While listening to a BBC podcast about Heroditus, the panelists described how Heroditus set about his project with the purpose of recording events with some accuracy before the details were lost from memory. Unlike some historians from Greek antiquity, Heroditus was writing about events that were within his lifetime. This created a new kind of writing that set itself apart from others in his genre because it aimed at corroborating stories rather than recording myth.
This is an interesting distinction worth keeping in mind. There is a difference between “history” and “the past.” It can be helpful to think of history as a subset of the past. History is the collection of stories we tell, and as a consequence it is necessarily selective in what gets included and what is left out. This makes sense from a practical standpoint – it is nearly impossible to capture every detail, nor does every fact in the past bear a tangible, causal relationship to the story being told (even if arguably from a systems perspective, many things create ripples of unknown influence that overlap with other events).
The challenge of history is accuracy – capturing events that happened with fidelity and charity. As new facts are discovered, and as new facits of importance enter the discourse, history is revised to (hopefully) move closer to our aim of truth. (For the moment, let’s ignore questions about power and who tells these stories and for what aim).
However, we must not confuse history (the stories we tell) with the past (events that happened prior to the now). Ignoring this distinction places us in danger of imbuing our myths with an illusion of objectivity. The stories we tell ouselves matter, of course, but they also carry power. Who tells the stories, and whose stories get left out, can carry harmful consequences.
We try to learn the lessons from history, but we cannot be so arrogant to think that history is complete.
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