I majored in history and one question that comes up in intro history classes is “What is history?” My answer to what history is derived from Hegel and Parfit. It is the process by which paradigms evolve. It is normal becoming strange and a new normal replacing it. It is the unthinkable becoming unthinkable to not be a thing. It is change primarily in the realm of ideas. To us an example from my personal life, I used to be a heterosexual and am now a heteroromantic asexual. Back in the 1990s, for example, most romantic asexuals labelled themselves as sexuals because it was assumed everyone who was attracted to a gender was sexually attracted to them. Now, before I called myself a heteroromantic asexual, I said I was a heterosexual who was more romantic than sexual. This change is much more than semantic and has major implications. Additionally, I have an oxytocin defecit and am not romantically attached to individuals. I used to say I had crushes on girls but I had just used that word to apply to anyone I found attractive.
Therein is the magic of history. The narrative and reality of what happened was changed. Being a heteroromantic asexual without oxytocin changes the memory of what happened and, in a sense, reconstructs a reality from across time. I was believed to, with the language I used and general assumptions of then-contemporary society, have crushes and this contributed somewhat to a yearbook superlative I got for “Best Couple That Never Got Together”. The fact my oxytocin defecit made me unable to be romantically attached to the girl who was nominated with me massively changes the story. The lack of language, concepts, and classes with which to describe a reality changes reality. The lived experience and the memory are fundamentally different. That is history.
History is a radically redemptive and beautiful process. I do not subscribe, in full, to Dereck Parfit’s most famous idea that humans become different people as they age and their earlier selves become more distant. Childhood psychology affects people throughout their lives so, scientifically, his basic idea is not true. People are, at their core, relatively consistent. To further that example, people change politics, religion, and other major aspects of their lives very seldomly. Most people die with the beliefs they were raised with. I do believe that when new realities are constructed that old realities should die. My position is similiar to David Reiff’s in his book, In Praise of Forgetting. One of the reasons I am against reparations is due to my categorical opposition to living memory of historical attrocity. People are not, fundamentally, different across their lives, for the most part, but we should live as if they are so as to forgive them more easily. For which reason, we should also welcome the death of eras and let them be a collective absolution.
Only once forgiveness and clear air have been established, can a culture be objectively studied and that is history. History begins for a particular item when that item is no longer fully extant. When it is calm and silent. When the veterans from both sides of a conflict can be honest about what happened without shame or embrassment and laugh with one another about it. And especially when science and social progress have clarified and brought better understanding to the ignorantly lived times from which we came and the demons of our pasts may be truly put to rest.
History is evolution and the the study of the dead and, again, the death of eras is a cause for celebration. History, on the whole, does not always go forward but for anyone who is determined to morally progress, themselves, the experiences of life inevitably lead to moral progress and the revelations unearthed by time rage into posterity. Even in ancient times, moral philosophy went from myopic and immediate to universal and timeless as social evolution travelled through time. It is how we went from religions focussed on getting nature deities to make humans their sugar-babies to religions which emphasized how to be good people headed by deities, cosmologies, and/or theologies much more abstract, cerebreral, and nebulous. Which is to say that even in times when society doesn’t seem to morally advance, advancements are made.