The Magazine

Keeping Score

History is made, then recorded, and recorded again.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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Yet Herodotus' history quickly was challenged by that of his near contemporary, Thucydides, the result being centuries of tension and disagreement within historical circles as to how best to do history and what to focus on. Cynical, insisting on confirming his sources, and a believer in realpolitik, Thucydides believed that all history is contemporary history. Like the great Greek dramatists, he believed that we might learn from history because human nature doesn't change, and he endowed historical thought with themes of tragedy and inevitability that it has never lost. When we complain that history has wandered from its only justifiable foundations in political and military history, or when we argue that human nature is fixed and not plastic, we're really in the grip of arguments that the ancients themselves waged. We have not escaped them and probably never will.

Nor, as Burrow shows, can any of us in the modern West-historian or otherwise-shake off the ways of viewing the past that the successors of the Greeks left to us. The Romans, and especially Polybius, bequeathed to us the aspiration to write a universal history (what we now call world history) and to make historical knowledge useful. And in throwing off the paganism of the ancients, their Christian legatees such as Eusebius and Bede tossed us the challenge of wrestling with the warring themes of historical progress and teleology on one hand and of recurring cycles of history on the other.

By examining (if in necessarily less detail) the many modern historical battles over the past and the methods used to interpret it-including philosophical attacks upon Whig history, the ideological warfare kicked up by Marxism, and the ruckus over the intrusion of theory into history-Burrow implies that contemporary historians, if not always giants of style and view, need yield little to the great figures of yore. After all, he writes in closing, however much we may argue about the past and ways to pursue knowledge of it, history will continue to be written in a never-ending conversation about where we have come from and where we might be going.

In writing this sweeping work, Burrow comes up against two limitations that cannot fairly be debited to his account. The first, which he acknowledges (and which is embodied in the indefinite article of the book's title), is that this is a history of Western historiography, not of all histories, even all great ones, ever written. Burrow is silent about the great Chinese historians, both ancient and modern, and about the master 14th-century Spanish-Arab Ibn Khaldun, sometimes considered the father of historiography. More regrettable is that he doesn't reflect extensively about some of the great Western students of historiography, such as Arnaldo Momigliano. To be sure, he relies on them; but so key are they to his story that their absence is lamentable.

The second limitation of the book, an artifact of Western history itself, is that any historian who undertakes the task that Burrow essays gets caught in a kind of double bind. At the start of the story are large gaps in time and in the record; centuries go by without a historian of note, sometimes even of a historian whose work has survived. Then, starting in the 18th century, the pace of historical research and interpretation picks up-as does, increasingly, the number of practicing historians-so that by our own time Burrow is forced to mention many names without lingering over any. The result is, toward the end of his work, some loss of the considered tone and leisurely pace of the rest.

In addition to knowledge and sheer pleasure, what can a reader take away from A History of Histories? This book, like other works of historiography, should lay to rest many misapprehensions about what has come in recent years to be known pejoratively as "revisionism" and "revisionist history." Revisions of previous histories have been with us from the start. Thucydides took issue with Herodotus, who himself here and there corrected Homer and expressed skepticism about the Homeric epics. Thus, at the very inauguration of history's history 2,500 years ago, the debates and tensions between myth and fact, and between what we now call social and cultural history (Herodotus) and political, military, and institutional history (Thucydides), were with us. They have never been stilled. Historians, like other thinkers, are always looking over their shoulders at their predecessors, entering into discussion and debate with them, suffering the anxieties of their influence.