Commentary Magazine

Is History Dead?

Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona
multi, sed omnes illacrimabiles
    urgentur ignotique longa
        nocte, carent quia vate sacro


One more obituary has been published. A few years ago there was much ado about the death of God, and now the historian J. H. Plumb reports the Death of the Past.2 In these matters death is not apt to be by natural causes. Nietzsche, here as elsewhere, set the style. “God is dead,” he said. “. . . we have killed him.” For Plumb the past has been killed, and on the whole has deserved to be.

Three things have killed the past. The first is history itself. “The past” is not simply what happened when you and I were young, or our great-grandfathers, or ancestors more remote still. History cannot kill that. Professor Plumb means that history has killed our old ways of understanding what happened—the past in the sense of our perception of the past. That perception has been mythical. In Stith Thompson’s definition, myth is a tale “of sacred beings and of semi-divine heroes, and of the origin of all things.” The old narratives of the old days—for example, the lives of Founding Fathers—are myths; Parson Weems’s tale of George Washington, the hatchet, and the cherry tree is myth. History, a critical enterprise, destroys myth—it dispels sacred beings and divinity—by telling the real truth and revealing the dirty secrets, little or big. Or, as Marx put it, preserving the form but inverting the content of the Bible’s “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” and “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism. But the past without myth is also the past without meaning and without the right to tell us to learn its lesson.

A second cause of the death of the past is the death of aristocracy and Manifest Destiny. The past was aristocratic, arranged and told so as to enhance aristocracy. The populace had no past, only the aristocracy had one. When we say of someone that he comes of an old family, we are not making a statement about biology: everyone has as distant forebears as anyone else. What we mean is that that person is of a family long known, taken note of, recorded; and therefore a family still to be respected and honored. Hence revolutions are against the past understood as aristocratic, or against the past simply. In the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 John Ball asked, “When Adam delved, and Eve span,/Who was then a gentleman?” (The Rabbis say we are all descended from Adam so that none should think his ancestry better than his neighbor’s.) The Internationale urges us to “wipe clean the slate of the past. . . . We are”—i.e., we have been—“nothing, let us be everything.” As for Manifest Destiny—or White Man’s Burden, or mission civilisatrice, or tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento—people used to believe that this was both justified and commanded by their nation’s past. That belief is dead.

Henry Ford, who said that history is the bunk, was a man of the future, a man of technology: Plumb’s third killer of the past is the technological or scientific future. We and none before us have seen human beings set foot on the moon. Who knows what we shall be seeing in the years to come? Who knows what our children, and theirs, will see? With the future upon us, what interest can we have in the past? It is by the future that we now orient ourselves. Erik Erikson has written of “a new world image in which the vision of an anticipated future will take over much of the power of tradition.” Futurist education prepares us for a repeated obsolescence of our skills and attitudes and for infinite detachment from persons and places.

It is a strange contrast—between the low morale and self-doubt of the historical profession, if we can go by Professor Plumb, and its prosperity. History is not one of those parvenu disciplines, yet never have history and the historians flourished more. When we say that science is flourishing, one of the things we mean is that more people are doing science now than ever before. There are those famous estimates according to which 90 or 95 per cent, or some other strikingly high proportion, of all the scientists who have ever lived and worked are living and working now. By that standard, history too must be pronounced in excellent health. Most historians who have ever lived and worked, and surely most historians who have ever paid their bills by working as historians, are living and working now.

Yet Professor Plumb has logic on his side, and we should expect people to show far less interest in the past than they used to. Only, people are being contrary. Oriented to the future though they may be, they have not reduced their consumption of historical scholarship and its by-products.

What is more, as new pasts and their interested publics multiply, the demand rises for historians to shape those pasts. In the 19th century a distinction was made between historical peoples (high) and unhistorical ones (low). The French, the English, the Italians, and the Germans were historical peoples, with pasts. Such peoples as the Byelorussians were unhistorical, without pasts. The desire for equality led the intellectuals of the unhistorical peoples to discover pasts for them. Now a black scholar says:

Black people, like all people, need to know they are not alone. They need to know that their ancestors were not just slaves laboring under the white man’s sun, but that their lineage can be traced to important kingdoms and significant civilizations. They need to know of black heroes and of the noble deeds of black men. They need to know that black, too, is beautiful, and that under the African sky people are at proud ease with their blackness.

He is asking for myth (“heroes . . . noble deeds”) and its comforts (“black . . . is beautiful” and “proud ease with . . . blackness”). But he is also claiming the equality of plebs with aristocracy. As between John Ball’s attitude toward the past and the Internationale’s, he accepts Ball’s. He wants the white West to make room in the past for black Africans, who by winning an equal past will also win an equal present and future.

Plumb does not laugh at this. He only says that when the new contenders for historical status have worked their way through to modernity, as their predecessors have done, they will end where we are—distanced from the past, oriented to the future. It is the modern fate, like pollution.

There may be other explanations for the disillusion that asserts the death of the past. If it is upstart peoples who demand a past for themselves, perhaps it is downstarts who are disillusioned with the past. Plumb is an Englishman, citizen of a country of the second rank that yesterday was a Great Power. He specializes in the history of 18th-century Great Britain, whose greatness was accompanied by belief in a great future. Perhaps it is the death of that future that has inclined Plumb to descry the death of the past.

Downstart aristocrats, it is said, tend to be ancestor worshipers. Perhaps. Perhaps they, or some of them, also tend to be skeptics—about ancestors as well as descendants. When Paléologue says that history is an agreed-upon fable, in substance he agrees with Henry Ford, but his tone is different. He is speaking as an aristocrat in the decline of aristocracy. Of course, he is also speaking as a man of affairs, a diplomat, with direct knowledge of the gulf between what happens and what is believed to happen. Walpole—Plumb’s man—and Wellington had said much the same thing before him, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was to say that having served in government he could no longer as a historian be able to give his old confidence to some normal sources.

Plumb may also have an ideological readiness to write an epitaph for the past. He is a champion of the Enlightenment. Impatience with the past is a commonplace of the Enlightenment, and of Romanticism when it favors rather than opposes the Enlightenment: Voltaire, Gibbon, and Jefferson; Wordsworth (“Old, unhappy, far-off things,/And battles long ago”), Shelley, and Emerson. Before Plumb, the Enlightenment had already applied to the past the metaphor of death: the dead past, the dead hand of the past. Nor was the idea that history has an aristocratic bias unknown to it: Gray’s “short and simple annals of the poor,” and Malthus’s observation that “the histories of mankind that we possess are histories only of the higher classes.”

The classical Enlightenment was impatient with the past because the past was unenlightened. In 1770 the past was unenlightened. But in 1970? Now Enlightenment itself has a past, the past includes Enlightenment. Perhaps that accounts for the current Left’s eagerness to still the past. The Left would rather not know its past, or have others know it. Plumb is a man of the Left—like Voltaire, whom he admires.

Voltaire was if not entirely new, then largely new. Two hundred years later his disciples, or those who may be said to descend from him, are less new. They have accumulated a past, a tradition. For the Enlightenment, mostly, the past was crime, folly, and failure. The past was of the Right, and therefore stupid: John Stuart Mill said the conservatives (who were also the traditionalists, those fond of the past) were the stupid party. Now when men of the Left disparage the past for its Rightness, they are not telling the whole truth, even to themselves. The Left’s own past is not altogether edifying. It too has its share of crime, folly, and failure. Men of the Left, moderate or extreme, progressive or revolutionary, would just as soon forget the god that failed. “The god that failed” links up with “the death of the past” by way of “the death of God”: The God That Failed was published about twenty years ago, before the revival of the 18th and 19th-century slogan of the death of God.



Neo-enlightened bias against the past may even account for some of the current zeal of the historians in warning us against analogy, especially the analogies now being drawn between our situation and Weimar, or Munich. Of course, on the one hand, comparaison n’est pas raison, analogy is not proof. The past is too complicated to yield an easy or straightforward “lesson of history.” But on the other hand, the current zeal against analogy may be more than merely technical or methodological. “Weimar” recalls how the Left’s political fecklessness and cultural provocation helped Hitler. “Munich” tells against appeasement and for the domino theory. If those analogies were today seen not as anti-Left but as anti-Right, fewer sermons might be preached against analogy.

Not long ago a well-received novel concluded with the slogan, “Long live the revolution!” Its hero was a thinly disguised Mendel Beilis, tried (but not condemned) for ritual murder by a Russian court a few years before the revolution. If we could turn time backward in its flight, would we be sure we still wanted the revolution? The revolution, too, belongs to the past of crime, folly, and failure. But some of us, and some part of all of us, want to continue shouting, “Long live the revolution!” To do that, we have to tell ourselves that our newness is so radically new that the past—including 1917 and after—is irrelevant.

Parodying an American Communist slogan of the late 1930′s, we may say that socialism is 20th-century Enlightenment. Yet today a Voltaire would fare better, would be freer of persecution, in a bourgeois country than in “socialist” Russia or Poland or Czechoslovakia. What has gone wrong? It is too painful to bear thinking about, so we say, in effect, let us forget about the past, let us keep our eyes on the future. We make ourselves as philistine as Matthew Arnold’s philistines, who denied that those old, primitive Greeks or Romans could have anything of interest or relevance to tell advanced, modern people, whose railroads were by themselves proof of superiority to the past, and of the past’s irrelevance.

How the younger Left tends to feel about all this has been shown in responses to the sociologist Robert Nisbet. To Nisbet’s article in the New York Times Book Review about the contempt for objectivity in the work of some younger social scientists, one scorner of old-fashioned objectivity answered: “The situation is really very simple. Our students today reject any detached ritual about objective learning, because yesterday’s ‘objective facts’ have proven to be today’s lies.” Another—more promising because not so really very simple—wrote: “Social science, as a frame of mind and as an enterprise, frustrates . . . the need for self-definition through the experience of meaningful commitments. . . . We have been deprived—partly through social science itself—of believable myths. . . .”

Hume, a pillar of the Enlightenment, said that reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions. (In their habitation on high, what must Plato and Aristotle have thought?) The more intelligent we are, in other words, the more ingeniously foolish we can be—with a good conscience.

But the desire to know is strong. Not to want to know comes late, if at all. What distinguishes humankind is not the use of tools: tools were used by beings the anthropologists do not class as human, or fully human. What distinguishes us is language—and a sense of the past.

A child is always asking about the time when he was a baby, and about the time before he was born. That may be a way of asking what it was that Mommy and Daddy did to bring him into the world. An adult’s interest in the past continues the child’s curiosity about how he came into the world. Disciplined and intellectual, historians yet express the primal curiosity. Even science and the interest in science are not exclusively futurist. In this scientific age the history of science is more highly developed, more recognized, less eccentric than ever.

As history can serve the desire to extend our life back before our birth, so can it serve the desire to extend our life beyond our death. If middle-aged people feel uneasy about their children studying the New Deal or World War II in school or college, that is not because parents think the New Deal and World War II unworthy of being studied. It is that they think of history as obituary. No one wants to go down to death unnoticed, but no one wants to read his own death notice.

In those lines quoted at the beginning, Horace says it is the historian (“consecrated bard”) who by noting men saves them from the mortality of oblivion. If we cannot hope for immortality on our own, we can hope for an approximation to it by our having been contemporary with the large events and movements that the history books are about: the middle-aged were, after all, eyewitnesses and participants in the New Deal and World War II; we may not have known Roosevelt and Churchill, but we can still remember what they said and how they sounded on the radio. The desire for immortality is enough by itself to assure that people will always want the past recorded—history. History satisfies people’s needs, more perhaps than it can still the doubts of the historians themselves, who know better than anyone else the serious difficulties about method and about epistemology that are inherent in its very nature. (Leon J. Goldstein, a friend and former colleague, has just had published in History and Theory an article about R. G. Collingwood that deals with such questions as these, which almost beg to be translated back into the language of Kant and Hegel, or indeed of Plato’s Socrates: How is historical knowledge possible? What is history that it is possible?)



More prosaically, people want to know about the past because they want to know how they came to be who they are, and how things came to be as they are. The acid way of stating this function is that history—the study of the past—tells us how we got into the mess we are in. We look to the past to explain the present. But this means that we select from the past, or emphasize in it, what helps to explain the present; and reject, or do not emphasize, what seems less directly related to the present. Naturally, more history is produced and consumed of Christianity than of Mithraism. Christianity has been more important. If the Roman Empire had become Mithraic, attention would have gone to Mithraism. Similarly, there is more research into the history of the English than of the French or the Aragonese parliament.

Of the two chief causes for having to do history over and over again, the first is autonomous, from within the discipline itself. Thus, historians—or archeologists, or linguists—make new discoveries: Ventris deciphers Linear B, and unexpectedly it is Greek; Benveniste shows Homeric kudos to mean not “glory” or “fame” but something like “magical power.” The second cause is external, untechnical. Changes in society bring things to the fore which change our picture of the past because they change the perspective from which we look at the past. They change the very questions we ask of the past—in the United States today, for example, questions about racism.

It is therefore remarkable that when young people study history, from elementary school to college, they are taught so little about the Jews. On the face of it, they ought to be taught a good deal: the Jewish present is highly visible, and the Jewish past has a substantial body of literature, ancient and modern, to give an account of it.



The absence of a serious treatment of the black past would be a continuing insult to blacks. The absence of a treatment of the Jewish past is the same sort of thing—though perhaps less damaging. But if that were the only reason for greater attention to Jewish history, some Jews would be of two minds. If it were only or primarily a matter of the Jewish education and self-respect required by Jewish children, some Jews would regard it as they regard Hebrew. As a matter of principle, Jews support the inclusion of Hebrew among the foreign languages to be taught in the schools. Yet most, apparently, would rather have their children learn Hebrew in Jewish schools, with public-school time that would otherwise be taken by the study of Hebrew used for the study of Latin or French. They want Hebrew to be studied in addition to Latin and French, rather than instead of them.

But Jewish history concerns not Jews alone. In contemporary America there is a Jewish presence, yet Jewish names are not the sort of names that are appended to the Declaration of Independence. What in the past of the Jews can help us to understand who they are and what they do?

Or anti-Semitism, which has been something to reckon with in modern history. It is directed against the Jews. The Jews? If the normal text-book bothers to mention the Jews at all, it drops them at the rise of Christianity. What in the world were those Jews doing, where were they, for the 1900 years or so between Jesus and Dreyfus? A substantial history of World War II has just received good notices, and it hardly mentions the Jews at all. Surely that is wrong, because an authority on Nazism still says that “without Hitler, there were no Nazi ideas, and he had no real economic or political program apart from anti-Semitism, the creation of national unity, and expansion to the East.” Now, a generation later, Germany is divided, Austria has been de-anschluss-ed, and the borders of Deutschtum are farther west than at any time since the Middle Ages; but the six million were murdered, and Central and Eastern Europe are all but judenrein, “clean of Jews.”

Or how can we speak of the Middle East, how can we speak of the new states that have come into being since World War II, without speaking of Israel? And how can we speak of Israel without speaking of the Jews and their history?

Or, on the very nature of Western civilization itself, whatever one may think of the Hebraism/ Hellenism discussion, the discussion has not been about nothing. Hebraism is an essential ingredient in Western civilization.

Why then should the history our children are taught be practically judenrein, too? There is one syllabus, prepared by the education department of a large state, in which Jesus appears suddenly on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, with scarcely any previous mention of Jews or Judaism. I do not know which annoys me more—this, or the kind of thing that liberal Protestants were writing about forty-five years ago, and that is to be found in textbooks still used, astonishingly, today. I mean the cool superiority to Jews and Judaism, as in a book assigned last year to my daughter in high school, with its language about the barbaric, Oriental splendor of Solomon’s court. (This is astonishing not because it is no longer done to look down on Solomon but because it is no longer done to say “Oriental,” which is thought offensive to Orientals.)

One can understand why a generation or two ago most historians of modern Europe or of the United States did not think about the Jews. One can even understand why most medievalists did not think about them. Somehow, the Jews were then less visible, or if they were still visible it was expected that as they became more civilized, they would cease to be Jews. It was not a favorable time for asking what had made the Jews what they were. But that was a generation or two ago.

Christian theologians speak of the mystery of Israel. In a different sense of that word, it remains a mystery why Israel (the Jews, Judaism) are so absent in the history now written and taught. That is a reproach equally to the historians and to the pedagogues.




1 Brave men lived before Agamemnon, many; but all, unwept and unknown, lie pressed by eternal darkness because they lack a consecrated bard.

2 Houghton Mifflin, 153 pp., $5.00.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.