Monday, December 08, 2003

What is History?


History in the simplest definition of the word is merely anything that happened in the past, but without the past we wouldn’t have a present… or a future. More than a collection of dates and facts, history is a living part the human psyche. It is intertwined in every facet of life, influencing every decision great or small. Winston Churchill said, “Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it.” I believe this to be true. No one can live entirely in the present. There would never be learning or change. Civilizations, nations, individuals; all have their own unique history that molds and forms them into something distinct. Whether they flourish or falter often depends on the lessons they have taken from their forbears… or even from their own mistakes.
>Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that the “lives of great men all remind us/ we can make our lives sublime/ and departing leave behind us/ footprints in the sands of time.” Everything affects everything else. Or perhaps anything can affect everything. When the Columbus set out for India, he certainly did not foresee that his exploration would lead to the discovery of the New World. The society that we take for granted may not ever have come into being were it not for the tenacity that caused one man to risk a dangerous voyage. What happened in his life that gave him the fortitude to continue seeking support for a cause that so many had already scorned?
We can muse for hours on what caused the fall of the Roman Empire, but unless we can take lessons from their mistakes, what good will it have? Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics states that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” In history, even the most unimportant moments can set off a grand chain of events. Because we cannot live merely in the present, and must reflect sometimes on our past, we cannot ignore the influence that it has on us. Beyond merely being interesting, observing history can also assist us in preparing for the future.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating facets of history is that nothing is precisely what it seems. Two men can see the same event and describe it in completely different ways. Each can relate it to two men who all view it in a differently. They all take the same facts and create from them a different opinion. Perhaps one person will take from it a lesson that they will carry with them through out their whole life, changing the way they think and act. The other may not ever think of it again, even in passing. Although history may record that something took place, can it ever truly be ‘exactly’ what happened?
History must be more than just a collection of dates of events in the past. To state that “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” does not really tell anyone anything… except that it happened. Causes and consequences are also part of it. These are also the things that tend to be viewed with a certain amount of bias. Perhaps a completely ‘true’ history would be a completely unbiased look at the past, but this is probably not possible. Who can say that they have an unbiased view? So history then is the past, viewed from the eyes of an individual, including the causes and consequences of any grand scheme.
Some say that history is an endless cycle, doomed to be repeated until the end of time. Many of these believe that there are inevitable patterns that make it possible to predict the outcome of any event now. For thousands of years historians have observed patterns in societies, in the rise and fall of governments, in the success of civilizations. Polybius wrote his “Regular Cycle of Constitutional Revolutions” during the rise of the Roman Empire . This view leaves out the possibility that man can learn from the past and eventually not make the same mistakes again.
There are others who say that the progress of the world is chaotic and that all things happen completely by chance. They believe that nothing truly affects anything else, and that nothing can be predicted by looking at the past. Still others argue that history is pursuing a particular course leading to a specific destination, be it ‘nirvana’ or the eternal Reign of Christ. This last view seems to fit best with Christian worldview, granting the possibility that human nature does tend to cause certain events to be repeated. That is to say, although there are patterns in history, people have the power to change them through the choices they make.
History is not only things that have happened in the past. It is the story of humanity, told from the point of view of the people who lived it. It shapes countries and individuals. It provides knowledge for those who seek, lessons to those in danger of making a common mistake. For those who wish to understand themselves, history can provide a mirror for them to observe their own past. For those who desire a clearer understanding of their world, it reflects the deeds and misdeeds of every civilization that have gone before. Even those who despise history as boring or unnecessary would agree that they have learned and changed because of circumstances in their own past. Not only a depository for ancient battles and vanished civilizations, history is alive for those who yearn to become the best person they can be.

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