Courtesy Reuters

The Historian and History

The word "historian" is a relatively unambiguous word. It means simply a man who tries to write history. But the word "history" is thoroughly ambiguous. It may refer to events which have taken place in the past; or it may refer to the written record of those events. The historian therefore has a double relationship-to the actual experience, and to the subsequent record of the experience. The problem to which I address myself here is the interaction between history, in both senses, and the historian. Let us look first at the unambiguous factor in the equation. In our time, the historian tends to be a professional. He is a man trained in his craft, a product of methodical discipline, a member of a guild. His is a quasi-priestly vocation, supposed to liberate him from the passions of his day, to assure him a serenity of perspective and to consecrate him to the historian's classical ideal of objectivity. His creed has been well stated by Walter Lippmann, who once observed that no crisis in human affairs was unique or ultimate:

The world will go on somehow, and more crises will follow. It will go on best, however, if among us there are men who have stood apart, who refused to be anxious or too much concerned, who were cool and inquiring and had their eyes on a longer past and a longer future. By their example they can remind us that the passing moment is only a moment; by their loyalty they will have cherished those things which only the disinterested mind can use.

The phrase "the disinterested mind" suggests the essence of the professional historian's vow. His commitment is to history-as-record, not to history-as-experience, to writing history rather than making it.

It should be noted that this professionalization of the historical craft- this isolation from actual events-is a recent development. In earlier times, there was by no means so rigorous a bar against the chronicler's being also a participant. "The captain

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