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What is the point of history?

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Churchill quotation cited in (David Cannadine’s inaugural lecture as Director of the Institute of Historical Research, 1999)

” ‘History’, Churchill observed, ‘with its flickering lamp, stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days.’ And he went on to pose the question which historians should ask themselves every day throughout their working lives, and which I welcome the opportunity to reflect on this afternoon. ‘What’, he inquired, ‘is the worth of all this?”

…” At a deeper level, history makes plain the complexity and contingency of human affairs and the range and variety of human experience; it enjoins suspicion of simplistic analysis, simplistic explanation, and simplistic prescription; it teaches proportion, perspective, reflectiveness, breadth of view, tolerance of differing opinions, and thus a greater sense of self-knowledge. By enabling us to know about other centuries and other cultures, it provides, along with the collections housed in our great museums and galleries, the best antidote to the temporal parochialism which assumes that the only time is now, and the geographical parochialism which assumes that the only place is here. There is not only here and now; there is there; and there is then. And the best guide to there and then, and thus also the best guide to here and now, is history: in part because it helps us understand how our world got to be the way it is; in part because it helps us understand how other worlds got to be the way they were — and the way they are. History has always been rightly justified in these terms, and they still provide the most convincing answer to Churchill’s question.”

Here is G.M. Trevelyan, speaking in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1927:

The poetry of history does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it. That which compels the historian to scorn delights and live laborious days is the ardour of his own curiosity to know what really happened long ago in that land of mystery which we call the past. To peer into that magic mirror and see fresh figures there every day is a burning desire that consumes and satisfies him all his life, and carries him each morning, eager as a lover, to the library and the muniment room…..The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them.

So, indeed, they were; so, indeed, they are; and so, indeed, we shall ourselves assuredly one day be. But meanwhile, there is life to be lived, there is work to be done, there is history to be written, and (who knows?) there may even in some small way be history to be made. We have a great deal to be getting on with. It is high time we made a start.”

End of quotes…

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Amanda Moore INW

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