A historian’s task in time
Karl Joachim Weintraub, a professor who became synonymous with Western Civilization at Chicago, died March 25 at age 79. In his 1984 Ryerson lecture, excerpted here, Weintraub argued that the force of historical reality lies in its sequential order, in time after time.
It all starts with the great wonder of time. At least, it did for me. When I was 13 I read two books that steered me toward history. They were very different books. A fine teacher at the Quaker school in Holland directed me to Jacob Burckhardt’s Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, his world historical reflections which James H. Nichols, formerly of our Divinity School, translated under the title Force and Freedom. When I took up the book again eight years later, I kept shaking my head in disbelief: what could the 13-year-old have understood of that subtly complicated book? But something of its majesty stayed with me; perhaps I noted vaguely that it is a book on the Historical dimension, das Historische, and certainly I was taken by this reflective contemplation of big historical questions.
The other book was Hendrik Van Loon’s History of Man. Aside from a squiggly pen drawing of a temple on a hill, I remember nothing of his treatment of human history, nor do I care to find out now. But I know that I totally fell under the spell of the effects of the silly little story he placed at the beginning of the book. In a fabled land lies a bald granite mountain. Every hundred years a little bird comes to it to sharpen its beak by grating it against the mountain. When the bird will have worn down the whole mountain, not even one second of eternity will have passed. This is a silly story for anyone who will have learned from Saint Augustine that eternity, as the opposite of time, cannot be measured against time. But to the youngster, still thinking of eternity as an immensely long span of time, the effect of the story was overwhelming. The vast dimension of time suddenly opened up. There was no longer just the comfortable Dutch present and the short memories of a fearful world of a broken home, being shunted back and forth between a loved mother, a dreaded father, and overmeticulous German grandparents, or the inability of remembering a single friend or playmate in that crazy world which was Germany in the early ’30s. Suddenly the boy felt related to a vast span of time filled with lives potentially as real as his own.
I have been searching ever since to uncover these lives, at least in the context of the Western world to which I belong. A reading of the first chapters in H. G. Wells’s History, about the long climb from physical chaos to cultured life, never quite repeated the impact; much later I did again sense that wonder of time in Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey on the rise of the angiosperms and how flowers changed the world. But there I ultimately missed what had meanwhile become most important to me: man as the maker of his way of life, the great player with cultural forms far transcending his biological needs. A humanized sense of time, filled with the search for the meaning of human life, had superimposed itself on the bewildering immensity of physical time which my nonphilosophical and nonmathematical mind could not grasp.
It remained a great puzzle how the self at every moment that is but a present could relate itself to what is no longer and to what is not yet. This was clarified by Saint Augustine’s own struggle with time in Books 10 and 11 of the Confessions. In the inwardness of our experience, always in a present, we are given a present time of past life by our 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. It is the humanized sense of time in which our present has what has already been thus or so, and in which our present also faces the openness of time to come. Thus, even the grand nonhuman subjects of rocks, of organisms, and of the stars become time-bound to what men have thought about these subjects, what they think now, and what they may think in the future. In his perpetual present man 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.
With such a sense of time, we live in time. We live in history as we now see it, as we now make it, and as we hope it to be. We live with our history. Ultimately, I would say, we are our history. Others would not. I am a pluralist, and I believe we must practice great tolerance. As such I consider it good that other minds, founded more in a sense of eternity, seek the permanence of things, are able to compare Plato and Kant as though time made no difference to thought, and that they believe in the eternal values of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. But the time-bound quality of everything human haunts me.
Granted, the historian also works with certain plausible constancies; if we did not assume that our own muscle power is roughly comparable to that of the Ancient Egyptians, we could not contradict an assertion that the Great Pyramid was built by two lusty Egyptians on a sunny Sunday afternoon when they had nothing better to do. In barely 6,000 years of a human evolution of a million years, the biological machinery of man has presumably not changed very much. For the better part of these 6,000 years we are likely to have ingested and digested in the same basic manner, procreated, struggled with mothers, suffered pain, laughed, and died in the same biological way. But during the same span of time, the seemingly stable organism has used its energy for so many differing ventures, focused its roving attention on different matters, thought vastly different thoughts, spoke differently, felt very differently about very similar things, crafted its objects in very different fashion, walked to different tunes, fed its stomach in distinctly different ways, and dressed its “natural” urges in such different habits that one can hardly say what is “natural” and what is “acculturated.”
The more the essential biological constants disappear behind this welter of change, behind variation and variability and the telling differences and manifold richness of expression, the larger looms the fascination with the fact of human culture. Man seems to be doing very much more than simply perpetuating biological life. His dreams and hopes of the good life drive him beyond the biological base of his life. He finds surplus energy which he invests in the creation of cultural forms and techniques, in refined feelings, in ideas and imaginations. And he constantly plays around with his own creations and varies them. He embodies his needs within his creations, so that even the biological urges appear under different covers. The serious task of maintaining biological life is thus subsumed in a play for stakes far transcending that task. The player with free energies, homo ludens, places his needs and simple drives within his play with cultural forms. All human actions then become shaped and colored by the moments and the specific conditions of such play. And it may seem as if “man has no nature, all he has is a history.” Ortega y Gasset exaggerates in this pronouncement. But his exaggeration is useful because it points to the historian’s fundamental concern: learn to perceive man in his historical dimension, learn to understand how he came to be what he is now, learn to understand him by his history.
In the present of my past life I find myself related to countless other lives. They are present in my present life because I am their heir. Our own existence 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. We must start out our lives in the human world which their lives force upon us. Had we not inherited their world, we could not function. We can walk securely where they have smoothed out the earth for us. We are fed by ground they have broken for us. We speak and read and understand because they have already created a language for us. Their lives enable us to have civilized lives, for they gave us the law, their refined thoughts and sentiments, their customs, institutions, and arts—even their libraries and museums, grand symbols of heritage. We always find ourselves at a highly specified place in the immense network of a wholly man-made world that both sustains us and demands that we cope with it. Fashioned by the interactions of millions of intentions guiding busy minds and fingers, it is a reality so complex that it cannot easily be summed up in a simple compressed formulation. I guess we call it culture.
But this reality constantly demands from us to be understood. To understand it, we must understand those who gave it to us and forced it on us. They, in turn, are to be understood through those who gave them their world. Surrounded by their effects in our present, our ever-expanding memory associates us with the countless dead receding into deeper layers of time. Many “whys” and “hows” of our question may lead back no further than grandfather’s generation: but for such a simple matter (and is it indeed so simple?) as to why I let my day be governed by a division of hours into 60 minutes, I need to go back to some people along the Tigris and Euphrates, several thousand years ago, who had their own reasons for thinking in terms of 60s, and who deemed this the right way of dividing the flow of time. To live with 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.
Some find it easy to live as heirs. They take the laboriously elaborated man-made world as if it were a piece of nature, or had dropped ready-made from heaven, a reality that is simply there for their indiscriminate use. They exhibit the mentality of the spoiled child, a puerilism that is literally an act of barbarism. They have no sense for the colossal price humanity has paid for a culture; they share little of the awesome gratitude filling us when we understand that we live off others. This plague of the thoughtless heir may have beset every society; it seems particularly rampant in our world. Among such offenders are also those intoxicated grown-up children who neglect the care for the inheritance, because they feel entitled to remake the whole world according to their fantasies. They are right that this inherited world is staggeringly complicated, that their dreams are simpler and nicer, and that it is hard to be a responsible heir. To live with a heritage demands from us grateful acceptance of what has been given, but also its continued cultivation by responsible use. The talents of silver cannot be buried safely for fear of losing them. We risk them by using them, as did those whose labor gave them to us. Our life may often appear to us as the captive of the present of past time. But the present of future time, as our present anticipation and hope, endows our life also with an open-endedness which makes us free beings. And as the future dead, we will leave a modified inheritance for others.
In our own historical moment we are related to a vast backward-stretching order. Even if we were to heed the view favored by many that “history is just one damned thing after another,” we observe the force of the “after another.” It is important that one thing happens after another. The force of historical reality is the force of sequential reality.
The grand sequential order of history is something much more fundamental than the systematic orders that the minds of some thinkers impose on history. These grand schemes of historical order always have an element standing beyond the sequential order of history. Their driving impulse is our irresistible desire to find an overall meaning in the past. They necessarily differ from one another because we possess no single definitive explanation of life. Most such schemes of interpreting history are monocausal schemes, illustrating our temptation for opening up the meaning of human life with one simple key, by reference to one single cause. They are not useless, for they tell us how men at different times have seen and interpreted the human past. They are thus, in themselves, interesting historical facts. They can, at times, be fruitful by suggesting interrelations among historical phenomena which could not be seen without such specific prisms of historical perception. But often they result from ideologies, concerns projected into a desired future, and then they reduce knowledge of the past to propaganda for that future.
They can be a stimulation for the historian. But they also are an irritant to him when they violate the sequential order. That order rarely appears to him as a schematic order or a straight-line logical continuum. So much that was important has been lost. When I think about how much I have learned from Thucydides, I can still tremble at the thought of being without his wisdom and insights if anything had happened to the two manuscripts in which he survived. So much depends on chance recoveries, on the discontinuities and zigzags of human activities and the logically unexpected byways of cultural twists and turns. And yet, the most conscientious historian will find it unavoidable that he also brings his own bias to that sacrosanct order.
But the working historian will also experience that the dead force him away from his present concerns. For while he asks the dead to illumine his present world, he will also find that they thought thoughts, had feelings, and acted in ways that have little or no relevance to his own world. Like him, they must have tried to live whole lives that, as a whole, were quite different from his own. Thus he discovers another human form, one that has ceased to be, the other human whom only the past has, even if we possess his partial expressions in the signals left to us. Our present has no Caesar, no Augustine, no Saint Francis. The only way in which we can get a glimpse of such other ways of being human is by trying to uncover them in their past moments; and if we do not try to perceive them there, we will not know of that part of human existence.
This deep-seated urge to know the Other, which has gradually grown in our civilization, involves us in frightful difficulties. Attempting to live in the presence of the dead is so difficult. The knowledge we can have of them is so problematic. It seems to depend upon an empathetic imagination, an act in which empathy for another life leads to imaginative identification at least to the degree to which we can overcome—which we never can—the obstacle of our own presence. The wandering Odysseus is granted a visit in the realm of shadows for talking once again to the dead comrades with whom he fought before Troy. The shadows remain dumb until an animal is slaughtered; when they drink its blood, they can, for awhile, commune with Odysseus. It is fitting imagery for the historian who enters this realm of the dead, drawn there by whatever words and signals they left for us to find; and only by infusing some of his own blood into the shadows, will the historian, by means of his empathetic imagination, understand them a little better, by seeing their world, by feeling their feeling, by rethinking their thoughts.
Many modern historians think that massive data, when properly categorized and counted, will solve our problems of knowing, while others again see the task in understanding economic patterns, political institutions, and so forth. But for me the past only comes alive when in my mind’s eye I can perceive something of the men and women who lived with and experienced and fashioned their own ways of fighting, loving, hating, solving their economic needs, fashioning objects, and thinking and acting in the face of their circumstances. It seems a legitimate mode of knowing, even if you can make only very modest claims to knowledge. Only occasionally is one granted a view of the past with the sharp contours permitted by sunlight. As the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga remarked: the historian’s way is a privileged way of seeing, but it is a seeing “by the moonlight of memory.” For me it is the wonderful experience whereby the consciousness of the long sense of time is not time filled only by hours, years, and decades, but a long sense of time filled with some visions, at least, of the long and intricately interwoven rows of men and women who once were as real as you and I.
The empathetic and sympathetic understanding of the past gives us the burden of relative and relativized knowledge. The attempt to understand the Other in his context and on his terms asks that we temporarily suspend judgment. Understanding a fifth-century Athenian obliges us to make the effort, at least, of not judging him by the standards of the Chicagoan of today. His values are his values, our values are our own. By embedding the value in time we rob it of its halo of being an eternal value. And many among us are very troubled when deprived of our assumed eternal values.
It is a fascinating aspect of 2,500 years of Platonic and Christian effects on our culture that so many in it believe that values cannot be values unless proven to be eternal. The historian, however, observes that values emerge in cultural configurations as expressions of the concerns and aspirations of its men and women. They vary as cultural constellations do. That certain cultural sets of values agree with other cultural sets, that some sets of values seem to last through cultural transmission—well, there are historical ways of accounting for this. Whoever believes that values were given to man by a transcendent deity must still account for the way in which adherence to such values and their meaning are modified by the passing ages. The historian for whom the passing of the ages is the grandiose and gradual unfolding of all the manifold experiments in being human, in which every experiment has its own meaning and value, can only state that values are within time and are affected by the passage of time. They are not a given brought in from beyond time. If they were, they would dictate our lives to us. If they can be seen to be relative to time, we gain the magnificent gift of freedom to have our own values, and, if that comforts us, be able to treat them as if they were eternal.
At the end one may ask whether so much minding of history, so much historical contemplation, so much conversing with the dead, is a good and an affordable good. In our pluralistic culture we tolerate many diverse lives and things. In one sense the devotion to historical contemplation has the same right to exist as any cow eating its grass and any thrush singing its song. We even tolerate Henry Ford who, in his infinite wisdom, declared history to be bunk. But everything we deem worthwhile is for us a matter of subtle balances; so also is the balance between the proper claims of the dead and the legitimate claims of the living. We justly feel uneasy with mere antiquarianism and a stifling ancestor worship. We cannot turn more and more of our world into a museum. We cannot let the graveyards dominate our landscape. Hic Rhodus, hic salta—here we stand, here we live. The rights of the living are predominant.
The guiding conviction, of course, is that historical contemplation is not a luxury. A long sense of time is a need for the living. We need its intangible benefits for being civilized creatures. As Burckhardt warned, the barbarian lacks historical consciousness. Without respect for the long time of patient labor invested in cultivation and irrigation, he storms into the field to gratify his present need for plunder, little caring whether he destroys the delicate irrigation system. When we, like he, permit the channels to the past to get silted up, the desert will surely take over in the mind.
I doubt that the study of history provides us with simple lessons. Its promise is less in easy lessons than in the hope of understanding and wisdom about human affairs. It can curb our egocentrism, and perhaps it endows us with an essential sense of proportion. The sense of wonder involved in feeling somehow related to the human race stretched out backwards in time is the greatest gift of living with a long sense of time. All those lives in their glory and their misery tell us of our humanity. Our humanity demands constant cultivation. Seneca—by no standards a very great thinker—once said a very great thing in only two words: colamus humanitatem. Let us cultivate all that makes man truly worthy of being man. If I am right that our humanity is in its essence historical, then we cultivate our humanity when we cultivate our historical sense and consciousness. In this lies my task. In this also lies a task of this university to whom I am so grateful for having given me the chance to study, to contemplate, and to teach.
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