Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What is History?


    1. the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.

    2. the whole series of past events connected with someone or something.

    3. a continuous, typically chronological, record of important or public events or of a particular trend or institution. (Source)
I love history. Especially military history. As anyone who has been following The Chant for any length of time, you might notice that we post a lot of historical stuff here. I do it. Juvat does it. Even Tuna does it. For some reason, history resonates with folks who spent their lives in the military. When you think about it, it might have something to do with the fact that most of the history of mankind is a bloodstained spectacle of people making mistakes which get people killed. For most of history those being killed were folks in the military.

Like me. Like Juvat. Like Tuna.

So we have an interest in knowing about history, for (as everyone likes to say) "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Which was (probably) said by George Santayana, who was an interesting guy. Now besides the whole "doomed to repeat" thing he also said a number of other profound things, here are a few -
  • The earth has music for those who listen.
  • Only the dead have seen the end of the war.
  • The family is one of nature's masterpieces.
  • To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.
  • A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.
  • There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.
  • The wisest mind has something yet to learn.
  • Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.
  • Fanaticism consists of redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.
A rather smart guy, neh? But I digress. I want to talk about history today. (Yes, I use the word "talk" rather loosely here. If you wish to imagine me reading this to you, knock yourselves out. If it helps, I sound exactly like James Earl Jones. Trust me. Though in truth it sounds funnier if you read it in Christopher Walken's voice.)

As you can see by those definitions up there after the picture, the word "history" itself means different things to different people. Academics go with the first definition, which they use to create the third definition, usually in a very boring fashion. Don't get me started about academic historians, which I mentioned here once upon a time.

I prefer the second definition. Which also captures what academics like to call "prehistory," which to them is all the things which have occurred since the beginning of time up until people started writing stuff down. So if it isn't written, it isn't history?

What about the fossil record? What about other sources of information on what happened before somebody (probably an academic or a cleric) started writing stuff down? There are still areas of the world where there is no written language, so does their oral tradition not count as history?

We in the West typically view such things as folk tales, perhaps an element of truth is in there, but there is also self-deception and outright fabrications. When passing down tales of old to the young, do you really want to make the tribe look foolish or stupid?

In modern history we see the same thing, the old saying "History is written by the victors." (commonly attributed to Sir Winston Churchill) may or may not be true. (An interesting discussion about that can be read here.) But one thing is certain, people write things down for a variety of reasons. If it's just for themselves (a diary) or if it's for friends and family (letters), then the account will be accurate from the writer's perspective. Sometimes.

Things written down with the expectation of some form of reward won't necessarily be the most accurate accounts. After all, if you please your target audience, you might be rewarded. Think people writing for the news, or writing books for sale to the general public. If the target audience doesn't like it, odds are you won't be writing for them anymore.

Why do I study history? It fascinates me, the actions of people in the past, perhaps making the same mistakes we make nowadays and we expect different results. (Ask Einstein - maybe - about that!) Still and all, there is much we can learn from the past.

History is a complex thread woven of many different threads. People, places, events are the drivers of history. People can exhibit predictable behavior, crowds not so much. History is often driven by the mob.

I find it, fascinating.

What say you?

About that mosaic in the opening picture -
History, mosaic by Frederick Dielman. House Members Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

The figure of History, in the mosaic's center, holds a pen and book. On both sides of her, there are tablets mounted in a marble wall with benches on either side of the tablets. The tablets contain the names of great historians. One tablet contains the names of the ancient historians Herodotus and Thucydides in brighter gold, followed by Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, Bæda, Comines. The other tablet contains the name of the modern historians Hume and Gibbon in brighter gold, along with Niebuhr, Guizot, Ranke, and the Americans Bancroft and Motley. At the foot of one of the tablets is a laurel wreath symbolizing peace, and at the foot of the second tablet is an oak wreath symbolizing war. A palm branch designating success rests against the wreaths and tablets.

The female figure on one side of History is Mythology. As the symbol of the theories of the universe, she holds a globe of the earth in her left hand. The Greeks' female sphinx to her right represents the eternally insoluble Riddle of the World. Tradition, the aged woman seated on the other side of History, represents medieval legend and folk tales. She is shown in the midst of relating her old wives' tales to the young boy seated before her. The distaff in her lap, the youth with a harp in his hand (a reference to the wandering minstrel of the Middle Ages), and the shield are reminders of a past age. The mosaic includes ancient buildings from the three nations of antiquity with highly developed histories: an Egyptian pyramid, a Greek temple, and a Roman amphitheater.

Along with the mosaic panel representing Law above the north fireplace, this mosaic was prepared in Venice, Italy and sent to the Jefferson Building to be put into place. Both mosaics were made of pieces, or tesserae, which were fitted together to provide subtle gradations in color.
I need to make an effort to see that someday. Pretty neat.


  1. The mosaic left out Gibbon. One of my favorites!

    1. Look at the second name on the right tablet, in gold, it's our man Gibbon.

    2. In your defense Cap'n, it isn't that easy to see. I had to look twice.

  2. Mosaics.
    I took advantage of Forrestal's tours to see both Pompeii and some of Rome, I went to the Museum of Pompeii in Naples on my own. Beautiful mosaic work everywhere.

    From your bullet point list.
    "Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it."
    I remember seeing a list of contradictory sayings, but the only one I remember now is, "Look before you leap, and he who hesitates is lost."

    Very good post.

  3. Thanks for the post.

    When my father was stationed in Italy, I went on a school field trip to a place that manufactured the tiles used in making mosaics and also taught how to make mosaics. Also got to see a Roman mosaic floor which was more than 2000 years old. Neat stuff.

    Paul L. Quandt

  4. I'm still trying to find that saying counteracting " Here.... hold my beer." Hmmmm... so much for a history major at university.

    1. The counter to "Here... hold my beer" is the look one gets from one's wife after saying that.

      Not that I have any personal knowledge of that...

  5. Pompeii was interesting, but Ephesus was much more interesting. Not as damaged, and still being discovered. Unfortunately, it's in Turkey, which might make visiting somewhat problematic nowadays. Learned a lot of history there.
    Great Post! One which should live in...History.

    1. The connection with Christianity would make Ephesus an attraction for me personally. However, as Turkey becomes less secular, a visit to Turkey becomes less likely. I wonder if Mustafa Kemal Atatürk would recognize his old homeland.

      Thanks Juvat.

    2. It was an interesting and awesome feeling to stand where Paul stood in the amphitheater as he addressed the citizens.

    3. I was thinking along those lines.

    4. Ephesus. It was a stop on the cruise that my wife and I took on our thirtieth anniversary in '09. Your mention brought back a vivid mental image of when we came down the street, and the front of the Library hove into view.

    5. That must have been something!

  6. It is amazing, to me, that history can’t seem to be used in schools today to teach most of the other basic subjects.
    Because, after all, they really are a part of history.

  7. When I was young, I thought of "history" as a unified, agreed upon chronology of dates and facts. "In 1492, Columbus sailed upon the blue", Washington crossed the Delaware and Lincoln freed the slaves, usw, usw, usw.
    My first year of college, I had an American history teacher who disabused me of that notion. He showed me that history was not a settled thing, but different and sometimes conflicting theories, not necessarily as to what happened, but what it meant, when viewed as a whole. And while it is true that "History is written by the victors", it is also written by subversives, malcontents and academicians (but I repeat myself!) bent on imposing their ideology upon the historical record and "proving" themselves correct.

    1. Bingo, Proof has got Bingo!

      History is what happened. As to the whys, wherefores, and whodunits, that's what the subversives, malcontents and academicians try to sell the eager proles of the student ranks and the misinformed masses outside of college.

      To paraphrase Bill Belichick, "History is what it is."

  8. Hey, if you dig military history, this Hill 80 thing could be interesting. I shoveled a few bucks their way. (It's soooo close to funding...)

    1. Interesting, I have to say though that I am very leery of these type of things. Far too many scammers out there.

      But I'll read up on it, do some research and then we'll see. At any rate, thanks for the tip!

    2. I'm reasonably confident, based on the scope of the project and the people associated with it, that they'll do what they say the're going to do.

      (Primarily I just wanted to make some puns.)

    3. (I still get a pile of email/physical spam from the CAF for backing one of their restorations. Maybe someday I'll get to cash in my flight voucher... I guess sometimes I'm kind of a little bit of a sucker. :) )

    4. Puns are good. I like puns, perhaps more than I should.

    5. It seems to me that many organizations, once you've donated to them or shown an interest in them, just feel compelled to constantly bombard us with requests and the like. I get it, if you live by the donation, you've got to be kind of aggressive.

      If it was me, I'd be on the CAF's doorstep bellowing for my ride.

      Truth be told, we're all suckers for something.

    6. I'm not too fussed about the timing of my ride, considering the plane's still being restored and hasn't had its first flight yet. Well, next first flight? I mean, it didn't WALK to Normandy for that particular shindig. (This one, btw. It'll bring my "Rides on WWII Aircraft" total up to a whopping two. :D )

      My mom does a thing, wherein she calls the charities they give to and tells them "If you call or send us anything, no more money for you, ever." Sometimes it actually works, and sometimes they don't get any more money.

    7. When it happens, and I know it will, send us pictures and your story. We'll tell the world about it, well, at least your fellow readers here.


  9. "Those who dont learn history are forced to repeat it. Those who DO learn history are forced to watch helplessly as everyone else repeats past mistakes"
    I am concerned that Europe is on eve on either WW1 with unnecessary greatwar tragedy or ww2 with unavoidable great war tragedy. Depends on whether Purtin is more realpolitiker or revanchist bent on avenging Soviet Union.
    Also I am pretty sure China will eventually repeat Japans mistakes in their quest for East Asia Greter Prosperity Sphere...
    Their land-based assets repeating Kuantan in almost same spot would be cherry on top of gret deja vu.

    1. Roger that on watching helplessly. Europe is on the brink as you point out. Who knows what China is trying to do, hegemony, outright control?

      Things look scary.

    2. add to this Africa going to hell in a handbasket next door, as our good amphibian friemd points out in his blog
      "may you live in an interesting time"
      gimme a break!

    3. I just read Sal's article on that, interesting times indeed!


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