Understanding the atrocities of the past is not equal to justifying them. In fact, they may help invalidate the rule that “history repeats itself.”
William Faulker, in his 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun, wrote: “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” Only two years later, the British writer L.P. Hartley, declared in The Go-Betweens: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The extent to which both men were correct, even in their seeming contradiction, has perhaps never been more clear. The judgement of history is a nuanced and complicated activity, an activity not surprisingly unsuited to modern ‘history-making’ media, such as Twitter. Nonetheless, those who have the misfortune of spending too much time on the internet, particularly, the black vortex that is Twitter, may have noticed a Twitterverse debate as to how the past should be judged. The University of New Brunswick classicist Matthew Sears even got a Washington Post op-ed out of the deal.
The flair in what is a longstanding (and ordinarily quite interesting in the right context) debate was set-off by two events. The first was a series of tweets by Matthew Sears about the democratic bono fides of the ancient Athenians; not-so-cutesy response to a cutesy series of memes. The second was Lizzie Wade’s article on the discovery by archaeologists of hundreds of human skulls, a discovery which reveals the massive scale of human sacrifice among the Aztecs. In the article, and in subsequent comments, Wade offered that she could not judge the morality of human sacrifice because that would be imposing one’s values on another culture.
Interestingly, those arguing that that ancient Greeks should be held to account for being slaveholding, misogynistic imperialists were many of the same people arguing that the medieval Aztecs were merely following their religious practices when they made that gnarly skull collection, practices that cannot be judged. Conversely, those defending the glorious Greeks and their not-so-glorious slaves were outraged by the Aztec’s barbarous sacrifice. These inconsistencies might make one suspicious as to the motives of each side, and rightly so. It does not take much effort to realize that no one is really talking about the Greeks or the Aztecs. What is the case is that the Greeks and the Aztecs have become another proxy in the knee-jerk Culture Wars. Those who have taken up the cause of the West must offer an unconditional defense of the Greeks, their mythic founders. On the other side, the intersectional defenders of marginalized groups have to throw their lot in with the indigenous First Nation Aztecs. The consequences is bad history, bad politics, and glaring hypocrisy all around.
“Those who have taken up the cause of the West must offer an unconditional defense of the Greeks, their mythic founders. On the other side, the intersectional defenders of marginalized groups have to throw their lot in with the indigenous First Nation Aztecs.”
We live in an uncertain present that only seems to offer a more uncertain future. In fact, this uncertainty is the only thing we can seem to agree upon. So it should be no surprise that we disagree on what to make of the past. But it is not the disagreement that is concerning. After all, the entire field of academic history would be useless without it. The trouble with our contemporary engagement with the past is, instead, one of method. Rather than searching the past for the lessons that it offers–lessons which may help us invalidate the rule “history repeats itself”–we reach our contemporary conclusions by looking in the past for evidence that will only support those conclusions. It is, thus, an example of confirmation bias. History, in this way, is not being used as something from which we can be taught, but as a mine of anecdotal evidence. The results of this approach have been incredibly damaging and have made anachronism and revisionism the rule of the day.
“Rather than searching the past for the lessons that it offers–lessons which may help us invalidate the rule “history repeats itself”–we reach our contemporary conclusions by looking in the past for evidence that will only support those conclusions.”
This would be bad enough if it only influenced academic history, but history is inevitably, and rightly, invoked in public policy debates. In this context, anachronistic, revisionist history become a dangerous tool in the hands of ideologues who paint an inaccurate, harmful, and frequently counterproductive picture of the past and the present.
Moreover, this approach clouds our contemporary moral judgement. One of the most destructive features of the present discourse is the way in which it thrives on moral absolutes. People, nations, and institutions are wholly good or irredeemably evil. Nuanced moral reasoning, not to mention an appreciation of the complexities of human life, are virtually absent. Empathy is a lost virtue. And yet, empathy is exactly what is required to evaluate the past fairly and to take advantage of its lessons.
Unfortunately, these approaches have frequently been distorted or, worse, over-sentimentalized. Poor application aside, however, it is a worthwhile pursuit to approach history with empathy, to try to understand why people behaved the way they did, or why societies were ordered in some particular way. But here is the trick: Empathy and understanding do not necessitate acceptance. We can understand why something happened and then not have to approve of it as a moral matter. We can understand why there were slaves in Athens and, at the same time, condemn slavery. We can understand why the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice and be horrified by it at the same time. Explanation does not equal justification. Having an explanation for atrocities of the past, or even the present, does not mean that those atrocities are, in any way, justified. However, in order to avoid repeating them, we need to be able to explain them.
“Empathy and understanding do not necessitate acceptance. We can understand why something happened and then not have to approve of it as a moral matter.”
In fact, that is exactly what we should do. Because it is through this dual exercise that we can truly learn from the past. No one will find people just like them, with identical sensibilities, waiting to be discovered in the pages of history. And that’s the beauty of it. In the past, we do not find a mirror; we simply find other people–people whom we cannot know fully nor completely understand. And yet, they are people from whom we can learn, by whom we can be both revoluted and inspired. The first step to engaging the past in this way is to stop pretending that history is some sort of one-to-one corollary for the present. It means taking the past, a past which is not really dead, and understanding that, as L.P. Hartley said, it is a foreign country–whose language we may never master.
“The first step to engaging the past in this way is to stop pretending that history is some sort of one-to-one corollary for the present.”
We do not have to agree as to what the lessons of history are even then. But we can practice on those skills our ancestors had; skills that we have forgotten how to practice with each other: empathy and nuanced moral judgement. Only then can history reclaim its rightful place as a teacher and not a cudgel. Then and only then can we be fair to the past and do justice to the present.
Katherine Kelaidis is a resident scholar at the National Hellenic Museum