Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
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Why study history?

1. Poetic metaphor
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

        Little Gidding: T.S. Eliot


2. Philosophical considerations

Why study history? A simple question that deserves a simple answer. First things first – define our terms. Where’s that dictionary... “Why”... for what reason; "study" ... examine closely, ponder over. All very clear so far! “History”... the study of past events.

So where has that got us...hmmm, why study the study of past events? Clarify, clarify. Dig deeper: lift down the encyclopedia.

Success! There bang in the middle of a long-winded entry is the key sentence: mental bells ring and lights flash as my eye bounces off the proclamation:


Mind you, after coming out loud and clear like that, the writer loses his nerve and pulls down the shutters, handing out a rider to the effect that the word is used in two senses, and may mean the record of events, or the events themselves, though he concedes that the modern usage of the word covers the events,

Okay. We seem to have it all wrapped up.

If history means all that has happened – or will happen depending at what point in time you view the process of change – if’ history is all that happens, the whole slam-bang sequence of events in our dynamic universe, then everything you do is history. Which means that likewise everything you study is history. The fine point arises of how you study a process when you’re part of it but that is not, currently, our worry.

The answer to the question “why study history?” is that you ain’t got a choice in the matter: you study history because there’s literally no other goddam thing to study...


3. A cautionary tale from the Orient

Long ago, way back in 200 BC by Western reckoning, Shih Huang-ti unified China. He did it by defeating the warring feudal states, one by one, installing himself as Emperor of the First Empire, and founding the Ch’in dynasty.

He promptly abolished the feudal system, replacing it by an efficient military dictatorship, then solved the unemployment problem created by putting liberated serfs to work on the Great Wall.

He embarked on an ambitious programme of standardisation throughout the Empire: standardisation of written language, of weights and measures. Even of cartwheel axles... this ended the practice of transferring and reweighing goods at state boundaries because of differences in the spacing of the wheel ruts, and by way of bonus, speeded up military transports across the Empire.

He had a political arm to help carry out these reforms: the Legalist party, whose doctrine demanded strict obedience to the letter of the law, who believed that effective social organisation depended on the threat of dire punishments for offenders. His subjects complained, among themselves, quietly, about his ruthlessness.

The act that really won Shih Huang-Ti a dishonourable mention in recorded history was his “burning of the books” edict. All teaching was banned throughout the Empire, on pain of death, and all books were ordered to be destroyed, with the exception of some basic texts on medicine, divination, agriculture and the Imperial archives.

In parenthesis, with the objectivity of some 2,000 years distance from these events, it should be said that a story is handed down of the Emperor being warned by a soothsayer that the success of the wall depended on ten thousand men being buried beneath it. Instead of carrying out the obvious course of action Shih Huang-Ti sought out one man whose name embodied the word “ten thousand” and buried him. A happy compromise for the other 9,999 survivors.

The Emperor died in 210 BC. The fact of his death was concealed by his chief minister Li Ssu, who feared for his own survival, long enough to force the Crown Prince and Meng T’ien, the most capable Chinese general, to commit suicide when shown a forged Imperial command, Li Ssu then had the second son declared Emperor and a magnificent tomb built for his illustrious father. Rumour has it that there was some trouble with the workmen and they finished up buried alive in it.

The Ch’in dynasty was not only unpopular but short-lived. The second Emperor was deposed by rebel forces, and an illiterate man of obscure origin became the first of the Han Emperors. He was Han Kso-tsu, who tactfully resisted attempts to return to feudalism and set about reinforcing the idea of the unity of the Empire. Though illiterate, he realised the advantage of allowing the scholars and philosophers to reopen their schools, and reconstruct the lost ancient texts painstakingly from memory aided by the few precious books that had escaped the Ch’in edict, even before the proscription on teaching and books was repealed formally. But a definite break in tradition and consciousness had been created: the classical feudal world was now historically remote.

It is recorded that the new Emperor grew tired of his chamberlain, Lu Chia, continually quoting from the classical Book of Odes and Book of History. “I conquered the Empire on horseback”, he grumbled, “what is the use of these Odes and Histories?”

“You can’t govern the Empire on horseback.” replied Lu Chia, “If Ch’in had followed the precepts of the ancient sages and governed the Empire in humanity and righteousness, then Han would not be governing it now.”

The Emperor frowned at the prospect. “Touché” he said – or some ancient Chinese equivalent. “Explain to me the reasons for the collapse of Ch’in, the rise of Han, and what it was that won and lost kingdoms of old.”

And in obedience to the wish of the Emperor, Lu Chia wrote a book on the history of statecraft, in twelve chapters.

The Han dynasty ruled, with one brief interruption, for over four centuries. ■


1. The Complete Poems & Plays of T.S. Eliot (1977)
2. Collins New Guild Dictionary
3. Encyclopedia Britannica
4. Chronology of the Ancient World / H.E.L. Mellersh (1976)
5. The Early Civilisation of China / Yang Yap & A. Cotterell (1975)
6. Larousse Encyclopedia of Ancient & Medieval History / (1965)

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