Sunday, February 24, 2013

Historical Inaccuracy

Ever since the 17th century, European scholars have been fighting over the nature of historical accuracy. One of the first battle lines in the erudite debate was drawn across the pages of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, the classic account of a 21-year long conflict between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C.E

To this day, Thucydides is held up as a model for careful historians; unlike his elder contemporary Herodotus, who had a flair for passing on the oddest cultural episodes as fact. But Thucydides' own work did not completely escape criticism. In the 17th century, lengthy speeches, written with obvious rhetorical concern, supposedly delivered by famous Athenian orators, became the subject of controversy.

Someone pointed out how implausible it was to assume the speeches could be a word for word transcriptions of actual speeches. It was unlikely Thucydides could have had more than a second or third hand accounts, if it indeed the speeches occurred at all. And their final form was far too polished.

Scholars made a concerted effort to think beyond the surface of the page. If the funeral oration Thucydides placed in Pericles' mouth, which praised Athenian democracy and those who died in its defense, for example, was only a simulacrum of what Pericles should have said, in what sense is it true? Indeed: is there any sense in which a manufactured speech can be true?

Until the 17th century, scholars could more or less assume that where there was an ancient text of proven authority, there also could be found truth. Lorenzo Valla's exposure of the spurious origins of The Donation of Constantine (1440), of course, may be thought to supply an exception to the rule. But even he did not challenge the basic equation of a text's antiquity with its veracity.

When scholars began to ask, however, whether ancient historians could have witnessed the things they claimed to record, a wedge was inserted between the truth of a text and the text itself. Or, you might say, instead of one, there were two sorts of truth: historical truths, or facts of the matter, could now be distinguished from rhetorical truths, their value to readers. Though Pericles might not himself have given the speech Thucydides placed in his mouth, for example, his speech still had value because it said about democracy

This double theory of truth, distinguishing historical fact from rhetorical value, today follows us wherever we ago. Even if you aren't quite able to put your finger on it, you can sense its duplicity. It's why you roll your eyes when news anchor put on their serious faces to discuss whether historical inaccuracies in such Oscar-nominated films as Argo or Lincoln detract from the film itself.

The historical accuracy of feature films doesn't matter at all, though it's useful to be reminded of the epistemological we bear. In intellectual discussion, questions about historical accuracy easily deflect from questions about the value of something, while our particular attachments and beliefs can sometimes prompt the willful misrepresentation of historical information.

The two sorts of judgments bled into each other, often in arbitrary ways. The grim reality of the Terror in the aftermath of the French Revolution is taken by many as proof positive of the depravity of the ideas the Revolution represents. The ideas may very well be depraved; I have no reason to quibble over that judgment. Then again they may not. It's just that historical claims can never be the logically necessary basis of their refutation--absolutely never, never in a million years. The way things were, the way they are, or even the way things will be, will not square with the way things ought to be. The historian-turned-philosopher, David Hume, made the point emphatically: an ought can never be extracted from an is.

Welcome to the disenchanted universe. Historical accuracy wont't get you closer to the TRUTH, because their are (at least) two sorts of truth for which to account. Historical inaccuracy won't take you further away from the TRUTH, again, because there are (at least) two. Please make yourself at home. You've been here long enough that squatters' rights apply.

No comments: