Essay: What Is Important In History?

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If importance is what is of import, consequence, and value to me in my daily life, then feudalism, the investiture of bishops, nominalism and realism, all added together, are less important than the buttons on my coat and the zipper on my trousers. But what does history tell us about the button? Very little. The ancient Greeks and Romans had no buttons; they held themselves together with brooches and clasps and fibulae, safety pins. The button is not mentioned in the Bible; hence some rigorous Amish still eschew the button, and there is, or was, a fundamentalist sect called “Hook-and-Eye Baptists.” Up to the middle of the Middle Ages, Europeans fastened their cloaks and gowns at shoulder or breast with clasps or buckles, and tied their breeches with laces, thongs, or “points.”

The button was apparently invented, like so much else, in China, with the linking of garments by a kind of toggle and with the application of frogs to silk to hold buttons and preserve buttonholes. The earliest reference that I have discovered to a button in Europe is in Robert de Clari’s account of the coronation of Baldwin of Flanders as Emperor of the East, in Constantinople in the year 1204.

By the end of the thirteenth century there had been an explosion of buttons in western Europe, and they were standard equipment in the fourteenth. They were used for service and display; gentlemen wore a row of buttons on their sleeves, as we continue to do to show our respect for history.

I have dwelt at such length on the history of the button because no historian (apparently) has done so, and because its history seems to me perhaps as important as that of the royal crown or the papal tiara. Once history was chiefly military; then it became political, then economic and sociological. The history of ideas has its vogue, and so has the history of science and technology. The abundance and variety of histories suggests that there is no one measure of importance, but that one subject can be treated from many points of view. Everything is important to someone, somewhere, somewhen. Or so at least the historian hopes. Said Dr. Johnson, “All knowledge is of itself of some value. There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable that I would not rather know it than not. A man would not submit to learn to hem a ruffle, of his wife, or his wife’s maid; but if a mere wish could attain it, he would rather wish to be able to hem a ruffle.”

Much of history is hemming ruffles. But a ruffle well hemmed may be important, and not to the hemmer alone.

The historian wants to preserve everything in memory. He wants to be useful, to do good. He points insistently to “the lessons of history.” Few take his lessons seriously, except other historians. If the lessons of history were actually useful, our departments of history would be assailed by demands from mayors and congressmen asking history’s solutions to their problems. The fire chief, on hearing an alarm, would hastily consult the History of Conflagrations. But fire chiefs, mayors, and congressmen use history only as an ornament to beautify or conceal their purpose. One of the rare examples in history of a ruler’s serious appeal to history for guidance was that of Woodrow Wilson, himself a historian. He took a shipload of historians to Versailles in 1919 to make the treaty. And the Treaty of Versailles was rather worse than most treaties, in the judgment of later historians.

The lessons of history are as obscure and equivocal as the oracles at Delphi and Dodona. Its chief lesson is that it has no lessons. Its importance lies only in itself. Its subject is all that man has done in past time. And past time is all time, for the present is only a knife-edge division between past and future. There is no present; we cannot be sure that there is any future. History, the entire past of mankind and of ourselves, envelops us. We cannot escape from history except into death or senility. If any spark of curiosity lives in us, we must be interested in history. When we lose our curiosity, the end is near.

But what is important in history? Everything is important, because everything touches us, at one remove or at a trillion. The life of an Egyptian slave, or of a Scythian chieftain, or of a potter in an Indian pueblo has infinitesimally affected our own lives, and may be ours again in imagination. Our imagination is our reality, and all that occupies it is important.

On the other hand, nothing is important, except our life and death, which are not very important either.