History: an Introductory Talk at Cwmbran Library

This, as a possible topic for discussion, has been on my mind for some time and it links back to questions which arose a fortnight ago.
Just recently I read a book (I'm not cribbing from it) entitled Schopenhauer's Telescope, an idea put forward by a German philosopher (1788 - 1860) that to understand history, one should project oneself 50 years into the future, reverse the 'scope', and look back at decisions using hindsight, which resonates with my thoughts in some respects.
I haven't got a dictionary definition to offer, not having even looked for one. Anyway, it might there be defined as a record of past events, which wouldn't tell us very much.
Most of us would, I feel, agree that it is the angles of interpretation and alleged lessons to be drawn, or patterns of interpretation, that cause or pose problems, or arouse our interest.
Henry Ford the First said of his cars, 'You can have any colour you like, so long as it is black!'. He also said, 'History is bunk!', which sayings are themselves now part of history.
The trouble with the subject is not only the varied interpretations, the immense range, quantity and complexity of it, but also the constant danger of getting bogged down in the details, and thus losing focus.
How should we approach the question? Should we concentrate on a particular period or area, national or international, or should we select one specific happening or aspect and trace its genesis and development. Or should we agree with Henry Ford, and dismiss it from our minds, ending discussion before it has begun.
Thus we should approach any personal or public issue as if each event was sui generis, one on its own, unconnected with any preceding one, just seeing history as a collection of unlinked occurrences.
Such a view would run counter to the concept of evolution, the accumulation of knowledge as we know it, passed down and amended, as we have individually and collectively experienced it in our own lives.
Would it not be better to accept that the past, present and future are all part of the same cloth, a seamless weave, with the pattern, texture and the weave itself changed and decided upon by the participants ' a point we could explore when I have finished this introduction.
Without being disrespectful of the Bard, I will quote only a part of Shakespeare's 000Hamlet soliloquy, 'To be or not to be, that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.'
In other words, is it better to opt out, let things take their course, do what we are ordered to do, or constructively forced into doing things against our own judgment. then excusing our compliance, saying it would be a waste of time resisting or opposing, and anyway it would make no difference to the outcome if we did. Why should we risk the danger of personal suffering, accepting, as the song says, 'What will be, will be.'
By now you will of course have concluded that I have centred on human history and the roles we may play or not play in it.
We cannot, I believe, opt out, for that is a decision in itself, whether we like it or not, which will make an impact and influence outcomes, for whatever way we engage, all of us are contributing to the totality.
Each of us is historically conditioned in our customs, attitudes and ideas, functioning in a sea of past, present and future, which latter we are shaping into history.
Are we, should we, be content to be passive or should we be consciously active and seek to consider the consequences of our actions upon others than ourselves? Which carries the greater degree of responsibility ' involvement or noninvolvement?
Turning to the idea of the reverse telescope, do we not now have more modern means of creating forward perspectives also, in virtual reality?
From information, archeological remains, records, writings, folk memory or whatever, we can construct and virtually display our ideas of what the past could have been like.
We can also do the same in respect of our present, and project current trends to create an image of the future to see whether we might like what we see, and if not, change the present trends so as to create something more agreeable.
As we speak, the future is being determined, in transport and in education. In manufacturing, commerce, and the environment, for example, such technology is being employed to argue for the support of projects of various kinds and displayed as beneficial or necessary.
Would we feel happier if we had lived in an earlier epoch, within the pattern as it was then woven ' knowing what we now know of the past, how would we have tried to change it?
With the tools we have now, should we consciously endeavour to understand the past, and to what purpose? Is it sufficient just to explore and dissect and speculate, with hindsight, how it might have taken a more acceptable direction or to engage in arguments as to which individuals or nations were or should be held responsible for the events?
Certainly, many people were simply pawns in the scheme of things, directed by others who exercised power or controlled access to information and its distortion for particular purposes. And whatever we may find out about the extent of the participation of the populace in earlier societies as well as ones contemporary to our own recent stages, are we sufficiently empowered or interested in using the existing facilities for restraining or influencing decision makers?
We have on many occasions been presented with projections, with parallels from the past dug out to illustrate possibilities, dangers and threats. These have also been put forward as lessons learned in other areas and happenings, which could or should be used to deal with contemporary problems.
Can we safely leave the dysfunctional aspects of our current society to so called experts, who have classified and analyzed our behaviour, and judged it by criteria in which we have not participated in formulating, whether based on religious doctrines constructed in times and conditions long since gone, or in line with economic requirements and modern mores.
Philosophers down the ages have struggled to come to terms with the same dilemmas which are extant today.
If the past, present and future are a seamless weave, have we a responsibility, after examining the flaws in the cloth and taking advantage of hindsight, to try by active rather than passive participation to improve the product? And should we, while doing so, try to put ourselves in other peoples shoes as another way of viewing through the other end of the telescope?
I thought that mixed metaphor might at the end raise a laugh!

The above is the text of a talk introducing a series of discussions on history given at Cwmbran Library by Samuel Boyd on Tuesday 16 September 2003.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 16 September, 2003.

Samuel H. Boyd

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