Morality and the Past

Can we pass judgement on history? It’s one of the many interesting questions to which my answer is “why the fuck not?”

If either of my tutors read this, I have no doubt that they would be thoroughly appalled. But it’s part of my personal – and silent, and very cautious – criticism with ivory tower mentality. The idea that it’s a perfectly legitimate way of life to withdraw into a tower and spend your life researching intricate facts about which no one else gives a shit. I do feel like I’m betraying the Oxford legacy, but I hate it. Such a waste of intelligence.

Complaints against moralising with those unable to defend their name are usually threefold:

  1. It’s “unhistorical”; our values were not present at the time.
  2. Moral prejudices will inevitably skew the facts.
  3. What’s the point? It’ll just be us attacking past cultures.

The first is true, but irrelevant. Why don’t we approach alternative cultures with a view to compare, to contrast? It’s fascinating to analyse, say, modern Islamic and more liberal-minded values. Unsurprisingly I’m generally reaffirmed in my view that stoning gays or rape victims is wrong, but I’m at least open to persuasion. The trouble with this is that we’re limited, rather obviously, by contemporary or near-contemporary anecdotes and cultures for our evidence. Opening the scope to the whole of history multiplies this to new level.

The second is a cause for a concern, but ultimately insults the historian. I, for one, would advocate a sort of parallel approach here: keep your specialists. They provide the facts and the gritty detail – the boring language, the dry and witless abstracts and tedious conclusions. (It is, I think, rather difficult to popularise intimate historiography of the early Counter-Reformation subversion of the Eucharist by priestly pretensions to the divinity of hierarchy. Trust me . I’ve tried.) But add to them historical polemicists. They take the facts and add the colour, thus rehabilitating history with a role for popular culture. And then the specialists can read the polemics and point out what does and does not reek of bullshit. The democratisation of accurate history, in other words.

And finally: other than comparing the values of other societies, we can draw some rather important “lessons”. I can’t think of a better word, sorry. What we need first to accept is that morality can be objective, and universal (equality of the sexes, the races etc are I think guaranteed). And if they are objective then there can be empirical substance behind them. We can provide facts that support or contradict those moral arguments. Was William the Conqueror a bastard (in term of conscience, that is)? Well, let’s see what he did!

Think of it as the new humanist historiography. Machiavelli, for one, would draw political instruction for his contemporaries. If we can agree with some universal standards for philosophical humanism then we can apply them to history, and we can draw more objectively moral lessons.

So Elizabeth I was a bitch and her father was the early modern predecessor to Stalin – who was indeed evil. Who’s with me?