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.