History: The Truth of the Facts


We tend to read several books at once. Typically, the themes are related…and we enjoy watching the intersection of strong thinking. But sometimes there is a collision, which makes an awful mess.

Currently, we are reading Furies, about the European wars of 1450-1700; Immoderate Greatness, by William Ophuls; and we are rereading Friedrich Hayek’s classic, The Fatal Conceit.

Immoderate Greatness is a surprise. A dear reader sent it to us: Mr. Ophuls himself. It is a clever, jaunty look at why civilizations fail.

Hayek’s book takes up the same theme, without saying so. He explains the problem of central planning and why it doesn’t work for a complex, ‘extended’ civilization. Furies is light reading – telling the tale of what happens when leaders fight each other for control of territory without much regard for the weal of the people living there.

Debacles, Disasters and Catastrophes

History books are full of facts. And facts are nothing without nuances. Out of context, they mean zero.

School children are taught that Columbus discovered America in 1492 or that Nelson was the hero of Trafalgar. But it is meaningless noise. The ‘knowledge’ these facts purport to carry is hollow.

What gives facts meaning? A story. A narrative. A ‘why’ that puts the facts together like links in a chain. One thing happens. Then another thing happens because of the first. That’s what history books give you.

But the books tell a tiny part of the story. No facts have a single, giant taproot. Instead, their causes spread out in all directions like the roots of a bamboo. You can build a narrative around any of them. None alone explains the fact…and the collection of them is too vast and complex to be understood by anyone.

History is a long tale of debacles, disasters and catastrophes. That is what makes it fun to study. And useful. Each disaster carries with it useful warning.

For example, if the Sioux have assembled a vast war party out on the plains, don’t put on your best uniform and ride out to the Little Big Horn to have a look.

And if the architect of a great ship tells you that ‘not even God himself could sink this ship,’ take another boat!

And when you are up against a superior force, like Fabius Maximus against Hannibal, don’t engage him in battle. Instead, delay…procrastinate…dodge him, wear him down, until you are in a better position.

And if the stock market is selling at 40 times earnings…and all the experts urge you to ‘get in,’ it’s time to ‘get out’!

The Forgotten Nuances

You can learn something by reading history. But not much. Histories are narratives. They are stories. One root is examined, while all the others are ignored.

More is ignored than examined, simply because there is always much more to the story than anyone could ever study or understand.

Focusing on the single root, therefore – a single narrative, which is what good history requires – necessarily makes the reader more in demand at dinner parties, for now he is able to talk at length about history. But it also turns him into a fool, since most of what really happened has been shaken out of his history book and left lying on the ground.

The truth, as Ernest Renan remarked, is in the forgotten nuances…not in the logic of the narrative.

But there is truth…and there is Truth. The Truth is unknowable…and certainly not accessible by a little brain struggling to apply Cartesian logic. In fact, the real Truth is often at odds with what you might regard as logical truth.

For example, you might have a noisy, obnoxious neighbour. You might come to believe you would be better off if this neighbour were not among the living. We are all going to die, you might say to yourself. If this person would die a little sooner than otherwise planned, it would be a good thing for the whole community. (Perhaps true.)

Then you might also come up with a fairly good plan for hastening his demise, realizing that everyone would be happy at the news and no one would look too carefully at how he came to fall down the stairs of his own house…only to be discovered days later by a concerned neighbour. Logically, the odds of detection might be near zero. True again.

But wait. Murder someone and you will go to jail…and to Hell. That is the Truth. Whether it is true or not is another matter.

 

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