Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

Pieter Geyl - Use and abuse of History (1955)  

What follows I write not as a philosopher but as a historian. If I venture to deal with some general aspects of history, I shall not feel compelled to analyze all my assumptions. No doubt a fundamental view of life in its relation to eternity directs my thinking, but I shall allow it to be deduced or guessed at from my treatment of the subject. As a matter of method I shall be practical and concrete, as befits my calling. I shall argue from my own experience and look at the problems as they have presented themselves to me in the course of a lengthening life spent, if I may say so, not merely in studying the past but in watching the world around me and occasionally, in a modest way, trying to take part in its struggles.

History tries to fulfill certain of our permanent and profound needs as civilized and social beings. From the very beginning, as soon as groups of human beings freed themselves from the shackles of primitivity or began to dispute - however partially and tentatively - the despotism of custom, they took to noting down striking events and the names of leading members. These earliest monuments of history served more purposes than one. They were intended to glorify kings or priests or warriors and by their glory to shed luster on the dynasty, the church, or the state. But at the same time the bare facts which they helped to fix constituted a knowledge useful for the stability of society and its institutions.

There has been this antinomy from the beginning of history: change, movement were the indispensable conditions for its birth, yet one of the main purposes to which it was immediately put was the prevention of change and movement. Substitute “regulation” for “prevention” and you have the purpose of what was to develop eventually into a wealth of literature. In early times the epic, tempestuously bursting the bounds of reality, even of probability, is nevertheless a kind of history, and the one in which feelings of loyalty or communal pride take the lead. The chronicle is the form in which the idea of the usefulness of factual notation predominates. Both appeal to feelings, which they at the same time rouse to consciousness, not only of veneration or of awe, but of disinterested delight in the spectacle of things past, a feeling of wonder, an aesthetic feeling.

There is another craving which the human mind since early times has attempted to satisfy by turning to history. Events are interpreted, or they are related into a significant whole, so as to throw light on the great mystery of man’s fate on earth and the way it is influenced or directed by the divine powers. In both epic and chronicle this element is frequently found, and the holy books of many religions are replete with history. It is not always possible to draw a clear distinction between these various types of writings. The historical books of the Old Testament partake of the epic as well as the chronicle, while at the same time intended to reveal God’s disposal of human affairs. But we have a motive here which has been fertile enough to bring forth a whole literature of its own. (…)

The Renaissance ushered in a period in which historical studies took wing. Documents were unearthed and published, local, national, party, or sectarian histories, memoirs, and biographies were written in large numbers. Often these were based on serious research and the material and its interpretation were increasingly subjected to criticism. (…) The Renaissance brought about a strong up welling of the critical attitude of mind and caused attention to he concentrated on human factors for the explanation of human affairs. The Reformation, on the other hand, led to a reassertion of the theological view. All over Europe writers in both camps used history to show the working of God’s providence, each, of course, in accordance with his own particular prejudices and predilections. God’s Way with the Netherlands is the title of a book in which as late as 1752 a clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church worked out a theological version of Dutch history: Arnoldus Rotterdam, Gods weg met Nederland, 1752. The Princes of Orange were often pictured as being very specially the chosen agents of God’s will in history. So A[norldus] R[otterdam] saw God’s special intervention in the elevation, in 1747, of William IV to the offices of his forefathers, after these had been in abeyance ever since the death of William III in 1702, while the untimely death of the Prince only a few years later, in 1751, seemed to him directly due to “our atheism and ungodliness, our hypocrisy and lifeless religion, our profanation of God’s name and day, our pride and self-sufficiency,” etc. “With all these shortcomings we have exhausted the divine patience.” (…)

Eighteenth-century Rationalism, impatient with conditions as they actually were; ready to subject every tradition and every generally held opinion to fearless criticism, intent on improvement and reform, found itself already, as I have said above, opposed by counterforces which soon gained immensely in strength and confidence from the discomfiture of the Revolution and Napoleonic Empire. (…)

The nineteenth century became the age of history. All study of the humanities, of language, literature, law, and religion was renewed by applying to it the historical method; by thinking about these subjects in terms of a process of growth and development; by trying, moreover, to refrain from measuring earlier ages by the reputedly stable, even eternal, standards of natural law-standards which were now dismissed as the projection of the living and judging generation’s own particular civilization. (…)

The prevailing mood among professional historians nowadays is a chastened one in the face of the immense mass of material and the infinite complexity of the phenomena. (…) The fact in history cannot be isolated. In itself it is meaningless; it can be made to show different aspects of meaning only as it is related to different parts of the circumstances in which it is embedded. Causation, too, is not the simple affair which historians of an earlier generation often thought it to be. (…) Complicated situations have to be taken into account; many factors will be seen to have had an influence, directly or remotely. What makes it particularly difficult to strike a balance between the respective effects of the factors governing a given situation is that they will often be dissimilar in nature: the acts of an individual, the inarticulate feeling of a crowd, military defeat or victory, economic desires or distress, religious fervor. In deciding upon the particular aspect of a fact or upon the proportionate importance to be assigned to a number of factors, the historian must be guided to some extent if not by his prejudice or predilection at any rate by his point of view and intention, determined by the delimitation implied in his subject. (…)

But the historian cannot evade his responsibility. To ascertain the bare facts or factors, sometimes a difficult job in all conscience, is only the first stage of his work: if he is to give an intelligible account, if he will to his own satisfaction understand, he must use his material by choosing from it, ordering it, and interpreting it. In doing so he is bound to introduce an element of subjectivity; that is, he will tamper with or detract from the absolute, unchanging truth. “I shall stick to the facts,” “I shall let the facts speak for themselves” - these well-known turns of speech are often permissible enough, but they are apt to be as misleading as that other favorite phrase: “History shows.” Behind the facts, behind the goddess History, there is a historian. Clio may be in possession of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but to the historian (the young, middle-aged, or old lady or gentleman rummaging among papers in the archive or writing at a desk) she will at best, in exchange for their labor and devotion, vouchsafe a glimpse. Never will she surrender the whole of her treasure. The most that we can hope for is a partial rendering, an approximation, of the real truth about the past.

What I have been saying is no more than a commonplace of current historical thought. But the profound truth of it was borne in upon me - I said at the outset that I was going to write from my own experience - when during the years of the German occupation of Holland I examined the French historiography on Napoleon. Nothing struck me so forcibly, while reading one brilliant French writer after another - and in fact it was the same story with the less brilliant ones, and the sober academic historians of the last period were not, for all their caution exempt from the general law - nothing struck me so much as to find how the point of view of each, conditioned by the political circumstances and preoccupations of his own day, had influenced his judgment and appreciation of the great man. Napoleon could be seen either as the son or as the tamer of the Revolution, either as the bearer of the glad tidings of emancipation to the nations of Europe or as their oppressor, either as the great warrior defending France against a coalition of bigoted and envious European powers or as the adventurer thirsting after personal glory and dragging France along on a path of idle victories inevitably ending in disaster. It was possible to distinguish successive waves of admiration and detraction, of for and against: for, when Frenchmen were suffering from a sense of humiliation or of boredom under the restored Bourbons and Louis Philippe; against, when in Napoleon III they saw the imperial despotism revived and did not like it, for, once again, when the scandals and distractions of the Third Republic began to disgust them with parliamentary government. (…)

In the book which resulted from my wartime study of French historiography on Napoleon I summed up my experience in the statement that history is “an argument without end.” An argument which will not lead to any universally accepted conclusion. (…)

In October, 1945, almost exactly five years after I had been arrested by the German occupying authority, I gave a little address to my students by way of opening my lectures after that long interruption. I began by begging the young men and women to realize that criticism, fearless criticism, criticism without regard to people or nation was the first duty of independent scholarship. That, I told them, although it might sometimes bring us into apparent conflict with other duties and other loyalties, will in reality be keeping faith with the highest values of our civilization. It is a good thing for society that there should be a group of men trained in that discipline by which the dangerous mists of fine phrases hallowed by convention can be dispelled. (…)

I wish that it were possible to draw a simple contrast between myth and history. Myth - the past arranged, without any hampering inhibition, so as to suit the prejudice of its adherents, their national or religious loyalty or intolerance, their party feeling; history - the past shown as it really was. I have said too much, and you knew too much before I said it, about the shortcomings and delinquencies of historians to pretend anything so childish. History and myth are almost inextricably mixed.

What I do say is that it has always been the ideal of historians to separate the two and that in their attempts to make their accounts conform to demonstrable, palpable truth they have done an enormous amount of useful sifting and in one field after another helped intelligible order to overcome confusion. (…)

When dealing with historical myths, traditions, or misconceptions, in the past, the historian has to accept them as manifestations of the politics or civilization of the generation to which they belong; he will extend to them the understanding, the discriminating sympathy that all manifestations of life claim from him. But the doctrine of the useful myth is, to him, of no application to the present. (…)

It is perhaps wrong of me to broach, toward the end of a disquisition on general aspects of history, a concrete example which requires more space than I have left to do justice to its complexity. I have stated my view about that problem categorically here, and indeed I hold it strongly. But the only point I am entitled to make when writing of Use and Abuse of History is that the problem shows the relevance for the present of a discussion of the past. It may be I was wrong on this question, although I think I was right. But by stating my view I took part in the discussion, the argument from which the future will emerge - the free, untrammeled argument which is what distinguishes Western civilization from that of the totalitarian states; one might almost say, which is Western civilization.

And I think I may add that not I personally but all professional historians do possess a kind of familiarity with the past which should not be unheard in that great argument. We do not claim to have Clio’s only authentic message, but we know that we devote ourselves to the deciphering of it with a single­minded devotion. Enthusiasm and abstract thinking, too, are stating their case, supported, most likely, by mythical readings of the past. Even if we wanted to, we could not suppress those voices or prevent others from listening to them; we shall ourselves at times find in them delight and inspiration. Meanwhile, events will proceed on their mysterious course as they have always done, and to the shaping of it how much the past contributes, and how much the urge that is in man’s creative powers, we can only guess.

But shall historians therefore keep silent? No, we must fulfill our function, which is, to the best of our ability, to show up the myths and tell the world all we can find about past reality - in short to promote legitimate use and to check the abuse of history.  

The (abridged) quotation is taken from: Pieter Geyl, The use and abuse of History (1955).  

Postscipt by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

Pieter Geyl was professor of history at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands (1935 - 1958). In October 1954 he delivered a lecture as part of the Dwight H. Terry lectureship, Yale University, New Haven (United States of America). “The Terry Lectures” were short  for “The Dwight Harry Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy”. The lecture was published by Yale University Press in 1955.

Pieter Geyl was born in 1887 and died in 1966. Extract from the digital resources of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (retrieved on 16 April 2017):

'Dutch historian whose works on the Netherlands are highly respected both for their wealth of information and for their scholarly, incisive critical analysis. Geyl became interested in history entering the University of Leiden. (…) After receiving his doctorate in 1913, he worked as London correspondent for the Dutch daily Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant. In 1919 he was appointed professor of Dutch history and institutions at the University of London, where he remained until 1935, when he became professor of history at the University of Utrecht. In October 1940 he was arrested by the Nazis, placed in Buchenwald until 1941, and then transferred to the Netherlands for internment. He was released in 1944 and, after liberation (1945), began teaching again. Geyl’s first published work (1913) was his dissertation on Christofforo Suriano, the Venetian resident in The Hague during the early 17th century. His next book, Willem IV en Engeland tot 1748 (1924), discussed the struggle between the party of Orange and the republican States Party and its effects on the Dutch Republic’s foreign policy, themes that were to become dominant in many of his later works. A collection of articles, De Groot-Nederlandsche gedachte, appeared in 1925 (a second volume was added in 1930), dealing with the concept of unity in the history of Holland and Flanders and generally sympathetic to the development of the nation-state. His greatest contribution, Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse stam, 6 vol. (1930–37; “History of the Dutch People”), covered Dutch history from its beginning to 1798. Another volume on the schism between the House of Orange and the populace, Revolutiedagen te Amsterdam, Augustus-September 1748, appeared in 1936. Oranje en Stuart, 1641–1672 (1939), considered his best monograph, recounted, analyzed, and evaluated the conflict between Orange and national interests. In 1947 Geyl initiated a long and often bitter debate with the English historian Arnold Toynbee, criticizing Toynbee’s work for what he called its artificiality, nonempirical basis, and theological assumptions. Throughout the 1950s he continued to produce essays, including (in English) Debates with Historians (1955), Use and Abuse of History (1955), and Encounters in History (1961). Geyl’s work is noted for its emphasis on foreign policy in contrast to constitutional questions, careful analysis of the geographic and military factors behind the religious schism of the Netherlands, and scrupulous and conscientious standards of historical scholarship.’

In this lecture, Pieter Geyl referred to a study of his own: Napoleon: voor en tegen in de Franse geschiedschrijving (1946). It is translated in English: Napoleon: for and against. The monograph Orange & Stuart (1939) is also translated: Orange & Stuart 1641-1672.