Featured History Is Complicated

Discussion in 'General discussions' started by greenbaggins, Sep 9, 2019.

  1. greenbaggins

    greenbaggins Administrator Staff Member

    I have been reading some excellent historical books lately: John Ferling's accounts of the War of Independence, and Shelby Foote's awesome history of the Civil War. What has become blindingly obvious to me is that history is unbelievably complicated. Even understanding the various causes of a war, say, is very complicated. Ignorance of history tends to produce overly simplified accounts of what happened that do not accurately portray the events. Ferling believes, for instance, that Washington and other leaders of the War for Independence were much more complex and mixed characters than people often assume. Ferling does a great job, incidentally, of detailing what was going on in British politics during this time.

    The Civil War is not nearly as simple as saying North=abolitionists and anti-slavery; South=tyranny and mean slave-holders. The Northerners were the slave-traders. They were the vast majority of those who went and got the slaves and sold them to the South. Of the thirteen original colonies, Massachusetts was the last state to abolish the slave trade, and South Carolina was the first. Again, not everything is so clear-cut as today's people would like to assume. In fact, the more one reads in the history of the Civil War, the more complicated everything gets, and the more difficult it is to parse out who was justified in doing what. Lincoln faced so many difficult decisions, and history either lionizes him or demonizes him. Is there room for a middle option, that he was muddling along like everyone else, and had great natural skills, but didn't always make the correct decisions? In short, that he was human?

    Today's generations want everything laid out in laser-like simplicity and accuracy. The problem is that this cannot happen in short compass. It takes an enormous amount of digging and perspective to arrive at historically accurate portrayals.

    I used to be more interested in general histories of the world, but I now find them rather boring, precisely for some of the reasons listed above. If history is so much more complicated than I used to think, then I now want history books that seek to acknowledge this level of detail and complication. What I am finding is that I learn a whole lot more history from the specialized types of books than from the generalized books. The specialized books can put me right there where the action is, and can give me a strong view of how difficult it nearly always was for people to come to various decisions. We need to beware of this over-simplification problem! It is currently leading to some of the highly problematic almost mob-like tendencies of various people demonizing the South. Do I think slavery is biblical? Absolutely not. But take the uproar over Robert E. Lee's statue. First of all, Lee wouldn't have wanted any statues put up of any of the Civil War leaders, North or South. He thought that once the war was over, the hatchet needed to be buried, once and for all. He was not proud of the Civil War. Secondly, after the Civil War was over, Lee did what he could to promote reconciliation. The story of him I like best happened when Northern soldiers were going to force a white church to allow a black man to take communion in the white church. They were doing so at gunpoint (and don't even get me started on the Northern "Reconstruction"). They had the black man at the rails to take communion, and were gearing for a fight when down comes Lee to the rails, and puts his arm around the black man and takes communion with him, thus defusing the whole situation. I have my own thoughts about putting up statues in honor of people, but the people who want to take down Lee's statues aren't necessarily doing it for historically accurate reasons.

    And take Colin Kaepernick's asinine rejection of Betsy Ross Nike shoes. Kaepernick, Betsy Ross was a Quaker! Which means she was an abolitionist! Ignorance of history means that America is in deep trouble. It's not the only reason America is in trouble. But as the cartoon says, "Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it (a la George Santayana), but those who do remember history are condemned to watch others repeat history."
     
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  2. DTK

    DTK Puritan Board Junior

    Indeed, I couldn't agree more.
     
  3. OPC'n

    OPC'n Puritan Board Doctor

    I think we all view history and the present time through our own lens of suspicion on other people's intentions instead of giving allowance to the better part of their actions. I do this most often than not and it's not biblical of me to do so. I believe it was in 1 Timothy that I recently read that we are not only to pray for our leaders but we are to be thankful for them which of course shocked me and has made me rethink my position on Libertarianism.
     
  4. hammondjones

    hammondjones Puritan Board Sophomore

    And the big plantation owners were happy to stop the slave trade to keep up the price of their "investment". Which shows you how complicated history can be when competing groups can agree to the same action, but for different reasons.
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2019
  5. Tom Hart

    Tom Hart Puritan Board Junior

    I have often thought that the human mind is geared towards oversimplification. There is simply too much information to process, and our brains, upon a cursory study, of necessity puts things, as it were, neatly into categories.

    Imagine a box for Lego bricks. At first, it's enough for holding all the bricks in a mass. But as the Lego collection grows, so must the number of compartments and containers. You need to separate the minifigures, their accessories, and the building bricks, the baseplates, etc. (Anyone who has had Lego knows all about this.)

    It's not wrong to have general categories. In fact, everyone has to start there. What is wrong is when people don't recognize that there's more information out there, more Lego bricks to add to the collection. We can't be satisfied with a cursory study (or a small amount of Lego); we have to acknowledge that we don't, yet, have all the answers.

    Of course, most people with a small amount of Lego don't realize just how paltry their collections are.
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2019
  6. TylerRay

    TylerRay Puritan Board Senior

    Story of my life.
     
  7. arapahoepark

    arapahoepark Puritan Board Graduate

    @greenbaggins
    I agree completely. I had to read book for methods of teaching social studies last year and I really didn't care for it. It was very short and too big picture. It chopped history into hunter gather, agrarian and industrial eras and it was far too simplistic in explaining history on those terms. Of course, the idea was to get us, if we were to teach world history, to think about what we would cover and why; what common threads, etc. Nevertheless, that book along with a particularly curriculum that has some good ideas that I will utilize are far too reductionistic and barely scratches the ideologies and movements that are many times are extremely impactful yet, localized. For instance, the spread of Christianity and Buddhism are covered concurrently as if they are just variants, one western the other eastern. Additionally, the goal I have seen is to "decolonize" history; so out with Western Civ. Yet, as a world history teacher I would cover that more in-depth because it explains so much more of the world with which we are familiar than does the Song Dynasty of China (of course a little simplistic on my part too, but I am a details guy at heart.)
     
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  8. Wayne

    Wayne Tempus faciendi, Domine.

  9. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    Amen! I couldn't agree more. I always tell people "context, context, context" when it comes to historical matters. If you don't understand the context of an event then you'll never understand the event.
     
  10. bookslover

    bookslover Puritan Board Professor

    I've started reading the Cambridge Medieval History (the old series, published from 1911 to 1936; 8 volumes).

    I'm also reading this new book: A Goodly Heritage: The Secession of 1834 and its Impact on Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and North America by Cornelis Pronk (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019).

    I do love me some history!
     
  11. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    It's unlikely that any history books available from the local book shop are going to be telling you the real truth of the past.
     
  12. CovenantWord

    CovenantWord Puritan Board Freshman

    Greenbaggins: I find myself in vigorous agreement with your point that a simplified view of history is dangerous. I would thus encourage you to consider applying your helpful insight to one of the statements in your post:
    This statement, in its absolute, face-value form is difficult to reconcile with the extensive social regulations of slavery found in Moses and the implied acceptance of slavery exhibited throughout the New Testament. Dabney makes an (in my judgment) unanswerable argument to this effect in in A Defence of Virginia (https://archive.org/details/defenceofvirgini00dabn/page/n1). The problem with justifying the antebellum South (which was Dabney's intent) is that her institution was not Mosaic slavery, but chattel slavery, which is condemned in the strongest terms throughout Scripture. Chattel slavery results in -- in fact could be defined as -- the systematic and permanent stripping, without just cause, of civil rights from a set of human beings. The reason I promote this distinction is that a blanket condemnation of "slavery" tends to obscure the righteousness of the covenant authority essential to Christian social and civil relationships.
     
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  13. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    Are you saying you agree with Dabney's assessment of Biblically-sanctioned slavery, but that he was wrong to apply that to the south?
    I hope I don't derail this thread by saying that Defense of Virginia and the South had some glaring inconsistencies: Dabney claims that the England and the North were culpable still for their past slave-trading ways (which is where he claims their prosperity stemmed from), then says that slaveowners can't be considered man-stealers because they didn't steal the men themselves, even though they're profiting from it! He kind of wants to have it both ways.
    But more to the point of the OP: almost all the history I know has come from reading historical novels, in which the point of view of the author is blatantly obvious. For instance, Tolstoy doesn't hide his contempt for Napoleon in War and Peace; nor does C.S. Forester in any of his novels. Wouk's The Hope and The Glory are obviously pro-Israel (I wonder if there's any historical novels written by Palestinians? I'd like to see their point of view). I'd like to see books written from the other side (I guess there is All Quiet on the Western Front, but that just shows that all soldiers everywhere were wet and cold and hungry and scared), just to see what they say.
     
  14. CovenantWord

    CovenantWord Puritan Board Freshman

    That is correct.
    I am not prepared to defend the entirety of Defense, only the one point that the Bible countenances slavery as an integral institution of society.
     
  15. timfost

    timfost Puritan Board Junior

    Life, which becomes history, is complicated. I have a thirteen-year-old who hears about an issue and applies an overly simplistic, cut-and-dry conclusion (as we'd expect of someone her age). One of the things we enjoy doing together is looking at an issue from multiple perspectives and realizing how messy it becomes. She really seems to enjoy digging into issues and we've had some of our best, most lively discussions along this vein. She is very good at being receptive to the complications even if initially she didn't see them.

    Unfortunately, it seems many people settle on a thirteen-year-old perspective of the world as adults and are unwilling to explore the complications.

    Thanks for sharing!
     
  16. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritan Board Doctor

    The blanket statement that history is complicated is too simplistic. ;)
     
  17. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Dabney defends the use of slavery in the South, despite its being a result of the slave trade, as a necessary means to deal with a situation which was beyond the control of the Southern states: the presence of a large (and ever increasing) population of people who were incapable of being absorbed peacefully into society and if left to themselves would have become a menace. He raises the objection "well Christians didn't need to have slaves" but then you would have the situation where the best people in the society would have the least influence on the blacks. So his argument is that having been put into this situation, unable to reverse it, slavery was the best means to deal with it. So I don't think it's a contradiction on Dabney's part to distinguish between the illegal slave trade on the one hand, and the use of legal slavery within the country on the other. Dabney, I'm sure, would have been quite happy to send them all back. But being put into a situation which the Southern states had no ability to prevent something had to be done. Slavery, being a Biblically sanctioned institution, was the remedy chosen. And it enabled Christians to exert a very good influence on the blacks.
     
  18. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    We read the same book and reached different conclusions: this is pretty much what the thread is about :)
     
  19. Leslie

    Leslie Puritan Board Junior

    Who is the author? Where can I find this? Is it on Gutenberg? I'd like a detailed history of the Medieval years but have not been able to find any.
     
  20. bookslover

    bookslover Puritan Board Professor

    There is no single author. Each volume has chapters written by different scholars. I have no idea if it's on Gutenberg. Also, if you're interested in something a little more recent, there is a New Cambridge Medieval History published in the 1980s. It's a replacement set for the original series and is set up the same way (several volumes, several authors per volume).
     

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