The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2016)


Chapter 7. The Story of the Past: The Tales of Historians (and Politicians)

History is above all else an argument. It is an argument between different historians. . . . Arguments are important; they create the possibility of changing things.


PICTURE A HISTORIAN at work. You might imagine him in the archives of a university library, paging through old records: letters, inventories, bills of sale. You might picture him crouched over dusty artifacts: coins, pottery, inscriptions on bits of stone. Or reading old chronicles of battles, deciphering Greek accounts of victories and reconstructing the chronology of a war.

In truth, he’s just as likely to be in his office, reading another historian’s most recent book with his feet up on the desk. Since history is (in part) the investigation of past events, historians do study the evidence left behind by those who lived long—or not so long—ago. This evidence includes papers of all kinds: invoices, bills, and receipts, as well as diaries and letters. How do we know how the southern plantation economy worked? Through the painstaking categorization of paperwork recording sales of slaves, purchase of supplies, prices paid for crops. Physical traces left by settlements, travelers, and advancing armies are also vital. How do we know how far the Romans progressed into Britain? From traces of Roman camps and remains of Roman roads and walls, crumbling beneath the grass.

But this is only a part of what the historian does. “Most practising ancient historians,” remarks Neville Morley in his primer on studying ancient history, “don’t actually spend all their time studying such ‘primary’ sources; they are more often concerned with studying the arguments of other historians.”1 The overall task of the historian isn’t just to tell you what happened, but to explain why: not just to construct a bare outline of facts, but to tell a story about them. And this project is generally done in a give and take with other historians, not simply by meditating on the evidence itself. The historian never sits down with a collection of documents or artifacts with a “fresh mind.” His mind is already full of other people’s theories as to why Rome fell, or how African Americans in slavery developed an energetic culture of their own. When he examines the evidence, he is already asking: Do the theories I already know explain this? Or can I come up with a better interpretation?

The tales told by historians have much in common with the tales told by novelists. Like the novel, the history tells a story about a “hero,” an individual, or a country, or perhaps a particular group within a country: working women, soldiers, slaves. Like the hero of a novel, this “historical hero” grapples with a problem (poor wages, the demands of war) and finds a strategy for coping with it. A history’s conclusion, like a novel’s climax, pronounces a final judgment on the hero’s choice of strategy.

Unlike the novelist, though, the historian has to shape his plot around certain historical givens. To use a ridiculously simplified metaphor: It’s as though both writers are painting a portrait of a woman sitting at a table. But while the novelist is painting from imagination and can give the woman any features, any race, any age, any dress, the historian is looking at an actual young, white woman sitting at a sidewalk table outside a St. Louis eatery. He can paint her so that her background fades and her individuality stands out; he can paint her as a dreamlike figure against a colorful and busy scene; he can paint her so that we notice her race and age and her worried expression, but not her clothes; he can blur her face but paint her shabby dress and peeling handbag with great detail. But he cannot make a young white woman into a middle-aged Asian matron or into an African American man.

In this obligation to adhere to what they see in front of them, historians actually share the task of autobiographers. Both shape “real” events into a design that leads the reader forward to a final interpretation, one that fills those events with meaning. But until very recently, historians have rejected any comparison with autobiographers. Autobiography, after all, cannot possibly be objective. As Georges Gusdorf remarks, “it reveals . . . the effort of a creator to give the meaning of his own mythic tale.” Objectivity, Gusdorf adds, is the task of the historian, who must “discern” the facts beyond the myth.2

For generations, objectivity has been the single most important quality of the historian. A historian who has personal involvement with a topic has traditionally been viewed as untrustworthy and unprofessional. Autobiography, as the epitome of personal involvement in past events, has ranked at the bottom of scholarly endeavors. Even as a source for information about the past, autobiography rates little attention. As the historian Jeremy Popkin points out, “standard manuals for students caution them against reliance on these ‘least convincing of all personal records.’”3

Where did this ideal of the perfectly objective historian come from?


Historical writing—which you will sometimes see referred to as “historiography” (graphos is the Greek word for “writing”)—developed over the course of several thousand years and thus has its own history. My attempt to outline this enormous, complicated “history of historiography” should be considered as a beginning for your own understanding. It draws simple connections where connections are in fact multiple and complex. It suggests direct causes (“Impatience with rationalism led to romanticism”) where many factors actually came into play, and where the “result” may have existed alongside the “cause” for many years. It simplifies great philosophical insights by examining them only as they apply to the writing of history. This is why I’ve capitalized such words as Relativism and Postmodernism in this chapter, turning them into labels for certain types of historical writing.

Think of yourself as a beginning history reader. Beginning readers need simplicity before they progress to complexity. When you first teach a child her letter sounds, you tell her that a makes the sound heard in cat. The truth is that a makes many other sounds as well, but if you tell the beginning reader all of the possible a sounds at the same time, she might give up in sheer confusion and refuse to learn to read, so she learns only the simplest sound first. Once she begins to read, she can begin to understand the additional complexities of the letter a. The following outline provides an “easy primer” approach to history; as you continue to read historical writing, you will find yourself adding new complexities to its simple structure.


The earliest forms of historical writing are the accounts kept by ancient kings of their victories (not, generally, of their defeats). These military chronicles have historical value, but they are not “historical writing” because they have a single, limited purpose: the immortalization of one particular king. In present-day terms, the ancient chronicles are more like press releases than history. When the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib boasts that his invasion of Judah destroyed “forty-six . . . strong walled towns and innumerable smaller villages,” and that Judah was “overwhelmed” by “the awful splendor of my lordship,” he is not trying to enlighten inquisitive Assyrian readers. He’s crowing.

“History,” in the sense of a coherent story written to illuminate the past, first appeared among the Greeks. The great Greek triumvirate of historians—Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon—took a slightly wider view of history. Rather than simply boosting the prestige of a king or leader, they tried to write the story of men (primarily Greek men). Their purposes went beyond puffery: Thucydides writes for “those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past.” And the Greek historians defined, for the first time, the border between myth and “history.” Herodotus draws a careful line between truth and absurdity; this line doesn’t always stretch through territory that a modern historian would recognize (Herodotus is quite impressed with accounts of a country full of one-eyed people who steal gold from griffins), but he is conscious that such a line exists. In their efforts to record what really happened—in Thucydides’ own phrase, an “exact knowledge of the past”—the Greek historians were innovators.

In other ways, though, their histories bore a family resemblance to the ancient chronicles that came before. Greek histories are hero-centered, much concerned with kings and generals. “History,” for the ancients, happens when great men exercise their ambition, plan, scheme, fight, triumph, or show themselves wanting. “Cyrus,” begins the historian Xenophon, “set about planning that he might be king. . . . When any of the King’s court came to visit him, he treated them all in such a way that when he sent them back they were more devoted to him than to the King.” Cyrus’s wily diplomacy set into motion an entire string of events, and Cyrus became the greatest Persian king because of his own ambitions, not because some great pattern had decreed it. History had no “great pattern.” History was a swarm of interlinked tales, each telling of a great man’s life, each life story bearing within itself its own causes. No single “purpose” shaped the tales of these Greek historians into a great Plan; the Plan came into view only with the advent of Christianity.

Medieval History

Thus says the Lord to His anointed,

to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held,

to subdue nations before him and remove the armor of kings. . . .

I will go before you and break in pieces the gates of bronze.

—ISAIAH 45:1–2

Medieval historians transformed history from a series of interlinked stories to one long, sequential story, with a beginning and an ending decreed by God. The interlinked stories of ancient historians were joined by odd and unpredictable connections; with Christianity, the links were shaken into a straight chain, a line pointing forward, unbending as an arrow, to the End. Cyrus became king because God had planned it long before, not because of his own driving ambition.

The first medieval historian is (naturally) Augustine, whose City of God proved as central to the idea of Western history as his Confessions was to the idea of the Western self. After the Goths sacked Rome in 410, there were widespread mutterings that the Christians had caused the catastrophe by deserting the old gods. In response, Augustine set out on a thirteen-year writing project, a “theoretical history” arguing that all of history records the doings of two separate political entities—the kingdom of God and the kingdom of men—existing side by side, in the same space and time. The members of the two kingdoms share certain goals (the desire to live in peace, for example), but in the end, they pursue different purposes: the one seeks power, the other worships God. This side-by-side existence creates the tensions and conflicts of history, in which God is bringing his kingdom to perfection, while unbelieving man fights and resists him.

This sense of history as God’s unfolding plan was a Christian reworking of the method of Hebrew historians, who saw all of Israel’s past (and future) as the outworking of God’s plan to form a “holy people” on the earth. By shifting the ultimate home of this “holy people” from earth to heaven, medieval historians could now tell the story of the entire universe, from Creation on, in one unbroken line; all of God’s acts in history pointed to the birth of Christ, and then past it to the time of Christ’s return. This was enormously clarifying to historians, who could now make sense out of what had previously seemed shapeless. Faith in the eternal God and reason—that faculty that shapes chaos into order and arranges unsorted heaps of information into patterns—joined together to lead historians into a story with creation at its beginning and the world’s remaking at its end. Finally, the events of history made sense.

But visualizing history as God’s eternal workshop did little to impress on medieval historians the difference between ancient times and their own. If all men are made in the image of God, they are essentially alike; if they are all part of one story, there is not much more difference between ancient times and the present than between the first act of a play and its end. So medieval history is marked, not only by its providentialism, but by its tendency to view ancients and contemporaries in exactly the same way. (Medieval art inevitably dresses biblical characters in medieval dress, and places fifteenth-century weapons in the hands of Hebrew kings.) The sense of the past as a foreign country (where, in L. P. Hartley’s famous phrase, they “do things differently”)4 began to develop only with the Renaissance.

Renaissance History

History is the intellectual form in which

a civilization renders accounts to itself of its past.


“Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries,” historian Joyce Appleby remarks, “the Christian scheme of history steadily lost credibility. Certainty and conviction about God’s purposes in human affairs gave way to growing doubts.”5

This is true. Yet the popular picture of an enormous breach between a Christian Middle Ages and a secular Renaissance is oversimplified. For one thing, “Christian history” never actually went away; for every new European colony in the Americas, there was a historian who claimed that God had personally planted that particular settlement in order to bring his kingdom on earth at last. But even more central to the Renaissance practice of history was a developing sense of the past as a faraway and alien place, removed from the present not by geography, but by time. That sense of time (which allows us, in the present day, to draw a straight line that goes from left to right and call it a “time line”) depended on the Christian hypothesis that time was a progression, an arrowlike reality with an undeveloped beginning and a perfected end.

Sometime around 1600, Europeans began to use the word “primitive” to mean “undeveloped” or “not yet modern”; as John Lukacs points out,6 this idea of primitive (inferior because it is far away in time) replaced the Greek idea of “barbarian” (inferior because it is distant in space, far away from Greek land). The concept of “primitive” was followed closely by the idea of “anachronism,” something happening out of the correct order in time. A sense of historical difference didn’t arrive full-fledged; Shakespeare’s Romans are unmistakably Elizabethan (“The clock hath stricken three!” Cassius cries, although no clocks existed in ancient Rome), and were acted in knee breeches and powdered periwigs as late as the eighteenth century. But during the Renaissance, linear time became an accepted reality. The Renaissance historian looked at what men had done, within this framework of linear time, and asked, Why? And in finding the answer, he pursued a strategy markedly different from that of the medieval writer.

Reason was not suddenly “discovered” during the Renaissance, as though every earlier generation had had its collective brain on ice. Rather, what changed during the Renaissance was the material on which reason exercised its powers. A medieval historian, faced with a historical question (“Why did the barbarian Angles invade Britain and slaughter native Britons?”) was likely to tussle with deep theological questions about the purposes of God and the puzzling ways in which his will was carried out. A Renaissance historian, faced with a similar challenge, turned to the study of men: their desires, fears, and ambitions. In this, Renaissance history was much more like Greek history than like its medieval counterpart, which is hardly surprising since Renaissance scholars idolized the classical past.

But the Greeks were happy to ascribe certain events to the workings of divinity. For the Renaissance thinker, the gate to this avenue of explanation was slowly swinging closed. The Renaissance was shaped by a philosophy that found its clearest expression in Descartes, who (as we saw in his Meditations) looked for a sure place on which to stand, a way to know that his conclusions were true. Descartes believed in God, but distrusted God’s ability to communicate unambiguously with man. And technological innovations—most notably the telescope—had already revealed that explanations given by medieval thinkers who claimed to reason straight from their knowledge of God were likely to be incorrect. The only way to be assured of a true conclusion was to reason your way to it without taking divine revelation or divine purposes as your starting point. The mountain of God was no longer the vantage point with the best view; man’s own mind provided the higher peak.

The medieval historian sought to find out what God intended, and to illuminate this purpose through the writing of history. The Renaissance historian instead reasoned his way through a chain of past events to find out why a civilization rose or fell. And these reasons had immense present importance. If God had not decreed the pattern of history, it could be altered and controlled. Find out why Rome fell in the past, and you might well save your own civilization from a similar fall in the near future. Machiavelli scoured the past for examples of successful leadership; from this historical foundation he reasoned his way to a prescription for effective present-day rule. Thomas More, outlining the ideal society, retained those past ideas of the Greeks which he thought might solve the problems of the English in the future.

For the first time, history became a matter of becoming, not of being; of trying to account for the way that countries develop, rather than simply describing them as they were. And the very word becoming implies a sense of progress, of movement toward an end point. The Renaissance historians didn’t raze the foundation of linear time that Christian historians had laid. Instead, they knocked down a few walls and built patchwork buildings on the old cornerstones. Ironically, the Christian sense of time as a linear progression from a less realized time toward a more complete reality made it possible for later scholars to suggest that life might evolve, over time, from a primitive to an advanced state.

The “Enlightened,” or “Rational,” Approach

To study history means submitting to chaos

and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning.


Enlightenment scholars didn’t just build patchwork buildings. They erected huge enormous glittering temples to Reason all over the landscape. Given a chance, Enlightenment thinkers might well have chosen a Darwinian metaphor instead: They were finally walking from the primordial, God-ridden ooze of the Middle Ages, onto the solid beach of rationalism, to bask in the sunshine of free thought.

Descartes had already suggested (in the early seventeenth century) that reason, not divine revelation, was the one true source of knowledge. Now John Locke, in the mid-seventeenth century, proposed that man comes into the world with nothing but the capacity to reason. No innate knowledge of God, no instincts, no natural patriotism: just the ability to see and touch and feel and hear the physical world, and to reason about it. Everything that man knows, he has learned by analyzing the evidence of his senses. This is the source of all knowledge, and man’s reason—dealing with tangible, physical evidence in a way that is completely reliable and unbiased—becomes the ultimate source of truth. Man’s mind is the “enlightener.”

The Christian impulse to look for an overall meaning to historical events remained. But historians now sought this meaning through exercising their reason freely. If unreasonable, illogical factors—religious belief, say, or patriotism—influenced the historian, his pure and reliable reason had been corrupted; he no longer wrote truth. And in the same way, truth could not be discovered if historians were pressured by church or state to come to certain conclusions: “If we are asked, ‘Do we now live in an enlightened age?’” Immanuel Kant wrote in 1784, “The answer is, ‘No,’ but we do live in an age of enlightenment. . . . [T]he field has now been opened wherein men may freely deal with these things.” Freedom meant no preconditions; no preexisting belief in God, no fear of state reprisals. History was not meant to serve any sort of ideological end. It was meant to find the truth.

This idea that a historian could find truth through the scientific examination of the past depended on a new understanding of the cosmos. In the late seventeenth century, Isaac Newton’s “natural science” had proposed something startling: Universal, cosmic laws governed every level of the universe’s functioning, from the greatest planetary bodies down to the tiniest fragment. These laws could be proved through mathematics—and they were constants throughout the universe.

Now Enlightenment philosophers had a model for reason: Reason was like gravity. Like gravity, it was a mathematical certainty. Like gravity, it was a constant throughout the universe. Like gravity, it always brought the same conclusions. Just as an experiment, if conducted properly, led to one and only one result, so history, if approached properly, would yield one and only one correct conclusion: the truth.

Newton’s laws served as a model not only for reason, but for history itself. Like scientists, historians could discover historical laws that were just as real and predictable as physical laws. Newton observed objects fall, and from this reasoned his way to the law of gravity; historians observed nations fall, and from this reasoned their way to the laws that govern empires. These historical laws, like scientific laws, were universally applicable to all nations—just as the law of gravity governs every object, large or small.7

The search for universal historical laws wasn’t simply an academic exercise. It had real, present urgency. All over Europe, the power of the monarchy was fraying at the seams; in France, it pulled apart entirely in 1789. Monarchs had claimed to rule by divine right, to hold authority over others because they were chosen by God. But now men saw themselves as equal to the king, possessing an equal capacity for reason, and an equal ability to govern themselves. A monarch’s claim to God-given authority was as dead as a universal belief in the apocalypse.

But without a divinely ordained pattern for government, how should nations run themselves? To answer, historians combed the past to find those universal historical laws that govern human communities. Locke concluded that men govern themselves by entering into a contract with their government; Rousseau, that they enter into a contract only with themselves. In explaining this new commitment to republicanism, historians relied increasingly on the idea of historical evolution. Not only individual nations, but history itself was evolving toward maturity. Monarchies had been for children, but republics were for adults. That idea of “primitive” versus “advanced” has continued to shape the way we think about history today: it allows us to talk about the “ancient” world, about the “Dark Ages,” about “premodern” times and about “modernity,” about the “end of history.”

The Enlightenment (like literary realism) never really goes away. It shaped the identity of the modern West. And like any coherent system of belief, it has its own creed, which is still recited today:

Reason is “autonomous” or independent of any other part of man. The truth about the world can be discovered not by faith, not by intuition, but through the exercise of the single most important element of the human person: the mind. And the mind is capable of escaping bias in order to see what really is.

Institutional authority is suspect. Authority isn’t primarily concerned with truth but with power. So it tends to insist, blindly, on ideas which will help it keep its power, rather than truly exercising its reason in an unbiased way. (In modern academic circles, you are only allowed to say this part of the creed once you leave the graduate program.)

Every effect has a cause, and that cause can be discovered. There is no ultimate mystery in the world; there is always an explanation. Arthur C. Clarke, best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey, once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” An Enlightenment motto if ever there was one: Anything that may seem miraculous to us simply has causes and effects that we have not yet discovered.

Historians of the Enlightenment did their best to remove the mystery from the past by putting it under scientific scrutiny. The Greek sense of history as a set of stories, linked together by the passions of great men, had given way to the medieval understanding of history as the single story of God’s work in time. During the Renaissance, this single story had become the story of men, not the story of the deity. Now historians viewed history as an expanse of physical phenomena that had to be explained.

The Enlightenment gave birth to two families of historians. One set of children worshiped their parent; the other set hated it. Like battling siblings who finally hit their fifties, both families end up (after four hundred years or so) sitting in the same living room.

From Positivism to “Progress-ism” to “Multiculturalism” (and Thence to Postmodernism)


History is a science, no more and no less.


Positivism, the Enlightenment’s eldest child, was a nineteenth-century infatuation with one particular Enlightenment ideal: the historian as scientist. The originator of the term positivism, the French sociologist Auguste Comte, was much enamored with the idea of the scientist as synthesizer of knowledge, able to observe the facts about human existence and draw from them laws that would coalesce into one Grand Theory explaining all.9 In Comte’s view, historians were co-laborers at this noble task.

Positivists held, quite logically, that since both historians and scientists pursue the same magnificent end they should pursue it in the same way. Despite the move toward “scientific history” during the Enlightenment, for most of the eighteenth century history had been an amateur’s occupation. David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Mary Wollstonecraft were writers and scholars, but none of them had been “trained” to be a historian. Certainly no eighteenth-century historians made a living out of history. But the nineteenth-century Positivists began to assemble a system of professional, scientific training for historians: university seminars, a period of apprenticeship, the publication of a dissertation or some other scholarly work in order to gain “entry” into the ranks of the qualified.

A large part of this scientific training involved the proper handling of sources. Nineteenth-century German historians were the first to draw a line between “primary sources” (directly produced by the person or during the time under study) and “secondary sources” (secondhand evidence or other scholarly works). “Scientific historians” modeled their use of sources after the scientist’s use of evidence. They would no more go on hearsay (as Herodotus was quite willing to do) than a scientist would. They had to weigh, measure, and validate their evidence firsthand.

“Evidence,” then, came to mean that which could be weighed, measured, and validated. For the Positivist, great natural forces were much more worthy of study than great men. Historical events came about not because of men’s ambitions, but because of physical factors: the distribution of metals in a particular country, or the soil in which certain crops grew, or the mountains that protected its cities. People’s passions as explanation for historical change were suspect—as suspect as God’s providential hand.


History itself is nothing but the activity

of men pursuing their purposes.


“Progress-ism”—faith in forward progress, the belief that history always marches toward a better world, always advancing, always improving—was the natural sequel to Positivism. After all, scientists were progressing from great discovery to great discovery, each one bringing with it the chance to transform the world. Historians would do the same.

The syllogism was simple: If historians do their work with meticulous scientific accuracy, they will discover historical laws. Since historical laws are universal and unchanging, they can prescribe future actions that will bring about a more perfect existence. Because reason is the most powerful part of man (much more powerful than the will), the recommendations will be carried out as soon as people are convinced of their necessity. To convince the intellect of the rightness of a particular course is always to convert the will, since the (weaker) will is always under the control of the (stronger) intellect. (In present-day political usage, “progressive” is sometimes interchangeable with “liberal,” which explains why “Education is the answer” is both supremely progressive and quintessentially liberal as a strategy for social change.)

Augustine, who found his sinful will to be much stronger than his reason, would have thrown up his hands in dismay. But Augustine lived in a different world. In his universe, the Garden of Eden stood as the high point; since the first sin, the human condition had headed steadily downward, and only direct divine intervention could make things better. But Progress-ism offered a golden future spread out ahead, as the poor, the criminal, and the wrong-headed were inexorably converted by the rhetoric of Reason. History became a tool for change: “If history is ever to help us solve . . . the great and grievous riddle of life,” the historian Jacob Burkhardt told his German listeners in the late nineteenth century, “we must [understand] . . . the true nature of life on earth. . . . [F]ortunately for us, ancient history has preserved a few records in which we can closely follow growth, bloom and decay in outstanding historical events.”10 Those ancient patterns would reveal principles that historians could use to perfect the world.

Faith in progress took several different forms, some more optimistic than others. In the practice of English history, historians who saw the past as an inexorable progression toward perfection were said to write “Whiggish” history. In American history, the progressive movement saw history as a constant struggle between “the people” (honest workers) and “aristocrats” (corrupt and dishonest tycoons) to preserve the American dream. After a time of fierce struggle, this conflict would lead to a more perfect American democracy. American progressivism drew on the work of Karl Marx, perhaps the most famous evangelist of the progress-in-history gospel.

Marx looked at the ancient pattern of class struggle throughout all of human existence and in this struggle found the historical principle that—he believed—could guide man into a more perfect existence. “The history of all hitherto existing society,” The Communist Manifesto begins, “is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another.” As a Positivist, Marx believed that the key to history was the analysis of the tangible, material conditions under which people lived. As a believer in historical progress, he was convinced that this analysis revealed a historical law that could be used to reshape the future: The workers of the world must be given control over the “means of production” (the raw materials and equipment needed to produce goods). This would bring utopia: the “worker’s paradise.”

Marx saw the constant struggle between two hostile classes of people as the engine that drove history toward perfection. Rationalist that he was, Marx nevertheless borrowed this idea from the mystical philosopher Georg Hegel, who wrote long and largely incomprehensible tracts about history as the self-realization of the divine; as history progresses forward, Hegel explained, the “divine Spirit” reveals itself more and more, making the meaning of existence gradually clearer. Marx jettisoned Hegel’s esoteric musings about the World-Spirit Made Manifest (along with Hegel’s conviction that the process had come to complete fulfillment in Prussia in 1805), but he retained Hegel’s description of how history progresses forward: two opposing forces (in Hegelian terms, “thesis” and “antithesis”) struggle, and from their struggle a new and more perfect reality (“synthesis”) arises.

Marx’s particular brand of Progress-ism altered Progress-ism forever. It treated the underclass (which struggled with the overclass) as a vital element in the forward movement of history. The laborers were the antithesis of the bourgeoisie (the people who control the factories and the production of goods—what Americans would consider “upper middle class”). Without the struggle between antithesis and thesis, between underclass and overclass, there was no synthesis, no forward progress, no communist state. The workers became important in their own right: They were no longer simply the poor, criminal, and wrong-headed who needed to be converted by reason, but people with their own power (“agency”), their own values, their own patterns of life.


“History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. . . .

The quarrels of popes and kings,

with wars and pestilences in every page;

the men all so good for nothing,

and hardly any women at all.”


The Marxian revolution in historiography altered the historian’s universe irrevocably. Early Progress-ism tended to be elitist, exalting the work of the well educated (who also tended to be well bred and well heeled) and ignoring conflict in history. But after Marx, the poor and oppressed, and their struggle against domination, became essential parts of the historical equation.

After Marx, historians gradually began to study not just the economically oppressed, but all oppressed and dominated people: women, whom Marx himself apparently didn’t notice, African Americans, Native Americans, and then Hispanics, urban dwellers, “subalterns” (peoples who have been colonized by foreign invaders, as in British-occupied India), and so on. The study of these multiple cultures was the first stage of a movement that expanded beyond the realm of historiography and, some time later, acquired the nickname “multiculturalism.”

This study of previously ignored people was sometimes called “history from below”—described by the historian Jim Sharpe as “rescuing the past experiences of the bulk of the population from . . . total neglect by historians.”11Historians who worked “from below” realized that focusing only on “movers and shakers”—kings, generals, and politicians—gave only a partial picture of the past. “History from below” (also known as “social history”) used nontraditional sources such as personal diaries, oral histories, and interviews to build an alternate history, one that described what “real people” were doing as great events rolled over their heads. Some historians turned to quantitative analysis: wealth distribution, census results, population movements, birth rates, causes of death, and a hundred other sets of figures. The social historian could draw conclusions about the rights of women, for example, by examining hundreds of tax records, finding the instances in which women were listed as owners of land, and calculating the conditions under which they had gained their property.

Positivists would have applauded. But social historians didn’t use quantitative methods primarily because they were scientific. As a matter of fact, social historians tended to be ambivalent about science, which was produced by those well-educated elites to trample on the lives of others. Rather, social historians who wanted to write about “the anonymously downtrodden” (to use Laurence Veysey’s phrase) found themselves faced with a problem: Traditional “primary sources” such as letters and memoirs were almost always written by elite, educated people—which skewed the focus of history toward the relatively small and well-to-do segment of the population who were literate and leisured enough to write. So historians turned to new sources, piecing together the stories of ordinary people from tax records, inventories, birth and death records, advertisements, wage stubs, and other kinds of evidence.

Social historians tended to be wary of drawing conclusions from those stories that would apply to the rest of the human race. After all, “traditional history” had made the error of assuming that the lives of the “ordinary” could be explained by studying events at the highest level of society. The social historian wanted to avoid the same trap, instead giving each life its proper weight as unique. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale tells us every detail of midwife Martha Ballard’s life, but Ulrich avoids making statements about “eighteenth-century midwifery,” let alone about “women in colonial New England”; she aims instead to tell us of this one woman’s life, a life that would never have been known without the diary, since even Ballard’s headstone carries her husband’s name rather than her own.

In its most extreme forms, social history focused exclusively on those anonymously downtrodden, dismissing any larger unifying themes that might link the lives of the downtrodden and their putative tramplers together. But even more moderate forms of “history from below” show that the Enlightenment vision of universal historical laws that apply to all men (and women) had begun to break down. Many social historians rejected the validity of a “Story of Mankind,” in favor of a multiplicity of separate histories. Any attempt to unite those histories into a coherent whole, they objected, would inevitably flatten all those unique stories, reducing them back into anonymity.

So the social historian resisted generalizations, instead keeping her eyes firmly on her own small patch of the world and explaining only the truths governing that particular culture. She rejected the ideal of one objective, preferred point of view that would reveal the truth. Instead, she saw multiple points of view, each arising within a particular culture, each yielding a different version of the truth. “Generalizations,” in the words of the social historian Edward Ayers, “numb us to . . . the emotional shadings of historical experience, the subtle and shifting contexts in which people had to make choices . . . the instability of even the most apparently permanent structures.”12

Which leads us to Postmodernism. But before we complete the journey through history, let’s go all the way back to the Enlightenment again, and meet that other family of historians.

From Romanticism to Relativism to Skepticism (and Thence to Postmodernism)


Genuine historical knowledge requires nobility of character,

a profound understanding of human existence—

not detachment and objectivity.


Although every eighteenth-century thinker was affected by Enlightenment thought, not every eighteenth-century thinker welcomed the Enlightenment creed with joy. Romanticism accepted some Enlightenment ideas more or less uncritically; like Progressives, the optimistic Romantics believed that man was destined to triumph over his environment, rising steadily to greater and greater heights. But Romantics saw man boosted to those peaks by warm gusts of imagination and creativity—not conveyed there by the cold calculations of reason.

For one thing, the exercise of reason was limited to the physical world. Many Romantics rejected the traditional Christianity of the Middle Ages. But many retained a pantheistic belief in God, seeing the presence of the divine in nature. They worshiped a glorious invisible reality that man could glimpse beyond the tangible and the physical; Hegel’s theology of the mystical Divine slowly revealing itself in the progress of history was quintessentially Romantic. Against the flattening Enlightened insistence on what could be tasted, touched, and seen, the Romantics insisted on the presence of mystery in the world. They refused to find single, explicable causes for historical events, or simple, rational answers to great questions. The complexity of the world demanded multiple answers; Edward Gibbon lays out so many complexities and multiple explanations for the decline and fall of Rome that he never does arrive at a final interpretation.

Human beings were just as complex. For the Romantic, to classify man solely as a rational creature was to take away what makes him distinctively human: creativity, intuition, emotion, religious feeling, patriotism. Against Positivism, the Romantics claimed Immanuel Kant as their own; Kant emphasized the freedom to think, and freedom was central to the Romantic rejection of Positivist logic. The Positivists had turned man into a cog, a calculator, a “machine made of meat” (in Marvin Minsky’s phrase), whose actions could be calculated with certainty from an examination of the factors around him.

The Romantic historian wanted to bring emotion and creativity, the passions and ambitions of men, back into the study of the past. Enlightenment thinkers had emphasized man’s sameness, those universal laws which govern all human beings. But the Romantics exalted man’s uniqueness and infinite variety.

The Enlightenment had scorned patriotism as an irrational corrupter of reason, but the Romantic respect for diversity produced an increased respect for national identity. Romantic historians followed instead the arguments of eighteenth-century philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder. Herder was willing to believe that historical events had causes, but he was skeptical about man’s ability to discover those causes with any certainty, since they were most likely not single and simple, but multiple and difficult to discern—or perhaps psychological, driven by passions that remained hidden even to the historical actors themselves. Human beings were deep wells of mystery, and history was an even deeper well; some of its reaches and crannies would always remain inaccessible to the historian.

Herder’s insistence on the ultimate mystery of man, rather than humanity’s essential sameness, could have led to a skepticism in which no one could make any general conclusions about mankind at all. (Indeed, Herder wrote, the job of “ordering together . . . many occurrences into a plan” was beyond reason; it was an act that belonged instead to the “creator, . . . painter, and artist.”)13 But Herder, like thinkers since the Middle Ages, was impelled to look for some principle that governed this ordering together. He wanted a unified history, not a fractured one, and he found his organizing principle in nationalism.

For Herder and the Romantic historians who followed him, national identity was something that all people had in common, and yet allowed them individuality. National identity, Herder wrote, was partly determined by physical landscape, partly by circumstance, and partly “by the inborn and self-nourishing character of the peoples. . . . As man originates from and in one race, so his body, education, and mode of thinking are genetic.”14 This nationalism seemed to combine the best insights of science (the study of physical factors such as landscape, for example) with a Romantic respect for that intangible, personal something that makes people different. Historians discovered a new interest in the writing of national history. Scholars investigated native languages and collected national folktales—as did the Brothers Grimm, linguists who were forty-odd years younger than Herder.

Some Romantic nationalists developed a less charming interest in racial purity. Herder, German by birth, quotes approvingly from the ancient historian Tacitus, who wrote that “[t]he tribes of Germany, who never degrade themselves by mingling with others, form a peculiar, unadulterated, original nation, which is its own archetype.” Herder adds, ominously, “Now look about you. . . . The tribes of Germany have been degraded by mingling with others.” It was a short step from the glorification of national identity to the belief that the progression into perfection demanded the mastery of other, less worthy nations.


Nothing capable of being memorized is history.


In 1957, Karl Popper dedicated his book refuting Romantic nationalism to “the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.”15

Popper argues that logic prevents anyone from predicting the course of human history “by scientific or any other rational methods.” History, he writes, is affected by the growth of scientific knowledge itself. But the growth of knowledge can’t possibly be predicted: “If there is such a thing as growing human knowledge, then we cannot anticipate today what we shall know only tomorrow.” So history cannot be predicted either.

Romantic nationalism had proved to be a bloody dead end, but there was no retreating backward into “Progress-ism,” let alone Positivism, for the Romantics. The first half of the twentieth century had destroyed not only man’s faith in glittering forward progress but also some of the unquestioning faith in the power of science to reveal truth. Popper’s use of reason (and, later in his book, the principles of quantum physics) to deny the existence of the very “universal laws” that Enlightenment historians had so proudly proposed shows a growing realization of the limits of science. Widespread questioning of science’s role as the sole and central revealer of truth would take another twenty years, but as scientific knowledge had recently been used to kill millions of people as efficiently as possible, it no longer held quite its old glamour.

Wary of any claims to absolute truth, historians moved cautiously toward Relativism. Like Positivism, Relativism has slightly different meanings in ethics, epistemology, and other philosophical fields. But for historians, Relativism suggested that the quest to find “absolute truth,” either in history or about history, was misguided. In the last century, dozens of opposing voices had shouted their version of absolute truth, and had backed it up with both evidence and bloodshed. Which one of those voices had the absolute truth? None, the historian answered; each had the truth only as it appeared from his position.

Relativism was similar to the multicultural approach taken by social historians, but it was rooted, not in the study of a particular underprivileged group, but rather in disenchantment with the entire Enlightenment construct. The Enlightenment was built on a conviction that two kinds of objects existed in the world: that which was studied, and those who studied it. This allowed for objectivity, since scholars could remove themselves entirely from the object of their study and view it from a safe and neutral distance. Now, Relativists rejected the difference between scholar and object. In Relativism, a scholar had no neutral space to stand, no inert, objective truth to be studied. No matter where the scholar stands, he touches, affects, changes, and takes part in the subject of his own research.

Faithful to its Romantic heritage, Relativism puts the individual and his own experiences right at the center of all knowledge. Now the task of the historian was not objective study, but the exploration of the past from his or her own particular perspective. The historian no longer tried to find some grand intellectual synthesis, since this would require him to take a position on “truth.” He wanted only to put himself into the place of individuals who lived in the past.

Relativism led history away from its traditional focus on politics, military history, and economics—all fields that require the historian to come to a general conclusion about a whole country—and instead directed the historian toward the experiences of those who might have a different story to tell about historical events. “This book,” wrote Sarah B. Pomeroy in her study Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, “was conceived when I asked myself what women were doing while men were active in all the areas traditionally emphasized by classical scholars.”16 If women were excluded from political, military, economic, and intellectual life, as they were for centuries, how could intellectual history, or political history, or military history tell anything close to the true story of a civilization?

Intellectual or political historians might claim to tell the story of a nation, but the Relativist saw that they told, simply, a story: a story that was true only relative to certain members of that society.


Our deepest thinkers have concluded

that there is no such thing as History—

that is, a meaningful order to the broad sweep of human events.


As a historical method, skepticism—a doubtful habit of mind toward those who claim to know the absolute truth—had been around since (at least) Peter Abelard, who wrote in 1120, “By doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.” All scholars utilize a certain degree of skepticism.

But skepticism as a historical method and Skepticism as a settled philosophy about the very nature of history were two very different things. Historical Skepticism was the logical end to Romanticism, since the Skeptical historian rejected entirely the power of the reason to come to any overarching conclusions about human existence. He simply presented his version of the past as one among many possible versions. Nor did he pronounce any part of the past to be either good or bad. After all, moral judgment on any part of history depends entirely on the point of view of the judge; another historian might see the issue differently; those who lived in the past would have had another perspective still.

In its worst forms, Skepticism produced perverse history; in its best forms, it motivated historians to new and complex scholarship. As John Arnold points out, the Skeptic who asks “Why did the Holocaust happen?” and yet refuses to believe the conventional answer of “Adolf Hitler” may end up denying the Holocaust altogether—or may be forced to delve deeply into the “the anti-Semitic and fascist elements within other countries of the period,” too much ignored by traditional historians of World War II.17

Yet in all its forms, Skepticism leads every scholar to renounce the “myth of objectivity”—to admit that the ideal of the scientist-historian is flawed, since no human being (scientists included) actually possesses the mythical Enlightenment brand of reason that can always arrive at truth, regardless of national identity, race, class, gender, religious conviction, ambition, greed, or all those other competing and jostling parts of the human personality.

Which brings us, once again, to Postmodernism.


History is an argument without end.


Postmodernism means “after the modern age,” but although modernity preceded Postmodernism, it still exists alongside it. Modernity began with Galileo and his confidence that he could reason out the laws which governed the heavens. Modernity covers the whole period of the Enlightenment and beyond; modernity promised that nature could be understood and mastered, and that science would improve life; modernity announced that “better” meant “faster” and “more efficient.” The West entered modernity first and spread the gospel of the modern age along with its colonies and exports. So the modernization of the world is synonymous with its westernization: along with modernity, the rest of the globe is offered Western capitalism, Western democracy, freedom of the press, human rights, gender equality, Windows-based operating systems, and cheap hamburgers. Modernity is the ultimate expression of that Enlightenment drive toward the discovery of historical laws that are universally applicable to all nations; modernity’s innate drive is to establish one, “modern” way of life on every patch of earth.

Postmodernism protested that modernity was not the way of life, but a way of life. Postmodernism pointed out that, all the way back in the Renaissance, when the pronouncement of Descartes became the center of Enlightenment thought, the conclusion “I think, therefore I am” had been masquerading as a neutral place to stand. Setting reason at the center of inquiry determined where the scholar would end up—just as starting with “I believe in God, therefore I am” would dictate a certain type of conclusion. According to the Postmodernist, the self can no longer say, “I think, therefore I am,” because human beings do not have a single, central identity. They are made up of various, sometimes contradictory impulses and elements: mind, emotions, beliefs, prejudices, gender, sexual preference, class, spiritual leanings. Multiculturalism, Relativism, and Skepticism were all forms of Postmodernism. According to Postmodernism, there may indeed be one truth about history (Postmodernist historians are agnostic on this point), but there is absolutely no way that the historian can be sure he’s uncovered it.

So how do Postmodernists do history? Very, very cautiously. Since there are, theoretically, no statements that they can make which will be true for everyone (or even a significant subset of “everyone”), Postmodernist historians don’t make universal statements or sweeping generalizations. They focus carefully on individual lives, and veer away even from little affirmations. Reading Postmodernist history can leave the reader longing for a synthesis—or just a simple conclusion. As the historian Jeremy Popkin remarks, Postmodernism has brought a great strength to the practice of history by showing that “apparently trivial events, such as the death of an utterly unknown Chinese woman of the seventeenth century, can provide important insights into historical process,” but these “studies of single lives often . . . leave historians frustrated: the evidence is never complete and conclusive enough to answer all our questions about life in the past.”18

Postmodernism tends to be the scholarship of younger historians, often those working on underprivileged groups. Traditional scholars view it with some alarm. Popkin’s lament is an example of the primary objection to Postmodernism: It avoids asking the really difficult questions, and its refusal to formulate truths about human existence is (traditional scholars complain) just plain sloppy scholarship. Some Postmodernists have called on historians to abandon altogether linear narratives, which connect causes with effects, in favor of different models. Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, for example, recommends that historians take a page from the visual arts and think in terms of a “collage . . . shaking together their kaleidoscopic facts of past, present, and future, and fashioning them once more into an agreeable pattern. . . . That model of collage has the virtue of liberating historians from the constraints of linearity, or from . . . the conventional representation of time.”19 Traditional historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (among many others) retorts that although Postmodernism “entices us with the siren call of liberation and creativity . . . it may be an invitation to intellectual and moral suicide.”20 Many practitioners of “history from below,” put off by the more extreme pronouncements of Postmodern historians, have rejected the Postmodern label altogether, preferring to call themselves simply practitioners of “microhistory,” “women’s history,” “subaltern studies,” or some other topic.

The battle between traditional and Postmodern history is still rumbling on, with acrimony unabated on both sides.

The End of History

Our knowledge of the past is something we struggle for;

it comes from somewhere,

is created, fought over, and changed.


In the Star Trek universe (a strange and illogical place that occasionally manages to make a philosophical statement in fifty-five minutes, minus commercial breaks), one villainous race is more vicious than all the rest: the Borg. The Borg are a collective. The Borg want every other civilization to be part of their collective too. They bulldoze through the universe, droning with monotonous regularity, “We are Borg. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.” No Borg ever thinks of itself as I.

At least not until the episode “I, Borg,” when Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew discover an injured adolescent Borg and plan to infect it with a computer-type virus, which it will then spread to the rest of the collective. But then the young Borg develops a sense of individual identity and begins to call itself Hugh. So Picard and the rest decide to skip the virus; they believe that this sense of the individual self—a single, separate soul with its own identity and dignity—is so powerful that it will, itself, infect the Borg collective and make it discontent with its collective existence.

Implicit in all this is a value judgment: Those who see themselves first as members of a community, rather than as individuals, have not yet fully developed. They are still children, incomplete, not as mature as those who have a Western sense of the self as individual. Furthermore, all human history is moving toward this idea of individuality. It is so powerful that it need only be introduced in order to conquer. This is the “end of history”—not the apocalypse, but history’s final goal.

The phrase “the end of history” comes from Francis Fukuyama, who argues that all nations inevitably evolve toward modern liberal democracy. Fukuyama illustrates a truth about Western historical writing: We have never shaken off the medieval Christian inheritance that causes us to look for a meaning, an “end” to the process of history. Linear history has become part of our identity in the West; the diagram at the beginning of this section shows my own inevitable tendency to see time as a line that points forward. And even Postmodernists have an “end of history” in mind: a paradisiacal time of toleration, when every point of view will be accepted without condemnation.


As you read history, you’ll ask yourself the classic detective (and journalist) questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? At the first level of inquiry, ask these questions about the story the writer tells: Who is this history about? What happened to them? When does it take place, and where? Why are the characters of this history able to rise above their challenges? Or why do they fail? On the second level of inquiry, you’ll scrutinize the historian’s argument: What proof does she offer? How does she defend her assertions? What historical evidence does she use? Finally, on your third level of inquiry, ask: What does this historian tell us about human existence? How does the history explain who men and women are, and what place they are to take in the world?

The First Level of Inquiry: Grammar-Stage Reading

Look at the title, cover, and table of contents. This initial survey of the book is always your first step. Follow the same process as you did with the novels you read for Chapter 5: With your journal and pencil close by, read the title page and the copy on the back cover. Write the title of the book, the author’s name, and the date of publication or composition on the top of a blank page. (These are not always the same.) Also write a short sentence about the author (scholar, nun, politician, slave). If you are able to glean from the table of contents any sense of the work’s overall structure, make a note of this as well. (For example, Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italyhas an immensely detailed table of contents divided into six general sections: “The State as a Work of Art,” “The Development of the Individual,” “The Revival of Antiquity,” “The Discovery of the World and of Man,” “Society and Festivals,” and “Morality and Religion.” You might list these six topics under your title, as a general guide to the development of Burckhardt’s argument.)

Does the writer state his or her purpose for writing?   Begin by reading the author’s preface or introduction; if there is no introduction, read the first chapter. (Remember to save critical prefaces written by other scholars until after you have read the book itself.) Look for the writer’s purpose, which is often found in these early pages. Bede, for example, begins his Ecclesiastical History by writing, “Should history tell of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse, and himself with greater care pursue those things which he has learned to be good and pleasing in the sight of God.” In other words, Bede intends, through his history, to teach his readers to imitate what is good and avoid what is harmful. When you find the writer’s purpose, note it down in your own words (or copy it, if it’s brief enough).

What are the major events of the history?   What concrete happenings does the historian build his story around? Make a chronological list of these events. Try not to include too much detail; if necessary, use an arbitrary measure and write down only the most important event in each chapter or section.

Who is this story about?   As you read, note down the main characters that you meet. Are they individuals, groups of people (“women,” for Mary Wollstonecraft; “working-men,” for George Orwell), or entire nations? If they are individuals, is the history focused on a single person, or on a network of individuals who may be related by blood or some other tie? If the historian is describing a group of people, how does she distinguish them: by nationality, gender, age, class, job, economic status? And in both cases: Is the historian telling you a “top-down” or “bottom-up” history? In other words, is she focusing on those who have wealth, influence, and/or political power? Or on “ordinary” people and their daily lives? If the historian is telling the story of nations, what is distinctive about each nation? How do its people envision themselves: as warriors, men of learning, farmers, free people? And how (in the historian’s eyes) is this nation better (or worse) than other nations? (In works such as Locke’s The True End of Civil Government or Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, you may find that the central “characters” are the ruler or the government on the one hand, and a very broadly defined group of “men who are ruled” on the other.)

What challenge did this hero/ine face?   Once you’ve discovered the identity of the central character or group of characters, ask yourself the same basic question you asked in your first reading of the novel: What is the problem? What challenges the ability of the central character(s) to lead full lives? In Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll, there are two sets of central characters: slaves and slave owners. Both groups are warped and imprisoned by the institution of slavery. The middle-class housewives of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique are imprisoned by the mystique itself—the perception that tending home and children is the only feminine aspiration worth fulfilling. You may find more than one answer to this question: Barbara Tuchman, who writes about the quite sizable group “fourteenth-century people,” lists plague, taxes, war, robbery, and half a dozen other challenges.

Who or what causes this challenge?   Once you’ve identified the challenge faced by the character, ask yourself: What explanation does the writer give? Who or what is responsible for this? In some cases, the answer will be a system: In Roll, Jordan, Roll, Genovese attributes the challenges faced by both whites and blacks to the system he defines as “paternalism.” In others, it will be much more concrete: The invading D-Day forces in Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day fought, obviously, against the Nazis. In many cases, the writer will suggest more than one cause, in which case you’ll need to make a list.

Identifying the cause or causes of historical problems is at the center of the writing of history. In David Hume’s History of England, why did the House of Commons call the monarch to be accountable to Parliament? In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, why do men decide to enter into the social contract? The historian’s task is to answer this question; does he succeed in doing so?

What happened to the historical “hero/ine”?   If you were to sum up the history in a paragraph (as though it were a movie plot), how would you do so? You can start by using the answers to the character and problem questions above. Say to yourself: “Faced by the problem of [the challenge], [the central character] . . .” How should the sentence end? What action does the character take; how does he (or she) struggle against historical odds; how does he (or she) plan to overcome a historical problem? If the character is essentially passive, what has he failed to do? (One aspect of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women might be summed up as, “Faced by the problem of their lack of education, women failed to realize that they needed to think more and feel less.”) If there is more than one central character or more than one explanation, you may need to construct more than one of these sentences. For the more theoretical works, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, you will need to put the sentence in the form of a recommendation: “Faced with a brutal and tyrannical monarchy, the citizens of the colonies ought to . . .”

This exercise can be carried out on a number of levels. You might make a very brief restatement of one overall idea: For Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, for example, you might simply write, “Faced with new scientific discoveries and new ideas about what nations should be, citizens of Italy developed a new picture of themselves as individuals rather than members of a group.” Or you might make a very detailed list. Each section of Burckhardt’s book offers a different challenge that the Italians of the Renaissance faced, and a different analysis of their response to each challenge.

Allow your interest in the book to guide you. If the topic interests you, you may want to write a page or more, listing the various problems that the historian tackles and the ways in which his central characters respond to each; if you find the book less than inspiring, a broader summary is sufficient. In a book such as Plutarch’s Lives, in which each separate chapter stands on its own as a mini history, you will need to write a sentence or two for each biography that you read.

Do the characters go forward, or backward—and why?   In the most basic terms: Has there been movement in the history? Are the characters better off or worse off by the book’s end? Have the events of the history improved their lot or made it more dire? Or are the characters in essentially the same place on the last page as on the first? If so, is the historian suggesting that change must take place in the future?

When does the story take place?   This is a basic question, but certainly not irrelevant to the writing of history. It has four parts: What dates does the historian cover in his study? What time frame does this encompass—ten years, the lifetime of one person, several hundred years? If the historian is writing theoretically, as Rousseau and Locke do, what time frame do his recommendations cover: Are his suggestions for government intended as universal, for all times, or for a particular point in human history? When did the historian live? And how much time separates him from his subject?

Jot down the answers to these questions—but you may find that you’ll benefit from keeping a time line as well. This doesn’t have to be elaborate (you can keep a running time line on a sheet of notebook paper, a piece of posterboard, a long strip of newsprint, etc.), but you should mark on it the dates covered by each history, the birth and death dates of the author, and, if appropriate, the two or three most significant events highlighted by each historian. One time line, containing this information for all histories read, will help you to keep historians and their works in chronological order.

Where does the story take place?   What part of the world is being described? Where is the writer in relation to it? Is he describing his own country in the past, or a place removed from his in both time and space? How far away is his own country—and culture? A “sense of place” is as central to history as a sense of time. Consult a map or atlas as well as a globe; if you have a shaky sense of geography, checking the physical place of each history that you read will help you begin to order the physical world in your mind.

The Second Level of Inquiry: Logic-Stage Reading

Once you’ve grasped the content of the history, you can move on to evaluate its accuracy. When you analyzed the novel, you asked yourself: How well developed are these characters? Do their actions match the personae that the novelist has constructed for them? This was a question of internal logic: How well did the writer follow his own rules? But in reading a history, you need to make an additional critical step. The historian is using outside evidence to build an argument. Does the story told by the historian make good use of that outside evidence? Or does it distort the evidence in order to shape the story in a particular way?

Look for the historian’s major assertions.   Check the last two paragraphs of each chapter and the final chapter of the book. These tend to be the places where the historian will give a summary statement—two or three sentences that briefly review the interpretation of the stories (or other evidence) that she has presented. Often the next-to-last paragraph will contain the summary statement while the last paragraph polishes it off with a rhetorical flourish. In The Souls of Black Folk, for example, W. E. B. Du Bois concludes his chapter “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” with this statement in the next-to-last paragraph: “The South ought to be led, by candid and honest criticism, to assert her better self and do her full duty to the race she has cruelly wronged and is still wronging. The North—her co-partner in guilt—cannot salvage her conscience by plastering it with gold. We cannot settle this problem by diplomacy and suaveness, by ‘policy’ alone.” This is the core of Du Bois’s argument in all the preceding pages: that the South and the North together are responsible for the black plight, and that “the Negro race” must call them to responsibility, not wait patiently for reform. The final paragraph is a call to his listeners to do just that.

When you find these summary statements, highlight them; then jot them down, in order, in your own words. Leave an extra space between each statement, so that you can fill in the next part of the analysis.

What questions is the historian asking?   The act of writing history requires the historian to answer questions about the past. Look at your paraphrased summary statements and ask: What questions do these statements answer? In the example above, Du Bois is asking, “Should the black man be an activist, or should he improve himself and wait for recognition?” He answers this by asserting the guilt of North and South and calling for activism.

You won’t necessarily need to find a question in every chapter of the history. As you look over your summary statements, you will see that a historian may spend several chapters answering the same question. But once you’ve formulated your question, write each question down above the summary statements that propose an answer.

What sources does the historian use to answer them?   Does the historian identify his sources? Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who bases her study of Martha Ballard on Ballard’s diary, describes her primary source in great detail. But more often, you will need to scan footnotes. Does the historian use mainly written source documents (letters, journals, bills of sale, etc.), oral sources (interviews, folktales), or the arguments of other historians? What use does he make of media: magazines, newspapers, advertisements? Does he use quantitative analysis of information drawn from tax records or similar sources of raw data? Does he make any use of nonwritten cultural sources such as songs, architecture, clothing styles, or images? If he does use visual sources (paintings, emblems, flags), does he merely describe them, or does he furnish an illustration? If he doesn’t, does he describe color, texture, features, the place where a visual source appeared, who saw it? Does the historian ever express doubt or reservation about any part of his source material? You may want to note down the primary types of evidence used. Is this evidence drawn from a broad base? Or does the historian put too much reliance on one or two narrow sources?

Does the evidence support the connection between questions and answers?   Now that you have questions and answers, it’s time to look at the evidence the writer provides to connect the two. If W. E. B. Du Bois asks, “Should the black man improve himself and wait for recognition?” and answers, “No, because the North and the South are responsible for his plight,” he ought to provide two kinds of evidence. In the first place, he should demonstrate the guilt of North and South by giving historical facts about what they have done to the black man; in the second place, he should support his condemnation of “patient endurance” by showing that North and South have responded by becoming more hostile, rather than less. And in fact he does exactly this: He writes that for fifteen years, the ex-slaves have been asked to “give up . . . three things—first, political power, second, insistence on civil rights, third, higher education of Negro youth—and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. . . . As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred: the disfranchisement of the Negro, the legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.”

Sometimes a historian will make the connection between question and answer simple for you by making a clear causal statement. As you glance through the chapters you’ve already read, look for explicit links between facts and interpretations, introduced by the following phrases or constructions:

Because of [historical factor], the [historical character acted in a certain way].

Since [historical factor], the [historical character acted in a certain way].

Therefore . . . [you’ll find a historical factor before this word, and an explanation afterward]

It is clear, then . . .

It follows, then . . .

It is hardly surprising that . . .

As a result . . .

Once you’ve asked yourself what sort of evidence the historian gives you to connect question and answer, take some time to examine this evidence. You probably won’t be able to pinpoint errors of fact; this would require you to look at the actual sources the historian uses. But you can evaluate how the historian is using the evidence he cites. Using rules of argument, you can decide whether or not the historian is treating his evidence fairly—or whether he is playing fast and loose with it in order to come to a hoped-for conclusion. As you evaluate the evidence, look for the following common errors:

1. Misdirection by multiple proposition: Look at those summary statements and see whether there is more than one “proposition” in each. A proposition is a single statement of fact; Du Bois makes four propositions in the summary above: The North is guilty; the South is guilty; activism will work; patient endurance won’t work. Although there’s nothing wrong with statements that contain multiple propositions, a historian may present evidence that explains one proposition and then wrap up with a statement that tosses one or two additional propositions into the mix. Because you’ve been convinced that the first proposition is true, the others may slide by your eye. Du Bois does give convincing historical evidence that patient endurance has not worked in the South, but what about those assertions that the North is as guilty as the South? What evidence does he suggest for these?

2. Substituting a question for a statement: The rhetorical strategy of substituting a question for a statement is more common in spoken arguments than in written ones, but historians who hope to rouse their readers to action will sometimes resort to this technique. But a question does not give information; it implies a statement of fact, but if it were turned into a statement, it would often appear exaggerated or obviously untrue. “Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation,” Thomas Paine fumes, in Common Sense, “can ye restore to us the time that is past?” This question is obviously meant to convince the reader that reconciliation is as impossible as returning to the past. But Paine doesn’t state, baldly, “Reconciliation is impossible,” because he would then have to support that statement with evidence.

3. Drawing a false analogy: Paine follows up his rhetorical question with another: “Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America.” The analogy is meant to illustrate the impossibility of reconciliation, but that isn’t all it does; it draws another partial comparison, and (without directly saying so) implies that reconciliation would be a moral evil. An analogy is meant to illustrate one part of an argument; it should never be treated as an exact parallel. A popular eighteenth-century analogy makes this clear: To say that the universe is like a clock set into motion by a Clockmaker makes one very specific point about the relationship between God and his creation—he is responsible for its existence, but doesn’t need to keep his hand on it constantly to keep it running. But the analogy should not then be carried out to imply that the universe will “run down”; that is not its purpose. A historian who, like Paine, is also a skillful rhetorician will sometimes choose an inflammatory analogy in order to imply a conclusion (the moral evil of reconciliation) that he would find difficult to support were he to make it directly.

4. Argument by example: Telling a story is not the same as proving a point. Betty Friedan, arguing in The Feminine Mystique that women were barred from certain intellectual pursuits in the 1950s, writes, “Girls would not study physics: it was ‘unfeminine.’ A girl refused a science fellowship at Johns Hopkins to take a job in a real-estate office. All she wanted, she said, was what every other American girl wanted—to get married, have four children, and live in a nice house in a nice suburb.”21 The first phrase may be true, but the second doesn’t prove it. Did she apply for this fellowship? Was it offered to her out of the blue? (That would seem to disprove Friedan’s argument.) Did any other girls accept these fellowships? How many, in what proportion? No matter how vivid it may be, the example of a woman who is convinced that she must stay home and raise her children in order to be truly feminine does not prove a systematic, national conspiracy to send women home; this must be demonstrated by a much wider sampling of American women.

5. Incorrect sampling: Whenever a historian cites a number of particulars and then draws a conclusion from them, you should look to see whether the conclusion is warranted. How many examples does the historian use? Is this a significant number? Are they “representative”—that is, drawn from the group about which the historian wishes to make a conclusion? (Women’s historians, for example, have pointed out that early feminist scholars tended to sample white women, and then draw conclusions from them about women generally, without using a representative sample of black women as well.) If the sample isn’t representative of the historian’s conclusion, what group does it represent—and should the historian’s conclusion be rephrased to cover this group?

6. Hasty generalizations: Using particulars in history is both necessary and complicated; although historical theories have to be rooted in historical realities, it is often tempting to draw a conclusion too quickly. Consider this argument:

Women were oppressed in ancient Greece.

Women were oppressed in ancient Britain.

Women were oppressed in ancient China.

Therefore, women were oppressed in every ancient civilization.

The conclusion seems likely, but the historian can’t actually state it with confidence unless she has done an exhaustive survey of every ancient civilization. She can actually only conclude from this that women were oppressed in ancient Greece, Britain, and China. This historian has drawn a hasty generalization. She could have avoided the error with a qualification: “Women were oppressed in the ancient cultures for which we possess the most historical evidence.”

7. Failure to define terms: Oppressed is also problematic in the conclusion above. Does it mean “denied the vote but allowed to hold property”? “Allowed to vote and hold property but paid lower wages for doing the same job as men”? “Not allowed access to abortion”? “Kept in holes and fed scraps”? Terms—and abstractions in particular—should always be defined. It is simple to use a concept word (freedom, quality, oppression, virtue) without defining it; but the exact ideas attached to each one of these words changes over time. Aristotle and Augustine mean two very different things when they use the word virtue; Rousseau and Friedan mean very different things when they speak of equality. Glance over your summaries of the historian’s argument. Does the argument lean heavily on abstract terms? If so, does the writer define those terms—telling you, for example, exactly which “human rights” he’s arguing for? “A state of equality,” John Locke writes, carefully, “[is one] wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” This is a political definition, not a social or economic one; equality means something quite different for Mary Wollstonecraft.

8. Backward reasoning: Backward reasoning finds a causal connection where none exists; it takes a description and finds in it a cause. If a historian were, for example, to state, “Every empire that has relied on mercenary armies has disintegrated” (something which may be historically true, although it involves a hasty generalization), he might be able to support this statement with historical evidence. If, however, he then concludes, “Empires disintegrate because they rely on mercenary armies,” he may be ignoring other contributing causes. Even if it could be proved without a doubt that the first statement were true, it would be illogical to conclude that the mercenary armies were the cause of disintegration. It could be equally true that an empire that finds itself disintegrating hires mercenaries in a desperate attempt to beef up its defenses—in which case the mercenaries would be just a symptom, not a cause. Because two facts are simultaneously true does not mean that one arises from the other; it may, but the historian needs a great deal more proof to be even partially sure.

9. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: Looking for causation is always tricky, and historians are particularly prone to the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy—literally “after that, therefore because of it.” This is the fallacy of thinking that because one event comes after another in time, the first event caused the second event. So without supplying more information, the historian cannot write:

Rome recruited its army from mercenaries.

Then Rome fell.

Therefore, the army of mercenaries caused the fall of Rome

The relationship between the mercenaries and the fall could be a coincidence. It might also indicate cause and effect—but the coincidence in time should be a starting place for the historian’s investigation, not a statement of conclusion. Even if the historian can find a number of different cases in which this sequence occurs, he should still continue to investigate the relationship. After all (in a classic statement of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy) night always follows day, but no astronomer would ever claim that day causes night.

10. Identification of a single cause-effect relationship: Predicting causation is tricky, and the post hoc, ergo propter hoc illustrates a wider fallacy: oversimplification. No historian should hang any historical event on a single cause; all historical events have multiple causes. Even if the historian can identity a perfectly good cause of Hitler’s rise to power (Germany’s depressed and desperate state), she should continue to search for contributing causes: Does that depression account for the focusing of German hatred onto their Jewish compatriots? Although it is perfectly acceptable for a historian to spend most of her time investigating one particular cause-and-effect relationship, it is too simplistic for her to conclude that she has discovered the single cause.

11. Failure to highlight both similarities and differences: Whenever a historian draws parallels between events that happen in different cultures, or different times, does he also account for the differences that divide them? It is relatively simple to pick out commonalities between (say) the French Revolution and the American Revolution, but historians must also be careful to treat each as unique, coming from a different cultural background. So: Does the historian properly understand the differences, or does he flatten the variations between times, reading the priorities and problems of the present back into the past?

Can you identify the history’s genre?   Now that you have examined the historian’s questions and answers, the sources he’s used and the use to which he’s put the sources, you should be able to identify the genre, or branch, that he is pursuing. Historians have generally agreed on a three-part division in historical theme: political, intellectual, and social.

Political history is the oldest of the traditional branches of history; it tells the stories of nations and of leaders, of wars and of treaties, of those who control governmental power. Political history focuses on leaders; it encompasses traditional biography (the biographies of the famous and powerful), diplomatic history, international history, and military history. Bede did “political history.” So did David Hume, and so does James M. McPherson.

Intellectual history is rooted in the early part of the twentieth century; in American historical writing, it came into its own in the 1940s and ’50s. Intellectual history focuses on the ideas that may have led to a particular social movement or set of events. Perry Miller’s history of New England is an intellectual history, because it is organized around the changing Puritan idea of the covenant and the effects that this idea had on Puritan life. Intellectual history assumes that people share patterns of thinking, and that those patterns change the way they act. It assumes that the content of the mind can be known and analyzed with some certainty; it puts an Enlightenment-era importance on thinking as the most important part of the human being; it assumes that science, philosophy, politics, economics, and (to some degree) religion begin in the mind and spread outward to affect the rest of the world.

Social history arose in reaction to intellectual and political history, which were seen as elitist and hyper-rational, focusing on leaders to the exclusion of the vast majority of people on earth, and on ideas to the exclusion of religious belief, emotion, class identity, and a hundred other factors. Social historians try to examine those patterns of life which apply to the majority, not the minority. They are more likely to use nontraditional sources, on the grounds that traditional sources reflect the lives and opinions of a tiny, well-educated elite. Social historians are concerned with how “ordinary people” live, and how the patterns of those lives have changed over time. They examine politics, economics, wars, treaties, and great events as they affect individual lives.

There can be significant overlap between these three fields. Influenced by social historians, intellectual historians are more likely than they once were to study popular ideas and their manifestation in popular (not elite) culture, and the study of economic trends can combine the methods of traditional political history with those of social history. However, there is a certain commitment here to a priority of importance: Which has more effect on history, great leaders or “the masses”? In your reading of each history, can you identify its basic genre? Does it fall more securely into the political, intellectual, or social camp? Does it do history from above, or from below?

Does the historian list his or her qualifications?   Now that you’ve identified the bent of the history, spend a few minutes on the historian: What is his bent? First check to see whether he explains his own qualifications. Thucydides, writing in the days before professional historians, explains that he is well suited to write about the Peloponnesian Wars because he fought in them; later historians are more likely to cite some aspect of their training or research. If the historian doesn’t remark on his own qualifications, check the jacket flap or the back of the book for academic training, personal experience, or other titles. Occasionally a historian will explain his theoretical stance in his introduction. Sometimes you may find it interesting to do a Web search on the author’s name. You will often come upon a review of one historian’s work, written by another historian, which will shed light on the purposes of both.

Academic qualifications aren’t necessarily the mark of a good historian. But historians who have been trained within the university are more likely to identify themselves with a particular school of historiography than nonacademic historians (such as Cornelius Ryan). Understanding a historian’s training and background can help you understand more clearly how a historian’s work might fit into the categories above.

The Third Level of Inquiry: Rhetoric-Stage Reading

Once you’ve understood the historian’s methods, you can reflect on the wider implications of her conclusions. What does the historian say, then, about the nature of humans and their ability to act with purpose—to change their lives or control the world around them?

What is the purpose of history?   After you have grasped the basics of a historical argument, you should step back and consider its conclusions against the backdrop of the whole project of history writing: What purpose does this history serve? Does the historian see himself as laying out an objective, true relation of past events—perhaps for the first time? Is the history intended to create a sense of national pride? To impel a group of people to action, or to reform? Is it meant to explain the present-day state of some modern phenomenon by analyzing its roots? Does it stand as a pattern for present-day people, either as an ideal to copy, or as a warning to avoid? Does the historian intend to correct previous exaggerations, or to amplify previous understatements? Can you draw, from the purpose of this particular history, any conclusions about the historian’s understanding about the nature of historical writing generally?

Does this story have forward motion?   Does the history show traces of linear movement toward an end? If so, is the writer telling a story of advancement from a less developed state toward a more developed state? Or of declension, from a high point down into conflict and chaos? What sort of advancement or decline is traced: political, intellectual, or social? Or, conversely, does the story show a lack of forward movement? After you have come to a conclusion, ask again: What does the historian believe about human existence generally? Does it progress forward, or are we treading water? Are we destined to climb, or doomed to slide downward?

What does it mean to be human?   A history always highlights one particular aspect of human beings as central. For John Locke, man cannot be truly human unless he is free; for Mary Wollstonecraft, woman cannot be truly human unless she is educated; for Jacob Burckhardt, men cannot be truly human unless they recognize themselves as individuals first and as members of a community second. In these histories, how are men and women portrayed? Are they essentially workers, patriots, members of families, businessmen, rational animals, children of God? What is their central quality? To what must they aspire in order to be human?

Why do things go wrong?   A historian’s explanations for evil reveal his true understanding of man’s nature. In the history you’ve just read, what causes one set of people to be challenged or persecuted by another? What motivates the oppressors? Why do people live in squalor? What motivation does the historian give to his wrongdoers? Are people inept? Psychologically warped by outside factors? Well meaning, but helpless in the face of natural forces that push them into misdeeds? Are they greedy, in rebellion against God, convinced of their own superiority?

What place does free will have?   Are the people in this story in charge of their own fates? Are they powerful or powerless? If they can affect their own worlds, is this because they are well-to-do, well educated, in positions of power? Or are the poor and uneducated just as capable, in their own way, of shaping their lives? (We call this by the technical term agency.) Are rich and poor alike helpless in the tide of impersonal historical events?

Every historian makes a central assertion, somewhere, about responsibility: about human ability or helplessness in the face of historical challenges. Or he may attempt to take a middle ground. In The Prince, Machiavelli writes, “It is not unknown to me how many have had and still have the opinion that because the things of the world are in a mode governed by fortune and by God, that men in their prudence are unable to correct them. . . . I judge that it could be true that fortune is the arbiter of half our actions, but that she lets the other half, or nearly that, be governed by us.” (Which half is which?)

What relationship does this history have to social problems?   Whether or not historians should be involved in current policy is an ongoing debate between historians. Some feel that historians, with their perspective on the past, should be involved in present-day politics and in the formation of social theory; others are horrified by this “lack of objectivity.” William E. Leuchtenberg points out that historians, aiding the counsel in Brown v. Board of Education, “made it possible for counsel for black pupils to parry the argument that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment did not intend it to empower the national government to desegregate schools”; this “public history” is an important part of the historian’s role. Richard Hofstadter warns, on the other hand, “The activist historian who thinks he is deriving his policy from his history may in fact be deriving his history from his policy, and may be driven to commit the cardinal sin of the historical writer: he may lose his respect for the integrity, the independence, the pastness, of the past.”22

A historian may follow one of three paths in her attitude toward social events. She may show disengagement, a commitment to the past for its own sake, making no efforts to draw parallels between past and present. She may go to the other extreme and follow a policy of advocacy (as Paine, Locke, and Friedan do), writing history in order to bring about a social change. Or she may pursue a middle path of “indirect advocacy,” connecting the past with the present but refraining from making direct recommendations for social change. Can you identify the path that each historian chooses?

What is the end of history?   If the writer is telling a story of historical progress—of ascension toward a higher, more enlightened state of being—what does that “higher state” involve? Are the subjects more aware of themselves, more aware of their community, better able to see themselves as independent actors, more loyal to their country? Or (if this is a story of declension), how is the end different from the beginning? How has the civilization, or group, or subjects declined? How are they worse off at the end?

In other words, what is the goal of the historical story? What does the historian see as the ultimate shape and form of humanity?

How is this history the same as—or different than—the stories of other historians who have come before?   A historian interacts with the facts of history, but also with the ideas of other historians. As you progress through the reading list, compare your answers to the above questions as they apply to each historian. Do you see an overall development in the way history is done?

Is there another possible explanation?   Finally: Given the same facts, would you come to a similar conclusion?

This is an incomplete question, because you don’t have all of the historian’s sources; you don’t know what he might have left out because he found it unimportant, what facts have been eliminated which, in the hands of another historian, might have produced an entirely different interpretation. But exercise your creativity: Do the facts you know allow for another interpretation? Lytton Strachey writes of Queen Victoria that she “fell more and more absolutely under [Prince Albert’s] intellectual dominance” until he became “the actual controller of the forces and the functions of the Crown. . . . Albert had become, in effect, the King of England.” Do the actions of Albert and Victoria (stripped of Strachey’s commentary) admit any other interpretation? As you become more familiar with the process of history, practice doing history yourself.


Your goal in reading through the following list is to understand the ways in which the writing of history has changed over time. So these books are organized by chronological order of composition, not in order of the subjects studied. It doesn’t include all of the “great books” of history—or even a good sampling of them. Such a list would take years to work through (if any agreement could even be reached about what should be on it). The list that follows is compiled for the lay reader, not the professional historian, so it doesn’t focus exclusively on those books which academics would consider most important. Rather, it combines academic histories (such as Roll, Jordan, Roll) with those popular histories (such as The Longest Day) which have had a hand in shaping our pictures of the past. Since philosophy is a field that requires its own peculiar reading skills and background knowledge, the list veers away from the works of Hegel, Herder, and others whose focus was primarily on the philosophy of history, rather than on the writing of history itself. It does include works on politics (Machiavelli’s The Prince, John Locke’s On Civil Government, and so on), since these essays, which describe how a country should be run, influence the ways in which later historians analyze the governments of the past.

When reading the more ancient works on the list, don’t feel obliged to read every single word. The histories of Herodotus and Thucydides are quite long and detailed; you need not master every detail of the wars of the Greeks to understand the basic nature of the conflicts. Later works, constructed as arguments, should be followed from beginning to end; but in histories that offer sets of connected incidents, one or more sets can be dropped without significant loss of understanding. Because it isn’t necessary for the amateur historian to read every word of Augustine, Hume, Gibbon, or Tocqueville, the list suggests several places where you can read abridged editions instead.


The Histories

(441 B.C.)

Best translations: Despite a handful of new translations since 1999, Robin Waterfield’s translation for Oxford University Press (Oxford World’s Classics reprint, 2008) remains my favorite; it successfully balances readability with literalism. Tom Holland’s 2014 translation, published by Viking, is much more contemporary and accessible, but too often buys its appeal by sacrificing the original meaning (although it might be an excellent choice for high school students who will, we hope, revisit the text later in life). Aubrey de Sélincourt’s 1954 translation (rev. ed., Penguin Classics, 2003) is accurate and has aged well, but the Waterfield translation is particularly pleasant to read.

At the beginning of Book II of The Histories, Herodotus solemnly tells the story of two newborn babies who, brought up in silence, both say their first words in Phrygian—thus proving that the Phrygians are the oldest race on earth. “I heard this version of the story from the priests of Hephaestus in Memphis,” Herodotus informs us, “but the Greek version includes . . . many other absurdities.” This attempt to separate truth from fiction demonstrates Herodotus’s wish for accuracy, which earns him the title “father of history.” Using travelers’ tales, priests’ stories, and eyewitness accounts, Herodotus treats the past not romantically, but realistically, evaluating past kings and heroes as actual people rather than legendary heroes.

Herodotus has a broader purpose than previous historians: “I will cover minor and major human settlements equally,” he declares, but his primary aim is to recount the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians, whose King Cyrus first set his sights on the Greek peninsula. But Herodotus promises that he will go beyond a mere description of the war: He will reveal the roots of the whole conflict. Croesus of Lydia, a fabulously rich king who is worried about the increasing power of his Persian neighbor Cyrus, thinks that he might benefit from some additional divine intervention, so he sacrifices to Apollo in order to get the Greek gods into his camp. He then attacks Cyrus, who trounces him and whisks him off to Persia to be burned alive. When Apollo rescues Croesus, Cyrus transfers his wrath to Greece. In his efforts to divide truth from legend, Herodotus doesn’t eliminate divine intervention from the realm of “truth,” and in his evaluation of trustworthy evidence he puts stories told by priests at the top of his list. And his sense of historical difference is undeveloped (three Persians argue, in very Greek terms, about the superiority of democracy, oligarchy, or monarchy as a form of government). But he does make a new distinction: between the use of literary resources such as epics (which have to do with heroism, ambition, and other humanistic qualities) and the use of eyewitness accounts, which reveal facts.

In the rest of his history, Herodotus goes on to describe Cyrus’s rise to power, the subsequent reigns of Cambyses and Darius, and the details of the war which began under Darius. His accounts of the battles of Marathon, after which a messenger runs twenty-six miles with news of the Greek victory and then dies; Thermopylae, where a band of heroic Spartans sacrifice themselves to cover the Greek retreat; Salamis, the war’s decisive naval battle; and Plataea, the final Athenian victory over the Persian foot soldiers, became the central source for all later histories of the Greeks and their wars, and his careful attention to military strategy became the model for centuries of military history.


The Peloponnesian War

(c. 400 B.C.)

Best translations: The best way for the nonspecialist to read Thucydides is probably The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler (Free Press, 1998). The text itself could be more contemporary (it is an updated version of the nineteenth-century, although still elegant, translation by Richard Crawley), but the maps and notes give much-needed context for this name-and-place-heavy history. In terms of translations alone, Steven Lattimore’s 1998 translation for Hackett is more contemporary, and supplies a brief and very clear summary before each section—invaluable for the reader unfamiliar with ancient history. Martin Hammond’s recent translation for Oxford University Press (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009) is equally accessible and provides plenty of explanatory notes.

With the Persian threat suspended, the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta turned on each other, in a series of devastating conflicts known collectively as the Peloponnesian War. The aristocrat Thucydides was an Athenian general until 424 B.C., when he lost an important battle and was exiled. From exile, he began to write the tale of the ongoing conflict; although the war had not yet ended, Thucydides had already heard legends and distortions, and wished to set the record straight. “The absence of romance from my history,” he wrote, sternly, “will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past . . . I shall be content” (I:22). Thucydides sees his work, and the practice of history generally, as a pattern for life, since (as he writes) this exact knowledge of the past can serve as “a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past.”

Thucydides, like Herodotus, begins well before the war in order to trace its genesis, but he is aware of the difficulties involved in writing about the distant past: “Because of the amount of time that has gone by,” he writes, “I have been unable to obtain accurate information about the period that preceded the war. . . . [But] I do not consider those times to have been very important as far as either war or anything else is concerned.” This wholesale dismissal of the early history of the Greek peninsula might cause modern historians to gasp, but Thucydides does not see the Greek civilization as dependent on anything that came before; it is unique and without ancestors.

Unlike Herodotus, who sets down an immense variety of material, Thucydides picks and chooses his stories and shapes his final tale into a deliberate form: He is an Athenian, and even in exile shows a clear partiality to the Athenian cause. In The Peloponnesian War, Athens fights first with Corinth after intervening in a dispute between Corinth and several Corinthian colonies, and then is drawn into conflict with Corinth’s ally, Sparta. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides refuses to attribute any historical events to the intervention of the gods, instead describing long political negotiations between the parties, the complicated web of alliances between Greek city-states, and the shaky condition of Greece since the end of the Persian war. His account shows a slowly declining Athens, weakened by the loss of its great statesman Pericles, by the plague, and by a disastrous defeat in Sicily. Athens recalls its most famous disgraced general, Alcibiades, to try to reverse its decline, and Thucydides infuses this development with a note of hope. But then the history breaks off; Thucydides died without bringing it to an end. Athens (as we know from other accounts) was forced into surrender.


The Republic

(c. 375 B.C.)

Best translations: At least four new translations have appeared in the last fifteen years alone, giving readers plenty of choice. R. E. Allen’s 2006 translation for Yale University Press (paperback, 2008) and C. D. C. Reeve’s 2004 translation (Hackett) are probably tied as the best renderings for nonspecialists, balancing faithfulness to the original text and readability. (Reeve has also reworked a 1974 translation by G. M. A. Grube, so look for the 2004 version instead.) I am personally fond of Robin Waterfield’s translation (Oxford World’s Classic, 2004); it has been criticized by some philosophers as being a little too free with Plato’s original text, but as a (non-philosophizing) historian I find it readable and entirely usable.

Plato’s picture of the ideal civilization served as a template for scores of later historians, who held their own nations up against Plato’s prototype. The Republic uses real, historical figures as mouthpieces for Plato’s own arguments; it begins at a festivity where Socrates and several other noted philosophers are discussing the makeup of human societies, which should (above all) be just. They define justice as a compromise that the State enforces in order to keep the citizens safe, but Socrates, who would prefer justice to be natural rather than constructed, leads them on to describe what a just society would look like. They concoct a country whose rigid class divisions are willingly accepted by the citizens, who know the place to which they are born; in which education is universal (for men, at least); in which citizens act for the good of their country, rather than for their own pleasure (since the latter always leads to boredom and dissatisfaction); and in which the rational practice of eugenics encourages the strong and intelligent to have children, while the sickly are quietly removed from view.

The leader of this country would be a philosopher-king, a man with both power and wisdom, who understands that all we see is only a shadow of the Real; as he governs, he tries to guide his nation into conformity with the Real, rather than listening to the will of the masses. His task is to grasp the Real, and through this to discover justice, which is itself an Ideal. And this conclusion, of course, bears the stamp of Socrates’ authority.

Few present-day historians would dare to copy this method, but Plato’s willingness to put words into Socrates’ mouth demonstrates his own view of history: Historical writing involves the discovery of ideas, not of “historical facts,” which are (after all) mere shadows. If Plato expresses the Ideal (which exists independently of either Plato or Socrates) and does so in a way that Socrates could have used, he is doing accurate history; he is holding to truth. Plato’s use of Socratic dialogue to reveal his conclusions also can be considered “historical”; after all, Socrates contributed to our knowledge of the Real through his invention of the dialogue technique, and in this sense is still taking part in the search for the Ideal.



(A.D. 100–125)

Best translations: There are two simple ways to read Plutarch in English. You can read the entire set of biographical sketches in the 2001 Modern Library Classics edition, Plutarch’s Lives, Vol. 1 and Plutarch’s Lives, Vol. 2. The translation is by the seventeenth-century poet John Dryden, revised in 1864 by the poet-historian Arthur Hugh Clough; it has become an English classic in its own right, but the slightly archaic prose does add an extra level of difficulty to the work. As an alternative, you can read selected lives in a more engaging modern translation by Robin Waterfield, published by Oxford World’s Classics (reissue edition, 2009). This too comes in two volumes: Roman Lives: A Selection of Eight Roman Lives and Greek Lives: A Selection of Nine Greek Lives.

Plutarch is the first biographer in the modern sense; he chronicles the life of men as men, rather than treating them as elements in a larger scheme of historical events. For Plutarch, the lives of great men are the larger scheme. History is formed by the famous, the powerful, and the privileged. Plutarch began a tradition of biographical writing that allowed Thomas Carlyle, hundreds of years later, to remark that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here.”

As he writes, Plutarch links together the public accomplishments and private life of each of his subjects. “The most glorious exploits,” he writes, “do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations.” Furthermore, the public and private are inextricably mixed; private life reveals character, and character determines the course of history. So we are told of Romulus’s great battles, but also of his supreme will to conquer, which made those battles into victories—a quality that led him, in his later years, to insist on being accompanied everywhere by young men who carried leather thongs, so that he could instantly command any bystander to be arrested and bound.

Plutarch tells the stories of Greek and Roman heroes in pairs, with an eye to similar virtues and vices. For Plutarch, history is a moral enterprise, and historical figures are models to be emulated or shunned. So in the pairing of Alcibiades (the Athenian hero) and Coriolanus (who later appears in a Shakespearian tragedy), we learn that Alcibiades was graceful and charming but warped by “ambitions and a desire of superiority,” and that Coriolanus had a “generous and worthy nature,” but due to a lack of early discipline was slave to “a haughty and imperious temper.” Both men had checkered careers because they were prone to being governed by their faults. But Plutarch gives Coriolanus the moral edge, since (bad temper notwithstanding) he was a straightforward and upright man, while Alcibiades was “the least scrupulous . . . of human beings.” Herein lies the lesson: A short fuse is a drawback, but unscrupulous behavior is a fatal flaw. These biographies are fables to guide moral development; as Plutarch himself writes, “The virtues of these great men . . . [serve] me as a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.”


The City of God

(completed 426)

Best translations: Although scholars of religion and political philosophy will want to read the unabridged work (the most standard is the Penguin Classics translation by Henry Bettenson, edited by G. R. Evans, weighing in at 1184 pages), the amateur historian is probably better off with an abridged edition. The easiest to locate is the Image Classics abridgment (1958) of the translation by Demetrius B. Zema and Gerald G. Wash.

Augustine, born in North Africa, is known for his elaboration of the doctrine of original sin, which says that all men inherit the sin of Adam from birth, and remain self-centered unless called by God to worship him. The City of Godargues that the community of self-worshipers (the city of earth) and the kingdom of God-followers (the city of God) live inextricably mixed together on earth. The tensions of history come because the two cities, which have different ends, are forced to live side by side.

Augustine is careful to explain that the city of God is not identical to the Church, since not every Church member truly worships God. Nor is this city simply made up of Christian individuals, since the church itself is the place where God chooses to work on earth. In the same way, the city of man is not simply made up of people who don’t follow God; nor is it identified as any particular government. Instead, the city of earth is the place where men are driven by their lusts, and the most powerful lust is the lust for power. In the city of earth, Augustine writes, “the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling.” Unlike Plato, Augustine sees no way that an earthly state can be just, since it can only enforce justice through the exercise of power, and since that power is always flawed. “True justice,” Augustine remarks, “has no existence save in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ.”

However, the city of God can coexist with some earthly states more easily than with others. Augustine defines a state, or “commonwealth,” as a group of people bound together by common love for an object. Such a commonwealth will be “a superior people in proportion as it is bound together by higher interests, inferior in proportion as it is bound together by lower.” The city of God is the highest type of commonwealth, since it is bound together by the love of God, but those earthly states that are bound together by a love of peace are much superior to those which are bound together by a lust for power. Members of the city of God, who also wish to live in peace, can cooperate with an earthly state that pursues peace, but will always find themselves in opposition to a state run by a tyrant. “The earthly city,” Augustine concludes, “which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace. . . . The city of God makes use of this peace only because it must, until this mortal condition which necessitates it shall pass away. . . . Thus, as this life is common to both cities, so there is a harmony between them.” So while keeping his eyes firmly focused on the ultimate, unearthly fulfillment of the city of God, Augustine still lays out principles by which an earthly state can be governed.


The Ecclesiastical History of the English People


Best translation: The Oxford World’s Classic translation, done in 1994 by Judith McClure and Roger Collins (republished 2000).

Bede’s history is one of the first to tell the story of a nation—a political entity, as opposed to an ethnic group such as “Greek.” Bede uses the past to build a sense of national identity, which is no mean feat, considering that England began as a patchwork of Danish kingdoms and wasn’t united under one king until two hundred years after Bede’s death. But even though the “English” spoke five languages and had a dozen minor kings, Bede sees them as having one identity: “At the present time,” he writes, “there are five languages in Britain, just as the divine law is written in five books, all devoted to seeking out and setting forth one and the same kind of wisdom.”

Bede borrows from Augustine in seeing the kingdom of England as having spiritual rather than physical borders (perhaps because the physical borders were rather difficult to define in the mid-eighth century). Thus his history is the “Ecclesiastical History” of the English people; it recounts the growth of the City of God in England. Bede begins by describing the earliest inhabitants of Britain and Ireland (the Picts, who originally came from Scythia), continues on through the Roman occupations of Britain, details the ongoing battles between the native Britons and the invading Angles, and finally arrives at the coming of Augustine (of Canterbury, not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo, who wrote The City of God), which is the turning point of his narrative. Augustine establishes the ecclesia anglorum, the distinctively English church, which links together all of the various races of England into a spiritual unity. After this point, English kings get relatively short shrift (Aelfrith, who was “ignorant of the divine religion,” gets one paragraph) and Augustine, the spiritual king of England under the spiritual emperor Pope Gregory, becomes the star (he gets nine long chapters). The Ecclesiastical History continues in this pattern, alternating brief descriptions of kings with lengthy tales of bishops.

Gregory’s advice to Augustine shows a concern to establish a common practice for the faith that now unites the English. “Make a careful selection [of the customs from the various churches],” he orders Augustine, “and sedulously teach the Church of the English, which is still new in the faith, what you have been able to gather from other churches. . . . And when you have collected these as it were into one bundle, see that the minds of the English grow accustomed to it.” This is exactly the story that Bede tells; England is a country full of many different peoples, who are nevertheless united in their knowledge of God. The History concludes with a national celebration of Easter, which symbolizes the “ending point” of the national progression; bickering over the exact date of this festivity has finally been resolved (there is a long and detailed discussion of the process), and by falling in with the rest of Christendom, the English have demonstrated their maturity not only as a nation, but as citizens of the kingdom of Christ.


The Prince


Best translations: Both Harvey C. Mansfield’s translation (2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, 1998) and Peter Bondanella’s more recent translation for Oxford World’s Classics (2008) are readable, fair to the original, and contain useful explanatory footnotes.

In the political chaos of Renaissance Italy, with the city-states of Venice, Milan, Naples, and Florence struggling to advance their own interests, Niccolò Machiavelli offers his own primer on political technique. He is not writing a history, but his method is historical. Each technique is supported by historical proof, a demonstration from times past that shows his conclusions to be true.

Machiavelli begins by surveying the different kinds of territories, states, and kingdoms that a prince might rule. Although his musings on the different kinds of Renaissance states (principates, hereditary or acquired; mixed principates; kingdoms; and so on) may seem irrelevant, he is using these highly particular forms of government to make general statements about the nature of massed men. In Chapter III, for example, “Of Mixed Principates,” he progresses from a description of the mixed principate to an all-important statement of political philosophy: “Men willingly change masters when they believe they will better themselves.” Far from feeling loyalty, subjects are glad to change their governor, as long as they believe that a new and better order will follow.

After explaining the character of the governed, Machiavelli goes on to describe the qualities of a governor, giving historical examples for each quality he recommends, in a return to the biography-as-fable approach of Plutarch: “A prudent man ought always enter into the ways beaten by great men,” he writes, “and imitate those who have been most excellent, so that, if your virtue does not reach up to there, at least it gives some odor of it.” Machiavelli’s historical references go all the way back to Moses: “It was necessary for Moses to find the people of Israel . . . enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians, so that they, in order to escape their servitude, would be disposed to follow him.” This becomes the first of his principles: The efficient ruler will always appeal to the wretchedness of his people in order to improve his moral authority over them.

For Machiavelli, “good” means “effective,” which has led to his reputation as a conniver free of morality. But he does have a morality. The “good,” in Machiavelli’s scheme, is that the country would prosper. (He ends The Prince with a plea to Lorenzo de’ Medici to come and rescue his ailing city.) And since the prosperity of the country benefits the individual members of it, actions taken by the prince that might seem “wicked” actually become “good” if they benefit the state and its people. As a matter of fact, Machiavelli sees sustained wickedness as a bad option both for prince and for country. A single cruel action, he notes, may be necessary “at one stroke for the necessity of securing oneself,” but continual cruelty means that the prince must always rule “knife in hand; nor can he ever rely on his subjects.” In The Prince, politics are based, not on the “ideal” but on the “real”—and remaining in power is the greatest reality of all.




Best editions: Available from several publishers, including Penguin Classics (ed. Paul Turner, 2003), Dover Thrift Editions (1997), and Norton Critical Editions (3rd ed., 2010; read the introduction, which includes brief historical background, but save the critical essays for afterward).

Plato describes an ideal society, Machiavelli the society that actually exists; Thomas More writes instead an “imaginary history,” proposing a society which might work. He puts himself into this history, telling the story of a character named Thomas More, who after Mass one day meets the traveler Raphael Hythloday (the name is invented from a combination of Greek words and means something like “talented teller of nonsense”). Hythloday describes his travels in a distant land called Utopia (or “Noplace”). Like a novelist, More uses the old form of the travelogue satirically, following Hythloday through this imaginary land, which embodies an eclectic collection of classical and New Testament principles. Utopia has fifty-four identical cities, all the same, exactly twenty-four miles apart. All citizens have the same living conditions. Everyone takes turns doing the farm work, with all land held in common. Value is based on usefulness, not scarcity (so that gold is worth nothing). Everyone believes in a Divine Power of some kind, but no one religious sect is allowed to proselytize, since “if one religion is really true and the rest are false, the true one will sooner or later prevail by its own natural strength, if men will only consider the matter reasonably and moderately.” This “moderation” is at the center of More’s Utopia, which is based on the ability (and willingness) of all men to exercise both reason and selflessness, doing the right thing by choice. More, like Augustine, seems to be skeptical about the possibility of a Christian state (which would need threats and violence to enforce faith), but he describes a state where an unspoken Christian ethic undergirds every law: “No man,” More writes, “should conceive so vile . . . an opinion of the dignity of man’s nature as to think . . . that the world runneth at all adventures governed by no divine providence. And therefore they believe that after this life vices be extremely punished and virtues bountifully rewarded.” Without this shared religious context, Utopia—like Bede’s England—would have no coherence.


The True End of Civil Government


Best editions: Available as a public domain ebook, as well as from Cambridge University Press as the second part of Locke: Two Treatises of Government, third edition (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, 1988). It can also be found in Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Ian Shapiro (Yale University Press, 2003), and in the Dover Thrift Edition, The Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (2002).

John Locke lived during a time of growing hostility toward monarchies, but nevertheless found himself defending a pair of monarchs. Decades before, Parliament and the English had executed the Stuart king in favor of Oliver Cromwell’s English republic, but eventually tired of Cromwell’s draconian measures and brought the Stuarts back to England. Unfortunately, the Stuart male heirs proved so incompetent that, in 1688, the English put a Stuart daughter on the throne instead: Mary, who, with her Dutch husband William, was allowed to be queen only on condition that she cooperate with Parliament. This “Glorious Revolution” (glorious because bloodless) established a contractual monarchy, in which power began to shift away from the monarch toward Parliament, which was (theoretically) representative of the people.

Locke writes in support of this revolution. Political authority, Locke argues, should only be exercised to protect property. When man is in a “state of nature,” he must protect his own property, which forces him into a constant state of war; instead, men can join together into a “commonwealth” and form a government, to which they delegate the job of preserving each man’s right to his own property.

This contract between men and their government does require that men “give up . . . liberty of a kind,” but Locke sees this as necessitated by the greed of men: “For if men could live peaceably and quietly together, without uniting under certain laws and growing into a commonwealth, there would be no need at all of magistrates or politics, which were only made to preserve men in this world from the fraud and violence of one another.” Furthermore, it is a very limited surrender, since government should only concern itself with property issues; it is “a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects.”

Yet Locke has little faith that government will limit itself to such a narrow field. So he suggests that government have three branches: a legislative group that makes laws protecting property, an “executive” branch to oversee their enforcement (“It may be too great a temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power, for the same persons who have the power of making laws to have also in their hands the power to execute them”), and finally a third branch, called the “federative,” to deal with foreign powers. But if this separation of powers doesn’t keep a government from overstepping its limited responsibilities, the government can be dissolved. The commonwealth gave it power, and the commonwealth can take that power away, instead “erecting a new legislative . . . as they shall find it most for their safety and good.” Locke’s essay ends without answering at least one vexing question: Since this common authority is appointed by those who have property, and since the government is responsible to those who appoint it, what of those who have no property?


The History of England, Volume V


Best editions: Hume can be read online at Project Gutenberg. His entire six-volume history was republished by the Liberty Fund in the mid-1980s; it was numbered chronologically, so that Volume I details Roman Britain to the death of King John in 1216; Volume II deals with the early monarchy until 1485; Volumes III and IV cover the Tudors; and Volumes V and VI chronicle the Stuart kings—the most recent royal house). But Hume actually wrote his accounts of the Stuart kings first. Volumes V and VI were the first written and were published in 1754 and 1757 respectively; Hume then continued backward with his work. You need only read Volume V of the Liberty Fund edition (David Hume’s History of England, Volume 5: 1603–1649) in order to understand Hume’s methods and aims, but you can continue on with the whole series if the urge strikes you23

David Hume set out to write a history of England that would, in good Enlightenment fashion, demonstrate a bias-free exercise of reason. Like Locke and many others, he preferred to see Parliamentary limits on royal power. But he rejected the arguments of contemporary historians, who insisted that the English had always been free, and that tyrannical monarchs had seized rights historically belonging to the people. A scientific analysis of the past, Hume insisted, would show that English kings generally acted without consulting Parliament or any other body of advisors, and (in fact) were strongest when they did so. When Parliament demanded accountability from the monarch, it set a historical precedent.

So Hume began his history of England with the Stuart kings; it was at this point, he wrote, that the increasing aggression of the House of Commons forced the monarchs to react. In his view, flaws in Parliament did just as much to produce unrest in England as any defect on the part of the Stuart kings: “The meetings of Parliament were so precarious,” he writes, “their sessions so short compared to the vacations, that, when men’s eyes were turned upwards in search of sovereign power, the prince alone was apt to strike them as the only permanent magistrate invested with the whole majesty and authority of the state. . . . By a great many, therefore, monarchy, simple and unmixed, was conceived to be the government of England; and those popular assemblies were supposed to form only the ornament of the fabric, without being in any degree essential to its being and existence.” Hume was immediately accused of “Tory prejudice,” of supporting the right of the monarchy to do as it pleased. But in fact Hume, skeptic as he was, rejected any royal pretensions to divine privilege. On the other hand, he had a low opinion of the masses, and thought that whatever government could best keep the country peaceful and prosperous should be in power, never mind philosophical arguments for or against it (the “utilitarian” point of view).

Hume did not pursue scientific research methods or sort his sources carefully, so the Histories are full of minor (and sometimes major) errors of fact. His history is “enlightened,” not because of his method, but because of his aims: He did not intend to prove any particular point of view, but rather to take whatever story the past told and relay it to a large audience. “The first Quality of a Historian is to be true and impartial,” he wrote in a letter to a friend; “the next is to be interesting.”


The Social Contract


Best translation: Maurice Cranston, for Penguin Classics (1968).

Locke and Rousseau both see government as a contract—but Rousseau, unlike Locke, believes that men come to this contract with innate goodness. For Rousseau, man in his natural state has a moral sense (he is a “noble savage,” uncivilized but naturally ethical). However, although man may be naturally good, his social structures are bad, particularly those that encourage property ownership. Ownership is society’s original sin: everything began to go downhill the first time a man said, “This is mine.” But salvation is possible through the social contract.

This social contract is an association that men enter into by mutual agreement. Rousseau’s model for this is the family; he argues that fathers and children (mothers seem to have dropped out of the picture) both give up a certain amount of liberty “for their own advantage”: The children get protection, the father gets love. In the same way, the “state” is an association in which the members get protection, and the state gets (rather than love) the enjoyment of ruling. In this association, freedom is preserved because all of the members give up the same rights to join: “Since each gives himself up entirely, the condition is equal for all. . . . [N]o one has any interest in making it burdensome to others.” Every member has power over every other member, which is the essence of the social contract: “Each of us puts in common his person and his whole power under the supreme direction of the general will. . . . [T]his act of association produces a moral and collective body . . . called by its members State when it is passive, Sovereign when it is active.”

Rousseau goes on to define laws as the will of the whole people, drafted by the legislature and imposed by the general will of the people. He does see a possible flaw, though: “Of themselves, the people always desire what is good,” but unfortunately they “do not always discern it.” Therefore, the people need a Legislator—a “great man” who is able to see clearly what the people need even if they don’t see it themselves. But this great man is not a dictator, because, although he writes the constitution of a state, he has no role in enforcing it. Rather, the people will enforce the laws—presumably, because they recognize in it that “good” which they desired but were unable to articulate on their own. Rousseau’s efforts to explain how this will work in real life lead him into multiple contradictions. However, in The Social Contract he is himself taking on the role of the Legislator; he is the “great man” who can discern what the masses cannot, and he can comfortably leave its execution in other hands.


Common Sense


Best editions: This brief essay can be purchased by itself from Penguin Classics (ed. Isaac Kramnick, 1982) and Dover Thrift Editions (1997). The Library of America edition (1995), edited by Eric Foner, also includes a number of Paine’s other essays, such as “Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason.”

Continuing the trend of the age away from an active and powerful state, Thomas Paine remarked that the best government was the one that governed the least (a principle which became known as laissez-faire). Writing at the time of the American Revolution, Paine was less political philosopher than propagandist, determined to convince the colonists (and Pennsylvanians in particular) that monarchy was dead.

Paine starts out by drawing a distinction between government and society. Society, he writes, “is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness. . . . The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” Society is what people join together to do; government is made necessary in society because of “the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.” For Rousseau, society and the state were the same. For Paine, the “state” is society’s unwelcome guest, the policeman who has to stay in the guest room to protect “life, liberty, and property,” even though none of the family really wants him there.

This “policeman” government should not be a monarchy. To prove this, Paine sketches out a history of the world in which idyllic equality once ruled. In “the early ages of the world,” he writes, “according to the scripture chronology, there were no kings; the consequence of which was there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion.” Paine holds this vague early time of equality as his ideal (referring to the quiet rural lives of the patriarchs, and ignoring the violent details of Genesis). In order to reinstitute this pastoral innocence in the present, delegates from each colony should attend a yearly assembly where they would cast lots to find out who would be president for a year. This president is simply a chairman for the assembly, which will pass only those laws approved by at least three-fifths of the assembly. This will restrain vice, since, all together, the delegates will serve to check each other’s ambition. Paine fears that, if any one man gains power for too long (four years being an unthinkable period), he will inevitably become a tyrant—like the English monarch, who is now too busy protecting his own power to protect the life, liberty, or property of the American colonies. Only God is free from this impulse to tyrannize: “But where says some is the King of America? I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain.”


The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


Best editions: Penguin and Everyman’s Library both publish the unabridged six-volume version of Gibbon’s massive history. Reading all of Gibbon is a long-term project: Horatio Hornblower, C. S. Forester’s fictional naval captain, survived three-year voyages with the History as his only reading material. A one-volume abridged edition is probably best for most readers. Penguin’s abridged version (2001) is edited by David Womersley; the Modern Library abridgment (2003) is edited by Hans-Friedrich Mueller (introduction by Daniel J. Boorstin)24

Gibbon’s great achievement was to write a history that attempted, in good Enlightenment style, to analyze all of the possible causes of his immensely large and complex effect, the decline and fall of Rome. He also returned to the original Latin sources, although not the original documents themselves. The scientific analysis of primary sources suggested by those who professionalized history would come after his death.

Gibbon’s interest in Rome reflected his interest in the present; Rome, a noble experiment in just government, failed despite its centuries of success. Lying behind the efforts to understand Rome’s fall is a subtext: Perhaps, next time, a civilization can achieve Rome’s greatness without its fall. “In the second century of the Christian era,” Gibbon’s history begins, “the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. . . . The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence; the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government.” Yet this separation of powers did not preserve the empire. Why?

In the Decline and Fall, Gibbon excels at uncovering all of the factors that led to the decline: the state of its economy, the effect of various technologies, geography, class warfare, the rise of new cultural and religious ideas, flawed forms of government, and more. He is not quite so successful in recapturing the mindset of ancient peoples; indeed, he leans heavily on blanket characterizations of large groups of people. In his chapter on the formation of the Christian church, for example, he writes, “While [Christians] inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. . . . But the human character, however it may be exalted or depressed by a temporary enthusiasm, will return by degrees to its proper and natural level. . . . The primitive Christians were dead to the business and pleasures of the world; but their love of action, which could never be entirely extinguished, soon revived, and found a new occupation in the government of the church. . . . The catholic church soon assumed the form, and acquired the strength, of a great federative republic.” Here Gibbon footnotes various church fathers, including Tertullian and Origen, and adds a number of facts about the accomplishments of church councils. But his interpretation rests on his assumption that he can categorize a large group of ancient people as essentially the same as contemporary people; he does not, in other words, manage to put himself back into the minds of the ancients.


A Vindication of the Rights of Woman


Best editions: This public-domain text can be read online at a number of sites. Paperback editions are also published by Dover Thrift Editions (1996), Longman Cultural Editions (2006, includes lots of commentary along with contemporary responses), and Oxford University Press (2009, includes Wollstonecraft’s additional essay “A Vindication of the Rights of Men”).

As a young woman, Wollstonecraft tried to establish her financial independence by working first as a companion, then as a school administrator, a governess, and finally a professional writer. She published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, the same year that Thomas Paine published The Rights of Man. Locke, Paine, and Rousseau had claimed that men should rule themselves; Wollstonecraft asserts that women should do the same. But Wollstonecraft has a low opinion of women’s ability to do so, not because their minds are inferior, but because they have never been trained. Instead of being taught to use their reason, they have been taught an “artificial weakness,” which “gives birth to cunning” and “those contemptible infantine airs that undermine esteem even whilst they excite desire.” Wollstonecraft argues that three qualities—reason, virtue, and knowledge—make us capable of happiness and allow society to function. But women are not allowed to train their reason, because they are denied education. They are taught to be deceptive, not virtuous: “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man.” And they are encouraged to exalt feelings rather than knowledge: “Their senses are inflamed, and their understandings neglected, consequently they become the prey of their senses . . . and are blown about by every momentary gust of feeling. . . . [T]heir conduct is unstable, and their opinions are wavering.” These are harsh words, but Wollstonecraft blames an educational system that teaches “one half of the human race” to live in “listless inactivity and stupid acquiescence.” Society, she argues, trains women only to be wives. A real education, which would train women to think and be strong, would transform society itself: Without so much practice in tyrannizing women, men would no longer turn so quickly to tyranny.

Wollstonecraft directs her screed at middle-class women and at men. In her introduction, she explains that the aristocratic woman is so dissipated by great wealth that she cannot be redeemed by education. (She doesn’t explain why poor women are excluded.) Men are included in her audience because she must convince those who are responsible for legislation to carry out her reforms. And, in any case, Wollstonecraft was perfectly aware that she was writing primarily for men: Paradoxically, her essay would have been too difficult for most women, who had not been taught to follow a logical argument—or in many cases, to read at all.


Democracy in America


Best translations: Democracy in America was published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840. The 2000 translation by Harvey Mansfield and Delbe Ainthrop (University of Chicago Press, paperback 2002) is the most readable; Arthur Goldhammer’s 2004 translation for the Library of America (2004) is slightly more demanding but also more literal. An excellent one-volume abridgment (you don’t have to read the entire massive work), translated by Stephen Grant and abridged by Sanford Kessler, is published by Hackett (2000).

The French politician Alexis de Tocqueville had aristocratic blood but liberal inclinations; believing that modern governments (including his own) were inevitably evolving toward democracy, he traveled through America to examine how democracy looked in practice. There, he found a vexing contradiction: The citizens of this great democracy often displayed a “peculiar melancholy . . . in the bosom of abundance” and a “disgust with life . . . in the midst of an easy and tranquil existence. . . . I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that there is in the world; it seemed to me as if a kind of cloud habitually covered every visage, and I thought them grave and almost sad, even in their pleasures.”

Tocqueville attributes this ennui to the very freedom and equality at the center of democratic practice. Freedom allows citizens to indulge in “the single-minded pursuit of the goods of this world”; equality fills them with “a kind of ceaseless trepidation” because each citizen is competing with every other citizen, and “has but a limited time at his disposal to find, to lay hold of, and to enjoy” those material benefits. In this, Tocqueville is echoing Plato’s cautions in The Republic: Plato warned that the man who is devoted to the pursuit of pleasure, rather than virtue (which includes acting on behalf of the state rather than on behalf of self) will find himself searching, unceasingly, for new amusements. The very freedom on which democracies depend—the freedom of citizens to participate in their government—ironically tends to produce a preoccupation with pleasure, rather than with civic duty: in America, Tocqueville remarks, it is quite difficult to convince citizens to take part in their own assemblies. Constantly drawn by the pursuit of goods, feeling the pressure of others all around pursuing the same goods, the weary citizen of the democratic society has little energy left for participation in government.

Tocqueville sees in action the principles that Locke and Rousseau proposed in the abstract; he sees the flaws in Locke’s focus on property (materialism makes citizens uninterested in the general welfare) and Rousseau’s proposal of complete equality (it produces competition and can lead to a tyranny of the majority). Materialism and undifferentiated equality are the two thorny problems of a democracy: “Men who live in democratic times have many passions,” he writes, “but most of their passions end in love of wealth or issue from it. . . . When fellow citizens are all independent and indifferent, it is only by paying them that one can obtain the cooperation of each; this infinitely multiplies the use of wealth and increases the value of it. . . . ordinarily, therefore, one finds love of wealth, as principal or accessory, at the bottom of the actions of Americans; this gives all their passions a family resemblance, and is not slow to make of them a tiresome picture.”


The Communist Manifesto


Best edition: Since 1910, most English editions of The Communist Manifesto have used the translation made by Samuel Moore, in consultation with Friedrich Engels. This version has been published by Penguin Classics (2002), Dover Thrift Editions (2003), Verso (with an introduction by Eric Hobsbawm, 2012), and Norton Critical Editions (with commentary, 2012).

The Communist Manifesto was first published in 1848, when Karl Marx was twenty-nine and Friedrich Engels was twenty-seven. In the composition of this manifesto, the two moved from socialism (which implied a utopian and ultimately peaceful commitment to shared property) to communism (which had a more aggressive ring to it, suggesting that a revolt would bring this sharing into existence).

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that history must be studied in terms of material goods: In order to understand how people live, you must first understand how they earn their livelihood. Their own examination of history through this lens reveals that one class of people, which they label the bourgeoisie, now controls the means to produce goods on a large scale. This control of the “means of production,” which requires the investment of capital, has “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations . . . and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ . . . It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourer . . . [and] has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” In short, our modern economic system has “alienated” men and women from their work; rather than treating their work as a way of life, they labor only for the cash payment at the end.

This has come about because the bourgeoisie, needing “a constantly expanding market for its products” continually revolutionizes the “modes of production” (the way goods are produced) so that products can be made faster and in greater quantities. In response, a working class has developed—the proletariat, who “live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity . . . exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition.” Because the workman is a commodity, he can attract only that sum of money that he needs for his maintenance. Wages go down, skill is no longer essential because the factory system divides tasks into meaningless parts, and “the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and rentiers, the handicraftsmen and peasants . . . sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on . . . partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production.” It’s difficult to argue with this description, in a world where every family restaurant cowers before the Golden Arches. But the prescription that follows—remove the capital from the hands of the bourgeoisie and put it into the hands of the state, which is the proletariat “organized as a ruling class”—ignores the corrupting effects of power so feared by Locke and Paine.


The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy


Best translation: The Penguin Classics translation by S. G. C. Middlemore, with introduction by Peter Burke (1990). Part II, “The Development of the Individual,” is most central to Burckhardt’s argument.

It is to Jacob Burckhardt that we owe the popular conception of the Renaissance as the time when man began to be modern. Burckhardt writes, “In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air: an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things in this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis: man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.”25

Burckhardt’s chronicle of the Renaissance turns on this analysis of these years as the “first modern” age. Frederick II, for example, is described as “the first ruler of the modern time . . . early accustomed . . . to a thoroughly objective treatment of affairs.” War itself became a “purely rational” activity. Italy began to “swarm with individuality.” This “perfecting of the individual” led, in Burckhardt’s analysis, to the modern idea of fame; the modern forms of wit and satire; the form of the modern university; modern humanism; and a dozen other traits recognizable as belonging to modern life. For Burckhardt, the Italian city-states of the Renaissance stand as the first modern, republican governments based on classical ideals; Italy’s use of the ancient city-state model, “strengthened in turn the republican ideal and contributed mightily to its triumph later in modern nations and primarily in our own.” And although various scholars have questioned this pivotal role of the Italian Renaissance (Burckhardt tends to flatten the difference between Renaissance times and his own), this interpretation became a standard and is still widely held.


The Souls of Black Folk


Best editions: Available from Dover Thrift Editions (1994) and Oxford World’s Classics (2007), as well as in a collection with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Up From Slavery (Dover, 2007).

Du Bois, a Harvard-trained sociologist who taught at Atlanta University, begins his book by stating that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”—an observation that shapes the work of almost all later writers of African American history. Du Bois’s work is a combination of history, autobiography, and cultural study, ranging from the history of African American education, the failings of Reconstruction, the meaning of African American “sorrow songs,” to the place of Booker T. Washington as an African American leader. Du Bois’s sharp disagreements with Washington’s accommodationist policies (Washington believes that “the Negro’s future rise depends primarily on his own efforts”) highlight Du Bois’s own analysis of American society as fatally flawed for its black citizens.

Central in all of his writings is Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness,” which he explains through the metaphor of “the Veil.” Black Americans, he argues, see themselves with double vision: with their own self-vision, but also through the eyes of hostile whites. “It is a peculiar sensation,” he writes, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes . . . of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings. . . . The history of the American Negros is the history of this strife. . . . [The Negro] simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.” Like the black autobiographers of the last chapter, Du Bois has single vision until a childhood moment when a girl at his school refuses to take his visiting card: “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others,” he writes, “shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

Existence within this veil gives the Negro one advantage, though. Comparing it to the “caul” which marks a newborn baby as having second sight, Du Bois says that this removal from the mainstream of American society gives the Negro truer sight, a perspective that reveals its flaws. The veil is more hindrance than benefit, though; so much so that when Du Bois’s baby son dies, he writes that his grief is mixed with relief: “The Veil, though it shadowed him, had not yet darkened half his sun. . . . Fool that I was to think or wish that this little soul should grow choked and deformed within the Veil.” Perhaps finally despairing of seeing the Veil lifted, Du Bois—an admirer of Marx—ended his life in Ghana, after becoming an active member of the Communist party.


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism


Best translations: Stephen Kalberg’s translation, published by Oxford University Press, rev. ed. (2010); another good translation is found in the collection The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Other Writings, translated and edited by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells, Penguin 20th Century Classics (2002).

Weber’s argument—that the Calvinist Protestantism of America’s Puritan settlers was a foundation for capitalism—rests on a theological syllogism. In Calvinism, the saved are not brought into the kingdom of God by their own efforts, since all men by nature are helpless to do anything good (or even turn to God on their own). Instead, some are “elect,” chosen by God out of his good favor and grace. Because this choice of salvation (or damnation) belongs to God’s secret councils, no man can presume to know who is elect and who isn’t. But since man without God is capable of nothing good, those who do plenty of good works and display God’s blessing on their lives prove to others—and to themselves—that they belong to the elect. This, Weber says, produces a strong psychological drive to work, work, work, as a way of self-assurance (after all, no one wants to be damned).

Weber appends to this the theological concept of the “calling,” which he sees as unique to Protestantism: The highest kind of life was not renunciation of the world and withdrawal to a monastery, but rather excellence and achievement within the world, in whatever place God has “called” you to. For the Calvinist, Weber writes, the “elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability. . . . The span of human life is infinitely short and precious to make sure of one’s own election. Loss of time through sociability, idle talk, luxury, even more sleep than is necessary for health . . . is worthy of absolute moral condemnation. . . . Thus inactive contemplation is also valueless, or even directly reprehensible if it is at the expense of one’s daily work. For it is less pleasing to God than the active performance of His will in a calling.”

This valuing of every moment of time helped to support Western “rationalization”: a commitment to the most efficient methods of accomplishing every task in politics, economics, and daily life. Rational activity wastes no time. And the most certain way to advance in a Western capitalistic society is to adopt rational methods—to become more efficient. Advancing becomes not only economically necessary but philosophically essential, since the acquisition of goods becomes a mark of God’s favor. Leisurely work, or remaining in the same stratum of society to which you were born, becomes a mark of failure—and possibly of damnation. “The religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling,” Weber concludes, “as the highest means of asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of . . . the spirit of capitalism.”


Queen Victoria


Best edition: Mariner Books (2002).

In Queen Victoria, Strachey portrays a middle-class housewife who happens to sit on a throne. “Discretion is not the better part of biography,” Strachey once said, but his portrait of Victoria is adulatory. Despite a hot temper, the child Victoria was “very truthful; whatever punishment might follow, she never told a lie,” and her governess Fräulein Lehzen made sure that she was taught “the virtues of simplicity, regularity, propriety, and devotion. The little girl, however, was really in small need of such lessons, for she was naturally simple and orderly, she was pious without difficulty, and her sense of propriety was keen.” As queen, Victoria was devoted to “unremitting industry” and with the help of her consort, Prince Albert (who showed “indefatigable perseverance” in opening museums, founding hospitals, collecting art, and making speeches to the Royal Agricultural Society) toiled unceasingly for her country. She grew to be “very short, rather stout, quite plain,” and dressed “in garish middle-class garments.” To the end of her life, Strachey writes, she was accessible to her people, who “felt instinctively Victoria’s irresistible sincerity . . . vitality, conscientiousness, pride, and simplicity.” These middle-class virtues, not brilliance or political acumen (or any of the virtues ascribed to Renaissance rulers), made Victoria a good queen; she was an ordinary person, not a monarch claiming divine power and authority.

Furthermore, Victoria—even though a queen—shows herself to be such a perfect Victorian woman: adoring wife, mother of a large brood (nine children), occasionally irrational and never intellectual. As a girl, Strachey’s Victoria does make an effort to break from this mold; she announces that she will never marry, and her expression moves from “ingenuous and serene” to “bold and discontented.” Fortunately, though, she falls in love with her cousin Albert, marries him, and becomes truly feminine. She is happiest when she is living a quiet domestic life at her country house, Balmoral; Albert, the more intelligent of the two, arranges her papers and duties for her, while “Victoria, treasuring [his] every word, preserving every letter” is “all breathless attention and eager obedience.” She is a woman, and Strachey loves her because she doesn’t commit the impertinence of being a prince.


The Road to Wigan Pier


Best edition: Mariner Books (1972).

Orwell’s project began as a documentary report; he was asked by the board of editors of the Left Book Club (devoted, according to its own literature, to “the terribly urgent struggle for World Peace & a better social & economic order & against Facism”) to write about the daily lives of the unemployed in the north of England. Orwell traveled north and documented the lives of both the unemployed and the working poor. His descriptions of daily life are unstintingly realistic, detailing both the squalor of the working poor (“Sink in living room. Plaster cracking and coming off walls. No shelves in oven. Gas leaking slightly. . . . Bugs, but ‘I keeps ’em down with sheep dip’”) and the psychology of poverty (“The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes. . . . Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread? . . . Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. . . . When you are . . . underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’”).

So what is to be done about this poverty? In Orwell’s view, English socialism hasn’t managed to bring reform because it is divided from within. English socialists are alienated from the proletariat, which they theoretically support, by a gap of culture and manners. When a white-collar Englishman becomes a socialist, Orwell writes, he remains “vastly more at home with a member of his own class, who thinks him a dangerous Bolshi, than with a member of the working class who supposedly agrees with him; his tastes in food, wine, clothes, books, pictures, music, ballet, are still recognisably bourgeois tastes. . . . He idealises the proletariat, but . . . he is still responding to the training of his childhood, when he was taught to hate, fear, and despise the working classes.” Furthermore, Orwell adds, those white-collar workers who do belong to the proletariat don’t recognize it; they think of themselves as middle-class. He asks, “How many of the wretched shivering army of clerks and shopwalkers, who in some ways are actually worse off than a miner or a dock-hand, think of themselves as proletarians? A proletarian—so they have been taught to think—means a man without a collar. So that when you try to move them by talking about ‘class war,’ you only succeed in scaring them; they forget their incomes and remember their accents, and fly to the defense of the class that is exploiting them.” English socialists, Orwell concludes, must learn how to explain the exact ways in which English workers are exploited, rather than simply borrowing rhetoric from the communists: “[T]he essential point here is that all people with small, insecure incomes are in the same boat and ought to be fighting on the same side.”


The New England Mind


Best edition: The reprint edition breaks this work into two volumes, both published by Belknap Press (1983): Volume I, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, and Volume II, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. You can choose to read only the first volume if you prefer, although both are fascinating.

Like Max Weber, Perry Miller writes about the intersection of Puritan theology with the new American project. Unlike Weber, Miller is not particularly concerned with economics; he is an “intellectual historian,” meaning that he focuses on ideas and how they change actions. For Miller, the central idea in Puritan New England is the covenant between God and man. Since God chooses to “elect” only on the basis of his sovereign will, his grace is unpredictable. Puritan piety was thus full of doubt over whether or not believers have truly been selected, despair over sin, and anguish over God’s inscrutability—which the Puritans managed to contain by constructing a logical and entirely reasonable set of doctrines. In the doctrine of the covenant, men can be sure of salvation because God has entered into an unbreakable agreement with them.

This covenant between God and man became the model for Puritan society generally; as Miller writes, covenant theology “was of tremendous value to the leaders of Massachusetts, not only in the realm of faith and personal conduct, but just as much in the realm of politics and society.” Miller describes how Puritans entered into church membership by publicly testifying about their experience of grace. This membership was itself a covenant entered into by a sacred oath, and this covenant granted full citizenship in the civil community to each member who entered it. The children of church members were admitted provisionally; as they came of age, they too had to enter the covenant through testifying about their experience of grace. But although the first generations of Puritans were scrupulous in pursuing membership, fewer and fewer children applied for full membership. Concerned at this decline—which affected both community and church—the Puritan leaders instituted the Halfway Covenant, which allowed provisional members to be baptized into church membership and to be full citizens—although not to take part in the central sacrament of the church, the Lord’s Supper.

In Miller’s history, this Halfway Covenant and the developments that followed it (a later Puritan divine even opened the Lord’s Supper to those who had not made a profession) indicate a decline in piety—a secularization, a diminishing of the concern with God’s approval. The Puritan “city on a hill,” the place where God’s kingdom on earth had finally found a place to settle, began to crumble from within; doctrinal agreement (“the first three generations in New England paid almost unbroken allegiance to a uniform body of thought”) gave way to disagreement and fracture. “Compared with the founding generation,” Miller writes, “there had been a notable falling off and lessening of zeal.” Although recent scholars of Puritanism have taken issue with this fairly simple pious-to-indifferent story of declension, Miller has remained the single most influential Puritan historian of the twentieth century.


The Great Crash 1929


Best edition: The Mariner Books reprint edition (2009).

Galbraith wrote his history in 1954 and revised it twice afterward; the later editions reflect on developments in the 1970s and afterward that seem to echo those of the 1920s. In his preface, Galbraith writes that, although the story of the Great Crash is worth telling “for its own sake,” he also has a “more somber purpose. As a protection against financial illusion or insanity, memory is far better than law.” Galbraith’s purpose is a moral one, then, or at least a social one: He aims to preserve culture through creating a common agreement among its members, rather than legislating from the top down. “For protecting people from the cupidity of others and their own,” he concludes, “history is highly utilitarian. It sustains memory and memory serves the same purpose as the SEC and, on the record, is far more effective.”

Galbraith’s lively history of the Great Crash centers around the year before the crash, when interest in the stock market swelled and then crested. Although he pays a certain attention to purely economic factors, his main interest lies in the characters who acted in the drama; the crash is rooted in their motivations. In 1928, Galbraith writes, the American people were “displaying an inordinate desire to get rich quickly with a minimum of physical effort.” To do so, they bought shares in companies that had been formed for the sole purpose of buying shares in other companies. They put blind trust into financial experts who boasted of their “professional financial knowledge, skill, and manipulative ability.” “One might make money investing directly in Radio, J. I. Case, or Montgomery Ward,” Galbraith writes, “but how much safer and wise to let it be accomplished by the men of peculiar knowledge, and wisdom.” Objectivity is not Galbraith’s aim; “fiscal incest” is the least provocative term he uses for the advice given by these experts, who relied on a “hocus pocus of lines and areas on a chart,” and he has none too high an opinion of the investors who bought into their advice either. They were willing to be convinced, he suggests, because they simply wanted to be rich; and as the stock markets nosedived, experts and investors alike were willing to deceive themselves: “If one has been a financial genius,” he concludes, “faith in one’s genius does not dissolve at once. To the battered but unbowed genius, support of the stock of one’s own company still seemed a bold, imaginative, and effective course. . . . They bought their own worthless stock. Men have been swindled by other men on many occasions. The autumn of 1929 was, perhaps, the first occasion when men succeeded on a large scale in swindling themselves.”


The Longest Day


Best edition: The Simon & Schuster reprint edition (1994).

Ryan’s account of D-Day uses the techniques of microhistory—the close examination of one part of history in an attempt to illuminate the whole. The Longest Day aims to illuminate World War II through a detailed and scrupulous recounting of the events of June 6, 1944. (The book was also made into a John Wayne movie in 1962.) Ryan, a war correspondent who also flew bombing missions with the U.S. Air Force, examines events on both sides with a reporter’s eye: “In the ground-floor room he used as an office,” Chapter 2 begins, “Rommel was alone. He sat behind a massive Renaissance desk, working by the light of a single desk lamp.” Later, we meet Eisenhower, struggling to decide whether or not to invade on June 6: “The American who had to make that great decision wrestled with the problem and tried to relax. . . . Eisenhower’s trailer, a long low caravan somewhat resembling a moving van, had three small compartments serving as bedroom, living room, and study.” Ryan maintains this same calm, detailed tone as he describes the wave of invasions on the beaches on D-Day: “Caught by a sudden swell, the craft swerved sideways, lifted and crashed down on a series of mined steel triangles. Jones saw it explode with a shattering blast. It reminded him of a ‘slowmotion cartoon—the men, standing to attention, shot up into the air as though lifted by a water spout. . . . [A]t the top of the spout bodies and parts of bodies spread like drops of water.’” He widens his point of view only occasionally, as in the book’s final paragraph: “Soon this most occupied of all French villages would be free—as would the whole of Hitler’s Europe. From this day on the Third Reich had less than one year to live.” But even here, Ryan returns almost at once to his narrower focus; the paragraph concludes, “In the Church of St. Samson the bell tolled midnight.”

Ryan used 383 oral interviews to construct his soldier’s-eye view of D-Day, but an academic historian would find the result to be less than pure “microhistory.” Although Ryan does focus on the experiences of individual soldiers on June 6, he places their stories within a preexisting understanding of D-Day and its place in the whole war, which he constructed not from soldiers’ stories, but from more traditional sources. In an interview about his technique, Ryan remarked that he used the oral interviews “to place the individual into the overall significance of the big picture”26 whereas a “professional” historian would have allowed the oral interviews to determine the shape of the whole.


The Feminine Mystique


Best edition: The 50th Anniversary Edition was published in 2013 (W. W. Norton), with an introduction by Gail Collins and an afterword by Anna Quindlen. Read the text itself before you read either.

Friedan describes an American world ruled by the “feminine mystique,” the powerful idea that “truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights. . . . All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.” She echoes the complaints of Mary Wollstonecraft, but she doesn’t picture women as imprisoned in the home for the last three hundred years. Rather, she writes, “old-fashioned feminists” were making progress until the 1950s, when something strange happened: Women began to go backward. The average marriage age dropped. The proportion of women attending college dropped. Women “who had once wanted careers were now making careers out of having babies.” And these women tried to accept home and family as the fulfillment of all their dreams, stifling their longing for wider horizons: “If a woman had a problem in the 1950s and 1960s, she knew that something must be wrong with her marriage, or with herself. . . . What kind of woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor?” To build this picture of housewives trying to be content as they slowly wither away, Friedan depends on interviews (The Feminine Mystique began as a questionnaire to Friedan’s Smith classmates) and women’s magazines. “The image of woman that emerges from this big, pretty magazine,” she writes, after examining the table of contents for a 1960s issue of McCall’s, “is young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and feminine; passive; gaily content in a world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies, and home. . . . Where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit?”

Friedan offers an explanation which is partly social (after the war, women magazine writers went back home, “started having a lot of children, and stopped writing,” while “men, back from the war, who had been dreaming about home, and a cozy domestic life” took over the media), partly Freudian (American culture accepted Freud’s description of women as “childlike dolls, who existed . . . to love man and serve his needs”), and partly economic (“[T]he really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house. . . . [T]he perpetuation of housewifery, the growth of the feminine mystique, makes sense (and dollars) when one realizes that women are the chief customers of American business. Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused, nameless-yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of state of being housewives”). Friedan’s conclusions are as energetic and convincing as her methods are flawed: Who is that “someone” who figured out that women must buy, and what were black, Hispanic, and working-class women doing while Friedan’s white suburban housewives languished in their plush houses? But Friedan, like Thomas Paine, is more evangelist than historian; she too has a revolution in mind. “When enough women make life plans geared to their real abilities,” she concludes, “[they] can fulfill a commitment to profession and politics, and to marriage and motherhood with equal seriousness.”


Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made


Best edition: The Vintage Books paperback (1976).

In his groundbreaking work of African American history, Genovese argues that the history of slavery cannot be understood unless slaves and masters are seen as interdependent: Slaves shaped the world of the whites just as surely as whites shaped the world of the blacks. He rejects the widely accepted idea that slavery rendered the slaves completely dependent, defenseless, and without family relationships. Instead, Africans in slavery developed their own customs, their own world; this “separate black national culture” formed as the slaves “struggled to survive spiritually as well as physically—to make a livable world for themselves and their children within the narrowest living space and harshest adversity.” Genovese’s new emphasis on slave “agency” (the power to resist) put a revolutionary spin on the independence and strength of slaves, who were no longer viewed as passive victims. Slave religion is a prime example of the African American ability to resist white control: Although white Christianity told slaves to obey their masters, the slaves developed their own unique, particular form of Christianity, which instead emphasized God’s vengeance on oppressors and the promise of freedom after death.

But Genovese doesn’t fall into a simplistic analysis of slaves as directing their own destinies—or of masters as entirely evil. He argues instead that whites and blacks were “organically” related. Slaves and masters changed each other’s worlds in a relationship based on paternalism: White plantation owners acted as “authoritarian fathers who presided over an extended and subservient family, white and black.” This paternalism mixed evil and good. It “brought white and black together and welded them into one people with genuine elements of affection and intimacy”; it obliged whites to care for their slaves out of a “strong sense of duty and responsibility,” but also allowed them to treat them with cruelty and hatred. Paternalism led blacks to serve their masters out of genuine obligation and affection, but also warped them so that they accepted white authority over blacks as somehow natural. The role of the plantation mammy is, for Genovese, emblematic of this complicated relationship: “To understand her is to move toward understanding the tragedy of plantation paternalism. . . . Primarily, the Mammy raised the white children and ran the Big House either as the mistress’s executive officer or her de facto superior. . . . In general, she gave the whites the perfect slave—a loyal, faithful, contented, efficient, conscientious member of the family who always knew her place; and she gave the slaves a white-approved standard of black behavior. She also had to be a tough, worldly-wise, enormously resourceful woman.” And yet, in wielding this power, she became dependent on her white “family,” unable to establish authority among her own people. Genovese’s refusal to trace simple oppressor-oppressed relationships acknowledges the slaves’ power and independent culture, even as he refuses to gloss over the horrors of slavery.


A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century


Best edition: The Random House paperback reprint (1987).

Tuchman’s study of the fourteenth century assembles the century’s details into a pattern that resembles our own: “After the experiences of the terrible twentieth century,” she writes in her preface, “we have greater fellow-feeling for a distraught age whose rules were breaking down under the pressure of adverse and violent events. We recognize with a painful twinge the marks of a period of anguish when there is no sense of an assured future.” She examines this fourteenth-century “period of anguish” from the point of view of Enguerrand de Coucy VII, a minor nobleman who advised two French kings and married an English princess.

Tuchman illustrates the decline of chivalry, in which the knights, who were supposed to protect the weak, became a tyrannical class in their own right. She rejects any romantic ideas of a pastel-colored knights-and-ladies society, instead describing late-night drinking sessions in castle halls as late-medieval biker-bar brawls in which knights groped ladies, insulted them, and scuffled with angry husbands. She describes Christianity’s power over every aspect of daily life (“Christianity was the matrix of medieval life: even cooking instructions called for boiling an egg ‘during the length of time wherein you say a Miserere’”), but is pessimistic about its ability to bring peace or virtue (“The Church, more worldly than spiritual, did not guide the way to God”). She tells of the Black Death, but finds this only to be one disaster in a time that was “a succession of wayward dangers; of the three galloping evils, plague, and taxes; of fierce and tragic conflicts, bizarre fates, capricious money, sorcery, betrayals, insurrections, murder, madness, and the downfall of princes; of dwindling labor for the fields, of cleared land reverting to waste; and always the recurring black shadow of pestilence carrying its message of guilt and sin and the hostility of God.”

Tuchman is more interested in politics than in ideas, and her history focuses on the complicated (and ultimately destructive) attempts of the English and French to make peace while simultaneously stealing each other’s land, rather than the development of philosophy and science. She details the lives of the warrior class, but doesn’t pay much attention to the peasants; her concern instead is to describe a time of political crisis and disorder, in which English invasions, French weakness, predatory knights, and corrupt clergy shaped the course of events. In describing the violence and unrest of the fourteenth century, and in comparing it to our own times, Tuchman is arguing for a certain historical uniformity, rejecting both a simple “progress-ism” (which would see the twentieth century as naturally better than the fourteenth) and a pessimistic sense of decline (which would view the twentieth century as spiraling downward into unheard-of dangers).


All the President’s Men


Best edition: Simon & Schuster reissue edition, 2014.

Woodward and Bernstein’s book on Watergate is based on the reports they filed with the Washington Post, news stories that played a large part in Nixon’s eventual resignation. In a twist that postmodernists might applaud, All the President’s Men keeps its writers in full view; it begins not with Nixon or with any of the president’s men, but with Woodward. “June 17, 1972. Nine o’clock Saturday morning. Early for the telephone. Woodward fumbled for the receiver and snapped awake. The city editor of the Washington Post was on the line. Five men had been arrested earlier that morning in a burglary at Democratic headquarters, carrying photographic equipment and electronic gear. Could he come in?”

The history of Watergate is one of slow discovery by the American people of high-level misdeeds. In their slowly unfolding chronicle, Woodward and Bernstein stand in for “typical Americans,” understanding a complicated and disgraceful sequence of events one tiny fragment at a time. The style is immediate and unadorned: “Woodward told Stoner that the Post had a responsibility to correct an error. No comment. If an apology was called for, it would be given. No comment. Woodward raised his voice to impress on Stoner how serious it was when a newspaper made a mistake. Finally, Stoner said he wouldn’t recommend making any apology to Bob Haldeman.” That prose won’t win any awards, but it matches the purpose of the book: to uncover, as clearly and nonsensationally as possible, the “truth.”

All the President’s Men begins with the Watergate break-in and ends with the indictments of the president’s men. Its last paragraph recounts the president’s speech to the American people on January 30, 1974: “The President said, ‘I want you to know that I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the American people elected me to do for the people of the United States.’” All the President’s Men was completed in 1974 and came out just before Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974; it is thus not only a history of the break-in and its investigation, but part of history itself. (You can still read the original Woodward-Bernstein story on the break-in, published in the Washington Post on June 19, 1972, online at the Washington Post website.)


Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era


Best edition: The Oxford University Press trade paperback reprint (2003); originally published as a stand-alone volume, McPherson’s text has now been incorporated into the Oxford History of the United States series.

“Both sides in the American Civil War professed to be fighting for freedom,” McPherson’s preface begins—thus summing up the difficulty of “compressing[ing] the war and its causes into a single volume.” Faced with a South that claimed to be taking up arms to protect “political rights . . . and State sovereignty” and a North that insisted it was fighting to preserve the “last, best hope . . . of republican freedoms in the world,” McPherson sets out to balance political and military events (and rhetoric) with the social and economic developments that helped to fuel the war.

McPherson’s initial chapter surveys the condition of the United States at mid-century: its unrestrained growth, especially in the West; the state of the southern economy, including its dependence on cotton and on the low-cost slave labor that made cotton production economically feasible; the growing gap between rich and poor; ethnic conflict; the fast growth of urban population; the improved transportation that allowed goods to be sold far away from their point of manufacture; labor protests; and the evolution of the “child-centered nurturing family.” These widely varied descriptions all set the stage for McPherson’s narrative of the Civil War, which begins in Chapter 2 with James K. Polk’s presidency and the spark that ignited the war: the argument over whether, in this rapidly expanding United States, the new territories admitted to the Union would be slave-holding or free. From this point on, McPherson unfolds a detailed military and social history of the Civil War. He is careful to outline all the groups that took different positions on the war, avoiding lumping all Union or all Confederate sympathizers together.

McPherson’s achievement lies, not in a particularly unique or startling take on the Civil War, but on his ability to pull together into one coherent whole the bewilderingly varied details of the war and the unendingly disparate theories on how and why the war progressed as it did. McPherson’s story ends with the Union victory, which “destroyed the southern vision of America and ensured that the northern vision would become the American vision.” But in this new America, many problems remain. McPherson’s history ends with a question: “What would be the place of freed slaves and their descendants in this new order?”


A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812


Best edition: The Vintage Books paperback (1991).

The narrow subtitle of Ulrich’s history points out a new direction in history: the study of the individual, the small, and the particular. Perry Miller could write about all of New England; sixty years later, Ulrich focuses on one woman, one diary, and a span of time that covers one generation. Although Martha Ballard’s diary hints at larger social developments—for example, the encroachment of professionally trained male doctors on obstetrics, formerly the province of midwives and nurse practitioners—Ulrich is very careful not to draw sweeping conclusions. Her method is to examine the past for particularity, not for universality; to highlight the unique, not to look for connections. This discomfort with generalizations reflects a postmodern distrust of truth that applies to all social classes, as well as Ulrich’s discontent with “traditional” sources of history. “Martha Ballard’s diary,” she writes, in her introduction, “connects to several prominent themes in the social history of the early Republic”—but it is essentially different from those records left by men in positions of power. The diary restores “a lost substructure of eighteenth-century life” and “transforms the nature of the evidence upon which much of the history of the period has been written.” For example, when Ephraim Ballard, Martha’s husband, goes to debtor’s prison, Martha runs out of wood. This problem aggravates her tense relationship with her older son, on whom she is now forced to rely—the “axis of her life,” Ulrich writes, has been “tipped” toward her son. Martha’s relationship with her son and her son’s wife, who eventually decide to take over the family home and relegate Martha to a single bedroom, becomes increasingly difficult, producing in Martha’s diary a “peculiar mixture of self-righteousness and self-sacrifice,” in which Martha continues to cook for her son’s family while refusing to ask him to gather wood. “Most historians have studied imprisonment for debt as an aspect of economic and legal history,” Ulrich writes. “Martha’s diary shifts the focus from mortgages and lawyers to wood boxes and sons, showing how family history shaped patterns of imprisonment in an era of political and social transformation.”

These “forgotten” family records tell a history that sometimes complements and sometimes contradicts the traditional histories of the period. This new focus is highlighted in Ulrich’s conclusion, where she writes, “To celebrate such a life is to acknowledge the power—and the poverty—of written records. Outside her own diary, Martha has no history. . . . It is her husband’s name, not hers, that appears in censuses, tax lists, and merchant accounts for her town. . . . Without her diary even her name would be uncertain. . . . Martha lost her given name as well as her surname at marriage. For 58 of her 77 years, she was known as ‘Mrs. Ballard.’ . . . No gravestone bears her name, though perhaps somewhere in the waste places along Belgrade Road there still grow clumps of chamomile or feverfew escaped from her garden.”


The End of History and the Last Man


Best edition: Free Press reissue edition (2006).

Fukuyama’s book, an expansion of his 1989 essay “The End of History,” argues that History with a capital H (that is, not a sequence of events, but a “single, coherent, evolutionary process”) inevitably moves toward the modern, liberal democratic, industrialized state. Modern science is at the center of this movement; it has had “a uniform effect on all societies that have experienced it” because it “makes possible the limitless accumulation of wealth, and thus the satisfaction of an ever-expanding set of human desires.” Because of modern science, “all human societies, regardless of their historical origins or cultural inheritances . . . must increasingly resemble one another.”

The power of science explains the modern movement toward industrialization, but not the phenomenon of spreading democracy (after all, plenty of industrialized countries have operated under other forms of government). So why is democracy also transforming the modern world? Fukuyama explains that while animals merely want food, shelter, and safety, men are driven by an additional need—the desire to be “recognized” by others as having worth and dignity. This “desire for recognition,” Fukuyama argues, is what impels all societies toward democracy: Liberal democracy treats its citizens as adults, not children, “recognizing their autonomy as free individuals. Communism is being superseded by liberal democracy in our time because of the realization that the former provides a gravely defective form of recognition.” He spends a great deal of time defining and illustrating this “desire for recognition,” which he calls thymos, and discussing how it interacts with love of country, nationalism, ethnicity, religion, and other “irrational” (by which he means “unsystematized,” not “ridiculous”) desires of the human soul. Finally, he asks: Is the liberal democratic state truly the end—the highest goal—of history? Does it “adequately satisfy the desire for recognition,” or would a better, future form of society satisfy this desire in a more thorough manner?

By the end of his final section, “The Last Man,” Fukuyama has concluded that liberal democracy is the “best possible solution to the human problem.” And since the move toward liberal democracy is strengthened by “the homogenization of mankind . . . as a result of economic development,” soon humanity will appear, not like “a thousand shoots blossoming into as many different flowering plants,” but rather like “a long wagon train strung out along a road”—some “pulling into town sharply and crisply” (having arrived at the blessing of democracy), some stuck in the mud along the way, and some “attacked by Indians . . . set aflame and abandoned along the way.” Which are these failed societies (and who the Indians might be) is left for the reader to decide; in a style of historical writing diametrically opposed to that of Ulrich, Fukuyama describes a Hegelian history that rolls on toward a glorious end, with historical details submerged in the swelling tide of fulfillment.

1Neville Morley, Ancient History: Key Themes and Approaches (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. ix.

2Georges Gusdorf, “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 48

3Jeremy D. Popkin, “Historians on the Autobiographical Frontier,” American Historical Review, vol. 104, no. 3 (June 1999): 725–48; Popkin is quoting G. Kitson Clark’s manual The Critical Historian.

4The opening lines of Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

5Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), p. 58. This is an excellent text on the practices and problems of North American historians, and I am indebted to it for its sharp insights on the ongoing relationship between history and science. Appleby herself qualifies this statement later, although she does continue to speak of the two eras as radically different.

6John Lukacs, A Students Guide to the Study of History (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2000), p. 16.

7Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob are among the many historians who have noted the connection between the development of Newtonian science and the development of modern historical writing (see Telling the Truth About History, pp. 52–76).

8Positivism is a technical term in law, linguistics, philosophy, and historiography, and has a different meaning in each field. Here I am using it only in its narrow historiographical sense as referring to those historians who saw their task as scientific and rational.

9Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob use the wonderful phrase heroic science in their discussion of Comte and positivism in Telling the Truth About History.

10Jacob Burckhardt, Reflections on History (taken from lectures delivered by Burckardt in Germany in 1868–71, first published in German in 1906; this quote is from the first English edition, published by Allen & Unwin, 1943), p. 21.

11Jim Sharpe, “History from Below,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, 2nd ed., ed. Peter Burke (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), p. 27.

12Edward L. Ayers, “Narrating the New South,” Journal of Southern History, vol. 61, no. 3 (August 1995): 555–66.

13Johann Gottfried von Herder, Older Critical Forestlet (1767–68). Quoted in Michael N. Forester, “Johann Gottfried von Herder,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2001 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, available online at

14Johann Gottfried von Herder, Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784), e-text edition (ed. Jerome S. Arkenberg) published in Internet Modern History Sourcebook, at herder-mankind.html.

15Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (New York: Basic Books, 1957).

16Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), p. 3.

17John Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 118.

18Popkin, “Historians on the Autobiographical Frontier,” p. 729.

19In History: What & Why? Ancient, Modern, and Postmodern Perspectives, by Beverly Southgate (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 123.

20Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Postmodernist History,” in Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society, ed. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 71–93.

21Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell, 1984), p. 73.

22Both quotes from William E. Leuchtenberg, “The Historian and the Public Realm,” American Historical Review, vol. 97, no. 1 (February 1992): 1–18.

23The volumes are listed at $12.00 each; the ISBNs are Volume I, 0-86597-022-X; Volume II, 0-86597-027-0; Volume III, 0-86597-029-7; Volume IV, 0-86597-031-9; Volume V, 0-86597-033-5; Volume VI, 0-86597-035-1. The ISBN number for the entire paperback series, which costs $50.00, is 0-86597-020-3.

24The ISBNs for the unabridged Penguin paperbacks, each with a cover price of $24.95, are as follows: Volume I, 0-14-043393-7; Volume II, 0-14-043394-5; Volume III, 0-14-043395-3.

25Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S. G. C. Middlemore (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1928), p. 143.

26Quoted in Roger Horowitz, “Oral History and the Story of America and World War II,” Journal of American History, vol. 82, no. 2 (September 1995): 617–24.