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In Defense of History

In Defense of History

By Bernard Lewis

Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 143 no. 4 (1999)

Introduction: Let me begin my defense with a word or two of explanation. To start with, let’s look at this word history. Of late there has been a certain semantic change, a new, idiomatic, increasingly common use of the word history, which I can perhaps best exemplify by a familiar scene from a movie in which the heavy, the tycoon or the gangster chief, contemptuously dismisses his cast-off mistress with the words “you’re history.” The common phrase “that’s history” now conveys the general meaning that it is, whatever it may be, of no relevance to present events, concerns, or purposes. History may have some antiquarian interest, or may provide entertainment, but no more.

This lack of concern with the past, this dismissal of the past as something unimportant, at most entertaining, and in the hands of most professional historians not even that, has precedents. Ancient India offers the example of an advanced, sophisticated society that did not think that history mattered, and took no trouble to record it. As serious Indian history-writing began with the coming of Islam, most of what we know about pre-Islamic India is either from fragmentary evidence or outside visitors, not from narrative historiography.

We find the same a-historical approach in rabbinic and diaspora Judaism. From the end of the ancient Jewish state until the impact of the Renaissance on Italian and French Jews, there is an almost total lack of historical writing, even a rejection of history. Thus Maimonides, a man of wide-ranging intellectual pursuits, condemns the preoccupation with the events of the past as of no value and of no interest. “[These books] neither possess wisdom nor yield profit for the body, but are merely a waste of time.” This lack of interest in history among Jews of that period and of that background is the more remarkable if we reflect that some of them were living among peoples with a very strong interest in history, like the Romans or the Arabs, and were in other respects profoundly influenced by the cultures in which they lived. Historians, in those days, were employed by the state or the church. Since the Jews had neither, they had no history.

I used the word relevance, and spoke of the dismissal of history as “not relevant.” But there is another danger even greater than that of irrelevance, and that is the danger of relevance. The word relevant has acquired new and menacing overtones and undertones of meaning in our time. History, according to this view, is admissible, even useful, provided it is limited to “relevant history.” Here we confront something worse than neglect. I shall try to make my point clear with two quotations. One will certainly be familiar, the other probably not. The first comes from Mr. Henry Ford, who once observed, with that brevity that is conventionally the soul of wit and sometimes also of its converse, that “history is bunk.” Most historians would agree with that proposition as applied to some of the work of some of their colleagues. But, as a judgment of the profession as a whole and of the subject matter with which it deals, most of us would find it excessive.

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