In the preface to his immortal work The History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides enjoined his readers to seek “an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it.” Thucydides understood that the careful crafting of the factual record into an instructive narrative would generate what he called a “possession for all time,” i.e. a story containing abstract lessons applicable to similar contexts in any era.
The important instructive value of history was upheld by Plutarch, a Greek historian writing in Roman times. In his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch explained that the purpose of biography was to instruct by example, that under the influence of proper history, the student would “pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it.”
After Roman times the instructive value of history was corrupted by its subordination to Christianity. History became the handmaiden of theology, its only acceptable purpose to demonstrate the unfolding of a divine purpose or to glorify the Christian rulers supposedly enacting it.
The gradual overthrow of the religious monopoly on the intellect during the subsequent Renaissance and Enlightenment brought about a commensurate shift in the expectations of the instructive value of history. However, a new corruption crept into the study of the past. History was no longer to serve religion. Instead, it was to serve “reason.” Unfortunately, this meant a kind of providential force that in the mind of Enlightenment thinkers had naturally overcome the irrationality of the Dark Ages and revealed itself with an everlasting triumph of science and social progress. Any instructive value to be derived from studying history was marred by this obvious oversimplification.
Despite the failings of medieval and Enlightenment historiography, a generation of intellectuals benefiting from the freedom of learning during the Age of Reason was able to see through to the actual instructive value of history, and put the theoretical views of Thucydides and Plutarch into practice. Not surprisingly, it was precisely the lessons of Greek and Roman history that this unique generation of intellectuals, the Founding Fathers, turned to when creating the first modern constitutional republic. When, for example, James Madison and the federalists proposed to unify the separate states into a more perfect union, it was the failure of ancient Greece to do so and the resulting cultural disintegration, as illustrated in the work of Thucydides, upon which many of their calculations were based. When the Founders devised the “checks and balances” of the federal system, it was the institutions of Athens, Rome, and even Sparta, which guided their deliberations.
The Founders were so convinced of the timeless instructional value of ancient history that Thomas Jefferson proposed a law that all American children be taught Greek and Latin and the histories of Greece and Rome. Benjamin Franklin had explained to a woman on the street of Philadelphia upon leaving the constitutional convention that the Founders had created “A Republic, if you can keep it.” To do so, Jefferson reasoned, would require that Americans keep the lessons of ancient history that had helped make the republic alive in their minds.
(The truth of Jefferson’s thesis is tragically illustrated in the fact that Americans are now thoroughly ignorant of history, and the republic created based on the Founders unique historical awareness has been continually in decline for over a hundred years, and may well be approaching a terrible tipping point.)
Powell History takes Jefferson’s vision seriously and advocates a return to a “Thucydidean” approach to history. (For those of you who may have wondered, that is indeed Thucydides in the PHR logo.) In our present context this means promoting a rebirth of the study of ancient history along side a proper study of European, American, and even Middle Eastern and Asian history.
This is a tall order, since we live in a society that has all but given up on history. But it can be done. Powell history supports adults who are seeking to make up for lost time by its “first history for adults” series, and it provides homeschoolers and afterschoolers with all the tools necessary to provide a complete history education to children from 2nd to 12th grade. These are the first steps required to rebuild history as an instructive science that supports ongoing progress within a free, scientific, secular civilization.