January 18, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     I love to quote the exchange that ends Bernard 
Shaw's play THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE. Major Swindon asks, 
"But what will history say?" General Burgoyne replies, 
with cynical Shavian wit, "History, sir, will tell lies, 
as usual."

     An excellent riposte, but it's a half-truth. The 
common question "What will History say?" can never have a 
final answer, because there is no such thing, person, or 
goddess as a univocal History. People ask it because they 
imagine that some time in the future, when all the dust 
has settled, all our uncertainties will be resolved and 
the right people will receive their due of honor or 
infamy from the final perspective of History.

     But this confuses history with other things. 
Commemoration, for example. Most of us may honor the 
memory of Abraham Lincoln, and there are many undisputed 
facts about him; but these facts can be judged in various 
ways. Even polls of historians ranking him "the greatest 
American president" are hardly more than popularity 
contests. Some historians make the case that Lincoln was 
a disastrous president, and they may be right; but of 
course they are no more the final voice of History than 
the majority who say otherwise.

     Oliver Stone's recent film about Alexander the Great 
reminds us that historians still argue about whether 
Alexander was a great promoter of a civilized culture or 
merely a ruthless conqueror; but why not both, or 
neither? This is more a moral question than a strictly 
historical one. It can never be settled to everyone's 
satisfaction. Historians still argue about many figures 
from the ancient world: Jesus, Cleopatra, Homer. Areas of 
consensus about them are few. One recent book even argues 
that the notorious Roman emperor Nero may owe his bad 
reputation more to his enemies' defamations than to his 
actual crimes.

     Which brings us to another common saying: "History 
is written by the victors." This too is a half-truth. 
Yes, the victors usually write the first draft of 
history, and they may destroy any records favorable to 
the losers. But often, enough records survive to support 
later revisionism, or at least strong doubts about the 
victors' version.

     History then becomes a discipline of sifting the 
records, asking whether History in the popular sense is 
true to the facts. When President Kennedy was 
assassinated, he was prematurely commemorated as a great 
man, a judgment most of us would at least qualify in 
light of subsequent revelations. As with Martin Luther 
King, we learned how much of his personal life was 
concealed by friends and allies during his lifetime. Yet 
even the most scandalous posthumous disclosures aren't 
the last word on such men.

     History seldom if ever has the last word, except 
maybe on specific details where the evidence is 
overwhelming. It may seem that History has spoken on 
Shakespeare's authorship, and the man from Stratford is 
certainly among the most commemorated men who ever lived. 
But I once wrote a book arguing that he didn't write the 
great works ascribed to him, and even my angriest 
reviewers never quite claimed that the question was 
absolutely closed. After all, it's a historical question, 
not a literary one. Who did what? How did it happen, and 
why? The answers must be more or less tentative.

     Politics always invites premature historical 
judgments. Some people already say that President Bush 
will go down in history as a great president. But this is 
only a prediction -- maybe a wishful one -- that his 
memory will be honored everlastingly, while his critics 
will be forgotten. It illustrates how eager we can be to 
speak in advance for History, and to project our current 
emotions onto an imaginary future.

     But that future never arrives -- a future when all 
our controversies are settled so decisively that there is 
no longer room for doubt. Marxists used to think they had 
the key to History, and they prophesied a classless 
society emerging -- inevitably! -- from the climactic 
struggle between the "working classes" and the 
"capitalists." Seldom has History disappointed her 
votaries so severely.

     Sober history is a fascinating discipline, partly 
because it teaches us how fragile our certainties can be. 
What will History say? We know only that it will speak 
differently to different generations. Nothing is quite so 
unpredictable as the past.


Read this column on-line at 

Copyright (c) 2005 by the Griffin Internet 
Syndicate, www.griffnews.com. This column may not 
be published in print or Internet publications 
without express permission of Griffin Internet 
Syndicate. You may forward it to interested 
individuals if you use this entire page, 
including the following disclaimer:

"SOBRAN'S and Joe Sobran's columns are available 
by subscription. For details and samples, see 
http://www.sobran.com/e-mail.shtml, write 
PR@griffnews.com, or call 800-513-5053."