Passing name-check for Thucydides in this morning’s Grauniad, as the first example of a historian seeking to draw general lessons for the present from the past, in David Armitage‘s plea for politicians and government to pay more attention to historians in making sense of the world and hence make better policy. The effect was slightly spoiled, at least for me, by the fact that the next sentence mentioned Cicero’s line about ‘history the teacher of life, as it instantly brought to mind Reinhart Koselleck’s brilliant article about the dissolution of the historia magistra vitae topos in the modern era – an article I tend to reference at the drop of a hat partly because of the wonderful Thucydides anecdote with which it opens (which I’ve now quoted often enough to give it a rest now) but partly because of its incisive analysis of the modern consciousness of time and change – which, sadly for Armitage’s article, explains precisely why politicians don’t feel much urge to consult historians on anything important, and tend to get annoyed with them when they do.
In Koselleck’s terminology, modernity is characterised by an ever-widening gap between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation; in my cruder terms, we are ever more conscious of the gulf between the present and the past, and expect that the future will be more different still. Far from giving us a guide to the present, in the old exemplary tradition, history tells us above all that things change and that we can’t expect the past to be any guide to the present; of course it might be – the claim that ‘this time it’s different’ may be equally deceptive – but we can’t count on it, and at best it will be only a general resemblance rather than the sort of exact, predictable repetition that might serve as the basis for policy.
What the study of the past can reliably offer is a sense of the unpredictability of human affairs, and of the dangers of assuming certain knowledge of anything; historia magistra vitae as a form of education in sensibility and scepticism rather than in concrete lessons and precepts, just as Thucydides’ history tends to emphasise the gap between confident expectations and the actual course of events. In other words, the ‘actually it’s rather more complicated’ answer to everything, or, as my favourite coffee mug (a present from a student) has it, ‘the simple answer is…we just don’t know’ (a prime candidate for my epitaph, I suspect). It’s not hard to see how this could be extremely annoying to someone who actually does want a straightforward answer. I’m reminded of a mature student I once supervised who had been a commercial lawyer, who regularly became frustrated with my insistence on the complexity and ambiguity of everything. Don’t lawyers spend their whole time arguing over interpretation? I asked. Not in the business world, he replied; I would be asked for a clear answer, and I’d have to give one. I imagine that the world of politics is rather similar in that respect – though with the added complication that a 60:40 split in favour of B over A could still be found in A’s favour if that was more expedient from a political point of view. It’s difficult not to think of the famous gathering of German historians summoned by Margaret Thatcher, apparently with the express aim of gaining academic support for the view that Germany was inherently and eternally dangerous.
This is only a slightly contrived means of linking to the other story that caught my eye today, the death of the author Siegfried Lenz at the age of 88. Lenz, along with others of his generation like Gunter Grass, would be a prime example of the whole-hearted efforts of (some) post-war Germans to face up to the past; a fervent believer in the capacity of literature and intellectual endeavour to improve humanity who was always wholly, horribly aware of its actual failure to do so in the past, and indeed its thorough implication in the Nazi terror. My favourite novel of his is Das Vorbild; ‘The Model’, or, in the actual English translation, ‘An Exemplary Life’ (a translation that I assume I must once have read, probably back in my teenage years when I devoured more or less any book with scarcely any discrimination, such was the overpowering sense of deja lu when I picked up the German original – but of which I have no recollection whatsoever). Three educators, of very different ages, backgrounds and attitudes, meet to select an ‘exemplary life’ to be included in a school textbook; each puts forward very different examples, allowing Lenz to pastiche different writing styles and sensibilities, as well as to explore the clash of value systems and attitudes.
Lenz’ novel questions, to my mind, the very idea of exemplarity; it is the debate what life or experience should be chosen, and what values should be thereby embodies and inculcated, that educates and enlightens – just as it is the teaching of the skills of historical criticism and the analysis of evidence in schools that builds good citizens, not the supposedly improving or patriotic content of the lessons. He stages the different perspectives, showing the virtues and flaws of each – the conservative pedagogue, the ‘down with the kids’ radical and the mildly anti-intellectual, hedonistic journalist – and implying that each is both partly right and partly wrong; lurking behind the whole novel is the alternative, the society in which there is no dispute, and no room for debate, about the ‘correct’ values and the identity of the ‘exemplary’ figure. It is the task of the novelist, as it is of the historian, to represent the complexity and ambiguity of life, against the tendency of politicians and businessmen to seek simple answers based on a limited number of suppositions and ends.