History as a study in irony

Michael Dirda reviews a new book by the distinguished British historian J. H. Elliott, History in the Making, which reflects on how historians exercise their vocations and the lessons of history for our own times.  Here are some quotations from the book, as put together in the review:

“If the study of the past has any value, that value lies in its ability to reveal the complexities of human experience, and to counsel against ruling out as of no significance any of the paths that were only partially followed, or not followed at all.”

Today, it is apparent that “the nation state, while remaining the standard form of political organization, has been under growing pressure both from above and from below. . . . From above, it has been compelled to yield ground to international and supranational bodies, of which the European Community is a prime example. From below, it has come under pressure from the suppressed nationalities, and from religious and ethnicities demanding their own place in the sun. As a result, what once seemed certain has become less certain, and structures that once had about them an air of permanence are showing signs of frailty.”

Certainly, contemporary history has shown us, with a vengeance, that “the stronger the emphasis on secularization, the greater are the chances of religious revival. The advance of science finds its antithesis in the advance of fundamentalism, and the supranationalism of a world of multinational corporations and organizations finds itself challenged by the upsurge of the irrational forces of old-style nationalism.”

Thus, as Dirda concludes, “The study of history is a study in irony.”

The more secularism the more religious revival.  It would follow that conservatism is not dead, any more than liberalism was a few years ago, that ideologies ebb and flow and take their turn.  I suspect the same is true of moral codes.  The sexual revolution will probably spur a counter-revolution.  Then again, world wars, totalitarianism, fascism, and communism will probably come back too.

via A historian’s Spanish lessons for modern America – The Washington Post.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    Elliott is one of my favorite historians, bridging the gap between Parker, who was broadly a student of early-modern Europe, and Kamen, who is probably the other best-known historians of early-modern Spain.

    Elliott and Kamen are good complements; Kamen being more of an Annales-style historian. The study of the conditions leading to the atrophication and decline of imperial Spain are an apt metaphor for our own current circumstances in the United States. These conditions are foreshadowed and paralleled again by the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire after 350.

    The end-game of imperial over-stretch, diplomatic hubris, and shell-game public finances, encouraged by a cossetted and ossifying elite has been repeated time and time again. The history of empire truly does repeat itself, and even the “this time, it’s different” line of reasoning simply changes language or context, but the ultimate denial of reality embodied in those words remains intact.

    In that context, in that historical reality, I will continue to argue that we can have our foreign imperial wars and interventionism, or we can have a republic and liberty. We can only sustain the fight to bring democracy to all peoples everywhere, only by curtailing freedoms and liberties domestically. The greater the pull of political power and authority to the federal government becomes, the greater the push for states to leave the union; the United States can decentralize away from D.C. and remain an extant nation, or it can centralize towards D.C. and see the nation fracture and split.

  • SKPeterson

    Elliott is one of my favorite historians, bridging the gap between Parker, who was broadly a student of early-modern Europe, and Kamen, who is probably the other best-known historians of early-modern Spain.

    Elliott and Kamen are good complements; Kamen being more of an Annales-style historian. The study of the conditions leading to the atrophication and decline of imperial Spain are an apt metaphor for our own current circumstances in the United States. These conditions are foreshadowed and paralleled again by the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire after 350.

    The end-game of imperial over-stretch, diplomatic hubris, and shell-game public finances, encouraged by a cossetted and ossifying elite has been repeated time and time again. The history of empire truly does repeat itself, and even the “this time, it’s different” line of reasoning simply changes language or context, but the ultimate denial of reality embodied in those words remains intact.

    In that context, in that historical reality, I will continue to argue that we can have our foreign imperial wars and interventionism, or we can have a republic and liberty. We can only sustain the fight to bring democracy to all peoples everywhere, only by curtailing freedoms and liberties domestically. The greater the pull of political power and authority to the federal government becomes, the greater the push for states to leave the union; the United States can decentralize away from D.C. and remain an extant nation, or it can centralize towards D.C. and see the nation fracture and split.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    There probably will be a lot of ‘religion’, to come.

    But faith. That is another matter.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    There probably will be a lot of ‘religion’, to come.

    But faith. That is another matter.

  • Pete

    I feel very strongly that SK Peterson @1 must have given this topic some thought! Sheesh – I’m not even sure I have a favorite historian.

  • Pete

    I feel very strongly that SK Peterson @1 must have given this topic some thought! Sheesh – I’m not even sure I have a favorite historian.

  • SKPeterson

    Believe it or not Pete, but reflecting on Elliott’s (and others) work informs a good amount of my commentary on this site. It helps pass the time while I assiduously ignore Bob Dylan’s contributions to contemporary culture. :)

  • SKPeterson

    Believe it or not Pete, but reflecting on Elliott’s (and others) work informs a good amount of my commentary on this site. It helps pass the time while I assiduously ignore Bob Dylan’s contributions to contemporary culture. :)

  • Pete

    SK (@4)

    Regarding your comments on this blog – except for your Dylan-bashing – they are uniformly spectacular and if I knew how to add one of those smiley face thingys here I would.

  • Pete

    SK (@4)

    Regarding your comments on this blog – except for your Dylan-bashing – they are uniformly spectacular and if I knew how to add one of those smiley face thingys here I would.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    In other words, the more the oppress people, the more they want to be free.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    In other words, the more the oppress people, the more they want to be free.

  • Ryan

    Funny, Is that whiff of false dichotomy I smell under some of this irony?

  • Ryan

    Funny, Is that whiff of false dichotomy I smell under some of this irony?

  • SKPeterson

    Ryan @ 7 – It could very well be, and that is the task of history to discover and offer a plausible answer.

    For example, I would take the last paragraph of Dirda’s review with some caution, especially this passage:

    “The advance of science finds its antithesis in the advance of fundamentalism, and the supranationalism of a world of multinational corporations and organizations finds itself challenged by the upsurge of the irrational forces of old-style nationalism.”

    The problem here is in the details. Does the advance of science result in a concomitant advance in fundamentalism? Maybe. But what constitutes the advance of science? Maybe it isn’t science, but scientism that advances and becomes opposed by some varieties of religious fundamentalism. Are these interactions taking place within a culture or between cultures? The task then becomes discovering the truth or falsehood of those apparent dichotomies.

  • SKPeterson

    Ryan @ 7 – It could very well be, and that is the task of history to discover and offer a plausible answer.

    For example, I would take the last paragraph of Dirda’s review with some caution, especially this passage:

    “The advance of science finds its antithesis in the advance of fundamentalism, and the supranationalism of a world of multinational corporations and organizations finds itself challenged by the upsurge of the irrational forces of old-style nationalism.”

    The problem here is in the details. Does the advance of science result in a concomitant advance in fundamentalism? Maybe. But what constitutes the advance of science? Maybe it isn’t science, but scientism that advances and becomes opposed by some varieties of religious fundamentalism. Are these interactions taking place within a culture or between cultures? The task then becomes discovering the truth or falsehood of those apparent dichotomies.

  • Ryan

    SK, I agree that paragraph bothered me. Science vs. Fundmentalism needs to be defined, are we talking early 20th century reactions or something different. Religion is not the opposite of Science. Then there is the ‘irrational’ nationalism quip versus multinationalsim. This irony conception of history is not new, it has always been anecdotal – the old swinging pendulum idea.

  • Ryan

    SK, I agree that paragraph bothered me. Science vs. Fundmentalism needs to be defined, are we talking early 20th century reactions or something different. Religion is not the opposite of Science. Then there is the ‘irrational’ nationalism quip versus multinationalsim. This irony conception of history is not new, it has always been anecdotal – the old swinging pendulum idea.