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 “What Will History Say?” 

January 18, 2005 
I love to quote the exchange that ends Bernard Shaw’s play The Devil’s Disciple. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Major Swindon asks, “But what will history say?” General Burgoyne replies, with cynical Shavian wit, “History, sir, will tell lies, as usual.”

An excellent riposte, but it’s a half-truth. The common question “What will History say?” can never have a final answer, because there is no such thing, person, or goddess as a univocal History. People ask it because they imagine that some time in the future, when all the dust has settled, all our uncertainties will be resolved and the right people will receive their due of honor or infamy from the final perspective of History.

But this confuses history with other things. Commemoration, for example. Most of us may honor the memory of Abraham Lincoln, and there are many undisputed facts about him; but these facts can be judged in various ways. Even polls of historians ranking him “the greatest American president” are hardly more than popularity contests. Some historians make the case that Lincoln was a disastrous president, and they may be right; but of course they are no more the final voice of History than the majority who say otherwise.

Oliver Stone’s recent film about Alexander the Great reminds us that historians still argue about whether Alexander was a great promoter of a civilized culture or merely a ruthless conqueror; but why not both, or neither? This is more a moral question than a strictly historical one. It can never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. Historians still argue about many figures from the ancient world: Jesus, Cleopatra, Homer. Areas of consensus about them are few. One recent book even argues that the notorious Roman emperor Nero may owe his bad reputation more to his enemies’ defamations than to his actual crimes.

Which brings us to another common saying: “History is written by the victors.” This too is a half-truth. Yes, the victors usually write the first draft of history, and they may destroy any records favorable to the losers. But often, enough records survive to support later revisionism, or at least strong doubts about the victors’ version.

[Breaker quote: Wrong question]History then becomes a discipline of sifting the records, asking whether History in the popular sense is true to the facts. When President Kennedy was assassinated, he was prematurely commemorated as a great man, a judgment most of us would at least qualify in light of subsequent revelations. As with Martin Luther King, we learned how much of his personal life was concealed by friends and allies during his lifetime. Yet even the most scandalous posthumous disclosures aren’t the last word on such men.

History seldom if ever has the last word, except maybe on specific details where the evidence is overwhelming. It may seem that History has spoken on Shakespeare’s authorship, and the man from Stratford is certainly among the most commemorated men who ever lived. But I once wrote a book arguing that he didn’t write the great works ascribed to him, and even my angriest reviewers never quite claimed that the question was absolutely closed. After all, it’s a historical question, not a literary one. Who did what? How did it happen, and why? The answers must be more or less tentative.

Politics always invites premature historical judgments. Some people already say that President Bush will go down in history as a great president. But this is only a prediction — maybe a wishful one — that his memory will be honored everlastingly, while his critics will be forgotten. It illustrates how eager we can be to speak in advance for History, and to project our current emotions onto an imaginary future.

But that future never arrives — a future when all our controversies are settled so decisively that there is no longer room for doubt. Marxists used to think they had the key to History, and they prophesied a classless society emerging — inevitably! — from the climactic struggle between the “working classes” and the “capitalists.” Seldom has History disappointed her votaries so severely.

Sober history is a fascinating discipline, partly because it teaches us how fragile our certainties can be. What will History say? We know only that it will speak differently to different generations. Nothing is quite so unpredictable as the past.

Joseph Sobran

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