Passage (Question 1-7)
The question of how history comes to be is not unlike the old quandary of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do we make history? Or does history make us? Martin Luther King Jr. believed it was the latter, writing in a letter to a friend, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” And yet other greater leaders have believed the opposite, such as Harry Truman, the 34th President of the United States who once said in a speech to congress, “Leaders make history, not the other way around. In periods when there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” Both positions seem to have their merits. So, which is it?
Despite the multitude of self-help books telling us the contrary, there are many situations in life in which we are not as William Ernest Henley’s great poem puts it, the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. And it is through no fault of our own that it is this way. As of yet, humans have not developed the capacity to control the weather. Nor can we control the actions of others, actions which may well affect us. One need only think of unwelcome divorces, random acts of violence, or the treachery of thieves to see as much. We cannot predict the future. We cannot read minds. The future is a vast expanse of uncertainties yet to be made certain that we often cannot control.
And yet, we all intuitively know that what we do in this world matters. Take for example the Second World War. The fortitude and resistance of Churchill and the British people in the early years of World War II changed the course of the war. So too did Roosevelt’s eventual insistence that the United States become involved. How could anyone look at key moments such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the D-Day invasion and not say that human action did not make history? Humanity was on a drastically different course when Hitler and Nazi Germany were running Europe than the one humanity eventually took after the Allied victory in 1945. Churchill and Roosevelt’s actions, and the actions of countless unknown heroes, affect our lives down to this very day over 70 years later.
So, which is the historian to choose? Chicken or egg? A new school of historical thought, the historical neoclassicists, says both. The neoclassicists argue that instead of conceiving of the relationship between humanity and history in absolute, one-sided terms, we ought to understand history as a shared relationship where each side affects the other. Think about two individuals having a conversation. The first person says something, to which the second person says something else in reply. To this reply, the first person then says another something. And on the cycle goes. What the second person said in reply to the first person was affected by what the first person initially said, but it was not determined by what was said. If someone asks you what your favorite color is, you get to decide with which color you respond, but the first person did decide that you would be talking about colors in the first place.
And so it is with history. The unfolding of the future is ultimately a relationship between ourselves and the circumstances of the present moment we find ourselves in. What we do with those circumstances is up to us.
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