Friday, May 30, 2014

An Essay On the Study of History

When Frederick the great wanted his secretary to read history to him, he used to say, “Bring me the liar”. That is one view of it – that all history as a life ‘a bunkum’. But that is true only when history is made into a sort of documented film to illustrate a theory or to uphold a point of view. The literary artist who writers history runs the danger of into this pitfall. He comes to attach greater importance to the picturesque than to the fact. The dram is of greater interest to him than to record; the personality more important than the people. Gibbon, Macaulay, Froude, Carlyle, Emil Ludwig, and Lytton Strachey – they all fall into this error more or less. They are literary artists first; history is to them only the background which sets of the picture they would draw.

But history written by these man makes a most interesting study. Gibbon unrolls us a panoramic view of the slow decline of the mighty Roman Empire, and we witness the process fascinated. Carlyle flashes before our mind’s eye vivid men and events of the fence revolution full of light and shade, full of the vitality of real life, and we are held enthralled by the awe-inspiring spectacle. The study of such records of human achievements and failures can never be abandoned. Nor, indeed, need they be. The students should read with his critical judgment wide awake. He should be able to pick our grain from the chaff. The literary history has one advantage. It enlivens memory and the total impression that memory carries seldom fades away. But even more than that, it breathes life into the dead records, and what was dry as dust becomes full of vital interest.

But in modern times another type of history has emerged – different type that Chateaubriand indicated when he said, “Grecian history is a poem; Latin history a picture; modern history a chronicle.” The modern historian prides himself on being a recorder of attested and verified facts. He dives into all ancient records, - whether engraved on stones or impressed on relics, whether suggested by pictures or retailed by tradition; and he studies these with a scientific mind and tries to convey to the reader the fact as it more probably was. Such history is often dry reading. In reading it, the student must use his imagination. Out of the dry-as-dust facts, he must create his own picture of the prince or the people of whom he is reading.

But whether history is imaginative or factual, the utility of reading it is great. The great Tacitus said that after reading history “men should feel a dread of being considered infamous in the opinions of posterity”. The dread of the future judgment of posterity may restrain one from indulging in the vices of power or the temptations of wealth. But even more than that, history serves as a guide, an example and a warning. Out of the pages of history we may gather practical wisdom by applying the lessons of the past to the problems of the present. An old English writer said truly. “History maketh a young man to be old without wrinkles or grey hairs.” It means that history confers on the young the wisdom of age without the burden of years. It is thus the Pleasants School for acquiring wisdom. Study of history equips us with wisdom in practical affairs. It has been well said, “If no use is made of the labors of past ages the world must always remain in the infancy of knowledge. “We gain in stature because we stand, as it were, on the shoulders of our ancestors. We can look deep into the past and certainly our vision become clearer, and our insight more penetrating. In a democratic age, when the duty of forming clear opinions on practical and social problems devolves on all of us, the study of history should be regarded as imperative. For, the today is only a projection of the yesterdays, and a passage to the unborn future. Thus history gives us a truer understanding of the trend of events, and so makes us better citizens. It should indeed be a compulsory study for the future citizen.