Wednesday, June 06, 2007

At different times and places, people think differently.

I am reading a book about Florence, Firenze, from 1494 to the 1520's and the author is talking about how some people writing then were developing a new idea of how to write about history.

This new idea was that in writing about history you would seek accuracy in facts and try to discern cause and effect.

I'm going, "And what would history be if you didn't seek accuracy and facts and try to know what caused what?"

The author has been explaining to me what history writing was before that, but I'm not getting it. Still in my mind I was assuming that somewhere in there was wanting accuracy and causation. I unconsciously figured that old history writing had the features the author described and also (of course!) was into facts and causation.


To begin to feel what that was like I'd have to read more than one of the older histories accompanied by great introductions that told me what the writers were trying to achieve.

Also the author--Felix Gilbert, in "Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth Century Florence"--says that what makes Machiavelli's writing about politics most different than the writing that came before was not its cynicism, but that he wrote about politics as a separate process, that he broke politics out and made it be a subject.

And what would it be like to not do that?

Well, it would be like the world before the sixteenth century.

What did people do when they were writing histort but weren't interested in accurate facts or studying how one event caused another?

Gilbert says that in Florence in the late 1400's, what people who wrote history wanted to do was end up with something like the histories that Roman and Greek historians wrote.

They wanted their end-product to have a high-flown introduction with ideas about how to live and act that the following writing would prove. They wanted the final product to be divided into books, and the number of books should be an auspicious number.

They wanted to history they wrote to include a number of well-written speeches, which they made up. Their audience would not expect that these speeches would be speeches actually given at the time. They were stylized presentations of the issues.

They would want all this to include commentary on the place of Fortune in events and the place of Reason, meaning reasonable prudent action.

The subject matter would be war and diplomacy. Battles would be described in great detail.

When I was reading Gilbert's outline of these qualities people writing about history were aiming for in Florence in the late 1400's, I didn't notice that none of this implies any interest in accurate facts. And they weren't interested in accurate facts.

They were interested in getting to the larger truth of how things happen by taking some existing narrative about diplomacy and war and rewriting to assume the classical form.

When they were looking for the narrative of events to rewrite, they would often look at multiple narratives of the same events, but they would compare them to determine facts. They would choose one as the best. Then they would rewrite that one.

Looking at things like letters written at the time, what historians now would call documents, was not something they were interested in.

Interest in what we now call facts is a relatively recent phenomenon. It works for many purposes. It works in many ways. And it's new.

To take some old bit of writing and say, "Because I respect the people who wrote this and the tradition it comes from, I'm going to stand right here and argue that this old bit of writing is filled with facts."

But the old time people who wrote it weren't interested in facts.

Old time people often worked from the truth they knew to be true back down to what happened at a certain time and place.

Now we tend to ideally work from the facts of what happened upward.