Diving into History

I wanted to educate myself on history for a number of years, but I always delayed. If you’re outside academia and don’t have a very good basic knowledge, it’s daunting to break into the subject. The volume of it is intimidating. There’s so much and it’s all connected and where do you even start? Plus there’s all these differing perspectives that disagree with each other.

What helped me is best phrased using a metaphor. Imagine history as this massive tapestry. There’s millions of events that are all related to each other, woven together through time and space. They’re directly affected by events in close proximity to each other. If you try to take in the totality, it’s too much. The massive amount of detail drowns out any comprehension you could have. So instead you tackle subsets, but always from multiple angles. This is to prevent tunnel vision, where you forget those adjacent events. Time is the most common way we end up with blinders on. Resist the temptation to see it as a strict linear progression. Time, location, and perspective are all dimensions that must be account for (this is a very strange, multi-dimensional tapestry by the way). If you only perceive time it leads to a simplistic, and flawed view; it can’t show what history truly is.

It’s very easy to see it as linear though. Our story driven brains want that beginning, middle, and end formula. Ignoring that completely will make history boring and tedious to read. There’s two good compromises: tackle one area from multiple accounts or tackle neighbouring areas simultaneously. I find the neighbouring accounts compelling because of how it warps our perceptions on war or natural catastrophes. The lead up to a war; the way the different nations treat events as significant or unimportant, it shows just how complex the human condition can be.

And this is one of the most important lessons one can learn from history. Even the best of us will have trouble seeing past ones own biases in present tense conflicts. When you’re learning history, you have to try to understand both sides motives, for they will both appear as an “other”. The past versions of a society require just as much cultural translation as going to a foreign nation now, usually much more in fact. They’re all equally foreign therefore you can be a much less biased observer. You’ll actually see both sides as the fucked up humans they are, that no one is The Good and no one is The Bad. That’s what history teaches.

A recent example for me: learning about Byzantium. The crusades take on a massively different tone when seen through the eyes of anything but Western Europe. They had a dark age lasting several centuries which culminated in hordes of their warriors invading a foreign land they knew little about. They were shockingly savage in victory and ignored local differences in their enemies (all Muslims seen as the same). Their rulers couldn’t even read or write, they had to bring religious scribes to record their history. Clearly this is a barbarian horde invading civilization. There’s even the hallmark effect of technology spreading back into the ‘barbarians’ society; castle design were brought back by the crusaders. And this isn’t even from the Islamic perspective, this is Eastern Europe.

So yeah, learn history by tackling multiple angles. It’s got a great payoff as you learn about one thing and suddenly find a seemingly unrelated fact become important. Like learning about Japan and having the Portuguese show up or reading any of Eurasia and having the Mongolian Empire appear. It just suddenly brings that tapestry back into focus.

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