from The Theosophist May 1985

(The Disciplines of Historians)

Exploring the Past

By Hugh Shearman

Since it was said in a Mahatma letter, with reference to the work of the Theosophical Society, that "the crest wave of intellectual advancement must be taken hold of and guided into spirituality", there is a good ideal of interest in noting the intellectual disciplines in which the Society's more academically qualified members have at various times been educated.

Scientists specializing in various branches of physics, chemistry or biology have contributed much to definition and direction in the Society's activities. Literatures and the arts have probably been less professionally represented in the membership, although several Sankritists have made notable contributions. Among Westerns members, scholarly competence in Greek and Latin has been represented perhaps less than one might wish, although the work of G.R.S. Mead still stands out monumentally.

For many centuries, Greek and Latin played a fundamental part in the education of Western people. Their study exercised a valuable control over the structure and development of several European languages, and there has been a deterioration in the accuracy and structure of those languages, particularly English, since Greek and Latin studies declined. Those classical languages also gave access to the literature and history of two great past civilizations, each profoundly different in its values from the modern world. This presented students with standards of comparison and criticism and with something upon which to "moralize".

Today, with the great decline in classical studies, many students who might in the past have read Greek and Latin literature at the university are now pursuing history, studying large areas of world events of the last twenty-five centuries and no longer confining themselves to those scenes recorded by Herodotus or Thucydides, Livy, Suetonius or Tacitus and the other Greek and Roman historians whom their forebears had to read.

There must be quite a number of history graduates now among the members of the Theosophical Society. What does this study do to them, and what relation has it to their pursuit of Theosophy? Probably most people think that history is the story of the past. History, however, is by no means the story of the past, it is the story of the past constructed by certain methods and according to certain standards. People also imagine that history is either true or not true. Again the idea must be rejected, for the truth of any work of history can never be more than relative. It must depend on the material available for its construction, the adequacy of the methods used and the standards of judgement prevailing at the time when it was written.

When Professor J.B. Bury gave his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge in 1903, he twice made a statement which has been the subject of debate ever since. He said that "history is a science, no less and no more". This was at once attacked from two sides. Scientists claimed that history was necessarily less than a science, for one could not, after all, test its truth by repeatable experiments or submit it to any other test analogous to those available to chemists or physicists. And men of letters attacked Bury's claim by insisting that history was more than a science, since it required a high degree of literary ability for its expression. It also required an intuitive capacity, more akin to art, for its interpretation, particularly when it took the form of biography.

Bury's own conscientious agnostic mind clearly regarded history as an exercise of reason. He laboured hard and long, often sixteen hours a day, to get his facts right - or as right as possible - and then he built a rational structure upon them. When he edited Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he learned nine extra languages so as not to miss any research about the Roman Empire which might have been published in any of the East European languages or in Turkish. But his kind of history was political, institutional, social and economic, and he never put himself to the test of interpreting human nature in an intimate biography. And many young historians today unconsciously play for safety by confining their researches to subjects which requires measurement and quantification rather than judgement and insight.

Another peculiarity of history is that it has constantly to be written. No sooner have we put it into words than we begin to suspect that it is not quite true. This is not only because new facts about the past are discovered; it is also, and perhaps rather more, because new criteria are discovered by which facts must be judged. Some of these criteria are of a scientific nature. For example, our expanding knowledge of genetics and of certain human biological factors will increasingly compel us to see the past rather differently. As a simple example, the defeat of a particular army in World War I, which used to be attributed to poor morale, is now attributed to inadequate diet.

But still more demanding is our openness to new ideas. The ideas of Karl Marx, for example, changed our attitude to the past in many ways. He drew attention to the factor of class conflict; and without necessarily accepting all that Marx himself propounded about it, historians have been forced to re-examine the past and ask whether or how far an element of class conflict has to be taken into consideration as a possible factor in various past events. Similarly, without necessarily going to any extreme of amateur psycho-analysis, very many biographers find that they have to take account of that flood of new psychological criteria which began with Freud. In particular, one finds them enquiring into possible formative child-parent relationships in the early life of the subject of a biography.

Our interpretation of the past is thus very fluid, not at all a static and solid structure. The truth of it is "in the eye of the beholder" and what we see in the past will depend on how we look at the present. All our conscious and unconscious moral judgements about the present are inevitably projected into our view of the past. One can imagine how history would change if historians became converts to, let us say, a belief in reincarnation or in those correlations which astrologers claim to find between planetary positions and the pattern of human lives. And, even if not these, there must be many new sources of value judgements which will open up in the future to change our whole conception of the past.

While openness to new discoveries and new ideas will continue to change and fructify our notion of the past, each new influence gives rise to its own untruth. Faced by the complexity of it all, many historians have been tempted to let their minds be carried away by some simplistic doctrine or overriding enthusiasm. At present, history is probably liable to most distortion from a variety of sociological doctrines, too neat to be true.

In the preface to his History of Europe, H.A.L. Fisher wrote, "One intellectual excitement has been denied to me. Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another, as wave follows upon wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalization, only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen. "

The one great lesson of history is that it does not repeat itself, for behind it is the spontaneity and rich variety of life itself. Yet even when we seek in all humility to restrain our urge to impose a pattern on the past and try just to "tell it the way it was", we are caught up in the limitations of our own personalities. This emerges perhaps more clearly when we are concerned with writing fiction. We find that no novelist can portray a character who is morally bigger than himself. The novelist has to be capable of himself achieving the level of the character's experience and depth and breadth. If he cannot do this, the character remains only a bundle of attributes, a two-dimensional figure lacking the warmth and colour and thickness of real life. And the same life problem confronts anybody who tries to describe the past, more particularly in the form of biography.

It is unnecessary to point invidiously to particular examples, but it may seem to some of us that the great defect of certain of the biographies that have been written about people who have in the past been prominent in the Theosophical Society is that those who wrote them were not big enough to interpret and portray the complex people they wrote about. One wonders if anybody could present us with an image of, say, Madame Blavatsky which would not, somewhere, burst at the seams and fail in truth because of the largeness and vitality of what it attempted to contain.

History, then, is no simple tale of past events. It is a demanding discipline which extends a challenge not only to our view of the past but to our view of the present, from which it can never provide an escape. It is truly "theosophical " in that it asks more questions than it can answer. Those who bring into the Theosophical Society some knowledge of history should be able, if they will, to use the flickering and questionable image of that-which was as a sobering additional sighting on the mystery of that-which-is.


Dr Hugh Shearman is a historian and political commentator. He is a former Secretary of the Northern Ireland Regional Association, is well known as a lecturer and as the author of The Passionate Necessity, The Purpose of Tragedy, Modern Theosophy and other works.


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