Wisdom, Tradition, and History

I think that Eric Alterman needs to be very careful about saying things like those in his recent New Yorker piece:

That’s what history does best. It locates us and helps us understand how we got here and why things are the way they are. “History instills a sense of citizenship, and reminds you of questions to ask, especially about evidence,” Willis told me. In a follow-up e-mail after our conversation, Mikhail wrote, “A study of the past shows us that the only way to understand the present is to embrace the messiness of politics, culture, and economics. There are never easy answers to pressing questions about the world and public life.” Bruce Springsteen famously developed a profound political consciousness after happening upon Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager’s “A Pocket History of the United States,” first published in 1942. In his recent Broadway show, Springsteen explained, “I wanted to know the whole American story. . . . I felt like I needed to understand as much of it as I could in order to understand myself.”

I realize that his primary purpose is to forge a club to beat over Donald Trump’s head but people might reach the logical conclusions from his remarks that people who have experienced more of history might have perspective that those who haven’t lack, that there may be wisdom in tradition, or that the headlong rush to overturn traditional norms to meet the preferences of those without historical perspective are misguided.

My own view of history is somewhat jaded. While I think that a knowledge of history and, even more importantly, historiography are important, I think that we know almost nothing of events that occurred prior to about 1400 and that most of what we think we know (before and since) is actually propaganda.

Is it history or propaganda that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and never told a lie?

4 comments… add one
  • Gray Shambler Link

    Even more distressing is to find that the Gospels were written some 300 years after the death of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem.
    300/15= 20? generations.

  • The oldest Gospel manuscripts are from 150-250AD. In combination we have complete texts of all four Gospels from about 150. There are complete Gospel manuscripts from around 200AD.

    You may be thinking of Timothy 1 and 2. We have complete manuscripts of those from around 300AD.

    Beats the heck out of any of the works of Aristotle, Plato, or Thucydides. The earliest complete manuscripts of any of those is from nearly a millennium later although there are some fragments from the late 2nd century.

    This is actually a very interesting subject. There are no books in the world whose manuscript traditions have been more extensively explored or over a longer period than the books of the New Testament. Although it’s in its relative infancy scholarship is finding that there is, in fact, a manuscript tradition of the Qur’an, something disquieting to thoughtful Muslims.

  • Gray Shambler Link

    I actually tried to read the Qur’an, repetitive, boring.

  • The conventional response to that is that it can only be read properly in Arabic because it is poetry.

Leave a Comment