- Historic Sites
Knowledge Beyond Numbers
At a time when our civilization is trying to organize itself on scientific principles of mathematical probabilities, statistical modeling, and the like, is traditional narrative history of any real use? Yes, says a distinguished practitioner of the discipline; it can always help us. It might even save us.
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
By the careful examination of how the single person has acted in a variety of particular situations we can still learn much about the human condition that must serve as the organizing principle for our technological schemes. My further thought, obviously, is that history is one of the most rewarding means for the examination of the problematical subject matter. It is true, of course, that for those of us who think like historians, some very important evidence is not available. Along with the rest, we do not know much about how men and women will behave when we face the fact that we have the whole world in our hands, when we are the commanding presence confronted with the necessity to command not only external forces but also ourselves. But what there is to know about this presence during its long watch as an aggressive subordinate within nature will still bear directly on all future developments.
For confirmation of what I have been saying, I turn to a historian whom my philosopher friend would have read with pleasure and who was also a master of social organization. Theodore Roosevelt put the matter as well as anyone could, and of course, as with any truth he discovered, he put it frequently and in different ways from that bully pulpit. But the gist remained the same. “Back of the laws, back of the Administration, back of the system—lies the man.” If, as he said, it is sometimes necessary for legal or social reasons to think of people as a class or category, our future safety turns on our recognition that the foundation of society is the individual and the stuff that is in him. “Whether we all go up or all go down depends on whether he does or does not wax in growth and grace.” Our task today is to find those conditions in which the individual does not wane.