me into blissful satisfaction. This time, I left the diner with a bad taste in my mouth.

Of course, in an age where blind conceptions of progress intoxicate everyone, and in which the humanities face daily execution, I can’t really fault someone for even a misguided defense of history. And I’m sure that the comment was mostly innocent. But it reflected a dangerous, perhaps fatal misconception that pervades our society, and particularly our generation — that history is progressive and conforms to some kind of natural law, and that everything historical fits into some kind of coherent portrait of “how things work,” giving us comfort, predictable certainty and hope about the future.

This is not a new problem. Roland Barthes, a 20th century French literary critic (and I realize that this reference will lead most historians astray), pinpointed the popular tendency to convert history into nature. The job market, your affluent lifestyle, your green lawn, your political party, war. It’s just the way things are, and always have been, and always will be.

I’d have an aneurism if I tried to address all of the logical complications with this view, but I think the absurdity speaks for itself. We take particular, artificial conditions that we’ve accidentally created for ourselves, existing for no more than a millisecond on the geological time scale, and then make lofty extrapolations about how the world works.

Trapped in this delusion that all human events are “natural,” we go on with our complacent lives, ignoring dire, historically unprecedented problems while citing false, eternal precedents. “The market always corrects itself.” “Politics has always led to compromise.” “The planet always goes through phases of warming and cooling.” “Poverty has always existed.” “People have always been racist.” “People have always partied in college.” “Philosophy majors always end up unemployed.”

“But things always end up getting better.”

Not only is this mindset a sorry excuse to ignore your surroundings and responsibilities, creating a hopelessly inert society — it’s an imperiling path toward our collective suicide. As we continue to pursue these “natural” courses of life — the career paths and life plans we envision for ourselves, the environmentally murderous purchases we make every day to fulfill those life plans, two-party politics, the disregarded excesses and exploitations of consumer culture — we’ll soon be rudely awakened to nature’s reality.

And real the nature of things is a terrifying departure from the self-justifying nature that we’ve made up.

As the planet warms, as global food supplies run dry, as clean water becomes scarce, as artificial intelligence and automation sweep up our jobs, as bioengineering rewrites humanity, as nuclear threats proliferate, as tech addiction makes everyone more anxious and depressed, and as nature disappears before our very eyes, we’ll realize there’s nothing natural about any of this, despite what we’ve selectively extracted from history.

Put down your Steven Pinker — the world isn’t getting better, and it won’t get better, so long as we participate in this endless, unnatural race of global consumption and cosmopolitan culture, continuing to think that all of our problems will naturally correct themselves. Things don’t always improve on their own, and, historically speaking, they never really have.

Perhaps, then, we ought to rethink the natural, and realize that history, in its attempt to reconstruct the past, helps us insofar as we can use it to better understand the present. History does not establish maxims about how things work. There is no teleological drive to history. The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution do not tell us that mankind is on an inevitable journey toward progress and knowledge, or that technological advancement can, must and will happen. Instead, these moments in history tell us that we have a lot of new things, a lot of new ideas, and a lot of new problems that demand examination.

None of it’s natural. It’s historical, and we ought to treat it as such, making history ourselves instead of letting false notions of history make it for us.

Share This


Wordpress (0)
Disqus ( )