It is often said that history is cyclical and that we are destined to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers. It is also said that an astute leader would be wise to be a student of history to avoid repeating the mistakes of his forefathers, but underlying this sage advice are the premises that one history does repeat itself, but two, and more importantly so, that we can understand and appreciate real history at all. If humanity is to learn from its mistakes, it must be certain it can truly understand its history or such an endeavor is doomed from the beginning. It is obvious that the tests applied to descriptive testimony in courts of law cannot be applied to the assertions of history. It is a supreme canon of historical evidence that only the statements of contemporaries can be admitted: but most of their statements must rest on hearsay, and even when the historian professes to have been an eye-witness, the range of his observation is necessarily limited, and he cannot be put into the witness-box and cross-examined. Is there then no way of ascertaining historical fact? Must we reject history as altogether unworthy of credit?
The rational conclusion is that very few facts can be established by descriptive testimony such as would satisfy a court of law. Those who look for such ascertainment are on a wrong track and are doomed to disappointment. It is told of Sir Walter Raleigh that when he was writing his “History of the World,” he heard from his prison in the tower a quarrel outside, tried to find out the rights and the wrongs and the course of it, and failing to satisfy himself after careful inquiry, asked in despair how he could pretend to write the history of the world when he could not find out the truth about what occurred under his very own window. But this was really to set up an impossible standard of historical evidence.
The method of testing historical evidence follows rather the lines of the Newtonian method of explanation. We must treat any historical record as being itself in the first place a fact to be explained. The statement at least is extant: our first question is, what is the most rational way of accounting for it? Can it be accounted for most probably by supposing the event stated to have really occurred with all the circumstances alleged? Or is it a more probable hypothesis that it was the result of an illusion of memory on the part of the original observer if it professes to be the record of an eye-witness, or on the part of some intermediate transmitter if it is the record of a tradition? To qualify ourselves to answer the latter kind of question with reasonable probability we must acquaint ourselves with the various tendencies to error in personal observation and in tradition, and examine how far any of them are likely to have operated in the given case. We must study the operation of these tendencies within our experience, and apply the knowledge thus gained. We must learn from actual observation of facts what the mythopoetic faculty is capable of in the way of transmission, and what feats are beyond its powers, and then determine with as near a probability as we can how far it has been active in the particular case before us.
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