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.