Why History Isn't Just the Register of Humanity's Crimes

History books, too, often present reality as more evil than it actually is.

Posted Sep 24, 2018

Some people hold that life is meaningless because the world is so full of evil and suffering. In a previous post, I argued that the news media bear some of the responsibility for this view; they are often biased, giving us a wrong, overly negative picture of reality. But it is common to point out, in reply, that history books, too, are filled with accounts of war, genocide, oppression, murder, usurpations, and the like. Edward Gibbon, the celebrated British historian, is often quoted as claiming that history is "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind." Are historians wrong? Unlike newspapers, which I discussed in the previous post, history books are written not by rushed reporters craving wide readership, but by careful academic researchers aiming at the truth. Would I claim that history books, too, report in a biased, overly negative way?

I think that the reply is, unfortunately, "Yes." History books, particularly those discussing political and military history (which usually have to do with the "filthier" aspects of human activity), often ignore the more positive features of reality. As with news, so in military and political history, what is considered to be a historical event, and is registered in history books, often has to do with some crisis or tragedy. If there is no war, genocide, murder, usurpation, treason, or the like, there is nothing to report. If a kingdom is passed without conflict from one legitimate heir to another, or if two countries just live peacefully beside each other, nothing seems to be happening.

In fact, this was also Gibbon's own view. Although often quoted as holding that history consists only of crimes, follies, and misfortunes, the famous quote, when read in full, suggests quite the opposite: that history includes also some good things, but that history books do not register them. The full citation, which discusses the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (who reigned between 138-161 AD), reads:

"Antoninus diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind." (Emphasis mine.)

Rather than claiming that all history is filled only with evil, then, Gibbon is actually saying that when things are good there is little material for history books, since what they register are bad events. He is not claiming that historically people have not done also good things, but rather that doing good things does not provide material for history books, since history books focus on, or register, little more than crimes, follies, and misfortunes.

Political and military history books, then, tend to present history selectively, so that the better aspects of humanity are hardly mentioned. (Traditionally, most history books focus on political and military history. This is certainly true also of Gibbon's great historical work.) We receive from them a slanted, overly negative picture of reality. Of course, books that focus on other aspects of history may well be slanted in the other direction. For example, art history books focus on the great artistic achievements. They say almost nothing about bad art.

I should emphasize that I am not suggesting that we should overlook the horrific aspects of human history. There were, and still are, many of those. Moreover, as John McDermott has argued, some of what we consider as great human accomplishments, such as the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian pyramids, are based on forced labor, suffering and injustice to masses of human beings. Thus, I am not suggesting here a rosy picture of the human condition. But I think that it is also mistaken to present it as wholly grim. I am not suggesting that we look only at the full half of the glass, nor only at the empty half, but, rather, that we look at both parts.

As I mentioned in that earlier post, the world is terrible, and the world is wonderful. Both claims are true. I agree that many people entirely disregard the bad aspects of reality, as if these do not exist at all. But many other people commit the similar error of completely disregarding the many good aspects of reality and the possibility of creating and enhancing such aspects. Some radical pessimists like to refer to themselves as realists; but blind pessimism is as unrealistic as blind optimism. To be realistic is to see what is bad as bad, but also what is good as good.

Although there is much in the world that is evil, there is also much in it that is good. Many aspects of the world can provide us with much satisfaction, fulfillment and meaning. This is often true even for people whose lot in life is generally bad, if they are ready to look for, acknowledge, and feel the good aspects of life.

References

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  edited by David Womersley (London: Penguin Classics, 1995),  vol. 1, ch. 3, p. 102.

John J. McDermott, "Why Bother: Is Life Worth Living?" The Journal of Philosophy 88, no. 11 (1991): 682.