Epics and Ethics

By accepting the separation of spheres and distinguishing imperfectly documented past history from (in theory) perfectly documented future history, the historian elects the high road and assumes an ethical standpoint, above all in not denying to students of history an accurate idea of the general subject. There are many other matters of historical approach that appear to require ethical choices, and it will be necessary to discern some of them in seeking to determine how to develop effective storage and retrieval systems. These issues will likely make an appearance in our blog.

The idea that historical study should be entirely neutral and therefore without an ethical framework appears at present to be dominant. Napoleon even went so far as to impugn that neutrality in asserting history to be “a set of lies that people have agreed upon.” We can excuse him, in part because he exists in the imperfectly documented past. Yet in fact he was alluding to society’s primeval need to instill the ethics of choice through ideal representations. Epic poetry provides the perfect case in point. The Illiad served its time, of that there is no doubt. Now the choices are more complex, and the basis of choice is more rational.

The Historical Continuum

In the imperfectly documented past, the chronicler does not look forward and understand that he is communicating directly to those moderns who pretend to science in reconstructing history. Quite the contrary, the medieval chronicler is sensitive to the apparent fact that the circumstances in which he finds himself are very unlikely to undergo radical change. He cannot make an informed guess about the worth of what he records, and he has no reason to describe the manner in which his society operates. His ethical choices take the form of clues, which may or may not help resolve questions.

In the continuum of unchanging history the record of events is haphazard, and the description of society even more so. Yet change occurred radically in a degree that could never be foreseen and at a pace that boggles the imagination. In addressing those developments scientifically, it would be a grave mistake to leave the chronicler's standpoint out of consideration. Only by appreciating the continuum can we hope to do justice to its product.


...history is a work in progress...