There is perhaps no temptation greater to the amateur (or professional) historian than to take a set of historical facts and draw from them a grand narrative. This tradition has existed at least since Gibbon wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with its focus on declining civic virtue and the rise of Christianity.
Obviously, it is true that things in history happen for a reason. But I think the case is much less clear that these reasons can be marshalled like soldiers and made to march in neat lines across the centuries. What is true in one time and place may not necessarily be true in another. When you fall under the sway of a grand narrative, when you believe that everything happens for a reason, you may become tempted to ignore all of the evidence to the contrary.
Instead praying at the altar of grand narratives, I’d like to suggest that you embrace the ambiguity of history, an ambiguity that exists because…
Context Is Tricky
Here are six sentences someone could tell you about their interaction with the sharing economy:
- I stayed at an Uber last night
- I took an AirBnB to the mall
- I deliberately took an Uber
- I deliberately took a Lyft
- I deliberately took a taxi
- I can't remember which ride-hailing app I used
Each of these sentences has an overt meaning. They describe how someone spent a night or got from place A to place B. They also have a deeper meaning, a meaning that only makes sense in the current context. Imagine your friend told you that they deliberately took an Uber. What does it say about them that they deliberately took a ride in the most embattled and controversial ridesharing platform? How would you expect their political views to differ from someone who told you they deliberately took a taxi?
Even simple statements carry a lot of hidden context, context that is necessary for full understanding.
Do you know what the equivalent statements to the six I listed would be in China? How about in Saudi Arabia? I can tell you that I don’t know either. Of course, it isn’t particularly hard to find these out for China (or Saudi Arabia). You may not find a key written down anywhere (especially if you can only read English), but all you have to do is ask someone from either country and they could quickly give you a set of contextual equivalents.
Luckily historians can do the same… oh. Oh damn.
When you’re dealing with the history of a civilization that “ended” hundreds or thousands of years ago, you’re going to be dealing with cultural context that you don’t fully understand. Sometimes people are helpful enough to write down “Uber=kind of evil” and “supporting taxis = very left wing, probably vegan & goes to protests”. A lot of the time they don’t though, because that’s all obvious cultural context that anyone they’re writing to would obviously have.
And sometimes they do write down even the obvious stuff, only for it all to get burned when barbarians sack their city, leaving us with no real way to understand if a sentence like “the opposing orator wore red” has any sort of meaning beyond a statement of sartorial critique or not.
All of this is to say that context can make or break narratives. Look at the play “Hamilton”. It’s a play aimed at urban progressives. The titular character’s strong anti-slavery views are supposed to code to a modern audience that he’s on the same political team as them. But if you look at American history, it turns out that support for abolishing slavery (and later, abolishing segregation) and support for big corporations over the “little guy” were correlated until very recently. In the 1960s though 1990s, there was a shift such that the Democrats came to stand for both civil rights and supporting poorer Americans, instead of just the latter. Before this shift, Democrats were the party of segregation, not that you’d know it to see them today.
Trying to tie Hamilton into a grander narrative of (eventual) progressive triumph erases the fact that most of the modern audience would strenuously disagree with his economic views (aside from urban neo-liberals, who are very much in Hamilton’s mold). Audiences end up leaving the paly with a story about their own intellectual lineage that is far from correct, a story that may cause them to feel smugly superior to people of other political stripes.
History optimized for this sort of team or political effect turns many modern historians or history writers into…
Gaps in context, or modern readers missing the true significance of gestures, words, and acts steeped in a particular extinct culture, combined with the fact that it is often impossible to really know why someone in the past did something mean that some of history is always going to be filled in with our best guesses.
Professor Mary Beard really drove this point home for me in her book SPQR. She showed me how history that I thought was solid was often made up of myths, exaggerations, and wishful thinking on the parts of modern authors. We know much less about Rome than many historians had made clear to me, probably because any nuance or alternative explanation would ruin their grand theories.
When it comes to so much of the past, we genuinely don’t know why things happened.
I recently heard two colleagues arguing about The Great Divergence – the unexplained difference in growth rates between Europe and the rest of the world that became apparent in the 1700s and 1800s. One was very confident that it could be explained by access to coal. The other was just as confident that it could be explained by differences in property rights.
I waded in and pointed out that Wikipedia lists fifteen possible explanations, all of which or none of which could be true. Confidence about the cause of the great divergence seems to me a very silly thing. We cannot reproduce it, so all theories must be definitionally unfalsifiable.
But both of my colleagues had read narrative accounts of history. And these narrative accounts had agendas. One wished to show that all peoples had the same inherent abilities and so cast The Great Divergence as chance. The other wanted to show how important property rights are and so made those the central factor in it. Neither gave much time to the other explanation, or any of the thirteen others that a well trafficked and heavily edited Wikipedia article finds equally credible.
Neither agenda was bad here. I am in fact broadly in favour of both. Yet their effect was to give two otherwise intelligent and well-read people a myopic view of history.
So much of narrative history is like this! Authors take the possibilities they like best, or that support their political beliefs the best, or think will sell the best, and write them down as if they are the only possibilities. Anyone who is unlucky enough to read such an account will be left with a false sense of certainty – and in ignorance of all the other options.
Of course, I have an agenda too. We all do. It’s just that my agenda is literally “the truth resists simplicity”. I like the messiness of history. It fits my aesthetic sense well. It’s because of this sense, that I’d like to encourage everyone to make their next foray into history free of narratives. Use Wikipedia or a textbook instead of a bestselling book. Read something by Mary Beard, who writes as much about historiography as she writes about history. Whatever you do, avoid books with blurbs praising the author for their “controversial” or “insightful” new theory.
Leave, just once, behind those famous narrative works like “Guns, Germs, and Steel” or “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and pick up something that embraces ambiguity and doesn’t bury messiness behind a simple agenda.