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History – Understand the Present by Understanding the Past

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Are you one of those who think history is something dull, something that just deals with a dead past and has no meaningful connection to the present or the future? If you do, you might have a too limited view of what history really is.

"These old stories are like blood. They run through people, even when they don't know it or think about it. But even if you don't think about them, when the hard times come, the old stories come out on every side. And that's like blood too."

(Tad Williams, The Green Angel Tower)

I. Introduction

Everyone and everything has a history, long or short. An individual, a family, a tribe, a nation, the human species, a plant, a mineral, a religion, an idea, a science, the moon, the earth, the universe, a language, a word, a sound, a flash, the shoes you are wearing right now... every living being, individual or collective, every object, real or abstract, every event, every phenomenon... Absolutely everything has in some way a history and a lineage, and is formed and shaped by it. Whatever you face today, it is a product of its history!

Let us exemplify this. Consider yourself. What you are doing today, or what you will do, will be influenced by circumstances around you, interaction with others, choices, etc. But what is you in a frozen moment, is entirely a product of your history. Your personal history and other histories your personal history is a part of.

Your personal history starts with your birth, or maybe 9 months before that, but then you are already a part of a genetical history through your ancestors. That is what I mean by a history your history is a part of.

From the moment you are born, with your inherited genetical history, you are shaped by your experiences. You learn and accumulate knowledge, you forget some of it, you (hopefully) gain wisdom, and you build up and wear down your body physically.

Objects also have a history. Even your shoes are shaped by how you wear and tear them, their history will determine the shape of their soles. A couple of soles might have a very limited general interest, but it is the sort of detail that can be of immense importance in a criminal investigation, and they serve well as an example.

If we consider history in a more traditional meaning, the history of human affairs, we have the same pattern. Nothing of the present can be fully understood unless you have a deep insight into its history, because history has shaped it to what it is!

The relatively recent war on the Balkans, for instance, was based on tensions going more than a millennium back in time. With a proper understanding of this background, the war was no surprise. And the tensions still remain.

Or more recent why is it going as it does in Iraq? Or Afghanistan? If you have a good historical insight into this, there is no surprise there either. The present state of things was relatively foreseeable.

History is important, not only as a theoretical game about the past, but it has shaped the present and its influence goes far into the future. Without history, we would be lost even in our own time.

II. Hard History - Soft History

While every subject, object, phenomenon, etc. has its own respective history, a history that is irrevocable, it just is its bearer - the human mind also communicates history, or descriptions of history, history by hearsay. That is to say, if you have cut off a finger, crashed a car, or have had the measles, that is part of your history, and nothing can change that. You cannot remove a past experience. If you have read, say, Shakespeare's "Hamlet", you have read it, and there is nothing to do about that. You cannot somehow "unread" it. You can forget it, but then the forgetting also becomes a part of your history, you would still have been reading it before forgetting it. I would call this history "hard".

History by hearsay is more problematic. It is an intellectual function, a description of history, including interpretations, transferred to you by some means of communication. Often by reading. This is second-hand history. Valuable because it gives you access to so much more than only the hard history would, but problematic because there can be misunderstandings during the transfer of it, and it can be subject to intentional or unintentional errors as well. In short: it can be false. I call this history "soft".

So again, say you have crashed a car. That is a part of your hard history. But when you write a letter to someone telling that person about your crash, your crash is history by hearsay, soft history.

While hard history just is, soft history has a source, and the source can (intentionally or unintentionally) be wrong. The credibility of the source becomes a major concern

What is commonly called "recorded history", is always soft. The recording procedure itself is a kind of transfer of information between the one writing and the one reading the records in question. Errors are possible.

III. Interpretation

In “Brain & Horror Vacui (Fear of the void)”, I described how our brain always tries to fill gaps of information by guesswork and assumptions. Unless we understand this process it happens unawarely, and we will believe the guesswork to be true. This is a form of interpretation.

When we try to reconstruct something from the past, we have a few facts we have chosen to rely on, and based on them we fill the gaps of information with assumptions. We get an interpretation, a theory. However well-founded it may be, we always must remember that it is nothing but an interpretation. New credible facts can fundamentally change the interpretation at any time. Moreover, several different interpretations can be reasonable at the same time, based on the same set of facts.

Established academic history is often presented as the ultimate truth, which is quite a dangerous attitude. Alternative history, a genre that has grown considerably during the last decades, offers some hope. The major value of the works of men like Erich von Däniken, Zecharia Sitchin or Henry Lincoln, is not that they would always be right, but that they show that unorthodox interpretations are possible and sometimes plausible.

But if we want to see an example of a man who successfully defied the establishment, we cannot refrain from a brief description of something that was extremely spectacular at the time. The discovery of Troy.

IV. Schliemann & Troy

Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) had an almost fanatic interest in the works of Homer (who lived somewhere between 800 and 700 BC): the Iliad and the Odyssey, which at the time were held to be purely fictitious. Schliemann, however, was convinced that these sagas were history, mythologised perhaps, yet referring to people and places that had really existed. The Trojan war, he claimed, had really taken place. His contemporaries laughed and mocked him.

Schliemann identified geographic and topographic details in the Homeric works and tried to calculate the travelling speed at the time, in order to estimate the distance between various geographical sites. Thus he made a reconstruction of the movement of the Greek fleet and ultimately of the location of the city of Troy.

Having been a successful merchant, Schliemann was financially independent, and in 1868 he first went to Greece, and then further to Turkey, to make an excavation of the site, which, as he claimed, must have been the place of the city of Troy. He did excavate, and Troy he found! Or, to be more precise, he found something that conformed to Troy as Homer described it.

He found much more than that, and in his later excavation of Mycenae (in Greece), he made discoveries which some researchers considered even more important.

Schliemann changed the base of credible facts (added the Homeric works), reached his own conclusions and changed perceived history forever. As a spin-off effect, he founded archaeology as a separate science.

V. Historical Legitimacy & Precedence

"It all goes back and back, Tyrion thought, to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance in our steads."

(George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire)

In law, a precedence case is setting a standard. Then similar future cases can be judged similarly by mere reference to the precedence case.

In a very special and limited sense, this is an example of historical legitimacy; what was once right, is right when repeated later on; what was once wrong, is wrong if repeated later on.

This is a pattern of thinking very deeply rooted in our psychology, and essentially it is the base of all customs and traditions of all sorts and on all levels. Intuitively the legitimacy grows by increasing time and by the number of repetitions that precede the actual case or event. This makes sense, but is not always without problematic consequences.

It is very common to make a choice or a decision by simple reference to custom, tradition or historical precedence, without further considering the matter at hand. As a whole, this sort of thinking is probably useful to us as a species; but it is not without disadvantages, and if used unreflectedly, it can easily become a "cage". True creativity often is the ability to break this pattern at some point. But that is a discussion for another time.

In politics, the games of power and prestige, historical legitimacy is one of the strongest forces there is. I previously described how attractive the Roman heritage was and still is. It was a precedence, even a succession, which was eagerly desired and claimed to establish legitimacy of power and prestige.

It should not surprise anyone that the application of historical legitimacy sometimes does cause conflicts. To give you just one example, let me just say "Israel". It is a state created on the basis of claimed historical legitimacy. The consequences of that do not need any further description here. It is common knowledge.

One should be aware that there are different forms of "succession", and the corresponding legitimacy does not always carry the same weight. It can be:

Biological succession - which is limited to living beings. This can be, for example, a heir's legitimacy to a throne.

Organic succession - which is about organisations in any form, and sometimes about humans (corporate sole). Then there is an unbroken line of existence from the first step to the present, based on any principle, even if the name or other formalities would have changed. A past organisation can have several branches of organic successors, when divisions have taken place.

Inspirational succession - for organisations or humans. As the word denotes, something present is inspired by something past, but there is no organic connection between them. This succession does not imply any genuine legitimacy by any standards, but is often used to blur unjust claims.

Legal succession - can overlap any of the other forms. This only means it is legally recognised within a jurisdiction. Normally biological or organic succession is required for this. But there can be exceptions, some quite absurd. After all, legal recognition can be given to just about anything, on any ground, even a whim.

Apostolic succession - a form of organic succession, especially named after the Christian Apostles. An unbroken line from the first to the present, where - in Christianity - the first was the Apostle Peter. This succession for Bishops, each one installed by another (all the way back to Peter) is not upheld by Protestantism, except for the Anglican and the Swedish established Churches. That is why the Catholic Church recognises these two as legitimate, but no other Church of Protestantism.

VI. Falsification & Tonypandy

As I initially stated, to understand something, we need to understand its history. But soft history makes it complicated. It is described history, and described history can be wrong

Soft history is often used to establish historical legitimacy, but also to justify certain actions. Its influence is tremendous.

But how can it be so powerful while it can be wrong? The answer is that its influence is not built on the quality of being true or in some sense real; it is sufficient that people believe it is true.

In that way, erroneous history does influence something that later really happens. False history can create true history. This true history is described and misinterpreted and new errors can be the result. Then this new false history influences something that really happens, and so on. This is going on all the time, creating an entangled web of myth and truth that constitutes soft history. The whole complex web must be studied in order to reach any understanding. If you only try to pick out verifiable facts and ignore the rest, you will never be able to understand the driving forces in human affairs.

[Naturally, soft history - sometimes false soft history - influences hard history as well, since it causes events in reality. But hard history in itself can never be false. It is beyond the concepts of true and false, it just is.]

With history being such a powerful force, and with the possibility of deliberately falsified history, it would be strange if it had not already been done. Indeed, it is done all the time, often to justify otherwise dubious actions.

In the novel "The Daughters of Time", by Josephine Tey, the case of Richard III (1452-1485) is investigated by Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, as a pastime while he spends some time in hospital. The research is based on historical fact and the solution is interesting, to say the least. Richard III, by history described as a monster who murdered his nephews, might have been one of the most decent men who ever sat on the throne of England. His successor, Henry VII who defeated Richard, might have been the real monster, and Henry's historian seems to be the major source of Richard's bad reputation. A highly recommended book. Even if there would be something wrong in the conclusions of Alan Grant, this novel gives a very good and easy-to-read description of how history is, or can be, manipulated.

In "The Daughters of Time", Josephine Tey also coins the term "tonypandy". It denotes an erroneous collective memory. History describes something incorrectly. Everyone involved knows it is false, but nobody objects. That is false history in creation! Tonypandy is a town in South Wales where there would have been a terrible riot in 1910. There are doubts whether the riot ever took place!

If you want to see another example of the problem with the credibility of soft history, look at Pearl Harbor. It is quite clear today that the Japanese attack was not unprovoked and that President Roosevelt desperately needed something to happen to get public support for a war he eagerly desired. There are many inconsistencies in the officially approved history.

Read more about that here:

VII. Mass Media

"[...] remember that the media is not public service. It has no obligation to report anything, including the truth. It is business for power and profit. It should be treated for what it is, a large angry porcupine. To do otherwise would be dangerous to your health and your freedom.

(The Privacy Newsletter)

"Through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man."

(Albert Speer, about Hitler)

As a special case, mass media can be seen as dealing with history, even if it is mostly very recent history, maybe just a day old, or a minute or a few seconds. Naturally it is soft history and, as such, subject to all the problems of soft history. It can be false, and often is. For the sake of money, prestige, power! Indeed, the media is the most effective tool ever to indoctrinate the masses on a large scale! [The only competitor to that questionable honour would be compulsory public education.]

Institutionalised manipulation of the media used to be called censorship, which is still widely applied, in one way or another.

Although live broadcasting can hardly be called history - unless we count the infinitesimal time it takes to transfer signals, and say it places everything in the past - it is still represented or described reality, rather than reality itself - and as such it can be subject to endless manipulation.

Read the whole series:

1. Brain & Horror Vacui (Fear of the void)

2. History – Understand the Present by Understanding the Past

3. Memory as Soft or Hard History

4. Bandwidth Of Brain and Consciousness

Copyright © 2006, 2018, 2021 Meleonymica/Mictorrani. All Rights Reserved.

Here you can find my articles about History, and about Philosophy.

Interested in history, legends and myths, join my community History, Myths, Legends & Mysteries (be45).

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2 weeks ago

Very good composition

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1 month ago

Very interesting facts

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1 month ago

Amazing composition.
We are all merely fibers woven into threads that began before our birth.
Almost, unless we escape the boundaries prepared for us.

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1 month ago

Good readers are a bliss. You did catch the essence of this article in only two sentences.

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1 month ago

I had an idea I have little time to devote to which you probably already know the answer to:

  • Currently we are witnessing the beginning of the implosion of the USA empire (plus others).
    One of the chief reasons it is imploding is the centralization of power.

  • In tech-speak we would regard this as a "single point of failure"
    [ ]

  • I suspect that if we examined history as well you examine it,
    we would be able to perceive :
    ? The fall of almost all previous 'empires'
    occurred after the central authorities managed to obtain some critical percentage of power over the populace - which triggered collapse due to capacity overload.

  • Just thinking out loud - Live well and prosper..

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1 month ago

Yes, I think you are right.

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1 month ago