Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What is history?

Somewhere in my reading, I encountered a statement by Robert Kaplan: History has its basis in geography. It's about places, he says.

As a non-historian who spends much time thinking about the past, I can understand this point of view: the waterways give way to trade and to towns and cities and thus to capital and thus to possible fighting over land.

But I have always agreed with Thomas Carlyle's statement, no doubt simplistic, that history is essentially biography.  It is the written record of human events, of what singular individuals say and do.

As I have been reading in recent months about 13th century Italy, what strikes me, as with the later Renaissance, is the role of the individual: rulers like Frederick II, inventors, early architects, philosophers (Thomas Aquinas), and writers (Dante, Chaucer) who shaped a culture and the languages they used. In every period, society is changed (and history made) by what certain people do.

However history is defined, whether as human story of people or as a chronicle of economic and social forces, it is more complex than any single formulation. But I would still say its most fundamental basis is the person.

As I write this, millions of my fellow Americans are standing in line to vote for the next president, an individual whose personality and decisions will shape the future. Future historians are watching and waiting.

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