Day By Day

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Verdict of History

Time and again you hear people say that history will render judgment -- will vindicate, condemn, celebrate, etc. -- the people, policies, movements or other phenomena that compel our attention in the present. In a certain sense that is true. Historians of the future will, according to their various biases and interests, simultaneously praise, condemn, ignore, celebrate, etc. our contemporaries, and there most likely there will be no permanent consensus. History is an interpretive art, and the practice of history takes the form of an endless argument.

Endless indeed! Witness a recent review article by British classical scholar, Mary Beard. She surveys a number of recent books on Alexander the Great and notes that there is little agreement among them. More than 2300 years after his death, scholars are still arguing about the Macedonian conqueror and his exploits. What is more, as Beard notes, the main contours of the debate have not changed in more than twenty centuries. Sure, from time to time new points of argument have been introduced that reflect contemporary concerns -- British historians at the height of empire tended to interpret Alexanders conquests as a civilizing mission, reflecting their preferred understanding of their own imperial project; recently some scholars have focused on Alexander's sexuality, etc. -- but such nuances come and go and the basic arguments remain. And there is no final judgment -- no resolution to the debate -- and there never will be.

So it is likely to be with our contemporary concerns. Future historians will argue, revision will follow revision, and the dialogue will continue to the end of time. So much for the verdict of history.

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