One Purpose of History


Listening to Kagehiru reminds me of the purposes of History. In all the classes I’ve taken, my teachers have been apologetic. They seemed to believe there was a point to history, but they were unwilling or unable to draw my attention to it. Or maybe my own ignorance was thick enough to be impervious to their ministrations. One teacher claimed it was to predict the future. If that is a use of history I am more foolish than I believe. And I believe myself to be a fool.

I remember an interview with Will and Ariel Durant. For forty or so years in the Twentieth Century they were widely regarded historians of the generalist type. A great many American homes had their eleven volume “Story of Civilization” on their bookshelves. Two Feet of large hardback books. Good books. [ Johnathan, I really doubt you would want thirty-six pounds of hardback books. But if you want, You may have my digital copy.]

Their history only progressed up to Napoleon. They grew old and died. Perhaps they quit at the early 1800’s because they grew tired or too old. I think it was because they were astute and realized that anything true said after the time of Napoleon is less an opportunity to discuss history, than a chance to start fistfights between rival partisans. In their closing years Will Durant was asked straight out for predictions. He failed. So prediction isn’t the point.

One thing I do think is a purpose of history is the observation and judgment of cultures. I see what is permanent because it has lasted. I see what is valuable by what it led to.

The concept of dignity with which I was raised was a personal thing. Dignity flowed from within. It was a status measured by how hard it was to break. It was like an idea of the Stoics. An insecure president who is uncomfortable and nervous does not have Dignity. A quiet old woman on a rocking chair who knows her worth has an amazing amount of dignity. A person with dignity may be tortured or killed, but that person will in some ways have more worth and respect than the nattering fools who seek to harm and change her.

One of my favorite examples is widely hated these days for being out of fashion. Joel Chandler Harris wrote down the stories of Uncle Remus in the American South in the time of slavery. Harris was thirteen when the Civil War broke out. He was a product of slavery. When he sought wisdom his mind went back to a slave called Uncle Remus.

Think for a moment what a profound tacit admission that was. Remus was owned. Without rights. He had no legal or financial authority whatsoever. Yet it was He who the white man looked up to for wisdom. ‘Uncle’ was a surreptitious honorific to show some respect to one who was legally and culturally denied status. That is the power of dignity flowing out of a powerful personality. It also calls lie to the system under which he lived and suffered. I truly wish that American culture would accept and honor this amazing dignity. Instead we revile those stories for reminding us of an ugly and horrific time in American culture. Some American blacks find the reminder hateful and destructive to their dignity. I understand. Still, I honor the power and virtue shown by a wise man in an impossible situation. Any white bigot has to be uncomfortable in the presence of such moral superiority. Oddly it reminds me of another slave who was renowned for dignity and wisdom: Aesop.


The Roman concept of dignitas was much inferior. Dignitas was a measure of respect shown by how people treated you. One demanded others show you Dignitas by their behavior even if they despised you. Actions mattered, not belief. [ Quite like Roman religion, that.] This resembles the concept of respect in books about the Mafia. You have dignitas – respect – as long as you are feared enough to be shown deference. However insecure, uncomfortable, und undeserving of respect you are. Julius Caesar brought his army over the Rubicon to Rome because his Dignitas demanded it. And Caesar required dignitas and received it until the day that the fawning sycophants stabbed him in the back over and over again.

I will say this for Dignitas: among unthinking and unsophisticated people it functions somewhat. In fact among people ruled by power and appearance it may be the only version of the concept which does function. This is why our ambassador to Belgium is called a dignitary. Sure he is embroiled in a prostitution scandal. Sure he says stupid things. He may show no charisma nor dignity. But he is in a position to demand Dignitas, if only by proxy.

On the other side there is the Roman concept of Auctoritas which is much superior to our idea of authority and should be revived.

Amanda and Johnathan, that I suppose must be for another time.

Uncle David


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