Struggling With Scarcely Understood Circumstances

Whenever I want a juicy historiographical tidbit, I usually turn to my friend Zach (otherwise known as the "ad hoc historian;" someone I persistently attempt in vain to cajole into posting more often). Then, I usually take his keen and savvy quotation and analysis and pass it off as my own on my blog. Accordingly:

In the introduction to his sundry compilation of reviews he has written on various historical books (which are chock full of both "praise and scorn"), noted historian Gordon S. Wood articulates his understanding of the "purpose of the past."

For Wood, "History is not just comfort food for an anxious present and an unpredictable future. Realizing the extent to which people in the past struggled with circumstances that they scarcely understood is perhaps the most important insight flowing from historical study" (GBks, 14).

The benefit, then, to studying history is at least three-fold: "To understand the past in all its complexity is to acquire historical wisdom and humility and indeed a tragic sense of life." He explains that "a tragic sense does not mean a sad or pessimistic sense of life," but rather means "a sense of the limitations of life."

I like this healthy bit of historical realism. Indeed, an evaluation of any present situation (secular or sacred) might accurately be described as a "struggle with scarcely understood circumstances."

This type of mindset certainly seems to resonate better with the messy, contingent, and varied nature of actual life than histories or accounts that paint neat little portraits of reality where lines of influence are cut-and-dry, and where the process of cause and effect has the putative quality of mathematically precision.

May 11, 2011


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