Saturday, September 19, 2015

Moral Judgments in History

Yesterday on my other blog ("Steve's View From Abroad" about living abroad and traveling), I posted a note about the sirens that marked the anniversary of the "Chinese War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression". As the sirens sounded, I happened to be reading R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History, and specifically, "Lectures on the Philosophy of History" given in 1926. In that section, Collingwood writes about the historian's attitude toward the past. Collingwood argues that it is not the job of the historian to judge the past, but to deal with the facts and attempt to explain it.

I think that he's right. This seemingly cold-blooded attitude--as Collingwood describes it--is required for an accurate understanding of the nature of the past. The past is done, final; and to pass moral judgment upon it is to waste energy that should be spent on current concerns. Like the pathologist performing an autopsy, the job is not to mourn or decry the fact of an untimely or unjust death, but to understand it, to explain it, and to pass on information to the present and future that may prove of use there. This is not to say that we should become callous about wars of aggression, slavery, or any of the seemingly infinite number of wrongs that we humans can commit. No so! But to dwell in the world of past wrongs as if it was real is a fool's errand and the tool of tyrants and demagogues who manipulate the gullible to dwell on past wrongs at the expense of current, ongoing malfeasance.

This is not an easy attitude to take. We cannot think of wrongs without some sense of moral revulsion. As the Chinese (or any feeling person) will react in horror and revulsion at the Rape of Naking and the history of brutality and hostility wrought by the Japanese in China between 1931 and 1945, this reaction must halt at the visceral level. For those who go further--those who exercise their historical consciousness--the next step is to perform the autopsy. Lessons can be learned, but the past cannot be changed nor can it serve as a reliable motive as it fades further and further into the blur of the accumulated past. This is the role of forgiveness at the personal level and some practical statute of limitations at the social level.

Here are Collingwood's thoughts on the subject:

[I]t is not the function of the historian to pass judgment, but to explain; and to explain is always to justify, to show the rationality of that which is explained; for (he goes on) whereas the practical consciousness always looks to the future and tries to bring into existence something better than what now exists, and therefore always regards the present as bad, whereas it can regard the past as simply good because it is not real and therefore has not to be opposed and improved, the theoretical or historical consciousness, concerned simply with what is, must regard the present with an impartial eye and must therefore see in it the outcome of all the past's endeavor, and therefore better than the past. [402]

To say that the whole course of history has been a continual passage from the good to the better is true and valuable, if it means that we must look at history not with a view to criticizing it but with a view to accepting it and reconciling ourselves to it, not it to ourselves. But it is false if it means that we are called upon to pass moral judgments on its course and at the same time restricted from passing any but a favorable judgment. We are not called upon to pass moral judgments at all. Our business is simply to face the facts. To say that the Greek victory at Marathon was a good thing or the Renaissance papacy a bad thing is simply to indulge in fantasies that impede, instead of advancing, the course of historical study. The real holocaust of history is that historian's holocaust of his emotional and practical reactions towards the facts that it presents to his gaze. True history must be absolutely passionless, absolutely devoid of all judgments of value, of whatever kind. [402]

[I]t's easy to forget that what we are studying is the past, and to deceive ourselves into thinking that Athens and Sparta are as real as France and Germany. And we do this, we feel about them as we feel about France and Germany, that it is up to us to do something about it, to decide upon a course of action, or at least to make up our minds how we should act if opportunity arose to act. It will not arise; and for that very reason we may take the same kind of self-deceptive pleasure in making up our minds how we should act that we take in framing pungent rapartees to an adversary whom we know we shall not meet. We are amusing ourselves by transplanting ourselves in imagination into a scene whose very essence, as an object of historical thought, is that we are not in it and can never be in it: and this not only confuses our historical thinking but squanders in fantasies our moral energy which it is our duty to devote to the actual problems of life. [403]

To pass moral judgments on the past is to fall into the fallacy of imagining that somewhere, behind a veil, the past is still happening; and that when we so imagine it we will fall into a kind of rage of thwarted activity as if the massacre of Corsyra was now being enacted in the next room and we ought to break open the door and stop it. To rescue ourselves from the state of mind we need only to realize clearly that these things have been; they are over; there is nothing to be done about them; the dead must be left to bury their dead and praise their virtues and lament their loss. [404]

The Idea of History (Revised Edition)