The past and present

Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, in a lecture in Annual Oration at the London School of Economics, 1968:

“So much of our own contemporary history is hidden from us that we cannot hope to see it in full. It is so close to us that we cannot see it in correct proportion. It is not yet over so that we cannot judge it by the result. Familiarity with the past can supply some of those defects. It can provide a standard of comparison. It can point to a known issue. By so doing, it can chasten our parochial arrogance… (but) respect the independence of the past. All of us living in our own time tend to see the past on our own terms… right to look for lessons in the past, to see its relevance to our own time, to observe the signs of continuity, connection and process. The past is not to be studied for its own sake. That is mere antiquarianism. But it is anarchonistic, distorting, to judge the past as if it were subject to the present… in studying history…always study one part of it in detail. To study on too narrow a front deprives us of the chance of analogy; but to study too generally is not to study it at all. We cannot penetrate below the surface all the time or we shall never come up for air, never rise above the subject to survey and compare. But if we do not at some point penetrate below the surface we shall fall into the opposite error. We shall be obliged to take all our evidence at secondhand and shall end by believing without testing the fashionable orthodoxy of our time or place. Every age has its orthodoxy and no orthodoxy is ever right. It is changed in due course by those who approach the subject whatever it is with a certain humility and above all independence of mind… In other words the historian is amphibious: he must live some part of his time below the surface in order that on emerging he can usefully survey it from above. The historian who has specialized all his life may end as an antiquarian. The historian who has never specialized at all will end as a mere blower of froth.”


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