One of the most venerable historians in the blogosphere is Ann Little, whose Historiann blog has been around since the George W. Bush administration. As you might have noticed from her quotations in my Anxious Bench series on biography, Little is not only a gifted historian but an insightful, provocative observer of our discipline. See, for example, her post this past Saturday:
Most modern people look to history for inspirational figures, but most people in history were jerks. At least if we measure them against our commonly held values in 2016, they were jerks: Racist, sexist, prejudiced against other religions, and let’s not even get into their ideas about sexual minorities. Just jerks!
Now, “jerk” might sound a bit strong, distinguishing as it does someone who is “annoyingly stupid or foolish” or “unlikable” on account of being “cruel, rude, or small-minded.”
I’m not quite sure Little really thinks that of “most people in history.” But she does believe “that showing or narrating the full scope of most people’s lives and opinions will necessarily make them less virtuous or heroic in our eyes.”
By that definition of “jerks” — people who are “less virtuous or heroic” than we’d like to think — then yes: history is the study of jerks.
In fact, those of us who are Christian might even think that Little isn’t going far enough.
First, we might believe (as one of her commenters wrote) that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Or, synthesizing the Apostle Paul with Little: All people, not most, are jerks, if we measure them against the eternal values of their Creator.
Some jerkiness is amply testified by historical evidence; most goes unrecorded or is soon forgotten. But all the people historians study are jerks. The more we can show or tell of their lives, the less admirable they’ll be.
That said, I don’t think all historical jerkiness is created equal. Some shows up in what people did; some in what they failed to do. Some was merely thought or felt, while some was translated into word or deed. And some jerks suffered at the hands of much bigger jerks whose personal jerkiness was channeled into — and magnified by — powerful systems and structures of jerkiness, like those named by Little.
And historians might feel compelled to point out such failings. (Little does, about my hero Alexander Hamilton.) But we need first to accept that we’re included among the “all people” who would be revealed to be less virtuous and heroic upon closer historical examination.
To paraphrase another text from my religious tradition: if historians say they’re not jerks, they’re liars.
For example, I’m prone to think myself much smarter than decision makers who don’t have the benefit of hindsight, and to find myself much more righteous than people who weren’t able to live through the progressively more enlightened decades and centuries that followed their deaths. Indeed, I’ve found that a really good way to distract people from my own present-day jerkiness is to point out the past jerkiness of the dead, who are conveniently unable to defend themselves or point out my hypocrisies.
So, as I’ve written before, I tend to prefer Tracy McKenzie’s argument that history ought to prompt moral reflection, not moral judgment. Here’s how Tracy contrasts the two phrases:
Moral judgment, as I define it, is directed outward, as we strive to understand the world around us, while moral reflection is directed inward, as we attempt to understand ourselves. As applied to history, we engage in moral judgment when we use our critical faculties to determine the guilt or rectitude of people from the past. In contrast, we approach history as a medium for moral reflection when we determine to make ourselves vulnerable to the past, when we figuratively resurrect the dead and allow their words and actions “to put our own lives to the test.” Moral reflection examines the heart, requires both ourselves and our audiences to do “inner work,” and provides a framework for conversation “about what we should value and how we should live.”
If Tracy is right, then studying their fellow jerks will help historians and their students and readers to turn “inward, as we attempt to understand ourselves” in all our own jerkiness.
Perhaps history can even help someone like me not to be quite so big a jerk. Though that requires another Christian category that tends to offend our sense of justice: grace.