Our Past, Present and Future

Can the collective endeavour of history still be our guide in the age of solipsism?

Vanitas, by Edward Collier, late 17th century.In a fascinating if rather depressing essay, broadcast as part of BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View, the historian and novelist Stella Tillyard confronted what she considers to be a crisis in history. For her, as for many of us, history has been a guide premised on the belief that, if we understand the past, we ‘have the knowledge to confront the future’. Since the first stirrings of the Enlightenment, when religion began its ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’, history has taken on the mantle of a secular faith, a ‘justifying and ordering force’, according to Tillyard, which connects us to the past, explains the present and offers windows on the future. Its professionalisation, from the 19th century onwards, rooted in the rigorous study of the archive, put it at the heart of the humanities, where it has remained ever since.

But can history sustain its position in the age of Trump, of Putin, of Brexit, in a time of ‘patchy teaching’, when ‘certainty is elusive’, the truth seems ‘contingent and malleable’ and the obsession with the self, hardened by social media, eats away at the empathy that is at the heart of the collective enterprise of historical study?

We share Tillyard’s concerns, but will not despair just yet. In our January 2019 issue, we introduce two new features which aim to cast the reason and light of history on contemporary concerns. First, in Head to Head, we ask a panel of leading historians from differing backgrounds to consider a major question of our time, beginning with: Why are the British so ignorant of Irish history? 

Second, we address a modern vice that hinders understanding: the need for the ‘hot take’, an immediate, eyecatching response to a current issue, which too often results in poor, when not barmy, historical analogies. In Behind the Times, a historian draws breath, sifts through the past and offers a deeper reflection on our age. Joanna Cohen takes a long, slow look at the phenomenon that is President Trump and offers surprising comparisons with a more admired predecessor. History, perhaps, can still be our guide.