Finding Truth in History

If we are to learn from the past, does the account of it have to be true? One would like to think so. Otherwise you might be preparing for the wrong battle. There you are, geared up for mountains, and instead you find swamps. You've done a bunch of reading, trying to understand the terrain you are about to enter, only to find it useless. The books must have been written by crazy people. You are upset and confused. Surely there must be some reliable, objective account of the past. How are you supposed to prepare for the possibilities of the future if you can't trust the accuracy of the reports on anything that has come before?

For why do we study history, anyway? Why keep a record of things that have happened? We fear that if we don't, we are doomed to repeat history; but often that doesn't seem to stop us from repeating it. And we have an annoying tendency to remember only the things which don't really challenge or upset us. But still we try to capture what we can, through museums and ceremonies and study, because somehow we believe that eventually we will come to learn something about why things happen the way they do. And armed with this knowledge, we might even be able to shape our future.

This “problem of historical truth” is explored by Isaiah Berlin in The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History. He explains that Tolstoy was driven by a “desire to penetrate to first causes, to understand how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise.” We can understand this goal – because if we know how the world really works, we know everything.

Of course, it's not that simple, and — spoiler alert — Tolstoy never figured it out. But Berlin's analysis can illuminate the challenges we face with history and help us find something to learn from.

Tolstoy's main problem with historical efforts at the time was that they were “nothing but a collection of fables and useless trifles. … History does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events.” Seen like this, the study of history is a waste of time, other than for trivia games or pub quizzes. Being able to recite what happened is supremely uninteresting if you can't begin to understand why it happened in the first place.

But Tolstoy was also an expert at tearing down the theories of anyone who attempted to make sense of history and provide the why. He thought that they “must be imposters, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.”

History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did.

And therein lies the spectrum of the problem for Tolstoy. History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did. A battle is more than dates and times, but trying to trace the real impact of the decisions of Napoleon or Churchill is a fool's errand. There is too much going on – too many decisions and interactions happening in every moment – for us to be able to conclude cause and effect with any certainty. After leaving an ice cube to melt on a table, you can't untangle exactly what happened with each molecule from the puddle. That doesn't mean we can't learn from history; it means only that we need to be careful with the lessons we draw and the confidence we have in them.

Berlin explains:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter – a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy, Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

Arguing against this view of history was N. I. Kareev, who said:

…it is men, doubtless, who make social forms, but these forms – the ways in which men live – in their turn affect those born into them; individual wills may not be all-powerful, but neither are they totally impotent, and some are more effective than others. Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him.

This means that studying the past is important for making better decisions in the future. If we can't always follow the course of cause and effect, we can at least discover some very strong correlations and act accordingly.

We have a choice between these two perspectives: Either we can treat history as an impenetrable fog, or we can figure out how to use history while accepting that each day might reveal more and we may have to update our thinking.

Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like the scientific method to me – a preference for updating the foundation of knowledge versus being adrift in chaos or attached to a raft that cannot be added to.

Berlin argues that Tolstoy spent his life trying to find a theory strong enough to unify everything. A way to build a foundation so strong that all arguments would crumble against it. Although that endeavor was ambitious, we don't need to fully understand the why of history in order to be able to learn from it. We don't need the foundation of the past to be solid and fixed in order to gain some insight into our future. We can still find some truth in history.

How?

Funnily enough, Berlin clarifies that Tolstoy “believed that only by patient empirical observation could any knowledge be obtained.” But he also believed “that simple people often know the truth better than learned men, because their observation of men and nature is less clouded by empty theories.”

Unhelpfully, Tolstoy's position amounts to “the more you know, the less you learn.”

The answer to finding truth in history is not to be found in Tolstoy's writing. He was looking for “something too indivisibly simple and remote from normal intellectual processes to be assailable by the instruments of reason, and therefore, perhaps, offering a path to peace and salvation.” He never was able to conclude what that might be.

But there might be an answer in how Berlin interprets Tolstoy's major dissonance in life, the discrepancy that drove him and was never resolved. Tolstoy “tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe.”

Finding truth in history is about understanding that this truth is not absolute. In this sense, truth is based on perspective. The perspective of the person who captured it and the person interpreting it. And the perspective of the translators and editors and primary sources. We don't get to be invisible observers of moments in the past, and we don't get to go into other minds. The best we can do is keep our eyes open and keep our biases in check. And what history can teach us is found not just in the moments it tries to describe, but also in what we choose to look at and how we choose to represent it.