History: Interpretations

Figure 1.--Here a Sudanese boy is seen in the vast Sahara Desert. Geography has a powerful affect on a country's history and economy providing few natural resources. One of the richest countries in the world, however iss Japan, a country with few natural resources.

There have been various basic approaches and methods of interpreting history. These factors vary in importance. And here there is no simple equation. The various factors have varied in importabnce over time and from country to country. Marxist believe that history is determined by economics. There is no doubt that economics is a powerful force. It is clear, however, thast it is not the only force. A wide range of factors have affected history over timer. Many of these factors are interrelated. Geographty can for example affect economics. A desert country unless it has oil is usually going to be a poorer country than a country like Frabnce with productive agriculture. Yet countries without natural resources such as Japan can become succesful economically. And richly endowed countries like Argentina can fail to develop an modern economy. The deeper historical question is why do some countries succeed and other countries fail. Here the economic progress is often an effect of other factors rather than the driving force. The reader of course should not review this list to find one interpretation with the key to interpreting history. Rather there are elements of truth in many of these approaches which can enhance any historical assessment.


We note one one historian who poses that gistory is at its esence a contest between three competing castes: merchants, soldiers, and sages. [Priestland] Socities have varied as to who was in control. It ws the sage in the person of the Druids who dominated the Celts and Ghandi who command devotion in India. Soldiers came to dominate Rome and Imperial Germany in the name of the Prussian Junkers. And merchants might be said to dominate Britin and America.


See "Environment" below.


Geography has had an obvious impact on history. Just how significant is a matter of conjecture, but that it is very important there is no doubt. Anthropologists have established almost without doubt tht mankind developed in Africa. There is considerable difference of opinion as to how man spread out over the globe. Here geography must have played a major role. Some accounts suggest man first moved along coast lines. Notably all of the early civilizations emerged in river vallies. One at the edge of Africa, the others outside of Africa. The key factor with rivers was the importantance of dependable water source and alluvial flooding enriching the soil. In addition the movement away from tropical climate was a factor. Herding was based on rich graslands and grass is most lush beyond the tropics. The same is true of crop yields of important grains--species of grasses. [Cook] It was the agricultural abundance in these river vallies that gave rise to the first civilizations. Europe's emergence in the 16th century was strongly associated with geography. [Diamond, Guns.] Geography has continued to influence history. There are of course many other instances of geography affecting history. Russian history was affected by the vulnerability of the flat to Steppe to inasion. The geographic isolation of the Americas were factors in the success of the Conquistadores over the Native American civilizations. [Cook] Russian history is marked with invasion from east and west. The origins of Russia itself evolved around the major rivers. The Huns and Mongols swept east over Russia from the Mongolian Plain. It was the Sweedes, Poles and Germans that swept west. Britain in contrast benefitted by the security afforded by the Channel. At sea, it was an island nation, Britain, that became the world's preeminent sea power. An American naval strategist theorized that in modern history, command of the seas has been desisive. [Mahan] This ground-breaking assessment of seapower was premissed on geography. Geographical factors had a huge impact on the settlement of America. New York's rise was based on the important natural harbor and the fact that the Hudson River was an important route inland, made even more important when the Erie Canal linked the Huson to the Great Lakes, opening the West and turning New York into the most important city in America.

Economic Determinism

No one doubts that economics have influenced history. HBC has asssessed some of the major economic developments in history. Some historians, however, argue that economics is more thn an important factor. Marx argues that economics determines history setting up a dyalectic. He theorized that human civilzation moves through successive stages of history. Feudalism was replaced by capitalism which would eventually be replaced by communism. Marx did not argue just that eonomics was important, but that economics governed historical development.


Man has often believed that he and history is in the hands of God. That was the view of Medieval Christians and many in the world still have that view. While modern historians reject this world view, it is undeniable that religion has been a powerful force in history.

Great Individuals

Many historical assessments stress powerful social and economic forces as driving history. Often loss in these discussions is the role of individuals. Rhis if often described as the not very PC--Great Men Thesis. A strong case can be made for the importance of individuals in major historical events. It is succintly put by Scottish Thomas Carlyle, who put forth the idea that the world's history is nothing more than a collection of biographies belonging to great men. But of course in our modern PC world, Great Individuals is more acceptable and probably more accurate. Here many examples of important can be considered. The Russian Revolution is often described as a result of social forces that had been developing for centuries. A strong case can be made for the Revolution as a coupd'état that may have never occurred without the leadership of Lenin. [Pipes] Individuals have been powerful forces for good and for evil. Strong cases can be made that the historty of the 20th century was powefully affected by Churchill, Hitler, and Roosevelt. One can conceive of a very different 20th century history without these and other key individuals. One historian writes "the population as a whole plays only a marginal role in history, or at any rate in political and military history, which is the preserve of small elites: people do not make history--they make a living." [Pipes] We would say that many of these leades simply coopted powerful forces in their countries. A major exception from this is prabably Mikhail Gorbechev who went against almost he entire soviet leadership.


Race has at time been a powerful force in history. This has varied greatly over time and from country to country. Many ancient civilizatons appear to have given relatively limited attention to race, including Egypt and Rome. In other socuties it has been a powerful force. While race may have not been a major determinant of history, racism has at times been an important factor in the cultural life of many countries. Race has been a major factor in American history. America is a multi-ethnic society. Other countries like Japan have a more homogeneous population. The prominence of the Civil Rights Movement in America gave many the impression that racism was an American phenomenon. We note, however, that racism has played a prominent role in non-Western counties as well. Race is an important factor in India. Race was the central factor in the Rwandan genocide. In some countries it has been subtle. In other countries like NAZI Germany it was overt and eventually deadly. The NAZIs saw race as the central force in history. There is in fact little evidence of this. It appears to have surfaced as a more important force in the modern world, in part because of European colonialism, African slavery, and other trends.


Some authors have stressed environmental factors or probably more accurately states how societies effectively utilize their environments. There are many examples in history of great socities collapsing. Attempting to understand the forces at play have facinated historians. Historians debate over the causes for the collapse of these societies. One of the great works of history is Gibon's The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Historians have often persued the collapse of civilizations as romantic mysteries. Rome has been one of the civilizations most studied, but many other scocities have attracted the interest of historians, including the Egyptians, the Maya, the Toltecs, and other civilizations. Many of these societies built magnificent cities envolving sophisticated architecture and stunning works of art involving a huge effort and expenditure of resources. Some of these great cities were subsequently abandoned. which they then abandoned. This leaves historians with the need to explain why these cities were abandoned. After building them with such great effort? Rarely in early histories were ebnvironmental factors stressed. More modern historians are giving increasing attention to environmental factors. One historian points to environmental factors as a major cause for the decline of Angkor Wat, the Mayan civilization, the Easter Islands, Greater Zimbabwe, the Indus Valley and other civilizations. [Diamond] In more modern terms there are many failed and failing countries which have are exhausting their environmental resources, countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Somalia.


No one has ever developed a theory of history based exclusively or largely on disease. Disease is, however, a factor that has had a powerful impact on history. Disease is not a topic that has commonly been treated in detail by historians. Some historians have begun to give it more attention. Here Jeremy Diamond's Gun's, Steel, and Germs has powerfully persued the importance of disease in history. The modren threat of both bio-terrorism and the rapid movement of disease vectors as a result of modern communications has drawn further interest in the subject. We now know that the plague had a huge impact on modern Europe. We also know that smallpox and other diseases virtually wided out Native american populations. The topic is of some interest to HBC, both because of its important historical role, but also because of the role children have played in deceloping cures. One other interesting topic is the development of polio in the 20th century and the huge impact it had on children.

Liberal Theory

Classical liberalism is the political and social philosophy advocating individual freedom and liberty, representational forms of government, free market economies, progress and reform, along with the guarantee of civil liberties, especially freedom of expression. The visual expression of liberalism was the statue of liberty donated by the French people to America. At the time, France and Anmerica were the only republics of any importance. Most of the rest of the world were governed by monarcjies, including absolutionist monarchies. Some modern historians have proposed a liberal thory of history. There are two basic assumptions that underline this theory. First, democracies tend to conduct peaceful relations, at least in their affairs with other democracies. Here we are speaking of true demicracies, not just countries which hold elections, but countries with constitutional rule and civil liberties. Second, countries around the world have begun to adopt the the key attributes of a successful economy, free markers and social stability. The changes in countries that after a extended period of socialism and state planning attempting market reforms (Brazil, China, India, and India) have been stunning. Curiously the countries that first adopted free markets (Europe and North America) are today shifting back toward state controls, commonly in the name of promoting equality. Third, countries with market economies over time tend to become political democracies. This is not imutable, but does appear to be a general tendency. [Mandelbaum] This is the hope in the modern world, that free markets, or at least market reforms, in Russia and China will drive both countries toward political democracy. China today is not a democracy, but it is a very different country than it was in the 1980s. The same is true of Rusia. The differencde between the two countries is the fact Russia can avoid economic reforms because they can finance gthe state with natural resource (especially oil) exports. Of course, free markets are not without their problems. Some wonder if the economic difficulties that have been encountered in the 2000s have invalidated this theory. Some also sight declining popularity of democratic governments in some countries. One interesting factor, however, is that unlike the 1930s, there are really no competing systems to liberal democracy and free markets. First fascism and now Communism have been throughly descredited. One historian has postulated another complication, the conflict in the shift from nation states to civilizations. [Huntington] One notable shift in liberal thought is that the focus of 19th century liberalism was to end restrictive governmental controls and move toward laissez-faire economics. Modern liberals in the name of equality have sought to expand government to promote equality by fiat. This has been reflected in a shift from a focus on equality of oppotunity to equality of outcome. There seems to be little or no recognition by modern liberals that in by insisting on equality of outcome you are underming the engine of the free market that has created prosperous and growing economoes.

Us vs. Them

Historians commonly depict history as a account of groups in conflict. Historians disagree on the most important differences among peoples in history. Pne possible list include: civilization, class, gender, nation, race, and religion. These and other differences have commonly been expressed as sinle identity conflicts, such as Christians and Muslims, gentry and peasants, Germans and Slavs, capitalists and workers, and many other permutatios. These are the conflicts of us vs. them. One historian taks the infteresting position that history needs to be reworked to include the many fruitful interactions that have bridged the traditional fautlines. He writes, "What is perhaps most remarkable is how well the appeal of 'us versus them' works over a range of categories ,aggregations, and identities that are scarcely comparable. For much of recorded historythe two most prominent have been (initially) relogious affiliation and (subsequntly) national allegiance. It is only in relatively recent times that they have been augmented, and in some measure superseded, by the secular, international trinity of class conciousness, gender awareness, and racial solidarity." [Cannadine]


The term history is commonly seens as just a list and discussion of events. And this is the standard dictionary defomition, "a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their cause". The modern discipline of philosophy was born out of Greek philosophy. Herodotus is often cited as the father of history. There are today two basic philosophical schools of history: 1) history as a cyclical process and 2) history as a evolutionary process in which society slowly progresses toward enlightened civilization. The phiosophical attitudes of historians over time have been colored by these basic philosophical schools. The cyclical school sees history as the account of a series of civilizations that have developed, flowered, and declined over time. Such authors often believe that immutable forces are involved that givern these process. Such historians often lack the optimism and idealiam that the progrssive school often exhibit. The progressive school see history as the account of man's rise from primitive nomads to modern civilized individuals. The underlying message is that civilization will eventually lead to enlightenment and a utopian endpoint. The Western mind tends to see history as a purposeful, evolutionary process. This is grounded in all the three great Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judiaism). The different religions may differ as to the nature of the unfolding process, but there is a definite agreement that histoty is both purposeful and an unfolding process. The interesting fact here is even the he secularized West, including Marxists, have bouth into the Abrhamic tradition that history is a purposeful process. The Engligtenment replsace the diety with natural law. Capitalists talk about the hidden, guiding hand. Marxists have replaced scipture with the historical dialectic. But all agree that history was an unfolding process. The rise of 20th century totalitarianism brought this view into question, but the victory of Western democracy has reinvigorated this optimistic, progressive outlook. This is what Francuis Fukuyama meant when he declared the end of history. He saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the final victory of lineral democracy and thus the end of history. But just as President Wilson declared World War I to be the end of all wars, his assessment proved overly optimistic.


Historicism is the theory that history is guided by laws which can be discovered towards a foresseable conclusion. The most elaborate such theory is of course Marxism. One important philosopher totally rejected the idea that history follows any set laws. He defended the Open Society' and liberal democracy seeing historicism as the intelectual foundation for totalitarianism. He argued convincingly that the expansion of human knowledge is a causal factor in history. Thus since "no society can predict, scientifically, its own future states of knowledge", it is thus imposible to predict histoty. [Popper]

Real Politik


Cannadine, David. The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond our Differences (2013), 352p.

Huntington. Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations.

Mandelbaum, Michael. The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the 21st Century.

Priestland, David. Merchant Soldier Sage: A History of the World in Three Castes (2013), 352p.


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Created: 10:10 PM 11/17/2010
Last updated: 4:30 AM 2/12/2018