In Defence of History

Last year, I was talking with a friend of mine about school. She was doing a BA in History, and I mentioned that I was taking a history class at the moment. “Which class?” she asked.

“Early Medieval history, from the fall of the Roman Empire to about 900 CE.”

“Oh. That’s the kind of history I hate.”

I’ve similarly run into a lot of friends who say they just have no interest in history at all. Or friends that prefer science fiction over fantasy because it’s more relevant to the present day.

Now, let me start by saying I have no problem with people who don’t like history (or any x) and prefer some other subject (or other y) instead. Everyone’s entitled to their own likes and dislikes. It’s only if they specifically say that there’s something wrong with other tastes that I become irked.

Why am I fascinated by Medieval history? (And Classical history, and other ancient history from around the world, and religious studies and mythological studies from around the world, all of which I’ve taken classes on.)

I’ve always found these subjects endlessly interesting. I’ve always been a fan of fantasy and various mythologies and fairy tales, not to mention a fan of the middle ages and knights and kings and whatnot. It all has something of an “otherness” to them, an escape from the world of today. It’s a look back to a legendary “Golden Age,” like the Greeks believed came before the Iron Age of today. And, for that matter, the people of India. And many other cultures. It’s nostalgic and wishful for a simpler time. Though any real depth of study into history shows that it wasn’t really so simple.

But it goes beyond just what I enjoy. I also think that this kind of study is truly important.

When you look at the ancient histories of different cultures, or even your own culture, it gives you a much deeper understanding of the current human condition. You discover why things in your own society are the way they are, why people believe the things they do. And you also discover why other cultures are the way they are. It allows you to get a much better understanding of other people, other countries. And with that understanding can come better relationships, global thinking, and cooperation. This is perhaps especially true when it comes to religion–probably the single most divisive thing in human history.

But when you go even deeper, you discover something even more profound. Sure, there are differences between the wars of ancient India and the wars of ancient Mesopotamia, and there are differences between Judaism and Taoism, and there are differences between the rule of Charlemagne and the rule of Genghis Khan. But ultimately, all of human history, across the continents and across the millennia, tells the same story.

It tells the story of a people striving to survive in a world seemingly arrayed against them. It tells the story of a people trying to make sense of a world they can’t understand. It tells the story of a people misunderstanding their neighbours, coming into conflict, reconciling their differences. It tells the story that we’re all the same.

Just look at mythology. It’s been documented dozens of times, from the writings of Freud discussing dreams to the exploration of the mythic cycle by Joseph Campbell. Every single culture in the world has their own myths. And the myths of every single culture are, by and far, the same. Specifics change across geography and time and religion, but at their core, what the myth is really saying, is the same.

It’s no surprise that even in my philosophy classes, which, in the west, have always been predominated by western philosophers (the Greeks, the Germans, the English), we took some time to look at some eastern philosophers as well. We’re all humans, we all deal and have dealt with the same realities of living in this world, and we all need to try to understand it all.

History shows us that we’ve all dealt with the same problems. We’ve all experienced the same realities. And we’ve all asked the same questions. We need to understand that we are all the same people.

Mythology , ,

2 comments


  1. Tressa

    I enjoyed this post because I generally feel the same away. I’m presently taking a political science class exclusively on the political thought of ancient Greece and Rome, and I love it. I find it so fascinating to study not just how our concepts of the state and citizenship have changed since then, but also how the issues and debates have remained so shockingly constant over 2500+ years, e.g. how they were still debating then if democracy led to freedom or if it merely let the stupidest unjustly rise to power. However, it’s a) a really small class and b) none of my friends in my program are taking it, and are shocked that I would take what sounds to them like such a “boring” class.

    It’s my experience that political science students are mostly interested in current political happenings in Canada/the United States, in addition to “hot spots” like the Middle East, Africa, India, China, etc., but find ancient history to be tedious and irrelevant. I’m the exact opposite. I think that an understanding of history is a key to the future. I also have a particular soft spot for Middle Eastern/Islamic history, because I’m struck by how the ancient Islamic Empire, in both its expansion and culture, really came to mimic the previous Roman Empire.

  2. It’s about goddamn time I hear Joseph Campbell cited. On a basic level, I’ve got to say that if a person wants to claim any kind of investment or deep appreciation for literature or philosophy they’re going to have to have an appreciation and respect for Ancient Greece. Lately, I’ve been really interested in the turn of the century; the late 19th century through to around the break out of World War One.

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