When people asked what I was studying in college, I always said history. It wasn’t until later that I realized that was shorthand; we used to preface all academic subjects with “the discipline of.” But when we dropped the word “discipline” from academic realms, we lost a constant reminder that scholarship—indeed, thinking—is above all else difficult and worthy of dedication.
You see, history is both an art and a science. It is narrative, and it is analysis. Often we’re drawn to one or the other extreme, but it’s important to counter that imbalance so we can be sure that our understanding is as complete as it can be (or at the least, that we’re not making an embarrassing mistake).
One of my favorite examples of the dangers of a lazy historiography comes from Ptolemaic Egypt. When the Ptolemies took over, they tried to adopt traditions of the pharaohs to seal their place as legitimate rulers. As they read pharaonic texts, they noticed that pharaohs and their wives called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’ So they married their siblings. It turns out, however, that Egyptians did not practice consanguineous marriage—it was just a term of endearment. If that’s not a solid argument for careful historical investigation, I’m not sure what is!
Now, you’re not likely to be establishing an empire based on the royal rituals of an ancient kingdom, so you’re far from making the Ptolemies’ mistake. But our view of history controls what we believe about the world around us, from our faith to our political ideology. If we don’t simultaneously think of James Madison as the man who penned our Constitution and as the man who first brought slaves with him to the White House, how can we hope to make any kind of argument about what sort of place the Framers intended this country to be?
Therefore, while it’s vitally important to understand the narrative of history, we have to make sure we’re doing more than just reading stories. Because the human experience is universal, it’s easy to find ourselves, our passions, and our motivations in the pages of history. We are quick to project our thoughts, feelings, and reasons on the people of the past, but if we want to understand the past well, there’s no bigger mistake we could make. As historian Patricia Crone said, “We all take the world in which we were born for granted and think of the human condition as ours. This is a mistake. The vast mass of human experience has been made under quite different circumstances.”
To start you on the journey of exploring history as a social science, I recommend Crone’s book Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World. Let me warn you of two things:
1. There are no battles, castles, miracles, or pyramids in this book. It is not narrative history, and it is not what most people would call particularly thrilling reading.
2. If you get it, history will be more confusing, more exciting, and more of an intellectual adventure than you ever thought before.
Convinced? I thought you would be. Crone’s topic is one of the fundamental questions of history: what is the state? It seems like this would be the kind of thing historians would have figured out already (or a definition a fourth grader could easily memorize.) Although the state can be defined as the individuals, groups, and institutions that exercise power within a single country, once you try to push past that explanation and understand how the thing functions in the real world, it gets quite messy.
In Pre-Industrial Societies, Crone presents a clear, complex exploration of the nature of the state across history. She distinguishes between the pre-modern (or pre-industrial) state and the modern state, and then leads the reader through an examination of the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of the two types of state. Her interest is primarily in how effective the state at the national level is at influencing the daily operation of local groups under its rule.
For example, we often assume that ancient cultures invented religions that incorporated worship of a semi-divine ruler in order to control the population, creating a sort of religious nationalism. We moderns tend to think about ancient Rome, for instance, in those terms – we take patriotism and add some weird emperor worship to it and call it a day. Crone pushes back at that narrative, instead arguing that the cultural trappings that define a nation tend to predate states. While a common myth can present political unity, it didn’t do much for personal peasant devotion to god-kings.
So, why should we care? The dominant popular historical narrative for the fall of religious empires and the rise of secular nation-states tends to focus on the rise of scientific discovery and an emphasis on human reason. Suddenly in the 17th century, we all woke up, realized gods are silly and started using our brains and writing constitutions. While that neatly fits with a worldview that regards religion as mere superstition, we should always be wary of historical narrative that neatly fits anything. History’s a mess. It doesn’t work that way.
And that’s why we should really care. Nationalism, which is still alive and kicking in the American political system, is built on the idea that the nation predates the nation-state. Watch this fall’s presidential debates on foreign policy and try to find an argument devoid of nationalist elements. It’ll be tough if not impossible.
What does that leave us with? Crone argues that as industrial powers sought to distill one cultural narrative to define themselves and used consumer culture, general education, and political dominance to promote legitimacy for their actions, that stripped away all pre-industrial forms of identity: the family, the state, class, religion, and others. That leaves the individual as last man standing. Or, as Crone puts it, “How they [readers of this book] should evaluate it [the industrial West] is a moral, not a scholarly question: just as science cannot tell you whether or not to forsake tobacco, only the effects of its use, so scholarship cannot tell you whether or not to accept modernity, only the manner in which it works.”
Narrative history is fun, but we can only think well about narrative history when we explore these highly technical questions. And, if Crone’s right, much more is at stake than knowing who fired first at the Boston Massacre. If we want to be virtuous citizens in a democratic republic like ours, or more importantly, servants of Christ living in and serving the City of Man, we have to cultivate the discipline of history. It requires hard work and deep humility – not despairing that we can never be right, but always willing to admit that we could be wrong and striving to spend the rest of our lives learning.