Revisiting “Ignorance of Things Past”, an essay by Lewis H. Lapham

I want to draw attention to a superb essay written by Lewis H. Lapham in the May 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Although I am unable to link a full-text version of it for you to read, I do want to reproduce some of my favorite parts of the essay. Lapham was writing during the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, articulating his relationship over the years to the study of history. In his essay, he explains why history remains so important to understanding ourselves as a nation, and more simply as human beings. History shows us who we are by showing us who we’ve been.

I look for an understanding of the human predicament, to discover or re-discover how it is with man, who he is and how it is between him and other men. To consult the record in books both ancient and modern is to come across every vice, virtue, motive, behavior, obsession, consequence, joy, and sorrow to be met with on the roads across the frontiers of the millennia. What survives the wreck of empires and the sack of cities is the sound of a human voice confronting the fact of its own mortality. (29)

History is also fluid and open to interpretation, and not set in stone as we sometimes imagine it to be. Lapham suggests that history is a work-in-progress, never complete. It more closely resembles a tale that we tell ourselves to try and explain how things happened.

Each age revises its conception of the past to fit the context of its present, and by and large the historian will find the facts that prove the truths of his interpretation. History is not what happened 200 or 2,000 years ago; it is a story about what happened 200 or 2,000 years ago. The stories change, as do the sight lines available to the tellers of the tales. (29)

I find this definition of history incredibly comforting and liberating, because it means that we have the ability to tweak the story. I am not suggesting a revisionist’s view of history, or a desire to deny basic facts of the past. Rather, I am hoping that Lapham’s definition of history affords us the wiggle-room necessary to bring in the forgotten and silenced voices that never had a chance to speak.