When is a Historian Judge and Jury?

Over a century ago, the world became intrigued by the theories of Sigmund Freud and his interpretation of humans as irrational, rather than rational, creatures. People wondered about the significance and consequences of irrationality in courts of law, legislatures, schools, and houses of worship: if the judge, legislator, teacher, and priest are irrational, then how can we trust their decisions, laws, teachings, message?

Freud’s theory must have had a subtle impact on me at some point in the past, when it comes to thinking about and writing history. Most historians, in college classes, textbooks, monographs, etc., determine whether the person or people written about were morally culpable or not. What is the point, they argue, for being able to see what has happened in the past if we cannot pass judgment on historical persons so that we can learn from their wickedness, immorality, and overall mistakes? This was the exact point that the great historian Livy made when he argued that history is didactic, a teaching tool of morality. But what if the historian writing in the present has no greater wisdom, is no more rational, than the person living a century or more in the past? I constantly consider this when I write. I can hardly be a qualified judge and jury to pass judgment on someone like Captain John Smith, or Christopher Columbus, or George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln. Rather, my view of writing history is to try to recover from the past the exact feelings and mentality that the historical person was feeling and thinking. I try to resurrect the past, to empathize with past people, to look at them not from the benefit of my or my society’s values, rather to look at them from the perspective of their own time. I am not a judge and jury of the past. Rather, I want to give listeners and readers as much as possible an unbiased portrait of a past time so that the reader can make their own silent judgment.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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