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Chapter 13: Meaning and Use of the Study of History

1. The Why of History

IN THE EYES of the positivist philosopher the study of mathematics and of the natural sciences is a preparation for action. Technology vindicates the labors of the experimenter. No such justification can be advanced in favor of the traditional methods resorted to by the historians They should abandon their unscientific anti-quarianism, says the positivist, and turn to the study of social physics or sociology. This discipline will abstract from historical experience laws which could render to social engineering" the same services the laws of physics render to technological engineering.

In the opinion of the historicist philosopher the study of history provides man with signposts showing him the ways he has to walk along. Man can succeed only if his actions fit into the trend of evolution. To discover these trend lines is the main task of history.

The bankruptcy of both positivism and historicism raises anew the question about the meaning, the value, and the use of historical studies.

Some self-styled idealists think that reference to a thirst for knowledge, inborn in all men or at least in the higher types of men, answers these questions satisfactorily. Yet the problem is to draw a boundary line between the thirst for knowledge that impels the

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philologist to investigate the language of an African tribe and the curiosity that stimulates people to peer into the private lives of movie stars. Many historical events interest the average man because hearing or reading about them or seeing them enacted on the stage or screen gives him pleasant, if sometimes shuddering, sensations. The masses who greedily absorb newspaper reports about crimes and trials are not driven by Ranke's eagerness to know events as they really happened. The passions that agitate them are to be dealt with by psychoanalysis, not by epistemology.

The idealist philosopher's justification of history as knowledge for the mere sake of knowing fails to take into account the fact that there are certainly things which are not worth knowing. History's task is not to record all past things and events but only those that are historically meaningful. It is therefore necessary to find a criterion that makes it possible to silt what is historically meaningful from what is not. This cannot be done from the point of view of a doctrine which deems meritorious the mere fact of knowing something.

2. The Historical Situation

Acting man is faced with a definite situation. His action is a response to the challenge offered by this situation; it is his reaction. He appraises the effects the situation may have upon himself, i.e., he tries to establish what it means to him. Then he chooses and acts in order to attain the end chosen.

As far as the situation can be completely described

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by the methods of the natural sciences, as a rule the natural sciences also provide an interpretation that enables the individual to make his decision. if a leak in the pipe line is diagnosed, the course of action to be resorted to is in most cases plain. Where a full description of a situation requires more than reference to the teachings of the applied natural sciences, recourse to history is inevitable.

People have often failed to realize this because they were deceived by the illusion that there is, between the past and the future, an extended space of time that can be called the present. As I have pointed out before[1], the concept of such a present is not an astronomical or chronometrical notion but a praxeological one. It refers to the continuation of the conditions making a definite kind of action possible. It is therefore different for various fields of action. It is, moreover, never possible to know in advance how much of the future, of the time not yet past, will have to be included in what we call today the present. This can only be decided in retrospect. If a man says "At present the relations between Ruritania and Lapputania are peaceful," it is uncertain whether a later retrospective recording will dude what today is called tomorrow in this period of present time. This question can only be answered the day after tomorrow.

There is no such thing as a nonhistorical analysis of the present state of affairs. The examination and description of the present are necessarily a historical account of the past ending with the instant just passed.

[1]. Mises, Human Action, p. 101. See also above, pp. 202 f.

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The description of the present state of politics or of business is inevitably the narration of the events that have brought about the present state. If, in business or in government, a new man takes the helm, his first task is to find out what has been done up to the last minute. The statesman as well as the businessman learns about the present situation from studying the records of the past.

Historicism was right in stressing the fact that in order to know something in the field of human affairs one has to familiarize oneself with the way in which it developed. The historicists' fateful error consisted in the belief that this analysis of the past in itself conveys information about the course future action has to take. What the historical account provides is the description of the situation; the reaction depends on the meaning the actor gives it, on the ends he wants to attain, and on the means he chooses for their attainment. In 1860 there was slavery in many states of the Union. The most careful and faithful record of the history of this institution in general and in the United States in particular did not map out the future policies of the nation with regard to slavery. The situation in the manufacturing and marketing of motorcars that Ford found on the eve of his embarking upon mass production did not indicate what had to be done in this field of business. The historical analysis gives a diagnosis. The reaction is determined, so far as the choice of ends is concerned, by judgments of value and, so far as the choice of means is concerned, by the whole body

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of teachings placed at man's disposal by praxeology and technology.

Let those who want to reject the preceding statements undertake to describe any present situation-in philosophy, in politics, on a battlefield, on the stock exchange, in an individual business enterprise-without reference to the past.

3. History of the Remote Fast

A skeptic may object: Granted that some historical studies are descriptions of the present state of affairs, but this is not true of all historical investigations. One may concede that the history of Nazism contributes to a better understanding of various phenomena in the present political and ideological situation. But what reference to our present worries have books on the Mitliras cult, on ancient Chaldea, or on the early dynasties of the kings of Egypt? Such studies are merely antiquarian, a display of curiosity. They are useless, a waste of time, money, and manpower.

Criticisms such as these are self-contradictory. On the one hand they admit that the present state can Only be described by a full account of the events that have brought it about. On the other hand, they declare beforehand that certain events cannot possibly have influenced the course of affairs that has led to the present state. Yet this negative statement can only be made after careful examination of all the material available, not in advance on the ground of some hasty conclusions.

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The mere fact that an event happened in a distant country and a remote age does not in itself prove that it has no bearing on the present. Jewish affairs of three thousand years ago influence the lives of millions of present-day Christian Americans more than what happened to the American Indians as late as in the second part of the nineteenth century. In the present-day conflict of the Roman Church and the Soviets there are elements that trace back to the great schism of the Eastern and Western churches that originated more than a thousand years ago. This schism cannot be examined thoroughly without reference to the whole history of Christianity from its early beginnings; the study of Christianity presupposes analysis of Judaism and the various influences-Chaldean, Egyptian, and so on-that shaped it. There is no point in history at which we can stop our investigation fully satisfied that we have not overlooked any important factor. Whether civilization must be considered a coherent process or we should rather distinguish a multitude of civilizations does not affect our problem. For there were mutual exchanges of ideas between these autonomous civilizations, the extent and weight of which must be established by historical research.

A superficial observer might think that the historians are merely repeating what their predecessors have already said, at best occasionally retouching minor details of the picture. Actually the understanding of the past is in perpetual flux. A historian's achievement consists in presenting the past in a new perspective of understanding. The process of historical change is

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actuated by, or rather consists in, the ceaseless transformation of the ideas determining human action. Among these ideological changes those concerning the specific historical understanding of the past play a conspicuous role. What distinguishes a later from an earlier age is, among other ideological changes, also the change in the understanding of the preceding ages. Continuously examining and reshaping our historical understanding, the historians contribute their share to what is called the spirit of the age.[1]

4. Falsifying History

Because history is not a useless pastime but a study of the utmost practical importance, people have been eager to falsify historical evidence and to misrepresent the course of events. The endeavors to mislead posterity about what really happened and to substitute a fabrication for a faithful recording are often inaugurated by the men who themselves played an active role in the events, and begin with the instant of their happening,

[1]. Sometimes historical research succeeds in unmasking inveterate errors and substituting a correct account of events for an inadequate record even in fields that had up to then been considered fully and satisfactorily explored and described. An outstanding example is the startling discoveries concerning the history of the Roman emperors Maxentius, Licinius, and Constantinus and the events that ended the persecution of the Christians and paved the way for the victory of the Christian Church. (See Henri Gregoire, Les Persecutions dans l?Empire Romain in Memoires de l?Academie Royale de Belgique, Tome 46, Fascicule 1, 1951, especially pp. 79-89, 153-6.) But fundamental changes in the historical understanding of events are more often brought about without any or only slight revision of the description of external events.

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or sometimes even precede their occurrence. To lie about historical facts and to destroy evidence has been in the opinion of hosts of statesmen, diplomats, politicians, and writers a legitimate part of the conduct of public affairs and of writing history. One of the main problems of historical research is to unmask such falsehoods.

The falsifiers were often prompted by the desire to justify their own or their party's actions from the point of view of the moral code of those whose support or at least neutrality they were eager to win. Such white-washing is rather paradoxical if the actions concerned appeared unobjectionable from the point of view of the moral ideas of the time when they occurred, and are condemned only by the moral standards of the fabricator's contemporaries.

No serious obstacles to the efforts of the historians are created by the machinations of the forgers and falsifiers. What is much more difficult for the historian is to avoid being misled by spurious social and economic doctrines.

The historian approaches the records equipped with the knowledge he has acquired in the fields of logic praxeology, and the natural sciences. If this knowledge is defective, the result of his examination and analysis of the material will be vitiated. A good part of the last eighty years' contributions to economic and social history is almost useless on account of the writers insufficient grasp of economics. The historicist thesis that the historian needs no acquaintance with economics and should even spurn it has vitiated the work of several

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generations of historians. Still more devastating was the effect of historicism upon those who called their publications describing various social and business conditions of the recent past economic research.

5. History and Humanism

Pragmatic philosophy appreciates knowledge because it gives power and makes people fit to accomplish things. From this point of view the positivists reject history as useless. We have tried to demonstrate the service that history renders to acting man in making him understand the situation in which he has to act. We have tried to provide a practical justification of history.

But there is more than this in the study of history. It not only provides knowledge indispensable to preparing political decisions. It opens the mind toward an understanding of human nature and destiny. It increases wisdom. It is the very essence of that much miss-interpreted concept, a liberal education. It is the fore-most approach to humanism, the lore of the specifically human concerns that distinguish man from other living beings.

The newborn child has inherited from his ancestors the physiological features of the species. He does not inherit the ideological characteristics of human existence, the desire for learning and knowing. What distinguishes civilized man from a barbarian must be acquired by every individual anew. Protracted strenuous exertion is needed to take possession of man's spiritual legacy.

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Personal culture is more than mere familiarity with the present state of science, technology, and civic affairs. It is more than acquaintance with books and paintings and the experience of travel and of visits to museums. It is the assimilation of the ideas that roused mankind from the inert routine of a merely animal existence to a life of reasoning and speculating. It is the individual's effort to humanize himself by partaking in the tradition of all the best that earlier generations have bequeathed.

The positivist detractors of history contend that preoccupation with things past diverts people's attention from the main task of mankind, the improvement of future conditions. No blame could be more undeserved. History looks backward into the past, but the lesson it teaches concerns things to come. It does not teach indolent quietism; it rouses man to emulate the deeds of earlier generations. It addresses men as Dante's Ulysses addressed his companions:

Considerate la vostra semenza:
Fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
Ma per seguir virtude e conoscenza.[1]

The dark ages were not dark because people were committed to study of the intellectual treasures left by ancient Hellenic civilization; they were dark so long as these treasures were hidden and dormant. Once they

[1]. L?Inferno, XXXVI, 118-20. In the translation by Longfellow:
Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;
Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,
But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.

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came to light again and began to stimulate the minds of the most advanced thinkers, they contributed substantially to the inauguration of what is called today Western civilization. The much criticized term 'Renaissance" is pertinent in that it stresses the part the legacy of antiquity played in the evolution of all the spiritual features of the West. (The question whether the beginning of the Renaissance should not be dated some centuries farther back than Burckhardt set it need not concern us here.)

The scions of the barbarian conquerors who first began to study the ancients seriously were struck with awe They realized that they and their contemporaries were faced with ideas they themselves could not have developed. They could not help thinking of the philosophy the literature, and the arts of the classical age of Greece and Rome as unsurpassable. They saw no road to knowledge and wisdom but that paved by the ancients To qualify a spiritual achievement as modern had for them a pejorative connotation. But slowly, from the seventeenth century on, people became aware that the West was coming of age and creating a culture of its own. They no longer bemoaned the disappearance of a golden age of the arts and of learning, irretrievably lost and no longer thought of the ancient masterpieces as models to be imitated but never equaled, still less surpassed. They came to substitute the idea of progressive improvement for the previously held idea of progressive degeneration.

In this intellectual development that taught modern Europe to know its own worth and produced the

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self-reliance of modern Western civilization, the study of history was paramount. The course of human affairs was no longer viewed as a mere struggle of ambitious princes and army leaders for power, wealth, and glory. The historians discovered in the flux of events the operation of other forces than those commonly styled political and military. They began to regard the historical process as actuated by man's urge toward betterment. They disagreed widely in their judgments of value and in their appraisal of the various ends aimed at by governments and reformers. But they were nearly unanimous in holding that the main concern of every generation is to render conditions more satisfactory than their ancestors left them. They announced progress toward a better state of civic affairs as the main theme of human endeavor.

Faithfulness to tradition means to the historian observance of the fundamental rule of human action, namely, ceaseless striving to improve conditions. It does not mean preservation of unsuitable old institutions and clinging to doctrines long since discredited by more tenable theories. It does not imply any concession to the point of view of historicism.

6. History and the Rise of Aggressive Nationalism

The historian should utilize in his studies all the knowledge that the other disciplines place at his disposal. Inadequacy in this knowledge affects the results of his work.

If we were to consider the Homeric epics merely as

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historical narratives, we would have to judge them unsatisfactory on account of the theology or mythology used to interpret and explain facts. Personal and political conflicts between princes and heroes, the spread of a plague, meteorological conditions, and other happenings were attributed to the interference of gods. Modern historians refrain from tracing back earthly events to supernatural causes. They avoid propositions that would manifestly contradict the teachings of the natural sciences. But they are often ignorant of economics and committed to untenable doctrines concerning the problems of economic policies. Many cling to neomercantilism, the social philosophy adopted almost without exception by contemporary political parties and governments and taught at all universities. They approve the fundamental thesis of mercantilism that the gain of one nation is the damage of other nations; that no nation can win but by the loss of others. They think an irreconcilable conflict of interests prevails among nations. From this point of view many or even most historians interpret all events. The violent clash of nations is in their eyes a necessary consequence of a nature-given and inevitable antagonism. This antagonism cannot be removed by any arrangement of international relations. The advocates of integral free trade, the Manchester or laissez faire Liberals, are, they think, unrealistic and do not see that free trade hurts the vital interests of any nation resorting to it.

It is not surprising that the average historian shares the fallacies and misconceptions prevailing among his contemporaries. It was, however, not the historians but

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the anti-economists who developed the modern ideology of international conflict and aggressive nationalism. The historians merely adopted and applied it. It is not especially remarkable that in their writings they took the side of their own nation and tried to justify its claims and pretensions.

Books on history, especially those on the history of one's own country, appeal more to the general reader than do tracts on economic policy. The audience of the historians is broader than that of the authors of books on the balance of payments, foreign exchange control, and similar matters. This explains why historians are often considered the leading fomenters of the revival of the warlike spirit and of the resulting wars of our age. Actually they have merely popularized the teachings of pseudo economists.

7. History and Judgments of Value

The subject of history is action and the judgments of value directing action toward definite ends. History deals with values, but it itself does not value. It looks upon events with the eyes of an unaffected observer. This is, of course, the characteristic mark of objective thought and of the scientific search for truth. Truth refers to what is or was, not to a state of affairs that is not or was not but that would suit the wishes of the truth-seeker better.

There is no need to add anything to what has been said in the first part of this essay about the futility of the search for absolute and eternal values. History is

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no better able than any other science to provide standards of value that would be more than personal judgments pronounced then and there by mortal men and rejected then and there by other mortal men.

There are authors who assert that it is logically impossible to deal with historical facts without expressing judgments of value. As they see it, one cannot say anything relevant about these things without making one value judgment after another. If, for example, one deals with such phenomena as pressure groups or prostitution, one has to realize that these phenomena themselves "are, as it were, constituted by value judgments."[1] Now, it is true that many people employ such terms as "pressure group" and almost every one the term "prostitution" in a way that implies a judgment of value. But this does not mean that the phenomena to which these terms refer are constituted by value judgments. Prostitution is defined by Geoffrey May as "the practice of habitual or intermittent sexual union, more or less promiscuous, for mercenary inducement."[2] A pressure group is a group aiming to attain legislation thought favorable to the interests of the group members. There is no valuation whatever implied in the mere use of such terms or in the reference to such phenomena. It is not true that history, if it has to avoid value judgments, would not be permitted to speak of cruelty.[3] The first meaning of the word "cruel" in the

[1]. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 53.

[2]. G. May, ?Prostitution,? Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, 12, 553.

[3]. Strauss, p. 52.

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Concise Oxford Dictionary is "indifferent to, delighting in, another?s pain."[4] This definition is no less objective and free from any valuation than that given by the same dictionary for sadism: "sexual perversion marked by love of cruelty."[5] As a psychiatrist employs the term "sadism" to describe the condition of a patient, a historian may refer to "cruelty" in describing certain actions. A dispute that may arise as to what causes pain and what not, or as to whether in a concrete case pain was inflicted because it gave pleasure to the actor or for other reasons, is concerned with establishing facts, not making judgments of value.

The problem of history's neutrality as to judgments of value must not be confused with that of the attempts to falsify the historical account. There have been historians who were eager to represent battles lost by their own nation's armed forces as victories and who claimed for their own people, race, party, or faith everything they regarded as meritorious and exculpated them from everything they regarded as objectionable. The textbooks of history prepared for the public schools are marked by a rather naive parochialism and chauvinism. There is no need to dwell on such futilities. But it must be admitted that even for the most conscientious historian abstention from judgments of value may offer certain difficulties.

As a man and as a citizen the historian takes sides in many feuds and controversies of his age. It is not

[4]. 3d ed., 1934, p. 273.

[5]. Ibid., p. 1042.

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easy to combine scientific aloofness in historical studies with partisanship in mundane interests. But that can and has been achieved by outstanding historians. The historian's world view may color his work. His representation of events may be interlarded with remarks that betray his feelings and wishes and divulge his party affiliation. However, the postulate of scientific history's abstention from value judgments is not infringed by occasional remarks expressing the preferences of the historian if the general purport of the study is not affected. If the writer, speaking of an inept commander of the forces of his own nation or party, says unfortunately" the general was not equal to his task, he has not failed in his duty as a historian. The Historian is free to lament the destruction of the masterpieces of Greek art provided his regret does not influence his report of the events that brought about this destruction.

The problem of Wertfreiheit must also be clearly distinguished from that of the choice of theories resorted to for the interpretation of facts. In dealing with the data available, the historian needs all the knowledge provided by the other disciplines, by logic, mathematics, praxeology, and the natural sciences. If what these disciplines teach is insufficient or if the historian chooses an erroneous theory out of several conflicting theories held by the specialists, his effort is misled and his performance is abortive. It may be that he chose an untenable theory because he was biased and this theory best suited his party spirit. But the acceptance

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of a faulty doctrine may often be merely the outcome of ignorance or of the fact that it enjoys greater popularity than more correct doctrines.

The main source of dissent among historians is divergence in regard to the teachings of all the other branches of knowledge upon which they base their presentation. To a historian of earlier days who believed in witchcraft, magic, and the devils interference with human affairs, things had a different aspect than they have for an agnostic historian. The neo-mercantilist doctrines of the balance of payments and of the dollar shortage give an image of present-day world conditions very different from that provided by an examination of the situation from the point of view of modern subjectivist economics.

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