Okay, so today’s topic is going to be slightly outside of the standard purview of this blog, as it is only tangentially related to Islam. But as a historian, it’s a topic I think is important, and that I think needs to be considered more when we talk about history.
But it’s also a topic that has often, and probably will continue to get me into a lot of trouble. It’s something that bothers people, apparently quite a lot, as I think it destroys a sense of nostalgia about history that we would rather preserve.
So here it goes – there are no good bits of history.
Okay, so it doesn’t sound so controversial just yet. Stay with me, it will get there.
As probably many people who read this blog are already aware, as part of a series of news pieces that have been following Michele Bachmann on her campaign trail, Congresswoman Bachmann mentioned that she and her husband were very interested in the works of Francis Schaeffer, including his thesis about the failures caused by humanism. Whilst I’m no fan of Schaeffer’s work, and think that it’s deeply problematic for anyone claiming to support Calvinist predestinarianism to reject humanist philosophy, I’ve found the response to Congresswoman Bachmann’s statement rather ridiculous – as the LA Times put it, clearly Bachmann hates the Renaissance! And everyone knows the Renaissance was one of the good bits of history, when everyone was smart and happy and no longer the plague-ridden, self-flatulating, superstitious bastards they were during the Middle Ages!
Okay, yes, I am being hyperbolic, but really, not by that much. The fact is that we do tend to think of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as the ‘good bits’ of history, compared to the Middle Ages, which was clearly a ‘bad bit.’
And now we get back to the controversial part – there are no good bits of history. Firstly, there has been a ton of scholarship in the last fifty years demonstrating that 1.) all of these divisions are artificial concepts that we, from the future, back-project onto the past, which become more or less useful at various times and in various locations and 2.) actually the Dark Ages weren’t terribly dark, and that actually many of the changes that came into their full flowering in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment have their roots in the high Middle Ages, and even within the Catholic church (for example, Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Peter Wells’ Barbarians and Angels, just to name a few).
Secondly, the reality is that no period in history is full of only good bits or only bad bits. The author of the LA Times piece mocks Congresswoman Bachmann’s dislike for humanist philosophy: “Darn that Enlightenment! Next thing you know it will be birthing truly dangerous ideas, like secular democracy.” But that’s a fifth-grader’s view of the Enlightenment. Yes, the period of the Enlightenment gave us liberal, democratic republics. It also gave us the subjugation of Africa, the conquest of the Americas and the rise of Imperialism. Those horrible acts of racism and violence are every bit as much a part of the history of the Enlightenment as Locke and Montesquieu, and have every bit as much resonance in the world today. The only difference is they’re much less fun to talk about.
The problem is that you can’t keep score in history. Like I talked about a few weeks back in reference to violence in history, whatever measure you want to pick for what’s good and what’s bad, there’s always going to be good bits and bad bits. The only way to avoid that is to write purely revisionist history, and ignore some portion of the source material you have because it doesn’t fit the picture you want to draw. That’s childish and silly, not to mention potentially dangerous for the views that history will impart to the people who read it.
As someone who studies a culture far removed from my own, I also think there’s a benefit in thinking of history as our history, irregardless of what peoples it is about. At some point, all history should become our history, the story of humanity’s progress from year to year and from century to century. But to do that, we have to be willing to accept that there are loads of events in history that we don’t want to repeat, that fill us with dread and disgust. Everyone has them, no one can deny them – the best we can do is to accept that they are part of our history, and to try to understand how they came about so that, with a bit of luck, we won’t repeat them.
So here’s my first attempt: people still had the plague in the Renaissance, everyone didn’t immediately learn how to read, paint or make beautiful music, and the concept starts to make very little sense outside of Europe. The Enlightenment was a period of tremendous literary output, but also one that led to the subjugation of millions of people, acts which relate directly to the shape of the world today. That’s our history. Now we just have to learn how to live with it.