Credit where Credit is Due(EDIT9)|
History is written by the victors.
An Editorial Comment
As I read history, I always have this uneasy feeling that I'm not really getting the whole story or even the real story. We can never really be sure, of course, because there are many factors that can derail even the most dedicated attempts at reconstructing the past. There is first of all the obvious question of whose history are we talking about.
All you have to do is look at news coverage today, where a veritable army of men and women armed with unbelievable technology can only manage to give us a very narrow and sometimes distorted view of a very limited number of current events. These same current events are tomorrow's history in the making.
It is not surprising then, that as we root around in the "current events" of the past, getting at the whole story becomes even more difficult. With history there is also the tendency to encapsulate events—think sound bite—which only adds to the problem. Simple isn't always better. In addition it may also be wrong.
A well-known example is the story of Newton's apple. According to the myth, Newton thought of the idea of gravity when an apple fell on his head as he was gazing at the moon in the day-time sky. The story is most likely not true. With his somewhat delicate constitution a bonk on the head might have had a totally different result. In fact Newton's reasoning was considerably more complex and he probably did not need reminding that on earth things had a tendency to fall.
Also while Newton was pondering these weighty matters, how many others at that time also did worthwhile things and thought worthwhile thoughts. We may never know because they were either never recorded or else the records were there but got lost. Multiply this by all the times in history that other thoughts were thought by other people. Although much of that no doubt had to do with day-to-day survival, some of it may have been more significant.
Another example worth mentioning is the invention of printing or more specifically of movable type around 1450. To begin with Johann Gutenberg usually gets the credit. Then again his name wasn't really Gutenberg but Gensfleisch. Also there are historians who suggest a fellow by the name Laurens Jansz. Koster was really the inventor. An Englishman, William Caxton (1422-1491), was the first to print books in England. I'm inclined to go with Gutenberg but you can see that history is never all that simple.
Then there is the issue of the deliberate destruction of history. We know about some of these but will never know about all those cases where the obliteration was 100% successful. Cases that come to mind are for instance the story of the Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten. Akhenaten was a bit of a rebel and heretic who relocated the seat of government away from Thebes to a new city called Amarna.
Egyptian kings that succeeded him decided that his heresy of a monotheistic religion was just a bad idea and after his death they promptly demolished his new city, moved things back to Thebes and pretty much obliterated all references to his ideas. So much for that bit of history. It was from a chance discovery that we have learned at least part of the story. The other well known case is the destruction of the library at Alexandria.
Although this event is itself shrouded in mystery and controversy, it most likely did occur with the loss, it is said, of untold manuscripts. Who knows how much history vanished with that little contretemps. And so it goes. There is layer upon layer of difficulty relating to the history of almost any time in the past. If we recognize this then it might make us a little more careful with what we do know.
There is just too much history to single out examples here, but just give yourself a little nudge now and then to at least try to read a little beyond the obvious. As you read or hear about historical events it might be an idea to imagine the context in which they occurred. What was going on at the time? What was happening in other locations to other people? How realistic is our interpretation?
For example, the reported evil deeds of some of the villains in history may be more or less accurate, but there may have been extenuating circumstances. Also did the people who related the stories have themselves an axe to grind? I'm also personally very skeptical about the exploits of "saints" in history. Although I'm quite willing to accept that people are capable of heroic and selfless acts, they don't cease to be human it seems to me.
That's not so bad of course. Being human is no sin and we should accept that throughout history what we read about our ancestors is probably more or less correct but is also most likely not the whole story. In addition we should remember that in the past there was a whole lot more going on that we will never know about. I for one find that a little sad but on the other hand there is in fact a whole lot of stuff we do know.
Maybe we already have about as much history as we can handle.
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