Menu Close

Bias in Written History6 min read

Listen to this article

It has often been said, "History is written by the victors," which is to say that, no written history is without the biases of its authors, and may not only leave out important facts, it may spin the facts it does mention towards or away from certain opinions about the subject matter.  I have three points to make about this, each discussed below.  The discussion points include:

  • The death of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. this past week, and some of his choice quotes on history
  • C.S. Lewis’ recommendation regarding reading old works, not just contemporary works
  • The 7th edition of the Annals of the World, a 17th century world history

1.  Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

NPR had a nice remembrance of Schlesinger by a colleague (as well as a longer piece), who remembered some very nice quotes from the liberal historian, including:

"Historians, like everybody else, are prisoners of their own
experience, and they often read back into the past
the preoccupations of the present."

This honest and realistic admission of the biases in written histories is refreshing, esp. when you consider how people often take as definitive and authoritative the histories that they have been given. 

2.  C.S. Lewis on Reading

From his introduction to Athanasius on the Incarnation

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. 

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.  None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. 

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.  Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past.  People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.  Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.  To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

Wise advice indeed.  Not only can reading books from the past show us which truths we hold have endured, we can see which ideas or emphases we hold are artifacts of our current time and culture, rather than enduring, balanced ideas.

Annals of the World by James Usher

Usher, a 17th century Anglican Archbishop with Calvinist tendencies, wrote what was considered for decades (centuries?) to be the definitive survey of man’s history from the beginning of recorded history to 70 AD.  Now in it’s 7th Edition, the 960 page Annals of the World might be a great antidote to modern histories, especially since many histories since the Enlightenment were heavily influenced by anti-Catholic and anti-religious sentiment.

This can be easily seen in the recent spate of books challenging such liberal ideas as the church’s guilt in religious conflicts such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, as well as the canard of religion being anti-science, as "evidenced" by Galileo’s fight over geocentrism.

This is not to say that the church was guiltless in these matters, but the conclusions drawn by secular and often anti-religious historians have the grave possibility, which seems borne out upon examination, to be written with omissions of information and negative spin to make religion look like the sole antagonist in these events.  As I read such books as Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God, as well as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, I realized how far left history has been and can be spun, and also, not coincidentally, how far in the opposite direction you could spin history.

I think Annals of the World will make a nice addition to my library.