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J. H. Plumb – The historian’s duty

October 13, 2014

“The past can be used to sanctify not authority nor morality but those qualities of the human mind which have raised us from the forest and swamp to the city, to build a qualified confidence in man’s capacity to order his life and to stress the virtues of intellect, of rational behavior. And this past is either pagan nor Christian, it belongs to no nation and no class, it is universal; it is human in the widest sense of that term. But this past must not be too simple. Just as the Christian past stressed the complexity of the battle between good and evil, so should the historian’s past dwell on the difficulties which have faced those who have fought for intellectual and moral enlightenment. Nor need we gloss their motives. The historian’s duty is to reveal the complexities of human behavior and the strangeness of events. The past which mankind needs is no longer a simple one. Experience as well as science has made the majority of literate men aware of the vast complexity of human existence, its subtle interrelations. What, however, is becoming less and less stressed is the nature of the past, not only its successes, but also the shadows it casts across our lives. History, the dimension of time, is ignored too frequently by sociologists, economists, politicians and philosophers; even theologians wish to escape from its clutches.”

(from The Death of the Past [1969])

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