“History is Philosophy teaching by examples” – Thucydides

“History is a myth that men agree to believe” – Napoleon

“History is the memory of things said and done.” – Carl L. Becker



What is history? Clearly, it depends on who you ask. But, generally speaking, history is the study and written presentation of past events. It most frequently contains stories of past human experiences, but also often includes analyses of WHY human events occurred as they did.  History is organized in a wide variety of ways -- chronological, territorial, national, cultural, military, diplomatic, social, etc. – usually with considerable overlap in many works.  However, how humans have viewed and written about the past has never been static. Rather history has always changed as human civilizations themselves have evolved.

Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425 BC) is often acknowledged as the “father of history” (a title bestowed on him by Cicero, the first century BC Roman statesman).   Prior to his writings, most history was in the form of temple inscriptions and documents which merely recorded the great deeds of kings and the gods who supported their activities. In Herodotus’ dramatic narrative of the Greek-Persian Wars of the early 5th century BC – The Histories – one sees the first systematic look at past events through the use of critically-evaluated empirical evidence. While Herodotus also believed that divine influences helped to shape human events, his contemporary Thucydides (c. 460-c. 395BC) focused entirely on human agency in his writings. In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides not only rationally explained the conflict between Sparta and Athens, but he also searched for its underlying moral and political causes.

Despite these accomplishments, history was never systematically or widely studied in the ancient world. Nor was it a respected branch of inquiry; rather history was viewed merely as component of literature. Aristotle, for instance, dismissed history because it investigated particular events rather than searching for what was of universal significance. This is one of the reasons why the works of many ancient historians have not survived – they were not viewed as worthy of preservation.

The emergence and triumph of Christianity in the West profoundly altered the study of the past. Rather than attempting to write about past events objectively, Christians focused on explaining the emergence of the Jewish people, primarily through accounts in the Old Testament as evidence. They also told the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection through the four gospels and other parts of the New Testament. These events represented not human agency, but the fulfillment of divine prophecy. Christian histories, moreover, presented a “universal history” through which God's ultimate plan for mankind was fully articulated and laid out.

In the Middle Ages, history continued to be studied largely through a Christian perspective, with the past providing the means through which to explain God’s larger design. Historians, therefore, often incorporated miracles and magic into their histories.  However, many medieval writers also compiled extensive annals and chronicles, which were largely chronological listings of events from a particular period and/or region, presented without analysis or interpretation. A unique characteristic of medieval writers is that they did not understand the process of historical change. In other words, they assumed or believed that the customs, practices, and habits of past ages were the same as theirs.

With the Renaissance, humanist scholars, such as Petrarch (1304-1374), comprehended that their own age was very different from the past. Thus, these writers began to grasp the process of historical change and to realize that past events and people needed to be situated in their particular time periods in order to be fully understood. Moreover, seeking to emulate ancient writers and scholars, Renaissance historians attempted to sift critically through the documentary record available to them in order to search rationally for the human cause of events.

With the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, historical writings by Christian reformers (e.g., John Calvin) focused on papal corruption and misdeeds while searching for the historical moment when the Roman Catholic Church supposedly turned away from Jesus' teachings and the true church (or the city of God). Catholic responses to Protestant writings presented very different versions of the past with neither side possessing historical objectivity.

With the emergence of the printing press and the proliferation of printed works, however, scholars came to increasingly understand that all written evidence from the past was rooted in the historical period of its production. In the 16th and 17th centuries, legal scholars in particular viewed and interpreted laws and judicial customs as products of past ages. In 17th century England, moreover, the political and religious struggles between the Parliament and crown led to intense historical investigations by scholars into that country’s distant and recent past, with supporters of each side looking for the origins of institutions and into the development of sovereign rights and powers.

By the 18th century, numerous collections of historical documents and materials had been published and, as religious conflicts ebbed, scholars increasingly adopted a more thoroughly secular perspective in their writings. In particular, historians began to search for the multiple and interrelated factors which shaped a particular society or civilization over the generations. The best illustration of this is Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire(1776-88). An example of “philosophical” history, Gibbon sought not only to investigate why and how certain societies progressed, but also what caused them to decline and ultimately collapse.

In the 19th century, history began to emerge as a separate and distinct academic discipline written by professionally-trained historians. The process began in Germany. In reaction to military defeat and occupation by Napoleon, German leaders in Prussia and elsewhere insisted after the French emperor’s defeat that their own history be systematically studied and taught to all citizens. As universal education became common throughout Europe, history formed a central part of the curriculum. Universities also established academic departments in history and trained new historians in the techniques of rational investigation, critical textual analysis and analytical writing.

During the late-19th and into the 20th century, one sees both dramatic growth in the number of historical works published and an increasing specialization among historians. Indeed, many scholars began to worry that the sheer number of available histories as well as excessive specialization would lead to many important new discoveries being overlooked or ignored. As a result of the discipline’s ongoing professionalization and specialization, history came to be defined by many universities in the 1960s and 1970s, not as a branch of the humanities, but as one of the social sciences. Ironically, at the same time, post-modern critiques influenced the writing of history. Some scholars debated whether or not “true” or accurate history was even possible. Calling into question the objectivity of their colleagues, post-modern historians asked if they and others could really provide “truth” about the past, or were their writings merely filled with their own assumptions and “meanings.”

A number of these troubling trends continue in the early 21st century.  Even though the reading-public remains highly interested in biography and general histories, the discipline remains excessively specialized -- one could even say Balkanized -- with countless scholarly works published every year (far too many for historians to read even within their own specialties). Many scholars, moreover, continue to be influenced by postmodern ideas about the elusiveness of “truth.” Thus, as a discipline, history continues to change and evolve, reflecting the times in which it is produced.






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