The history of the world,” Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1841,” is but the biography of great men”. That was the 19th century’s majestic self-importance speaking - individualist, commanding and grandiloquent: man in charge of destiny. Carlyle invented the Great Man approach to history. At the end of the 20th century, looking back a hundred years, we are inclined to see that destiny has many components – impressive, headlong, sometimes scary and unpredictable.
We amend Carlyle to say: “The history of the world is the richly complicated story of men and women and accidents and ideas – of astonishing inventions (the flying machine, the automobile assembly line, radio, air conditioning, television, the computer, the spacecraft, the communications satellite and so on); of ideology (Marxism – Leninism, for example) and religious faith and its political manifestations (in Islam, say), of racial, ethnic and tribal hatreds (Nazi Germany, the Middle East, Bosnia, Rwanda); of diseases (the flu epidemic of 1918-19 that killed 20 million people worldwide or AIDS) and finally, of brilliant progress and evil regressions.”
“It is the story of not only a few Great Men and Women, but of masses of ordinary men and women. In the 20th century, those masses – in their migrations, to America and elsewhere, and in their sheer restless pressure of their numbers (in China, for instance, or in Africa and India) – have driven the human narrative as powerfully as any statesmen or dictators have.”
Yet the lives of the great have an exemplary fascination in them. Their stories are our version of the gossip-filled and wonder-working and sometimes doom-laden careers of the Gods and Goddesses in Homer. They fly through the upper air of their dazzling power and publicity, they plot against one another on Olympus, and they descend to intercede in the affairs of mortals. They may take the form of a swan or somesuch, in order to – what? – pleasure themselves? Or to inject into ordinary life the seed of the supernatural?
Full two thousand years and more men and women have sweated, laughed, cried, despaired, hoped, dreamt, feared and loved. Full two thousand years and more men and women have lived their lives through good times and bad, through war and peace and through prosperity and famine. Their lives are a tapestry of emotions, a wonderful weave of humanity and a window into their very souls. Their stories are more than an account of their battles and their poems more than praise to beauty. Touch a shard of pottery as the owner once did. Think about what, so long ago, was in that pot. Think about what, so long ago, the owner of the pot felt when they saw a rainbow. Think about what the owner dreamt when asleep. What hopes and ambitions and what fears dwelt in that heart?
Feel a piece of clay jewelry and wonder whose hands touched it before yours. Whose neck did it grace and whose hands put it there? Was it a gift from a father to his daughter? From a husband to his wife? From a brother to his sister? Think about why it was bought or made. Was it a wedding present from her father? Was it a gift of affection and love from the husband? Was it a token of a brother’s esteem? Then think about your daughter. Think about your wife. Think about your sister. Think about why you bought your daughter, wife or sister that bracelet or that necklace or that ring.
The study of history is not the study of dust-covered ruins in the middle of nowhere. It is not the study of dead kings and queens or that of battles won and lost years ago. It is much more than that. It is the understanding of people, people like you and me, people who lived their lives in this same world. It is the attempt to understand what made Genghis Khan or what drove Attila the Hun. It is an attempt to understand the French Revolution and the Magna Carta. It is an attempt above all to understand the dreams and motivations not just of dictators and rulers and bishops and priests but also those of each and every peasant and farmer that ever lived. It is the documentation of the truly countless stories and tales that have driven the human race forward from the earliest of times. History, as I recall from my first lesson at school is best understood as a story. Because at the end of the day, that is all that we really do need to study – our story.
I remember that first lesson very well. It was late afternoon and the warm rays of the sun coming in through the window on my right was a lovely feeling. Looking back on that day, I realize that my love of the subject and the intense enjoyment and fascination that I derive from reading about the travels of Ibn Battutah or the works of Herodotus is more than just a thirst for knowledge. I believe it is an acceptance. It is an acknowledgement of the beauty and glory of ages past. It is an acknowledgement of the intellectual prowess of the Greeks and remarkable sagacity of the Egyptians. It is an admiration for the fortitude of the Incas and a sense of wonderment at the political and administrative brilliance of the Roman Empire. The conception that history is for dunces or those who fail in the understanding of the ‘more important’ subjects like mathematics and physics and et al, is as widespread as it is foolish and the time when we realize that folly, I am convinced we shall see the true potential of the human race.
If the entire human race were to die out tomorrow, what kind of a legacy would we leave behind for the next creature in the chain of evolution to find? Would we leave paintings and sculptures as beauteous as the rising sun over an expanse of water, the pale orange rays shimmering of the surface of the water, the cool delight of the early morning air blowing onto our faces and the smell of the new day fresh in our nostrils? Would we leave behind books and poems of literary brilliance that signified that our race stood for all that was graceful, elegant, breath taking and peace loving?
Or would we leave behind an endless, desolate tract of nothingness? The result of numerous nuclear explosions, chemical warfare and the other humanitarian outrages that have characterized the development of man in the last few centuries.
The choice is ours. Remember, it would be highly irresponsible and dastardly of us to have to tell our grandchildren what a tiger was or how a long time ago, we read books and wrote brilliant essays and poems.