"Literary men are always apt to get sentimental about the past for much the same reason that simple men get sentimental about their happy, carefree childhood days, which in fact were full of childish cares. Looking back, they see the great monuments, the enduring records of the highest aspirations. They do not see all the trivial, paltry, vulgar, foolish ends of the unheroic dead...they forget the constant complaint of great men about the mediocrity of their age; or they remember only the nobly expressed complaint, not the mediocrity…We cannot afford to spare the past its troubles. Such enchantment makes the present seem only more unintelligible and more intolerable…too many writers have the habit of representing the loftiest ideal of some former age as its essence, and then contrasting it with the meanest actualities of the present…May God deliver us from the lies of honest men.1
    "Bisogna saper leggere", those were the qualifications espoused by the Swiss medieval historian Jakob Burckhardt when asked in Italy what it takes to be a historian: You must know how to read. At the time, the study of history was still 'unprofessional', insofar as one did not need a doctorate to practice. Indeed, as late as 1880, there were still only 11 professors of history in all of the United States. Even today, most professional historians concede the practice is more narrative art, synthetic wit and comparative recollection, than actual science. Everyone has a philosophy about history - determinist, progressive, fatalist or objective - albeit people are frequently uncertain about how they acquired these assumptions. It is important however to acknowledge these biases, however vague they might be.
    Still, even then, there are some guidelines for the writing of history, as wide consensus has emerged in the last century about base standards in historical reconstruction. Thucydides, probably one of the most objective and critical historians of the ancient world, began his History of the Peloponnesian War by stating nothing terribly important had happened previously. This would be frowned upon today; the writers of Antiquity cannot be wholly faulted, however, given we simply live in an acutely self-aware period of history, and as a result are given to obsessing over our 'place in History' to an extent which would probably have embarrassed the Greeks or Romans. Historical consciousness, as an attribute, comes and goes with each culture - it's an obsession for some, a sign of solipsism for other others. There are however, eight major, underlying assumptions acknowledged by most contemporary historians:
  1. History is the imaginative construction of the past, which while scientific in its determinations is artistic in its formulations,
  2. History is genuinely scientific, in spirit, only when it takes into account and addresses the reasons it cannot ever be wholly objective or empirical in method,
  3. Historiography, in dealing with physical, biological, psychological and cultural questions, often relies upon non-quantitative measures, which cannot be tested by experiment,
  4. Human will -of mind and character- as the vital component of history's narrative, cannot similarly be reduced to single causes,
  5. In the consideration of human ideas it is necessary to make ethical judgements about events, and even the self-proclaimed Objectivist, however amoral, never alludes this necessity,
  6. All scientific, aesthetic and moral interests call for a worldview,
  7. Only by keeping this worldview in comparative perspective can we make out universals,
  8. Universal != absolute.
    In other words, if you are truly interesting in history, you take it straight, no chaser. Avoid the picturesque survey, the romanticized biography, the paranoid expose: these are all, in Voltaire's words, 'packs of tricks played upon the dead.' While it is true (and unavoidable) that contemporaries endlessly project their particular pre-occupations into the past, the challenge is to evade relativistic conclusions or ethical revisionism.
1 H.J. Muller, Uses of the Past: Profiles of Former Societies (NY: Oxford, 169), 22-29. See also Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (1874).