John Lukacs on the human side of history


Historian John Lukacs on The Future of History, title of his newly published book (Yale), as elucidated by reviewer Anne Barbeau Gardiner (New Oxford Review, Jan.-Feb., 2003), italics mine.

What is this thing called history?

The central point of Lukacs’s book is that history is a form of literature and not a science. Yes, professional historians must have “serious archival knowledge and practice,” but they must also be dedicated to finding out the truth about the past.

What’s it for?

“The purpose of history is understanding even more than accuracy (though not without a creditable respect for the latter).” A good history is “unavoidably anthropocentric” because it conveys “the knowledge that human beings have of other human beings.”

[In pursuit of this human element] historians should be willing to consult not only the documentary evidence but also the great literary achievements of past ages . . . .

What’s important?

Here is where Lukacs throws down the gauntlet before the materialist historians of our age: What people think and believe is the most important factor in their lives. “What marks the movements in the history of societies and peoples is not the accumulation of capital,” he writes. “It is the accumulation of opinions.”

People not fate’s playthings:

In defense of this countercultural view of history, Lukacs points out that people do not “have ideas,” they “choose them.” Yes indeed, there is such a thing as free will. Ideas and beliefs are not necessarily the “outcomes of some kind of a Zeitgeist.”

Getting particular about what people choose:

The author praises Burckhardt, Huizinga, and Tocqueville, among other fine historians, for having tried to “describe and even prove what and how some people were thinking at a particular time and in a particular place.” Historians must show how freely chosen ideas have made a difference in history.

Guard civilization.

The conquest of science over history is not inevitable, Lukacs concludes. Rather than seeing themselves as scientists dealing with material objects, historians should take up the role of “humble but steadfast guardians of civilization — protecting, practicing, cultivating, preserving its verbal and written tradition.”

Best of all, history is literature.

 

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