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History's Historian.

JOHN BURROW. A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century. KNOPE. 544 PAGES. $35.00

"HISTORY," AMERICAN historian Dexter Perkins once cautioned, "is a kind of introduction to more interesting people than we can possibly meet in our restricted lives; let us not neglect the opportunity." This admonition is something of a commonplace, of course. Still, it leaps to mind as one wanders through John Burrow's monumental survey of Western historical writing, ranging as it does from Herodotus to the here-and-now. For A History of Histories reminds us that some of the most engaging personalities of the past can be found among its historians. Moreover, the book seeks to place the changes in historical thinking among the great dramas of intellectual history.

Burrow does his work in a series of thematically linked essays on historical writing, some on specific authors and books, some on general trends at certain times. He brings the reader along with him to read great books and not-so-great ones, always with an eye to the personality that animates them. We delight with him in the conversational, confiding tone of Herodotus's account of the wars between the Greeks and Persians, in recurrent patterns of providential intervention in Biblical history, in the newly universal history Polybius saw in the rise of Rome, in the vibrant and violent world of war berserks Gregory of Tours conjures for us, in the thoroughly detailed political account Guicciardini gives of Italy's subjugation to foreign powers, and, of course, in the refreshing elegance and erudition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. We also get a lively survey of the shading of legal antiquarianism into modern-style history, and an account of the rise of historical professionalism in nineteenth-century Germany. Burrow's vivid and personal style makes each essay feel like a charming, chance encounter amid the cultural byways of history.

This kind of broad-gauge review of historical writing is not new, of course. Since the beginning of the twentieth century a body of historiographical scholarship has grown up, examining the development of historical thought, defining its essence, and asserting its independence from other branches of knowledge. If all Burrow did was run down the familiar list of historians, adding here and there a few we might have neglected, we would find little new. But he has more in mind.

At the outset, Burrow explains the difference between his history of histories and the various histories of history that already crowd the field. He explicitly puts into the latter category R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History, one of the most influential of the "grand narrative[s] of the history of historiography, in which past historians were ... assessed for their roles, necessarily partial ... in the general progression to the twentieth-century historian's views and approved practice." Such "ideological history" (I use the term nonpejoratively) is not Burrow's task.

Instead, he proposes another kind of project, a contribution to what might be called "sympathetic history." (This is my term, not Burrow's, but it captures, I hope, something of his views.) He wants to read past authors of history on their own terms, "with an awareness of the periods when [they wrote]," in order to understand "the aims of historians in a particular period, the conventions which shaped their writing, and the ways these changed." How people understand their past is crucial to their present, and it demands careful reading and inclusion in the cultural history of their times. The heart of Burrow's criticism of modern historians is that they have inflicted on this area of intellectual history the myopia of their discipline. Our understanding of past cultures through their histories has thus suffered from their insistence that those histories "do" history according to modern priorities.

The charge of myopia is not off the mark. Certainly the monograph has trumped the survey as the standard of academic history; at the same time, too much popular history appears ideological in the worst way--employing the past as grist for modern mills. Next to these, Burrow's breadth and disinterestedness are welcome. A History of Histories is both a popular history and a learned academic essay that in many ways combines the virtues of both. Since most of his readers are amateurs, Burrow takes them indulgently under his wing. He invites them to immerse themselves in the intellectual development of the Western tradition by providing a sweeping introduction to it. Even those familiar with some of the authors Burrow discusses will find new reasons to revisit them.

IT IS NO accident that Burrow finds most attractive the culturally erudite historians among his subjects, for it is a similar literate amateurism in Western civilization that his book seems calculated to foster. The praise he reserves for his favorite historians is that they are "humane"--that they appreciate the richness of human cultural life in all its particulars. He relishes the vividness with which figures as far apart as Gregory of Tours (eighth century AD) and Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon (seventeenth century), draw the circumstances of their very different worlds. Burrow also emphasizes the literary qualities of all the books--another outgrowth of his interest in how their authors conceived of human life. There is a difference, after all, between recording events on a ledger and envisioning Renaissance power politics as a tragedy, as Guicciardini did, or beholding the collapse of Rome as if from the serenity of one's balcony, as Gibbon did.

Burrow first uses the term "humane" about Herodotus's Histories in a discussion of Herodotus's fascination with the various customs of the ancient Mediterranean world. Burrow drops the term matter-of-factly, and only later, as its uses multiply, does the importance of such examples of "humanity" become apparent. Indeed Burrow is rarely willing to unite his readings of specific historical writers to his own conception of history. Perhaps this is because he associates such a connection with those histories of history from which he distinguishes his book at the start. The classic example, again, is Colling wood's Idea of History. Collingwood reviewed some of the same writers, but with the explicit aim of tracing the emergence of what he conceived to be "History" proper. His study primarily asked whether a given past writer added to or subtracted from the true idea and practice of history as he himself understood it. Burrow does not deny that this was significant and insightful in its day, but he finds it distorts our understanding of the past on its own terms, which is the project he sets for himself.

Of course, one can read the past both to understand it for itself and to draw out of it the development of present ways of thinking. Burrow really only does the latter when he discusses the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where it is inevitable. Though he would concede that one cannot avoid tying the past to one's present ideas somewhat, he wants to correct the "narrowing" perspective this presentist bias encourages. Thus he consistently criticizes those historians who excluded certain parts of human life as outside the "dignity of history." He complains, for example, about Leopold von Ranke's insistence that real history must concern itself with the diplomacy and politics of great powers. Such narrowness, for Burrow, is really a species of "Whig history" because it cordons off parts of the past when they don't fit the interests of the present. Burrow's criticism is fair enough. Yet consult earlier masters of what I have called sympathetic history, and it appears that this unavoidable present bias need not corrupt, but in fact can quite enrich, the sympathetic approach.

ONE CLEAR EXPOSITOR of sympathetic history was the late Karl Joachim Weintraub. Weintraub's primary interest was teaching history at the University of Chicago (I was one of his students), but he also wrote history in a way that anticipated the approach A History of Histories cultivates. In a lecture in 1984, Weintraub presented his notion of his torical thinking; he insisted, like all modern historians, on the independence of history as a discipline. The basis of this independence, however, is unusually and deceptively simple.

"It all starts," as he put it, "with the great wonder of time." Things follow each other in time, and everything that we are in the present passes away into someone else's past. Thus the "force of historical reality is the force of sequential reality." It matters that one thing happened when it did; it also matters that someone thought something when he did. Without denigrating the atem-poral approach of philosophy, Weintraub declared that "the historical injunction haunts me that I may falsify men's thoughts when I lift them out of the context in which they were thought." This haunting injunction is the guiding spirit of the intellectual and cultural historian.

This is the basis for what I have called sympathetic history. The historian must not merely attend to the context of an historical event or figure. He must also understand that context from the perspective of those for whom it was a reality. "In a way." Weintraub said, "the dead ask [the historian] to exchange his perspective for their own." For they thought and felt and acted in their world, as he does in his. "Thus he discovers another human form ... the other human whom only the past has, even if we possess his partial expressions in the signals left to us." Finally, Weintraub describes the task of the historian in strikingly personal and empathetic language: "We want to be understood for what we are, so we must extend to them the courteous act of trying to understand them on their own terms, by the light of their moments, their values, their hopes, and aspirations." This is the sentiment that animates Burrow's criticism that the "Collingwoodian" project--drawing out of the past the development of our own ways of thinking--narrows our understanding of that past.

But this sympathetic vision can also rehabilitate that project. It does so, counter-intuitively enough, by internalizing the time-bound quality of human life even more fully than Burrow does. For Weintraub insists that like the past we study, we ourselves are bound by time and by our own context--our own culture. Even when we study the past, time tethers us to our present. History is only possible because--here Weintraub borrows from St. Augustine--"we are given a present time of past life by memory, a present of present time in which we have all we have, and a present time of future time made up of our hopes and expectations." Therefore our present contains in itself "what has already been thus or so." This does not change the fact that the historian lives always in "his perpetual present," and "can only account to himself for whatever draws his attention in the present of past, the present of present, and the present of future time." Rather, it means that in reading the past we focus inevitably on what speaks most to our own day. For Burrow this reveals one of the great dangers of doing history--man's inherent presentist bias. It is worst in the history of nearer periods, when the lens of our own interests distorts the past the most.

One senses that for Burrow the task of avoiding this danger is like a Sisyphean labor. But Weintraub urges us not to let the potential for our present perspective to falsify the past frighten us away from relating the past to the present at all. We always have a present bias on the past--a present of past time--because that is the only way we can understand it. And that understanding rightfully relates us to our past. "Our own existence," after all, "has been made possible only because these former others have prepared it for us. We live off others. Without consulting us, they put us into a world we did not make." This observation is especially salient to the history of our own civilization, the focus of both Burrow's and Weintraub's professional careers. Weintraub speaks of this relationship as one of inheritance--the present is the heir and steward of the past. The historian's task of understanding the past on its own terms therefore is part of man's desire to understand himself.

This, then, is the historian's version of the injunction to "know thyself." It also generates Weintraub's apologia for the specific kind of history he did and Burrow does--namely, the history of culture. "We always find ourselves at a highly specific place in the immense network of a wholly man-made world that both sustains us and demands that we cope with it." We call this network our culture, and its many variations back through time fascinate historians. What Weintraub emphasizes with great poignancy is that our cultural development does not merely fascinate, it anchors, impinges upon, and defines us. For "surrounded by their effects in our present, our ever-expanding memory associates us with the countless dead receding into deeper layers of time." In order to explain so much of why we live and think and behave as we do, we must reach into the past and tell a story. Thus "to live in my world as a thoughtful heir is to find myself more and more profoundly being related to the world of the dead--dead and gone, and, yet, my present benefactors and my burden." Burrow's mistake is that for him our inevitable temporality is merely a concession; it is that, but it can also be a celebration.

Weintraub's notion of thoughtful heirship elegantly unites into a single project the understanding of the past on its own terms and the relation of it to the present. He contributed to this project himself with his 1966 Visions of Culture, a collection of essays on six thinkers who tried to understand human life as a coherent cultural whole. Weintraub there explicitly sought the roots of our habit of holistic cultural thinking. Burrow, for his part, wants to enrich our view of the development of historical thinking by taking older versions of it seriously; his point is well-taken. Weintraub cautions that this sympathetic approach ought not sacrifice the thread that ultimately leads to itself. That is, sympathetic history needs to know its own history.

PERHAPS WITHOUT Knowing, Burrow manages to provide the outlines of such an account. As a historian he values an appreciation for the rich particularities of human cultural life and focuses on the "humane" quality of certain historical writers. Herodotus' detailed ethnographies of the ancient Mediterranean world from which the Persians came is an early example. In order to understand historical events, attention to the cultural context of the shapers of events is crucial. This conviction shapes one of Burrow's most innovative contributions to the study of historiography, namely that the often-ignored legal historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were more than just antiquarians with political agendas. From their devoted attention to the particular genealogy of legal institutions, they generated, without intending, a firm notion of the unyielding contingencies of historical development and the archival research that could reveal them.

In numerous other places, Burrow points out the emergence of what turn out to be steps on the way to sympathetic history. That is, the conviction that the past has a life of its own that the present must understand, and that in so understanding its past the present comes to know itself better. At the end of A History of Histories, one is drawn back to the discussion of Herodotus, the father of 2,500 years of Western history. At one point Xerxes, the Persian Emperor, beholds his vast army crossing the Hellespont. Herodotus tells us that Xerxes "called himself happy, and the moment after burst into tears." Xerxes then explained to an inquiring uncle that he was thinking of the brevity of life, since "of all these thousands of men not one will be alive in a hundred years time." For Burrow, in this moment Herodotus melts the distinctions between peoples "and even, for us, the gulf between ancient and modern ... in the contemplation of a common human lot." The appreciation of the varied nature of human life across time and space is a foundation of sympathetic history; moments like these are the milestones along the way to that appreciation.

It is no accident that Burrow attaches the term "humane" to these milestones. For the appreciation of the rich particulars of human life turns out also to involve recognition of the common humanity that binds together those particulars. The capacity to sympathize with a past of which one is an heir is an aspect of being human, and it emerges slowly through time. If Weintraub was right that "only the knowledge of all the forms of being human can inform us of our own humanity," then Burrow insists both that we include among those forms historical thinking and that we tell its story, always on its own terms.

Daniel Sullivan is a writer in Chicago and student at the University of Chicago Law School.
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Title Annotation:A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century
Author:Sullivan, Daniel
Publication:Policy Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2008
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