Religio historici 3

July 26 2008

Religio historici

Religio historici 2

What struck me in reading the two reviews of my book by Professor Fiess and by my old friend Professor Geyl is that they agree with one another, and that I agree with them, in their view of what I am trying to do. I am trying to use our knowledge of history as a telescope-lens for taking a look at the universe as a whole. I do not see why one should not use historical knowledge in this way, besides using it as a microscope-lens for looking at particular pieces of the universe. Either way, we shall be seeing through a glass, darkly; for that is the limitation under which human minds have to work.

I agree with Professor Geyl that being interested in history, and knowing some, does not automatically make one an historian. If writing history means writing historical narrative, I may be an historian among other things, as I have written and published historical work in that perhaps uncontroversial sense. But, in choosing a name for the book under review, I deliberately called it not a history, but a study of history. If someone wrote a study of Shakespeare, and a critic objected “This isn’t Shakespeare,” the writer could, I think, reasonably reply: “I never said it was Shakespeare; I said it was a study of him.” When one is studying history, one is examining history, not narrating it (except, of course, incidentally, by way of illustration).

Professor Geyl says that historians would not care if I wrote as a prophet. One can write just as well without writing as historian, prophet, or anything else in particular; and to think of oneself as a prophet would be to make a fool of oneself. One would feel still more foolish if the label were seriously meant when it is [he means should be] ironical. On the other hand, to be taken as a poet is agreeable; and I am very grateful to Professor Fiess for presenting me in this light. As far as I can judge about my own work, I should think that Professor Fiess’ word describes me better than Professor Geyl’s does. Anyway, I would rather be called minor poet than minor prophet. I do not mind being called minor historian, so long as it is understood that I am not renouncing the right to study history and to write some, too, when I choose. I have this right, like anyone else. It is one of our human freedoms.

Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol 16, New York, 1955. A short reply to two reviews of A Study of History following the publication of its last four volumes.

The reviews by Fiess and Geyl and this Comment are reprinted in

MF Ashley Montagu, editor, Toynbee and History, Critical Essays and Reviews, Boston, Porter Sargent, 1956

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