Is History Dead?
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. 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.
About the Author