1.1 The Art and Science of History

Students often think of history as a simple listing of events, names and dates. However, an understanding of such events also requires knowing something of both the motivations influencing the people who made those events happen, and of methods by which the end results were achieved. In particular, the history of every society is intertwined on the one hand with its technological development, and on the other with the moral and ethical principles upon which the society is built. This book is concerned with all three concepts (history, technology, and ethics) and the relationships among them.

One goal of the study of history is attempting to look ahead as well as back, for by understanding the past and present one gains keys to the future. For instance, even though the technology that will influence the society of the future is very different from that which shaped historical events, there is still much to be learned by examining the past. It is possible to see how societies have already responded to (or developed from) radical technological changes, and thus to suggest how current trends might shape the future. To assist in this, a brief examination of the nature of historical studies is in order.

There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted in and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people. People are unique in the inner life of the mind--what they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity, true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives. The results of their thought flow through their fingers or from their tongues into the external world. This is true of Michelangelo's chisel, and it is true of the dictator's sword.

--the late Francis Schaeffer in How Should We Then Live

What Does a Historian Do?

A historian is more than simply a collector of facts about the past or present. In some ways, the "doing of history" is not unlike that of science, for in both disciplines it is well understood that a collection of data, however vast, does not become useful information until it is organized and interpreted. Like a courtroom judge who must sift through often conflicting eyewitness reports to discover the truth of events, the historian must reconcile accounts of the events under study that are often in sharp disagreement.

There are various reasons for the contradictions that arise even between eyewitness accounts of the same event. For instance, suppose two people standing at the roadside witness a traffic accident from different angles, each noticing aspects that the other does not. The first witness observes a car stop at an intersection and another car attempt to pass on the left, whereupon the stopped car suddenly makes a left turn and is struck broadside by the passing car. Everyone in both vehicles is killed and little is evident about the cause of the accident from the tangled wreckage. This witness is convinced that the driver of the passing car is at fault for attempting to pass when it was not safe to do so The second witness, however, sees the accident from the front and to the left of the flow of traffic instead of from the right side and behind as does the first. She observes that the stopped car had a right-turn signal on when the moving car attempted to pass on the left. To her, the accident is clearly the fault of the driver who signalled to turn one way and actually did the opposite.

Yet, despite knowledge of the misleading turn signal, the coroner who examines the bodies comes to agree with the first witness. She once barely avoided a similar accident by reacting quickly on the brake pedal to a slight movement of the leading driver's arm. Wondering why the following driver did not pick up such a clue despite the false signal, she tests the body of the passing car's driver and finds the blood alcohol content to be four times the legal limit. She has little doubt about where most of the blame lies.

Previous experiences, the time of day, road conditions, lighting, the amount of time spent watching, racial and sexual prejudice, and what a witness expected to see all might also colour the reports that the court hears. Each person takes the stand sworn to tell the whole truth, but even if all do exactly that to the best of their abilities, there will still be disagreements and contradictions.

Likewise, when considering historical events, it is necessary to take into account such things as nationalism, the pride of winners, the shame of losers, and the tendency of historians to support a particular theory or historical figure. As a result of such biases, the accounts of world events reaching a later historian will diverge even more than do those of the traffic accident in the example above. Add in the passage of hundreds or thousands of years and the perils of going through third or fourth hand copies of originals--each perhaps embellished with the copyist's ideas--and it may become difficult to sift contemporary fact from later myth.

What is more, historians have in the past usually concentrated on the few outstanding figures who were at the centre of events--the kings, queens, generals, politicians and other acknowledged movers and shakers. Where there were sources available from common citizens, these were too fragmentary (and often too voluminous) to shed much light on the larger events that shaped the time under study. This is changing as computers allow such material to be assembled and sifted to get a more everyday perspective on events.

Establishing the facts in a careful and scientific fashion using the same kind of evidence weighing employed in a courtroom is the first task of a historian. The accuracy of available accounts must be assessed by checking them against other documents (perhaps describing related events) whose reliability is better accepted. The personality, motives, and level of education and knowledge of the author of the account must also be taken into consideration. For instance, in a society that attaches great importance to the mythology of a variety of gods and goddesses, the appearance of a comet or the conjunction of two planets might be viewed as a clash between the gods, with a simultaneous war here on Earth regarded as incidental. Although later historians would have the opposite view of which is the more important, they may be left with very little useful material with which to work.

However, the practice of the discipline of history is more than a mechanical sifting of facts and weighing of evidence, and the results must be more than a mere narrative of human actions. A history must also serve as an explanation of actions and events in their cultural and technological context, and it must at least attempt to explain the motivations of the people involved. The facts alone (who, what and when), however carefully verified, only slightly engage the mind to the study of history. The how (including the technology) and why (ethical and other motivations) capture one's interest at a much deeper level, for it is in the explaining of these two that one gains an understanding of events and the ability to apply what has been learned to new situations.

This is the art of history--to place events within a context that tells something about the people and ideas that moved the events in the first place, and that were in turn changed by the events after they took place. Events involve real flesh and blood human beings, and if one is to understand the forces that move societies, one must understand the people who shape those forces and are shaped by them.

History seeks to explain societal and individual experiences and to integrate opinions, motivations, causes, actions, reactions and effects into a comprehensive view of people in the context of their whole society. On the one hand, history must take into account the technologies that may have caused events to take place or that developed as a result of events. On the other hand, it must also take into consideration the moral/ethical (and other) human motivations for action.

Interpreting History

The historian must also produce a narrative that is able to convey to others the comprehensive picture created by sifting the collected materials. Thus the scholar must be able to write clearly and effectively. It is important to realize, however, that the result does not gain some canonical status ("truth") merely because it has been published--every book on history is filtered through its author's views about the world, people, their motivations, and the meaning of historical events.

At the most radical extreme are those who ignore the evidence of history and write their own. For instance, some deny that the holocaust of millions of Jews in the Second World War ever took place. Evidence is not relevant to people with a sufficiently strong view of a matter. The implied racism of these pseudo-histories has such incendiary potential it strains the ability of society to guarantee universal free speech, for it raises the spectre of the true history being repeated.

In like manner, the old-fashioned Marxist views history as the unfolding of a class struggle between the poor masses and the wealthy (capitalist) elite: history moves toward an inevitable climax wherein the mass of workers will control all wealth and its means of production. Historical writing done within the framework of this world view interprets the period under study in terms of such clashes because that world view requires class struggle to be present. Such an account may reinterpret what all other historians have said about events to the point where it becomes almost unrecognizable. This reinterpretation is both acceptable and morally right to the Marxist historian. In such ideologies the truth of past events is variable and must serve doctrine, for it alone is fixed. The Marxist believes that world view creates history, and the account generated by such a historian necessarily conforms to that world view.

The main character in George Orwell's anti-totalitarian novel 1984 is employed by the government to change old magazine reports of party officials' speeches so that they will conform to current party policy. The "Ministry of Information" is engaged not in securing and publishing factual material, but in ensuring that the record of history is altered to fit the current policies of the party. Truth attaches to party doctrine, not to mere facts.

Such views are prevalent in the study of all literature, not just the historical. The deconstructionists hold that no body of writing has any inherent meaning, even if one was intended by the author. Meaning is created and attached by the reader, and such activity is unique and relative to each individual, not absolute. It is also rather common to read present values into works of the past, or to criticize (or even ban) them for not having certain modern political and social views. Thus the works and thinking of past writers are often dismissed as irrelevant rather than studied for understanding.

While these are extreme examples, they force us to recognize that accounts of the past are always filtered through a world view that includes some theory of what history is, or ought to be. Even when applied to the same body of data, this filtering process may produce very different results, depending on who is doing the filtering.

The view of some Greek philosophers--one that has had periods of popularity ever since--was quite different. In this view, history was not an expression of political dogma, but an eternal repetition in cycles of the same kinds of events. Perhaps something could be learned from events, and perhaps not. What was certain was that if Rome burned Carthage, enslaved its peoples, and poured salt on its arable land, the same thing one day would be done to them by another people, and that their conquerors too would ultimately meet destruction.

There would be another Plato to deliver the messages of another Socrates; kingdoms would become democracies which when fully corrupt would lapse into dictatorship; and their dictators would in turn proclaim themselves kings and begin the cycle of government anew. Time and history had no beginning, no purpose, and no end--it just was. One could not rely on the gods to escape the cycle; one could but be subject to the fates. In this view, no real explanation for history is possible, for in the long run, inexplicable forces shape events--forces that are beyond the scope and knowledge of mere human beings. Taking this idea to its extreme, one could well conclude that there is little humankind can do in the face of events but continue a fateful existence as a bit player on an unknown stage before an unknowable audience.

The observation about the repetition of government types cannot be denied entirely, for such cycles may be seen to some extent in modern times and societies as well. For instance, in the first half of this century, both Russia and Germany went from imperial monarchy to democracy, into dictatorship, and back out again. Moreover, it is legitimate to ask whether democracy contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. A democracy assumes that people will act in the common good, but its laws must reflect that they often act selfishly. As bureaucracy and regulations grow, and selfish demands increase, some may come to believe that a period of dictatorship or monarchy is necessary to salvage order out of what they see as growing chaos.

A few thinkers have taken the idea of the predictability of history further, wondering if it may become possible to develop systematic descriptions of trends in history and society so that events can not only be forecast, but also be managed by taking "corrective" measures. Perhaps the most popular of all science fiction was Asimov's Foundation series, whose premise was that just such a detailed analysis and prediction was possible, even over the span of millennia.

However, while some insist that complete scientific descriptions of history are both possible and necessary, others claim that no definitive explanation for history is possible or needed. In the last hundred years or so, "scientific" views of history have become increasingly popular, for humanity as a statistical whole is thought of as being subject to analysis and prediction. In this thinking, once the motivations of the masses could be measured and tabulated, their response to economic or technological stimuli could be accurately predicted. Appropriate technology and education could then be adapted to engineer and control the desired society. Such theories are popular among both political rightists and leftists, neither of whom realize that they are advocating the same kind of society--a sort of "scientific totalitarianism" or "technocratic dictatorship."

Finally, it is worthwhile to consider a Judeo-Christian perspective on the subject. The possibility of some thematic repetition as history progresses is not completely ruled out by these historians, though they regard history as much more than a record of purposeless recycling of events with no beginning and no end. Both Jews and Christians hold that the world and its peoples had a definite beginning and a purpose (to serve the Creator). The Bible chronicles events after creation: the rebellion and falling away from God by the first human beings, a new start after the worldwide catastrophe of the flood, the promise of a Messiah given to the nation of Israel, the provision of the law to set that nation apart as an inheritance for God. The Christian scriptures add that the law intentionally demonstrated the impossibility of pleasing God through an imposed morality. They detail the coming of Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah to usher in a new covenant with God based on his grace alone. Christians look forward to a return of Christ for judgement and reward, and to a final culmination of the Earth, its peoples, and their histories.

Thus, both Judaism and Christianity claim a comprehensive view of history as a definite progression. In the latter, the sequence of history is centred on the cross, but both root all their claims in a series of historical events. These events are potentially verifiable by the same means applied to other occurrences. Although this text will not present a detailed history of Western religions or discuss in other than general terms how their institutions have directly affected the events of Western nations, it is important to make two points:

First, whatever one thinks of the Judeo-Christian religions, one cannot underestimate the effect that they have had on Western culture and on ethics, the law, and government in particular. Ideas derived from the Bible can be found at the heart of much that is held dear in modern Western law, particularly in the important area of human rights. The influence upon the U.S. Constitution is particularly potent.

Second, religious influences may be on the ascendancy in Western culture after at least a century of decline. In recent centuries, secular statism and agnostic humanism had largely replaced Judeo-Christian thinking as "religious" forces. Yet in the last decade or so, such phrases as "born again" once more appear in the headlines of newspapers and magazines; prominent religious leaders have sought the U. S. presidency; and the morality of politicians is once again scrutinized publicly by a press newly sensitized to the deep interest of the public in such matters. Membership in theologically conservative organizations that are both socially and politically active continues to grow rapidly. Even though these members are numerically offset to a degree by the continuing exodus from the more liberal mainline groups, the net result is a higher visibility for religion in North America. In this context, it is not surprising that religious views of history, technology, and ethical issues should once again be regarded as legitimate topics for scholarly study, and debates once thought conceded are now being rejoined. All this activity has interesting side effects, for as Naisbitt (Megatrends) points out "evangelical publishers now account for a third of domestic book sales." The work of religious artists has also become an important factor in the music market.

Meanwhile, there is a broad resurgence of interest in other forms of spirituality, including various reinterpretations the so-called "New Age" movement has placed on some traditional Eastern religions that have made such ideas marketable in the West.

This increase of interest in religion following the end of the industrial age might be seen in a broader context as part of a reaction against the perceived "hardness" of the science and technology that have dominated the recent past. A new view is often heard--that one can indeed know things to be true in ways other than exclusively through the scientific method.

It is worth observing that these trends have not yet (and may never be) reflected in the legislative and judicial arenas, and that they are more pronounced in the United States than in Canada, where the controlling paradigms are decidedly anti-religious. It would hurt a Canadian political candidate who made an issue of her religion, and such religious lobby groups as do exist have minimal influence on politicians or the courts in that country.

The desire to have structure during a time of change may also be a factor, especially in formerly Communist countries where people seeking stability often find religious leaders to be more credible than political ones. There is also a new desire to assert the importance of people over things, or at least to promote a "high-touch" aspect of society to balance the "high-tech." Thus, not only do older religions like Christianity appear to be enjoying at least nominal revival, but so are many other forms of religion, philosophy, and mysticism. All these factors may well have a strong influence on the peoples of the coming age.


It should distress no one that there are conflicting views about history, its interpretation, or even the facts themselves. The important lesson is that each person is part of a culture and has a view of the world through which all knowledge (including that of history), is filtered. One who appreciates this lesson and has a clear perception of both personal world view and cultural surroundings, gains an understanding of both the events of history and of a place in them, as well as the ability to engage in debate about their meaning in an informed way. Here again is Francis Schaeffer on the subject:

People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of these presuppositions than even they themselves realize. By presuppositions we mean the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic world view, the grid through which he sees the world. Presuppositions rest upon that which a person considers to be the truth of what exists. People's presuppositions lay a grid for all they bring forth into the external world. Their presuppositions also provide the basis for their values and therefore the basis for their decisions.

"As a man thinketh, so is he," is really most profound. An individual is not just the product of the forces around him. He has a mind, an inner world. Then, having thought, a person can bring forth actions into the external world and thus influence it.

-- How Should We Then Live

Placing history in a larger context is very much a theme of this book, for throughout the text, events, technology, and ethical issues are discussed in relation to one another. An important thesis here is that not only are ideas, actions, and people inseparable, but also that many disciplines of human thought regarded as distinct are really part of a whole. Because of this larger context, the title of this chapter could have been expressed in terms of sociology rather than of history. Use of the latter word reflects a need to place the discussions in a continuum of time, for the major concern in this book will be that of the mutual influence of ethical and social issues, of technology, and of events over time. This continuum will also be in evidence in the attempts made in several chapters to peer into the future.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises