History As Emergency

Here then we arrive at the rub.  To sort the actions of the past, to begin to unthread them and lay them out on our examiners’ table, is accomplished only with time, patience, argument.

But Time, cruel as she is, doesn’t stop moving, not even for the historian.  In the thirty or forty years it may take historians to come to some preliminary judgment on the recent past, the game’s been going on.  The same mistakes have already been made.  It is no question of history repeating itself.  History repeats itself before it’s even history.  The scholar emerges from his library, steps out on the balcony, and announces: “ah!  look!  tyrants oppress!  fools stumble! vanity clouds judgment! fear leads us to folly!” The man in the street – if one can be bothered to look up – says “well done, sir, but while you were in your study, all that’s already happened again.”

… in this sense, the historian is running a race that can only be lost.  One could argue that the historian then should work quick as a doctor, his business as pressing as the surgeons’, rushing to prescriptions before the patient collapses.  I don’t contend as much, however, not merely because the historians’ business is done sedentarily.  No; I think we are best advised to work with a philosopher’s unsurprise.  Indeed, for a historian, unsurprise is the beginning of wisdom.

Francis Dunnam, “History As Emergency,” Twombley memorial lecture at Oxford (1938).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.