In an earlier post on my thoughts about medieval scholarship, I expressed my respect for the European thinkers in the time dominated by religious scholarship. I acknowledge their exceptional intellectual training and discipline for studying documents that were largely relevant specific to their religion. I am impressed by the seriousness they took their work as essential for making the right decisions for their lives and for posterity.
In other earlier posts, I mentioned my concern about our reluctance to extend acknowledgement of intelligence to others. We demand certain criteria of correct thinking before respecting their intelligence. The earlier thinkers were pretty good at documenting what they thought and a lot of that is easily challenged by other evidence. We further fault them for the lack of initiative to look for evidence outside of written work or tradition.
I think this is unfair. Their focus was on making the best possible use of available evidence in the form of earlier documents of religious texts or earlier interpretation of texts. They did admit new evidence but they were primarily looking for revelation rather than observation to provide the evidence. This may be a lost opportunity to collect new observations, but another way to look at revelation is to identify new hypothesis or what I call hypothesis discovery. The revelations initiated their study but they chose to test the hypothesis with evidence that can be derived from existing texts or understanding.
I thought about what they were doing in terms that are more relevant to the present. I came up with the following idea. Stripping away their very deeply held religious motivations for study, and the religious and philosophical aspects of their studies, I see that the essence of their work was the study of history.
I consider them to be history scientists. Even today, history is constrained by the evidence that exists today through written works, surviving artifacts, or other items that we have some confidence of their origin. We have a lot more evidence to work with than earlier thinkers. Where possible we identify and explore new possibilities to collect new evidence.
When it comes to history, we want to know far more than the available evidence can tell us directly. To make the best use of the evidence, we have to think carefully about the evidence we have and about earlier interpretations of evidence. There is a rigorous discipline in studying the evidence especially when the evidence is physical instead of written. At least the spirit of this rigor for considering all evidence has its roots in religious-oriented scholarship.
There is something more about the earlier scholars that may be lacking today. More than being students of the science of history (as they understood it) they were also applying that science.
My background is in engineering and so that is what comes to mind. An engineer is distinguished from a scientist in that the engineer applies scientific knowledge to make something (maybe something new, maybe something that needs to be repaired).
Earlier religious thinkers could be thought of as history engineers. They recognized they were participating in history and that their contributions will become history. They were building what future generations would see as history. Like modern engineers, they were very concerned about getting it right, that it did good things, that it did not do bad things.
Until recently, I never thought much about treating history as a science that can be applied to build what will be the future’s history. I’ve always thought of history as accidental, it just happened the way it happened. Certainly there is plenty of evidence it is accidental. Deliberate plans often fail, and things that seem to succeed are only recognized in hindsight. Maybe it is better to leave history be what it is.
But at least it could be calling to at least strive to think seriously about history, our place in it, where we see it heading, and trying to find ways to improve benefits or avoid catastrophes. We need not think of this in religious terms, but the effort ultimately seems the same as what the medieval scholars were doing.
I recall Herodotus’ telling of the story of Solon meeting with Croesus where Croesus wants confirmation that he is the happiest man to have lived and Solon replying he can not answer that until Croesus’ life is complete. When I first heard this it was in context that a lot can happen before one dies. But now I am thinking of the idea that the study of history is the study of things in the past. The current is history being built, being engineered. Once it is done, it becomes a topic of study, of evaluation, of judgement.
History itself is very powerful. We’ve taken it seriously in various sciences to come up with natural history narratives supported by evidence of slow geologic processes, evolution of species, processes for planetary and stellar system formation, and even the origin of the universe.
In all of that there is something remarkable about history. It is unique. There is only one possible history. We may be ignorant of the vast majority of it, but we are certain that everything falls on a single timeline.
History claims all that happened before it. Everything that happened in the past joins history. History is in retrospect, all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere. History is the single timeline that tells the story of the universe until today. It can claim ownership of everything that happened before it.
I am reminded of the classical mythology of gods that supposed anthropomorphic deities responsible for certain emotions, events, or parts of the natural world. Imagine history itself as one of these deities. Unlike the other deities, this deity has no ability to influence the present. But also unlike the other deities, it takes ownership of everything that happens. Ultimately being the most powerful of all.
It can be useful to imagine history as a kind of a god that we should respect and to distinguish virtue from vice in our lives. Ultimately, we become part of history. Future generations will judge us and that judgement may be final or nearly final because at that point it is all that remains of us.
We accept the fact that history exists and that we are in the process of making it. We acknowledge that our study of history inevitably includes our making judgments about the actors of that time.
It make a lot of sense to take history seriously both in its study and its application.
Finally, I was thinking of Nietzsche’s quote God Is Dead. He was making a completely different point that I am ignoring for the present. I only mention the fact that when I heard the phrase “God Is Dead” I thought how else it can be interpreted. It could mean God = Dead. Or, History is God.
Fearing God is the same as fearing history.