Historical Awareness/Uses of History

I enjoyed these chapters by John Tosh. A part in particular I liked from the first chapter: “No human practice ever stands still; all demand a historical perspective which uncovers the dynamics of change over time. This is one reason why it is so important that students should study large swaths of history.” What really appeals to me about these chapters by Tosh is that he brings up insights from both the English and French Revolutions, my particular areas of interest as well as being boundless in their historical importance. I was very glad to see Thomas Carlyle cited.
I hesitate to agree with Tosh’s characterization of respect for tradition. I think he’s certainly right in the sense that a blind love for certain traditions, which may be relatively recent, can be detrimental to the study of history. In a broader sense, however, tradition is best practiced not as the worship of ashes but as the preservation of fire. It is an unbroken link to the past, and can make for a beneficial cultural consistency. Just a thought.
Tosh is spot-on about the toxic tendency towards viewing history as “progress.” This is particularly prevalent when people use laughable phrases like “the right side of history,” as if the winning side to any particular historical argument automatically holds the moral high ground as well. This is inherited from the Whig interpretation of history, of course.
I ultimately agree with Tosh’s conclusion which he terms “postmodern,” that it is impossible to entirely detach oneself from the present, as many 19th Century historians sought. It is, however, a laudable aim.
Moving on to chapter 2, I agree strongly with what Ranke. This actually ties back to what I just mentioned about respecting tradition, Tosh says of Ranke: “To conservatives such as Ranke, the political excesses in France were a terrifying instance of what happens when radicals turn their backs on the past: to apply first principles without respect for inherited institutions was a threat to the very fabric of social order.” Self-described “Old Whig” Edmund Burke said much the same. One of my personal favorite writers, Joseph de Maistre, took it a step further and characterized the whole notion of revolution as inherently flawed.
I was delighted by the Christopher Hill quote: “Since capitalism, the Protestant ethic, Newtonian physics, so long taken for granted by our civilization, are now at last coming under general and widespread criticism, it is worth going back to consider seriously and afresh the arguments of those who opposed them before they won universal acceptance.” I couldn’t agree more, to be honest. Counter-Reformation, anyone?
I also found the information about the Soviet cover-up of history to be very interesting. From what I understand, collective social memory, as opposed to formal historical analysis, was quite present in the years after Stalin, seeing as the hatred for him was widespread to the point of tearing down hundreds of statues of him across Communist countries (I believe the largest was in Prague, destroyed in 1962, where there is now a giant metronome to symbolize the passage of time). I’m sure that theĀ glastnost policy played its role in the destruction of Communism, when the historical records were uncovered.

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