Memory  /  Book Review


The more that historians make their own experiences an explicit part of their work, the harder it will become to let the sources speak clearly.

History has always had multiple purposes, of course. Among the oldest is moral education: providing examples of admirable character and conduct to emulate, and infamous character and conduct to shun. Equally venerable is the establishment of legitimate title, including, especially, to states: rulers have claimed the right to rule because of their descent from a line of predecessors stretching back into the mists of time. The great monotheistic religions, meanwhile, have looked to history to teach awe of God’s power and to reveal the unfolding of His plans for humanity.

But during the Enlightenment, a vision of history emerged that at least partially eclipsed these older ones: History with a capital H, history as a science. In this new vision, linked to the nascent social sciences, the study of history could reveal the regular, predictable laws that govern the development of all human societies, and therefore could help us understand not only the past but the present and future as well. During the French Revolution, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet composed one of the great early works along these lines, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. (Ironically, he wrote it while in hiding from the revolutionary Terror.) He began with hunter-gatherer societies, worked his way up through the eighteenth century, and pointed to a glorious future in which humanity’s “indefinite advancement” would lead to the eradication of poverty and an extension of the human life span. Hegel and Marx, in their turn, saw History following determined paths toward a discernible and desirable future condition.

But in his new book, Singular Pasts, the historian Enzo Traverso writes, “The past no longer announces the future; it no longer contains any promise of redemption.” Even Marxist scholars, for all their continued belief in the importance of class, no longer have any confidence that the history of class struggle points toward the ultimate victory of the proletariat and the establishment of a more just society. Liberals who, after communism’s collapse, read Francis Fukuyama and hoped that History had reached an end point of sorts, at least to the extent that societies around the world were embracing a Western model of capitalism as well as moderate social democracy, have seen their dreams turn to nightmares. Very few historians still try to deduce universal laws from their often fragmentary and difficult source material or to predict the future. If any group of contemporary academics is forecasting what is to come in a convincing manner it is climate scientists, and if a specter is haunting the world today, it is the all too real specter of ecological doom.