Forgetting, and History

From Ernest Renan, a French 19th-century philosopher:

Forgetting, and I would say even historical error, is an essential element in the creation of a nation, and that is why the progress of historical studies is often a danger for the nation itself.

Of course, the observation extends to other communities, not just states and nations. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in whose recent book (Experiments in Ethics) the Renan quote appears, added this as a commentary.

Offering an account of the past … is in part a way of justifying a contemporary practice. And once we have a stake in a practice, we shall be tempted to invent a past that supports it.

I think this gets at why historians have tried so hard to insulate historical writing from politics and bias … and why they so regularly fail. If I had more time I’d attempt a discussion of how this plays out in the writing of Mormon history. Perhaps some obliging reader can take a stab at it.

11 comments for “Forgetting, and History

  1. I think the observation also applies to people. One of the powers of the gospel is that its sin/redemption/learning-through-experience narrative lets you fit your actual past into your identity.

  2. Reminds me of Kant.

    “Many things can be true and yet harmful to man. Not all truth is useful.” p. 43 Lectures on Logic, Immanuel Kant (translated by J. Michael Young)

    I’ve heard that somewhere else before…

  3. Although I’m sure it’ll only bring up a firestorm of discussion, but I can’t help of thinking of very well-known LDS beliefs and practices that have been subjected to either forgetting the past or fictionalising it to provide a modern justification or explanation.

    Think of the accounts of young Joseph Smith refusing liquor when he was going to have surgery and how that was somehow related to the Word of Wisdom. Or the multitudinous explanations of why plural marriage was practiced (and subsequently ended), other than the key fact that God commanded it (both times).

    It seems that there are many times in LDS conversation that we find ourselves telling a history to justify something, rather than simply saying, “We do this because we believe that Lord has commanded us to do so.” And there are other times that we simply conveniently forget events that happened so that we can keep a squeaky-clean image of ourselves.

  4. “I, even I, am he that blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins.” Isaiah 43:25

    Maybe a brilliantly accurate knowledge of the past is not Godlike attribute. Maybe the pursuit of it is a false trail.

  5. It is a fundamental mistake to confuse the inevitable distortions of history with the idea that those distortions are essential to success. I suppose if you want to overturn society French revolutionary style calculated deception is necessary.

    Normally, however, we study history so we can learn from the past, distinguish the good from the bad, and preserve the good, rather than repeating the same errors anew every generation. If Renan was right, the first thing we should do is burn all the books.

    The great lesson of LDS history (if not religious history in general) is that prophecy untempered by theology is worthless. There is no more effective way to discredit prophetic authority than to quote two prophets who contradict each other.

  6. The mythologizing of history, and historical figures, certainly falls under the heading of “forgetting”. One reason we may do that is because we may be uncomfortable with seeing people we revere as mortal and fallible (with one exception, of course.) Also, enemies of the Church love to conflate individuals–and their failings–with the Church, implying that the failure of individuals is the failure of the Church (which D&C 1 flatly contradicts.)

    And so it becomes easy to fall back on a soft-focus picture of historical events, whether of Church leaders, ancient Christianity, ancient Judaism, the Founding Fathers, etc. And it does not help that soft-focus pictures are good for sales in the world of merchandise. In light of all that, I find it remarkable that members of the Church have taken to more honest and challenging (even though apologetic) views of history, as evidenced by the memberships’ embrace of Richard L. Bushman’s “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling”. The tendency to mythologize will always be there, but there is a real willingness to discover the reality of history.

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone. And thanks for the link to your earlier FPR post, SmallAxe.

    Mark D. (#6), I’m not sure whether Renan is actually advocating forgetting as a means to create nations (and, by extension, other communities built on a mythologized identity narrative) or whether he would view the consequent canonization of historical error as too steep a price. It’s not even clear to me that one need choose — in contemporary America we have both a mythologized national history and a flourishing historical profession that offers alternative accounts. And even historians who critique the alternative accounts.

    PV (#8), I agree the willingness of rank-and-file Mormons to embrace the work of LDS historians like Bushman is a good sign. The official sponsorship of the Joseph Smith Papers project is another good sign. And, to be a little clearer, I think these are a sign that Mormons, even those in the hierarchy, are less inclined to view what Renan called “the progress of historical studies” as a danger to Mormon identity or even to traditional LDS beliefs.

  8. I highly recommend Nietzsche’s essay, “On the Use and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in which forgetting plays an important role in the various ways of doing history. Forgetting isn’t only essential to history, he argues, it is essential to being human.

  9. The tendency to mythologize will always be there, but there is a real willingness to discover the reality of history.

    I confess I can’t conceptualize of what an unmythologized real history would be comprised, or even where it might reside.

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