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Is There a Grand Design in History?

Historians continue to debate their own purposes and their own methods. Some detect clear patterns and may even attempt to predict general trends for the future from their study of the past; others find history to be simply one event after another.

Between these positions there are other, more moderate, defenses for the value of history. One finds it poetic, even beautiful, for it gives humanity a sense of itself, of what it is that makes it human. Another finds that while history may seem to lack any grand design, there is a form of design in this random appearance.

The following extracts, from two British historians of the twentieth century, present these views. The first is from G. M. Trevelyan (1876-1962); the second is from H. A. L. Fisher (1865-1940).

The appeal of History to-us all is in the last analysis poetic. But the poetry of History does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it. That which compels the historian to “scorn delights and live laborious days” is the ardour of his own curiosity to know what really happened long ago in that land of mystery which we call the past.

To peer into that magic mirror and see fresh figures there every day is burning desire that consumes and satisfies him all his life, that carries him each morning, eager as a lover, to the library and muniment room. It haunts him like a passion of almost terrible potency, because it is poetic. The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them.

In men’s first astonishment over that unchanging mystery lay the origins of poetry, philosophy, and religion. From it, too, is derived in more modern times this peculiar call of the spirit, the type of intellectual curiosity that we name the historical sense. Unlike most forms of imaginative life it cannot be satisfied save by facts. … It is the fact about the past that is poetic; just because it really happened, it gathers round it all the inscrutable mystery of life and death and time. Let the science and research of the historian find the fact, and let his imagination and art make clear its significance.’

One intellectual excitement has … been denied me. Men wiser and more learned than I have discovered in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations, only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen. This is not a doctrine of cynicism and despair. The fact of progress is written plain and large on the page of history; but progress is not a law of nature. The ground gained by one generation may be lost by the next. The thoughts of men may flow into the channels which lead to disaster and barbarism.