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What is the Point of History?

It is – viewed from the perspective of our own age – a distinctly unusual painting.

Jacob de Wit, Truth and Wisdom Assist History in Writing, c. 1754

Sitting half-naked with her back to us, her hair beautifully braided, filling in a long scroll, is the allegorical figure of History. Assisting her on the left is the helmeted Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena; and above her resting on a cloud is the figure of Truth, naked – because she has nothing to hide – but covering certain parts – because she can never be fully known. At History’s feet, three angelic children are helping out with background research. The title points us to the moral: Truth and Wisdom Assist History in Writing.

The painting was commissioned in the Netherlands in the mid-18th century for the entranceway to the private library of a keen amateur historian and wealthy Jewish-Dutch businessman, Isaac de Pinto, who lived in a house on Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Herengracht. It conveys a strikingly grand impression of the significance of history, which probably has little to do with how we might remember the subject from school. Many of us may recall only a boring and disjointed ramble through items ranging from the Thirty Years War to the Viking invasions, or from Medieval crop rotation to the Treaty of Versailles. 

The modern age may have made huge strides in how to write technically accurate history: we now know far better than our predecessors how to locate, archive and interpret original sources. But along the way, we seem to have lost a vivid sense of why we should bother with the past. How could the slew of information we have from previous ages be of use to us, outside of having to pass an exam? What, essentially, is the point of history?

The clue to the traditional answer, now largely forgotten but distinctly relevant to our times, is to be found in the Dutch painting in the helmeted figure of Athena. As the Classical goddess of wisdom would have reminded Isaac de Pinto on his way in and out of his library each day: the true point of history is to help to make us wise. Wise doesn’t mean ‘smart’ or impressive to others. It means that through a judicious study of the past, we may learn how better to cope with life’s vicissitudes; we may acquire greater calm and perspective in relation to opposition and reversals, crises and sorrows. We may understand ourselves more clearly. History – a topic that we might previously have associated with abstract and impersonal concerns (the foreign policy of Charlemagne, life at the court of the Inca emperor Atahualpa) – may offer us intimate assistance with how to deal with our tendency to panic, how to approach a troubled relationship or confront an unfair rumour about us at work.

However, to benefit from this rarer but more impactful kind of history – what we can call wise history – we may have to approach the raw material of the past differently from the way it is now mostly handled. We can keep our clothes on, we don’t need angels or mythological figures, but we need to cut across history in unfamiliar and more philosophical ways. We can study the same books, but we need to make new selections from them: rather than a rendition of facts and events, we need to go in search of helpful ideas with a power to illuminate and console our psyches. We need to raid history with a very particular mission in mind: to learn how to live and die well. Athena would have understood, and svelte Truth approved.

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