U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Through a Glass, Darkly

For the past two years, I have been mulling over a question posed on this blog:  what is the historian’s obligation to the dead? Last summer, I began writing my way toward an answer.   Below is one of the main sections of that (still unfinished) draft, given here without revision, yet without apology.

My working title for this entire project is “The Pastoral Work of Secular Historians,” which is also an umbrella title for a series of posts I began here and still need to finish.  However, where I expect to finish that series of posts is pretty much where this essay starts.  So I’ll just bring on the eschaton and skip to the end.


….I have stated my initial thinking on the theme of historians as “resurrection men” — as plunderers of the dead who at the same time bring the dead to life, even though the vivifying aspect of history might be a side-effect of presentist concerns.  But I might go so far as to say that this “effect” may be an end, this accident may be an aim; it may be viewed as a chief purpose of historical inquiry.

On the purposes of historical inquiry, I want to consider the closing paragraph of Mather’s Bonifacius:

…I will conclude with a TESTIMONY that I shall abide by. ‘Tis this: were a man able to write in seven languages; could he converse daily with the sweets of all the liberal sciences, that more polite men ordinarily pretend unto; did he entertain himself with all ancient and modern histories; and could he feast continually on the curiosities which all sorts of learning may bring unto him; none of all this would afford the ravishing satisfaction, much less would any grosser delights of the senses do it; which he might find, in relieving the distresses of a poor, mean, miserable neighbor; and which he might much more find, in doing any extensive service for the kingdom of our great SAVIOUR in the world; or anything to redress the miseries under which mankind is generally languishing.*

Mather’s concluding “testimony” seems to me to be a deliberate echo / evocation of I Corinthians 13.  This is the “love chapter” of Paul’s epistle, where he contrasts knowledge with love.  He contrasts the self-importance of learning and erudition and “spiritual insight” with the self-effacement of love.  Mather’s text, in its grammatical construction and its contrasting hypothetical identities, mirrors Paul’s to a large degree.

Paul wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  This was his rebuke to those who pointed to the “gift” of glossolalia as a sign of their spiritual superiority.  “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”  This was Paul’s rebuke to the “gnostic” pretenders of the congregation, who claimed that their superior understanding of the mysteries and “gnosis” of the Christian culture made them more spiritually meritorious than others in the congregation.

A denial of the value of knowledge to confer superior moral or spiritual standing seems to be where Mather begins.  He writes, “…were a man able to write in seven languages; could he converse daily with all the sweets of the liberal sciences, that more polite men ordinarily pretend unto; did he entertain himself with all ancient and modern histories” — compare Paul’s “all mysteries and all knowledge” — “and could he feast continually on the curiosities which all sorts of learning may bring unto himself.”  Basically, Mather puts in the balance his entire identity as the  most erudite and accomplished intellectual of his own acquaintance.  And he concludes that all of this erudition is of little worth — or, interestingly, affords little, “ravishing satisfaction,” little pleasure — compared to “what he might find in relieving the distresses of a poor, mean, miserable neighbor.”  The contrast is not between two kinds of virtue, but between two kinds of pleasure — the joy of erudition versus the joy of doing good to others.

What is striking to me in this passage is the place of history, “ancient and modern.”  The place of history in Mather’s litany of learning reflects its emergence as a modern epistemological endeavor.  In Mather’s view, the pleasure of the study of history is subordinated to the pleasure of doing a good turn to a neighbor.

This might seem to be simply a restatement of Paul’s argument.  But it is not.

After devaluing a learning exercised without love, Paul goes on to say what love is — patient, kind, etc.  But when he transitions from what love is to what will be, the difference between what is and what will be is characterized by a change in knowledge.  Paul writes, famously, beautifully, “Now we see through a glass, darkly; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  The eschatological promise here is not that love will be complete — it already is, for “love never faileth.”  The promise here is that some day knowledge will be complete — and not mere knowledge, but understanding, the mutual knowledge shared between self and other.

It is interesting to me that Mather leaves open the circle closed by Paul.  Mather begins with knowledge and sets that aside for love.  Paul begins with knowledge, sets that aside for love, but returns to his first subject with the promise that perfect love will eventually bring about perfect knowledge, full understanding.

Mather’s moral vision centers on love, and he borrows his image and his imaginary from Paul.  But Paul’s text raises the question, “What is the relationship between love and knowledge? Must we cling to one and forsake the other?”  Paul’s answer to that question is “No.”  But Paul’s answer lies in an eschatological future, a time when understanding will be ours.  That eschatological time of understanding, as opposed to simply “knowing,” is the very time towards which history — the inquiry, the discipline — bends.

The yearning of historical understanding is an eschatological desire.  “Every era is immediate to God,” von Ranke wrote.  “I am fully known,” Paul wrote.  The aim of Paul, the aim of von Ranke, the aim of history is to “know fully, as we are fully known.”

Now, where does that leave Mather in all of this?  David Hollinger would probably cite Mather’s text, especially its conclusion, as a perfect example to illustrate his thesis that the American intellectual tradition is informed by a tension between enlightenment values and evangelical beliefs.  I think this text does in fact illustrate that tension, and points to one possible resolution of it — faith, religious duty, obedience to God in the service of others is better than the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment for one’s own benefit.  And that conclusion is a “live option” for many people today.  That particular resolution of the dilemma of knowledge versus faith is still held forth as the right answer.

But what if we consider Mather’s text as the reflection of a particular historiographical moment?  Does that change the meaning of the choices as he understood them, and does that make the dilemma that pits faith against reason any different for people today?  Is there some logical path, some progression of argument, perhaps via a transposition or a series of transpositions, that might let us read Mather’s text as a commentary on the relationship between redemptive love and historical understanding?  I’m not looking to corral Mather into making an argument that he isn’t making.

I think I could argue that in this portion of his text, at least, Mather is concerned with understanding or opining upon the relationship between historical knowledge and redemptive love.  He brings these terms together, but concludes that one is inferior to the other.  Writing when history as a modern discipline was just beginning to emerge, Mather views “histories ancient and modern” as delights of the mind.  Writing in the modern era of history, Niebuhr and Michelet and Collingwood and Fritz Stern write of history as an effort of the moral will, an act of sympathy, an expression of love.  History is the means to the epistemic eschaton, the means by which love makes what is partial and imperfect into something full and whole.

That is a very idiosyncratic way of thinking about the epistemological problems of history — different, it seems, than asking, “What is the relationship of the past to the present?” or “What is the relationship between temporality and causality?”  But it seems to me that, given the nature of the discourse about historical thinking and historical inquiry — given the meaning that historians make or find in their work — the question as I have framed it is in fact a legitimate way of delineating the challenge of historical inquiry and epistemology.

It was Ambrose of Milan who suggested that human redemption is effected because Satan, Death and Hell “swallowed” Christ, as a monstrous fish swallows a hook, so that in overcoming Christ, Death itself was overcome, caught, captured, rendered powerless by Christ’s indestructible life.  In the same way, perhaps, the revivifying effect of historical inquiry, which to us seems like a service to the needs of the present, may in fact be the accomplishment of that redemption from misunderstanding, from partial knowledge, which the dead of the past demand.

At the same time, what to us seems a “side-effect” of history for others, as we go about our present business, may be its only real present purpose for us.  That is, we think that bringing the dead to life again will help us answer our questions and make our choices in the present clearer so that we can envision a different future.  We may think that this is the primary use of history. But it may be the case that our questions, our presentist concerns, all exist or come into being because those who came before us left us an unsolved problem:  what is the best way to overcome death?  Perhaps the dead hand of the past weighs upon historians not as nightmare but as benediction for our quest.  Perhaps the “side-effect” of history may be the very reason that it exists not just for the dead but for us, for the living, who are all under sentence of death.  All our inquiries may simply be a variant of the anguished cry of Job, “If a man dies, shall he live again?”  And in history perhaps we fashion an answer that can give us some comfort.

The historian’s faith, from what I can see of historians’ practice, pretty much comes down to this: that the dead, rather than being remembered, would be understood.  As we keep that faith for their sake, we keep it for our own….


*Cotton Mather, Bonifacius (1710), excerpted in Hollinger and Capper (6th edition), Vol. 1, p. 65.

15 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. “Now, where does that leave Mather in all of this? David Hollinger would probably cite Mather’s text, especially its conclusion, as a perfect example to illustrate his thesis that the American intellectual tradition is informed by a tension between enlightenment values and evangelical beliefs. I think this text does in fact illustrate that tension, and points to one possible resolution of it — faith, religious duty, obedience to God in the service of others is better than the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment for one’s own benefit. And that conclusion is a “live option” for many people today. That particular resolution of the dilemma of knowledge versus faith is still held forth as the right answer.”

    This reminds me of a debate which emerges from a very different tradition (but which did influence Christianity): that in humanism, by way of classical antiquity, between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. Does one live a retired life of the mind or does one live in and for the world? I don’t think anyone thinks in those terms any more (nor has for a couple of centuries now), but it’s interesting to see the idea of pastoral care framed in a way which calls to my mind that similar tension.

    That leads me to ask: is bringing out the dead a kind of vita activa for historians? That is, they are active in the world by bringing the past back to life; that’s their “activity.” It’s something to ponder further.

  2. “….I have stated my initial thinking on the theme of historians as “resurrection men” — as plunderers of the dead who at the same time bring the dead to life, even though the vivifying aspect of history might be a side-effect of presentist concerns. But I might go so far as to say that this “effect” may be an end, this accident may be an aim; it may be viewed as a chief purpose of historical inquiry.”

    In reading your discussion regarding “side-effects” and “ends,” I was thinking about how controversial figures of the past, such as Cromwell, have had their bones exhumed to achieve goals for those who were in power so as to make a point or allow the country/people to “move on.” I’m also reminded of Louis Farrakhan’s show trial for the “white man” that, through a reified form, “brought back” all of the various persons responsible for perpetuating the slave trade. How would you classify this use of history? Also, does this resemble the practice of invoking the names of the dead (as is also common during “moments of silence” and during war holidays)? Do these examples constitute a form of “resurrection” in the sense you’re referring to?

    I also think the different ways in which historical textbooks and primary sources are accessed today via technological media allow people with diverging goals/ends—sometimes miles apart—to blur the distinction between “primary effects” and “side effects.” It seems to be an interesting causative question (or maybe a semantic one). Maybe I’m thinking of how evangelical dispensationalists have been able to point to the “resurrection” of Israel as “proof” that Jesus is coming soon. In this case, what archaeologists in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (and Indiana Jones) thought was their “primary” objective (the desire to recover ancient artifacts) became, as a “side-effect,” new material to use in fashioning a new, apocalyptic future.

    These are mainly random thoughts about your post. I may have been running around the maypole (in honor of your Mather reference) rather than digging at the center.

  3. I can’t comment with any insight, let alone expertise on the grander questions raised here, but I do think at least some of the issues (and perhaps tensions and dualisms) broached in speaking about the “epistemological problems of history” can be addressed in terms made clear by what has recently developed under the rubric, “virtue epistemology” or what is also termed, more pedantically, “regulative epistemology.” I introduced the subject here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2012/04/epistemology-necessity-of-intellectual.html

  4. Thanks all for the great and weighty comments!

    Varad, I think there is a sense in which the vida contemplativa of historians, and the fruits of that life — the history we write — is the service we might render, to the living as well as the dead. This is our “work,” the pastoral dimensions of which I did not really discuss here (nor did I discuss the prophetic dimensions of it either, but see below on some of that.) But this work of ours is what prompts the scorn of our most recent troll, who wants historians to “get out of the way” so that the Men of Action can do what must be done. But if social ills result even in part from a refusal to accept limits — “I’ll never run out of stuff” = “I’ll never run out of life, of time” — then it seems to me that the historian’s work of constantly facing the limits of death — the scarcity, the silence and devastation it brings in its wake — is an important job.

    Patrick, I read your post, and I don’t know whether what I’m talking about is in the same vein, but the subject looks interesting. I think the philosophers to whom I owe the greatest debt in my thinking — though they may not all take their bows in this post — are Augustine, William James, Miguel de Unamuno, and Collingwood. (Actually, now that I think about it, they are all here, though I only meant to call up Collingwood.)

    Mark, you have taken my metaphor in a very literal direction. I love it. On the examples of uses of the dead in the first part of your comment, that kind of “resurrection,” is farther from what I had in mind. As it happens, where my post ends — “the dead, rather than being remembered, would be understood” — is the opposite (I hope) of Cromwell’s exhumation. There the literal dead hand of the past is being brandished to badger the living. That’s a peculiarly concrete form of “memory,” I would think, and not history — and if not history, then not resurrection.

    The trial conducted by Malcolm X is interesting to think about in the light of Vincent Brown’s book The Reaper’s Garden, where Brown discusses death as (among other things) a symbol and instrument of power in the world of Atlantic slavery (and, specifically, in Jamaica). The trial is a rebuke to all the ways that power has been wielded, and does so by appropriating the symbol of that power.

    I am envisioning history (in this post/essay, at least) as standing against the power of death. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I am not Resigned” are probably rattling around in my head here, but the regnant literary expression I’m drawing on is Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. This seems to be a frequent metaphor invoked by historians. Albert Bushnell Hart’s 1909 AHA address, “Imagination in History,” comes to mind, and I’ve come across many historians who have used it — though often, in my experience, in their prefaces/introductions, which I find interesting.

    On primary effects v. side effects, purposes and ends, cause as catalyst v. cause as goal — this is where my essay is at its diciest. I am playing with (and against) teleology, and doing so very deliberately against an eschatological backdrop. I’m not focused on eschatology per se so much as I am in notions of “eschatological time” — notions which, as you point out, have very real consequences for the present. But, yes, I was trying to get at how people may approach history to serve their own intents and purposes and unwittingly find themselves working out or working toward different ends. My paltry version of the “cunning of history,” I guess.

    Anyway, thanks again to all for the comments.

  5. Perhaps this will help: conventional epistemological questions raised by the practice of history (whether they are raised from the side of epistemology or history) would probably avoid the language and assumptions raised by references to an “effort of the moral will, an act of sympathy, an expression of love,” or framed in terms of an “accomplishment of that redemption from misunderstanding, from partial knowledge, which the dead of the past demand.” Or, more plainly, history’s conventional epistemological problems (so to speak: I don’t see them so much as problems as such, simply questions raised my methodological self-consciousness and concern) would not, it seems to me, not broach the subject of death or “the dead” (directly or metaphorically) or even the topic of the “historian’s faith.” However, virtue epistemology could find the concepts and language which would allow open and sustained handling of such subjects without any, as it were, professional reluctance or even embarrassment.

  6. This regulative epistemology aims to be virtuous in several senses, and thus it is intended to include analytic epistemic virtues as well. Furthermore, it is best viewed as a species of practical wisdom, indeed, Roberts and Woods characterize their endeavor “as an attempt to formulate intellectual practical wisdom,” in this instance the analytic “formula” is necessarily complemented by or in conjunction with narrative examples. Axiomatic to their argument is a deep understanding and appreciation of what is meant by the notion of an “intellectual virtue.” And intimately related to this is their proposal to view “the will” as the central epistemic faculty, giving due recognition to the pivotal role played by our “concerns, desires, and emotions” in making “efforts and choices:” “The reason is that the epistemic goods are acquired, not by faculties but by agents [I would have preferred ‘persons’ here], and the will is the locus of our identity as agents.”

    The link in my Ratio Juris to the book by Roberts and Wood at Amazon has a nice introduction and one can see the chapter headings for the subject matter.

  7. I need to slightly revise — or extend — my response to Varad above. I wrote: “… the historian’s work of constantly facing the limits of death — the scarcity, the silence and devastation it brings in its wake — is an important job.”

    I think I should explain what I mean when I say that historians are “constantly facing the limits of death.” I mean that historians in the archives are always faced with the problem St. Vincent Millay identifies in her poem (actually titled Dirge without Music):

    A formula, a phrase remains — but the best is lost

    The job of the historian is to take the dead fragments of the past and, as best we can, reconstruct a living whole, some idea of the past’s idea of itself that we can pass from one hand to another — from our understanding onto the page and from thence to the reader’s imagination. This is why the valley of dry bones seems like such an apt metaphor to me.

    I had to dig around in my archived emails, but I finally found the paragraph I was looking for, in an email I sent to a friend in my program way back on Dec. 12, 2011, which seems like a lifetime ago. We were discussing historicism. I wrote:

    It seems to me — and this is off the cuff with no bibliography, but a lifetime of thinking about mortality — that the problem of history and the problem of death are very closely related. As historians, we are all resurrection men in the valley of dry bones, trying to bring the past to life through the texts we read, trying to make the dead speak to the living.

    It’s breathtaking when you think about it. I guess the passage from Ezekiel is literally breathtaking, or breath-giving — and I found it so telling that Marx alluded to it in this 18th Bromide. [I know it’s “Brumaire”; I was joking.]

    But it is astonishing to think about. It’s as if the past is lying there, lifeless, motionless, so much inert matter, and a historian comes along and constructs a narrative — beginning, middle, end — and within the well-lit world of that narrative, all is light and color and motion, laughter strife birth love dying — just this whole full panoply of human existence brought back from oblivion, like a costume ball swirling into life. And then the narrative reaches its end, and the life just goes out of everything and it all falls to the ground again, until another historian comes along, and constructs a different narrative, and then the breath of life moves over the dry bones again.

    That’s what I meant, in a nutshell, when I said that historians are constantly facing the limits of death. And I’ll probably pursue this essay from that point when I come to it again on the blog.

    But I think next Saturday will see either a doughty challenge to Gordon Wood, or a return to Jason Sokol’s There Goes My Everything in light of the Supreme Court ruling that everyone is expecting this week — whatever the ruling may be.

  8. L.D., insightful post as per usual. As someone with no religious background and indifference to metaphysics generally, I like your distinction between the dead as remembered and understood. I think it is one of the great challenges for historians to try not only to recall an individual or event, but make it understandable within a particular context or universe. I don’t necessarily think either remembrance or understanding need to be rooted in obligation however. Understanding an individual, an event, or a place in a particular time can have tremendous value to the living individual trying to interact with and come to terms with his or her surroundings or place. By contextualizing the dead, we can place ourselves. By understanding their struggles, joys, sorrows, we make our own meaningful. This is history’s humanizing mission. Making history – authentically and without purposeful distortion – allows us to make ourselves and give our lives meaning.

    I find the weight of the dead subject to be much lighter than the alive or recently dead one. I find it much easier to debate other historians about the intentions or insights of the long dead – opinions and beliefs culled from well-worn monographs and age-stained letters – than the shouts of “not true” by living individuals, their relatives, and their confidants. Despite the oft-repeated maxim that agents are rarely the best spokeswomen for their own actions or writings, there seems something particularly damning about the subject of a historical book or article arguing against a historian’s interpretation of him or her. While the weight of the dead may at times seem unbearable, to me it always has been the protests of the living subject that land with the dull thud of heavy-weight punches upon a historian’s interpretation.

  9. This is such a beautiful post, LD. You think in ways I’m not even capable, which perhaps speaks to the different routes we took to get here. That said, from my vantage point, one of the more compelling treatises on historical thinking, Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (1940), comes to some similar conclusions (if with a more Marxist, class-angry bent). Check out this famous passage:

    “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”

  10. Beautiful job as usual L.D.
    I admittedly feel obtuse when it comes to metaphor so please accept my apologies at the outset if I’ve taken this one to some literal destination that wasn’t intended.
    My question goes to the desires of the living vs the ‘obligations’ to and the ‘demands’ of the dead. It seems to me the historian’s responsibility is not to honor the wishes of the dead but to discover the truth of their lives. I realize truth is a debatable and probably poor choice of words but such are my failings I can’t think of a better one at the moment.
    Maybe the ‘dead’ are the equivalent of truth/fact that they don’t embody a consciousness as say living persons do armed with ego, ambition and a desire to protect their history. Otherwise why would the dead demand anything unless by this you mean the dead as a metaphysical conscious will? Still the words obligations and demands are problematic as they relate to the dead, aren’t those the words of the present or the future. Or maybe you see the historian as custodian of the past, creating order and meaning, preserving a memory. But if an obligation is a moral one and not a debt it might therefore be one that is independent of the dead or the living that is to say you are being true to a cause that supercedes the temporal. I say this because your examples and allusions are religious and you speak of the historian’s faith and pastoral work.

  11. Andrew, thank you so much for that Benjamin quote. Paul Gilroy used it as an epigraph for one of his chapters in Black Atlantic, but he didn’t say from which work of Benjamin’s it came, so that was on my list of things to track down.

    Paul, I’m glad for your comment and your kind words. I am attempting secularize some sacred metaphors, rather than sacralize the secular academy via the language of faith. At the same time, I hope the jarring incongruity of using the language of religious faith to explore the logic of the secular enterprise of historical inquiry might shake things up enough to dislodge an interesting idea or two.

    I think I will address some of the points you raise above — obligation to the past v. obligation to present/future — in a later essay along this same theme. But, in brief, there is a sense in which a historian is a “mediator” figure between past and future — more sacerdotal than pastoral, perhaps. But that’s just one direction my essay has veered, with long detours into generational discourse, the historiography of the Holocaust, and various and sundry other topics.

    I’m just glad that I might be able to do something with this writing. It has literally been sitting on my bookshelf for over a year, but I didn’t know if it was gathering force or just gathering dust. But it seems that people are interested in it, so I’ll keep on essay-ing, though I might do some revision as I go forward.

    Anyway, thanks to all for the encouragement.

  12. Matt, sorry I missed your comment up there yesterday in one of my omnibus replies.

    I think the obligation to aim towards understanding is — either first of all, or in the end — an obligation to our fellow historians. It’s a professional commitment, but I think it’s a professional commitment that rests upon the shared professional experience of constant struggle against “devouring time.”

    You are probably right that in some ways recent history is more difficult to work toward than more distant times/events, precisely because it seems more “present” than past, more part of living memory (and therefore of present experience) than archival record. That’s fighting time in a different direction. But that fight is just as important, because if our only knowledge of an event comes through the memory of those who saw it or participated in it, then when they’re gone, our window on that past closes.

    History is about establishing understanding that will endure independently of any one person’s (or one group’s) memory. That is history’s answer to mortality. One of them, anyway.

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