The Malleability of History

“A morsel of genuine history is a thing so rare as to be always valuable.”

– Thomas Jefferson, September 8, 1817


Historia by Nikolaos Gysis (1892)
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As a society, we often nurse the belief that history is a definite thing that can never be changed. We teach in our schools and classrooms that this is ‘how it happened’ in the past, and other possibilities are unlikely at best and impossible at worst.

However, what happens when something tangible is found that throws our firmly held beliefs of the past into question? Last week I wrote about the Antikythera Mechanism and how it’s changed our perspective on the science and technology of not only Greek culture but also our beliefs on when precision gear technology and even computing were first invented and utilized by modern man.

Bottom line: History is not always truth, and history is not infallible.

So what is history?

“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

– Napoleon Bonaparte


That is all history is. What we study when we study history is simply an interpretation of the past that we have agreed upon. These interpretations are written by men and women, fallible as all humans are, who are each influenced by their own unique social and cultural perspectives of the world. It goes without saying that two histories of the world written by two individuals: one from Western cultural and one from Eastern cultural would be markedly different, but these differences play out in more subtle ways even within a single culture.

Note the topics that are hot in popular history right now. For example, there has been a lot of concentration on gays and lesbians in history. Have they always been there in the past? Yes. Has their role, perhaps, been exaggerated? Almost certainly. Why? It’s because this is a popular and controversial social issue of our time which has begun to shape and change our current agreed upon version of past events. No doubt in a few decades our cultural lens will shift and this process will start all over again as we once more reinterpret history through our culture’s newest viewpoint.

“History is written by the victors.”

– Winston Churchill

History is written by those who win, and then it is rewritten and re-framed by the next set of winners. Over and over and over again history changes. Sometimes it changes for the better when truth is revealed anew, but more often than not we fail to interpret history in an objective manner.  Instead, our government, our cultural, and groups with their own individual agendas (social, religious, or otherwise) skew the truth because at this present moment they are the victors.

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