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March 21, 2016

Searching for Heroes and Villains in History, March 21, 2016



A post on the fruitlessness of reducing history to a search for heroes and villains
A few years ago, I decided I would inquire into the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire. In the process, I developed a particular distaste for the asceticism and intolerance of the Christian establishment which replaced it. I became fascinated by the role of the emperor Constantine: Why did he convert to Christianity? Was his conversion legitimate, or simply motivated by political considerations? Was he a progressive, or a reactionary?
Ultimately, I found that I was as troubled by what I perceived as the need to categorise Constantine as a progressive or a reactionary as I was in understanding the decisions he made as Emperor. The more I read, the more I understood the decisions he made, and the less interested I became in ‘scoring’ him against my political criteria. So much history is devalued by the obsession with moralising. It is easy to understand why people do this. The 20th Century saw an extraordinary polarisation of politics. The battle between labour and capital gave rise to a habit of reclassifying historical figures according to the modern criteria of progressive and reactionary, conservative or radical, et cetera.
Reviewing the role played by historical figures in this manner becomes more absurd the further back in history we seek to apply it. Karl Kautsky, in his book on the Foundations of Christianity, addressed this issue superbly – no doubt reacting to zealots reducing history to a search for heroes and villains:
“The facts cited above clearly show how unfruitful is a moralising or political record of history, which considers it to be its task to measure the men of the past by the moral and political standards of our day. Nero, murderer of his mother and wife, indulgently grants their lives to slaves and criminals. The tyrant takes liberty under his protection when it is threatened by the Republicans; the insane voluptuary practices the virtues of humanity and charity toward the saints and martyrs of Christianity, feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, clothes the naked – let the reader recall his princely generosity to the Roman proletariat – and espouses the cause of the poor and miserable: this historical figure mocks any attempt at evaluating it by ethical standards. But difficult and foolish though it may be to attempt to ascertain whether Nero was at bottom a good man or a rascal, or both, as is commonly assumed today, it is nevertheless easy to understand Nero and his actions, those that are sympathetic to us as well as those that are repellant to us, if we proceed from the standpoint of his epoch and his social position.”
Perhaps this point can address two tendencies. The first is that discussed above, the measuring of historical figures and events according to the criteria of modern moral and political standards. Should it not also caution us against approaches to history which continuously remind us of the author’s love or loathing of the subject? I’m thinking of authors such as Robert Service, whose biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky – aside from other fundamental problems – are rendered unserious by the author’s incessant reminders of his disdain for the individuals he writes about. This is one example, but there are countless others. It is as though those who write about Stalin, Hitler or Robespierre fear they will be lynched unless they repeat words such as “monster”, “criminal” and “tyrant” ad nauseam. Although there is nothing peculiarly modern about this phenomenon, it does at best reflect an unserious approach to history, and, at worst, it bears the stamp of an almost McCarthy era climate, where people feel they will be noticed if they do what they can to remind us at every opportunity of how politically wholesome they are.
As social and political animals, our values are formed by a conscious and unconscious assimilation, rejection and reevaluation of the material world and the world of ideas in which we live. Given our proximity to the political environment of the Cold War, where one’s political allegiances were always suspect, perhaps it is inevitable, no matter how much we attempt to detach ourselves from our subject matter, that we will moralise. But there is a point at which this becomes ridiculous. Moralising or evaluating the political record of historical figures may not be problematic per se. In certain contexts it may not only be desirable but necessary. And who could seriously demand absolute detachment from somebody discussing history’s greatest crimes? What is problematic is the cultivation of an intellectual climate which interferes with proper historical inquiry. The expectation that people will write in a certain way, or will pause at every paragraph to remind you that they hate or disagree with the subject of their history, is problematic.
There are signs that some historians feel the weight of this environment. I was impressed when I first read Ian Kershaw’s masterly two-volume biography of Hitler. In the preface to volume one, ‘Hubris’, Kershaw spoke about the danger inherent in writing a biography of Hitler. He appeared to foreshadow potential criticism. Perhaps he should have the final word:
“A feasible inbuilt danger in any biographical approach is that it demands a level of empathy with the subject which can easily slide over into sympathy, perhaps even hidden or partial admiration. … Perhaps, in fact, it is even the case that comprehensive repulsion more than the possibility of sympathy poses the greater drawback to insight.”

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