Can History Be True?

“Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Napoleon a Dit“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” This pithy maxim is generally credited to Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who had plenty of experience manipulating the historical record. Ironically, I have not been able to satisfactorily link this quotation directly to the Little Corporal—the earliest reference I can find is Ralph Waldo Emerson citing it in his famous essay, “History” (1837).

And therein lies the rub: This dubious attribution has been repeated often enough for nearly two centuries to gain credence (a Google search returned 1,140,000 hits). And as repetition leads to consensus, consensus rationalizes validation. All the more so in the Information Age, in which an anonymous “editor” can submit material to Wikipedia, which (universal warnings notwithstanding) has become the go-to reference for Everyman. So hearsay becomes fact by default. Never mind that even if such a declaration was traceable to its original source, its meaning is contingent upon its context.

History is a malleable commodity, indeed. So much for Ranke’s objective historicism!

History is more than a series of data points

Still, the thrust of this aphorism should not be dismissed out of hand. Despite the well-meaning efforts of cliometricians and practitioners of the new social history to infuse the study of the past with the scientific certitude of Big Data and sociological methodology, history obstinately refuses to be reduced to mathematical formulæ and statistical tabulations. “The operations of life, whether private or publick admit no such laws,” counseled Samuel Johnson. “The caprices of voluntary agents laugh at calculation.”

Historical evidence takes many forms: from intimate personal correspondence to authoritative institutional documents; from anecdotal tribal traditions to carefully collected and curated oral histories; from graphic images on hillsides, standing stones, cave walls, illuminated manuscripts, and websites to sound recordings on a variety of media; and of course, there are those three-dimensional artifacts… . Each with its own hidden agenda. Collectively this body of evidence is capable of yielding some understanding of the essence of an individual subject or group at a specific moment in time, but none of its component parts are value-neutral.

The relativist would say that every scrap of evidence collected by even the most fastidious historian, regardless of provenance, is subject to interpretation—the highly subjective filter of human agency. If that is so, history will always be more art than science, a unique species of literature, or as Emerson framed it, “There is properly no history; only biography.” Whatever your philosophy, it’s hard to argue with E. H. Carr’s commonsense pronouncement: “The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.” The writing of history is truly an interdisciplinary form of composition.

Putting the “human” in humanities

History is the record of an event or events instigated, experienced, related, and recorded by people. Some were lettered, others illiterate; some were eyewitnesses, others had their backs turned at the crucial moment; some were well-intentioned reporters, while others were just looking for a free beer. No social forces—be they economic, political, religious, technological, ideological, or military—can exist without the involvement of human beings; flesh and blood, gristle and bone. And the relationship is a symbiotic one: Real people, from serf to lord, are the fulcrum upon which these inanimate forces exert their powerful influence and vice-versa.

Commenting on the profound value of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, Thomas Carlyle reminded us, “the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies and abstractions of men. Not abstractions were they, not diagrams and theorems; but men, in buff or other coats and breeches, with colour in their cheeks, with passions in their stomach, and the idioms, features and vitalities of very men.” (I trust we can forgive Carlyle his quaint chauvinism—we are all a product of our times.)

But academic history is presumed to be nonfiction (even if it falls within the genre of creative, or narrative, nonfiction), so to maintain a sense of verisimiltude it must be predicated on thorough research and data collection in as many of the evidentiary fields as possible. Clio (whom Herbert Butterfield affectionately called “that old reprobate”) must be courted with deference and respect. Yet when the research phase is complete, these cumulative facts reveal nothing in and of themselves; the past is unconcerned with the present.

A historian must weigh every word, every fragmentary artifact, and paint a convincing portrait of her subject based on the subjective selection, arrangement, and interpretation of these data. Any randomly chosen group of impeccably credentialed, conscientious scholars can analyze an identical assemblage of primary data and produce wildly divergent readings of the same historical “truth.” None are necessarily right or wrong—they just reflect different points of view, as in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The problem is articulately expessed by comedian Steven Wright when he deadpans, “How do you know if it’s bad jazz?”

This is not meant to be a deconstuctionist diatribe; rather, I am suggesting that as historians, we belong to an exclusive club. We are the progeny of the bards and the shanachie—keepers of the flame. We are the storytellers…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.