In which our intrepid hero finishes a book, and considers just how fuzzy the boundaries of historiography can be.

Unable to find anything on sub-Saharan history a week and a half ago, I ended up buying Big Questions in History instead.

Essentially, it’s a collection of academics’ essays concerning themes in historiography, such as the role of the individual, technology, mass movements and teleology. A journalist’s “commentary” follows each, summarising various historians’ views on the subject and the development of schools of historiographical thought. Unsurprisingly, Hegel gets a number of mentions, as do Marx, Machiavelli and Nietzsche.

Previously, I’d thought of these men more as political philosophers, but I guess a good philosopher can’t exactly point out the flaws in the world without an understanding of what they are, and how they got that way in the first place. I was certainly aware that Marx had championed materialistic historiography (his better-known apocalyptic rants served as conclusions to this), but for some reason, it hadn’t clicked as a general rule.

Anyway, whilst I’d certainly classify Big Questions as a “good read”, I don’t know that I’d recommend it to buy. Although the last essay alone—Benjamin Barber’s “Can History Have an End?”—is worth picking up the book for, the whole thing, I think, is a one-reader. If you see it in the library, borrow it, but don’t expect that you’ll keep coming back to it for years to come.

I was hoping that it’d make a good worldbuilding reference, but alas, ’tis not the case. It’s just a bit too general and focuses on historians at the expense of history; Big Debates in History would’ve been a more appropriate title.

Barber’s essay, however, did get me thinking. Although the title (chosen by editor Harriet Swain, I imagine) is an overt dig at Francis Fukuyama’s controversial “The End of History?“, Barber spends as many words examining the differences between cyclical and teleological views of history, and also compares Judeo-Christian and “Whig” (ie, secular) teleologies.

Why should I find this so interesting? For a start, it’s because I work in politics. Each party has not only its own semi-canonical take on history, but also its perceived endpoints (and often more than one).

A number of the more conservative members of the Liberal Party, for instance, hie to the traditional Christian teleology, i.e., Jesus will be here any day now, and he’s gonna whup sinners’ butts. Oh, and the world is a wicked and evil place, and must be cleansed. You get the picture.

The “Moderate” wing of the Liberal Party, however, have a view which is much more “Whiggish” in nature; Progress is its god. One day, they tell us, we will all live in an enlightened land where liberty, justice, compassion and small government rule side-by-side in a benevolent democracy of the people.

The Labor Party isn’t much different from this last, except that in classical Marxist style, the working classes have directly taken control of the means of production.

The Greens, on the other hand, are fairly doom-and-gloom as a rule: we’re headed for environmental armageddon, and we’d better do something about it, like, yesterday, or we’re all going to end up in the ecological crapper. What we do varies a great deal from person to person, running the gamut from recycling and emissions reduction, to wiping out 95% of the population and returning to the Stone Age.

All of these views have their merits and flaws, but they also have one thing in common: an endpoint. Everything that happens between now and then serves as a bridge from the chosen narrative of the past to this singularity in the future.

And, as Keepers of the One True Faith, each often claims that the inevitability of their teleologies justifies the most unjust of actions. Anything is permissible in the pursuit of progress, the workers’ utopia, a clean environment or the appeasement of an irate God. All sorts of lies can be told, inhumanities perpetrated, liberties taken “because I deserve it, slaving away for The Cause”.

In truth, the extremes of each viewpoint are no less genocidal and evil than the adherents of Ariosophy. Whilst we may never see the heavens that they promise, should the zealots be allowed to take the reins, then I can guarantee that we’ll all end up in hell.

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