Essay: What Is Important In History?

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An academic eavesdropper, bugging college classrooms, would hear endlessly repeated the lecturer’s phrase “a matter of the utmost importance is …” The conclusion of the sentence, accompanied by a squeak of chalk, might be almost anything: “the Occasional Conformity Act of 1711,” or “the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713,” or “the Molasses Act of 1733.” The cultural spy would observe the forward quarter of the class eagerly noting down what sounds like an examination question of the utmost importance, while the rearward three quarters, asprawl and aslump, indicate in every limb that the matter is of no importance at all. The teacher is mistaken, or possibly lying. If his pronouncement were of actual importance, his hearers would rouse, gape, cry approval, or protest. The teacher should properly qualify his statement to read, “A matter of the utmost importance to me personally is this or that,” or, “A matter of the utmost importance to those who wish to get a good grade in the course is…” The teacher might in his gloomier moments amplify his reservations; he might ask himself what, if anything, is important in history.

It would seem that we have a simple and incontrovertible means of recognizing the important: it is interesting. But historians have been impelled to introduce a contrary principle. Honoring patient industry, they praise the researcher who has read through the English Court of Chancery records, or a mountain of French provincial archives, or the ledgers of a thousand early ironmongers in Oklahoma. This is splendid, of course; the researchers deserve all the praise they get, and more. However, they are applauded not because their work is interesting but because it is uninteresting. They are rewarded for their endurance in the study of the insignificant. Let us give them a great big hand instead of reading the massive volumes that result from their labors.

The exaltation of the unimportant is promoted by the value system of college teaching. The historian is pulled and pushed into publication. He is pulled by his desire to give the scholarly world something new, or something old that has been forgotten, even though justly forgotten. He longs to resurrect a skeleton and clack its bones together until he lets go and it relapses into its comfortable grave. At the same time, the historian is pushed by the academic demand that he publish for promotion, for the attainment of Tenure, that blissful state in which he need never again publish anything. So, until Tenure enfolds him, and sometimes after, he publishes.

In a recent issue of the American Historical Review I count critical reviews of 232 books and noncritical notices of 270 more. I do not number microfilms and the list of learned periodical articles, which outrun my ability to count. Many of these studies look interesting to me; I am sure that all of them are interesting, and hence important, to some subscribers to the Review. Long-felt wants are no doubt filled by Thucydides and the Politics of Bipolarity, by The Council of Chalcedon and the Armenian Church, by Ancient Petitions Relating to Northumberland, by English Land Measuring to 1800, by Struktur und Funktion der “KPD-Opposition” (KPO). But these are specialized importances; I am concerned rather with Importance in the large sense, Importance for the nonunprofessional reader, who has the blessed privilege of stopping when he is bored.

If one examines a set of current historical textbooks, one sees that their authors agree pretty closely on what is important. In medieval history, for instance, ample space is always allotted to feudalism. It must be defined, analyzed, distinguished from the manorial system, and pursued through periods of dominance and decline. The student must be thoroughly instructed on feudal land tenure in various countries and on the forces at work to transform it into other systems of landholding. Again, the investiture controversy bulks large in every history of the Middle Ages. At issue was the question whether the pope or a monarch should invest a new bishop with his ring and crosier, symbols of his office. Again, or again again, every medieval history dwells at length on nominalism versus realism. Though of course you remember nominalism and realism, I may remind some less instructed reader of this essay that there are two attitudes toward universal, or generalized ideal classes. “The automobile” is a universal, whereas “my automobile” is a particular. The realists maintained that a universal is a reality, existing perfectly in God’s mind. Not so, said the nominalists; universals are merely names, linguistic conveniences.

These three phenomena, or manifestations, or concretions—feudalism, the investiture controversy, the quarrel of universal—are all clearly important. In their own times they influenced men’s lives and sometimes hastened their deaths. To some degree they have carried over into our own habits of thought. They are interesting—or at least interesting to those who are interested in this kind of thing.

But is their importance not perhaps overdone? Each of these subjects has produced a vast body of learned literature, filled with subtle argument, passion, and vituperation. One may wonder if the mass of commentary has not exalted the subjects above their intrinsic worth. One may wonder if, in modern parlance, there is not too much feedback in their circuits. One may even wonder if historical importance may not be defined as that which historians have liked to argue about.

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.