Occasional Comments on History: History and a sense of time.

What follows is an extract from a letter which I wrote to my son many years ago about history. I still think the remarks valid:

“History, properly understood, gives a sense of perspective, a better notion of what things are important and what things are not. Without history you see events out of focus but yet do not realize that your vision is limited.After all, it is natural that you and I as with everybody else living in the present should think it supremely significant — and in a sense it is. It is the field of current action but the measure of events,their true significance or otherwise, can only be guaged from the context of the whole course of human action.To think only of the present is like viewing an artificially enlarged photo of a very small segment of the landscape.
For history to give us this perspective we must try to keep in our minds a proper idea of time. This is very difficult. It requires a strong effort of the imagination to give historical periods or events their proper relation to each other.You will know that William the Conquerer succesfully invaded England in 1066. You may know that Julius Caesar was murdered in Rome, which I hope you will visit one day, in 44 BC.For long I had known this but I recall the sense of shock I felt when I recognized that the period of time between William the Conquerer’s defeat of Harold and today is actually less than that between Caesar and Christ and the Norman invasion.There are perhaps a number of reasons for my surprise. One no doubt is that the world of ancient Rome, notwithstanding many differences, seems closer to our own than that of Anglo-Saxon England. But the chief reason was the quite false notion that we have that so much more seemed to have happened since 1066 and therefore it seemed to be a longer time. As I say the idea was quite wrong. Just as many events, although perhaps unrecorded and unrecollected, occurred during that period as in any other.Consider for a moment that the period between the Armada in 1588 and Governor Phillip’s landing at Port Jackson with the First Fleet is longer, although only by a trifle, than the perid since the landing and today.Does that surprise you? Consider also that the period between 1388 and 1588 is quite as long again and that 1388 is many years from William the Conquerer and we are still ever so many years since Cicero was arguing before the Courts or addressing the Senate.

A sense of time is very important.It is said that in the past there has been too much attention to dates in the learning of history.No doubt this was true.Exact dates may well be unimportant.To reduce history to the learning of dates is absurd but that does not, I think, affect the fact that without a sense of time history will be a mish mash and, therefore, the perspective that history can provide will be distorted.

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Published in: Uncategorized on November 9, 2011 at 11:25 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. You make a fascinating point about erroneous perceptions of the relative lengths of time between different historical events. I regard the first world war as being almost as distant from my own time as, say, the Boer War or the era of Gladstone and Disraeli: yet in fact I was born only 16 years after the end of the first world war, and only 21 years separated the end of WW1 and the start of WW2 (anyway for Australians and Brits; rather more if you’re an American of course), a fact which helps to explain, if not to justify, ‘appeasement’. Yet to many people of my generation, born between those two atrocious conflicts, it feels as if they were separated by a century or more.

    But admittedly I’m pretty old!


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