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Historiography and Critical Historical Thinking Essay

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Updated: Oct 8th, 2021

Introduction

A number of historical texts have been written down the ages that have had a great influence on how different cultures and civilizations behaved. The paper would discuss some of the texts written by Marco Polo, Racchus Babeuf, Karl Marx and Frederick Engel, Dennis O’Neil, Eviatar Zerubavel and the text The Peloponnesian War.

Gracchus Babeuf – The Manifesto of the Equals, 1796

The text by Gracchus (1776) shows the revolutionary notions of liberté, egalité and fraternité that he expanded beyond the political, social and legal realm into the cultural and economic. True equality, Babeuf argued would mean common property as well as a common government. The text shows one of the ways in which ideas of freedom have broadened since 1789 and is a good example of the most radical thinking to emerge from the French Revolution, Conspiracy for Equality. The document was written when the French Revolution was nearing its end. Before the term began, I had the feeling that in the French Revolution, the aristocracy was overthrown and the common man was in power. But the text shows that this is not true and Gracchus has claimed that while the old aristocracy was overthrown, it had been replaced by another elite who were as bad as the previous ones. The following passage from the text shows what I mean “The French Revolution is but the forerunner of another revolution far grander, far more solemn, and which will be the last. The people have marched over dead bodies against the kings and priests coalesced against it; it will do the same against the new tyrants — against the new political Tartuffes who have usurped the places of the old”.

Gracchus believed that the new order that had been forced on the common citizens had not brought equality to the masses. The masses still struggled as before and the very sense of equality was distorted. The people still worked as hard as before but for different masters who treated them equally cruelly. So true quality had never been attained and in its place, there was a new form of slavery. This sentiment is best expressed in the following paragraph “What do we want,” you ask, “more than equality of rights?” We want that equality not merely written in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen;” we want it in the midst of us — under the roofs of our houses. We consent to everything for it — to become as pliable wax, in order to have its characters engraved upon us. Perish, if needs be, all the arts, provided real equality abides with us!”

The author has thoroughly criticized the manner in which the land was distributed and there was no equality in the distribution since the majority of the land had been allotted to a few tribes, soldiers or businessmen who favoured the new regime.

It must be noted that while the majority of issues that the author has raised are true, he does not speak of the manner in which equality can be distributed. His claims that education should be given to all and equal food for all does not speak of how this could be achieved and more importantly, who would provide them. In a way, the anguish that the author speaks of can be seen in every state and country whether a new president is elected or a new dictator comes to power, the rich continue to be rich while the poor get poorer and exploited.

Marx and Engels Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848.

Marx and Engles, regarded as the fathers of communism wrote this work in 1848 and the document has served as the foundation on which communism was implemented in Russia, China and many other countries (Marx, Engles, 1848). Before the beginning of the term, I was under the impression that the work was written by a Russian or a Chinese citizen, but was surprised to know that it was written in England by the authors who were actually Germans.

The document begins by first suggesting that communism has already approached Europe and many countries feared its power to bring about the success class struggles and now it was the one-sided struggle between the Bourgeois or the upper society and the Proletariat or the working class. Leaders of the western world such as the Pope, Tsar and various kings and queens were against this movement and feared it as they felt that the movement would remove them from power. The preamble to the document shows the feelings of the author “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies“. (Marx, Engles, 1848)

The authors have suggested that communism was nothing but another form of class struggle that had occurred throughout the ages. The history of class struggles included the struggles between Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, oppressor and oppressed. The fight has been continuous and took various forms such as hidden, open and each time that the fight ended, a new revolutionary society was formed that further acted against the interests of the ruling class. (Marx, Engles, 1848)

It must be understood that the work was written at the height of the industrial revolution when thousands of factory workers were employed and exploited in stuffy and dangerous industries across Europe. The authors contend that across history, almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders has been formed and there has been a manifold gradation of social rank. Ancient Rome had patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes and subordinate gradations. In the current epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

The authors suggest that the Bourgeoisie use capitalism to enslave the workers who do not have the means to fight back since they are beholden to the capitalists for their wages and for livelihood. The document calls for an overthrow of this system so that there are no masters and servants and everyone benefits from the industries and the economy.

I feel that many countries such as Russia and even China that embraced communism found that the industries did not prosper and the people grew even weaker. As a result of which, communism has broken down and Russia has an elected President and only China has a token of communism since it encourages capitalism. So in other words, I feel that communism is not the right process in which equitability is brought in.

Dennis O’Neil on Darwin and Natural Selection

Charles Darwin (Dennis, 2008) was the first person who proposed the theory of evolution and natural selection. While evolution started millions of years ago when life began on earth and different life forms evolved to adapt to the environment and the habitat, Charles Darwin was the first person to provide proof and demonstrate the theory of natural selection. Before the term began, I did not have a good idea of the proof that he offered to a sceptical world that still believed that God created the earth and life in seven days, 6000 years back. His views were radically opposed to the divine theories that the church had and he was vilified for his ideas.

Charles Darwin undertook a voyage of South America on the H.M.S. Beagle was a Royal ship that was undertaking to map different countries. His theory of evolution was developed during his 5 weeks long visit to the Galápagos Islands in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. It was there that he began to comprehend what causes plants and animals to evolve. The islands are at a distance of 600 miles from mainland South America and the animals and plants that existed in these islands were very different from the ones on the mainland, mainly because of the vast body of water that existed between them (Dennis, 2008).

The Galápagos Islands have species found in no other part of the world, though similar ones exist on the west coast of South America. Darwin was struck by the fact that the birds were slightly different from one island to another. He realized that the key to why this difference existed was connected with the fact that the various species live in different kinds of environments. Darwin identified 13 species of finches in the Galápagos Islands. This was puzzling since he knew of only one species of this bird on the mainland of South America, nearly 600 miles to the east, where they had all presumably originated. He observed that the Galápagos species differed from each other in beak size and shape. He also noted that the beak varieties were associated with diets based on different foods. He concluded that when the original South American finches reached the islands, they dispersed to different environments where they had to adapt to different conditions. Over many generations, they changed anatomically in ways that allowed them to get enough food and survive to reproduce (Dennis, 2008).

Darwin came to understand that any population consists of individuals that are all slightly different from one another. Those individuals having a variation that gives them an advantage in staying alive long enough to successfully reproduce are the ones that pass on their traits more frequently to the next generation. Subsequently, their traits become more common and the population evolves. Darwin called this “descent with modification.” After observing the reduction in the population of light moths and the increase in dark moths in England Darwin concluded that the fittest individuals that best adapt to the environment are the ones most likely to survive to the next generation (Dennis, 2008).

Though many ignorant scientists and the clergy ridiculed Darwin and his work, eventually people accepted the rigorous work that he had put in and the study helped other scientists to study the theory of natural selection and heredity in a much more scientific way.

The Travels of Marco Polo

The travels of Marco Polo is a very famous book in the 13th century that talked about Marco Polo’s travels to the court of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan (Jackson, 1998). The Travels is divided into four books. Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco encountered on his way to China. Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan. Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and the east coast of Africa. Finally, Book Four describes some of the recent wars among the Mongols and some of the regions of the far north, like Russia. The book was the first of its kind in Europe of the 13th century and it created great interest among people, the majority of who had heard about China in a very mysterious manner.

Bentley on Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History

Bently (June 1996) has written about the importance of periodization that is important when different eras, civilizations and cultures of history need to be studied. This is especially true when examining history related to different cultures such as Islam, the far east and others. Before the beginning of the term, I had no idea of the importance of periodization and that different cultures integrated with each other in more ways than one.

When historians address the past from global points of view and examine processes that cross the boundary lines of societies and cultural regions, the problems of periodization become even more acute. Historians have long realized that periodization schemes based on the experiences of Western or any other particular civilization do a poor job of explaining the trajectories of other societies. For example, the categories of ancient, medieval, and modern history, derived from the European experience, apply awkwardly to the histories of China, India, Africa, the Islamic world, or the Western hemisphere—quite apart from the increasingly recognized fact that they do not even apply very well to European history. As historians take global approaches to the past and analyse human experiences from broad and comparative perspectives, however, questions of periodization present themselves with increasing insistence. Bentley has attempted to answer questions such as to what extent is it possible to identify periods that are both meaningful and coherent across the boundary lines of societies and cultural regions? What criteria or principles might help historians to sort out patterns of continuity and change and to distinguish such periods? (Bently, June 1996).

The author suggests that efforts at global periodization might profit by examining the participation of the world’s peoples in processes transcending individual societies and cultural regions. From remote times to the present, cross-cultural interactions have had significant political, social, economic, and cultural ramifications for all peoples involved. Thus it stands to reason that processes of cross-cultural interaction might have some value for purposes of identifying historical periods from a global point of view. Moreover, with cross-cultural interactions as their criteria, historians might better avoid ethnocentric periodizations that structure the world’s past according to the experiences of some particular privileged people. Scholars increasingly recognize that history is the product of interactions involving all the world’s peoples (Bently, June 1996).

The Sophists

The Sophists were a group of a class of itinerant intellectuals in ancient Greece and were active in the 5 th century BC. They taught courses in “excellence” or “virtue,” speculated about the nature of language and culture and employed rhetoric to achieve their purposes, generally to persuade or convince others. Most of these sophists are known today primarily through the writings of their opponents, specifically Plato and Aristotle, which makes it difficult to assemble an unbiased view of their practices and beliefs (Sophists, 2000).

The travelling teachers had an enormous influence on the thought of the fifth century B.C. and they were in general intellectual descendants of the Presocratic philosophers. The Sophists turned from theoretical natural science to the rational examination of human affairs for the practical betterment of human life. This approach to life began to undermine the mythological view of the world evident in poetry with its emphasis on the involvement of anthropomorphic deities in the natural world and inhuman action. According to them, divine causation was no longer the only explanation of natural phenomena and human action (Sophists, 2000).

Most Sophists were non-Athenians who attracted enthusiastic followings among the Athenian youth and received large fees for their services. Sophists flocked to Athens no doubt due to the favourable attitude of Pericles towards intellectuals. Pericles was a staunch rationalist; he had been trained in music and political affairs by Sophists. He was associated with the great sophist Protagoras of Abdera and two important Presocratics: Zeno of Elea and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae. The latter taught that the universe was governed by pure intelligence and his assertion that the sun, moon and stars are red hot stones and not gods led to his prosecution for impiety (Sophists, 2000).

Most Sophists claimed to teach arete ‘excellence’ in the management of one’s own affairs and especially in the administration of the affairs of the city. Up to the fifth century B.C. it was the common belief that arete was inborn and that aristocratic birth alone qualified a person for politics, but Protagoras taught that arete is the result of training and not innate. The Sophists claimed to be able to help their students better themselves through the acquisition of certain practical skills, especially rhetoric (the art of persuasion). Advancement in politics was almost entirely dependent upon rhetorical skills. The Athenian democracy with its assembly (ekklesia), in which any citizen could speak on domestic and foreign affairs, and the council of five hundred (boule), on which every Athenian citizen got a chance to serve, required an ability to speak persuasively. The Sophists filled this need for rhetorical training and by their teaching proved that education could make an individual a more effective citizen and improve his status in Athenian society (Sophists, 2000).

Christine de Pizan

Christine of Pizan who lived in the 14th century was one of the first feminist activists who strongly challenged misogyny and stereotypes that were prevalent in male-dominated Europe (Christine, 1400). During her lifetime, Christine de Pizan became a champion of women’s rights. Her most celebrated arguments against the degradation of women were precipitated by the misogynist doctrines in the popular Roman de La Rose by Guillaume de Lorris. Christine’s response to de Lorris and the powerful clergy amounted to a Battle of the Sexes whose arguments pro and con would be debated for centuries after. Her work The City of Women is an extensive argument for the equality of women. In it, she evokes Lady Reason who serves as the work’s guide to the questions Christine poses. Through Lady Reason, Christine discovers not only the historical instances of outstanding women but guidance about how women should be educated.

The educational plans that Lady Reason gives to Christine the author take care of class distinctions since she knew that different classes of women had different needs. The plan of education for women from the merchant or artisan classes are very distinct from the one prescribed for women who are married to landed barons. Wives of baronets, for instance, are given some surprisingly modern advice on how to become thoroughly familiar with economics since their husbands are likely to be frequently absent from home (Christine, 1400).

De Pizan’s participation in a literary quarrel, in 1401–1402, allowed her to move beyond the courtly circles, and ultimately to establish her status as a writer concerned with the position of women in society. During these years, she involved herself in a renowned literary debate, the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose”. Pizan helped to instigate this particular debate when she began to question the literary merits of Jean de Meun’s The Romance of the Rose. Written in the thirteenth century, the Romance of the Rose satirizes the conventions of courtly love while also critically depicting women as nothing more than seducers. De Pizan specifically objected to the use of vulgar terms in Jean de Meun’s allegorical poem. She argued that these terms denigrated the proper and natural function of sexuality and that such language was inappropriate for female characters such as Lady Reason. According to de Pizan, noblewomen did not use such language. Her critique primarily stems from her belief that Jean de Meun was purposely slandering women through the debated text (Christine, 1400).

Kant on What is Enlightenment, 1784

Immanuel Kant was an 18th-century German philosopher from the Prussian city of Königsberg and regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of modern Europe and of the late Enlightenment. In his work “What is Enlightenment?” Kant replied to the question posed a year earlier by the Reverend Johann Friedrich Zöllner to a broad intellectual public. Kant’s opening paragraph of the essay is a much-cited definition of a lack of Enlightenment as people’s inability to think for themselves due not to their lack of intellect, but lack of courage (Kant. 1784).

Kant’s essay also addressed the causes of a lack of enlightenment and the preconditions necessary to make it possible for people to enlighten themselves. He held it necessary that all church and state paternalism be abolished and people be given the freedom to use their own intellect. Kant praised Frederick II of Prussia for creating these preconditions. Kant focused on religious issues, saying that “our rulers” had less interest in telling citizens what to think in regard to artistic and scientific issues. The very first paragraph had a huge impact “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have the courage to use your own understanding!” that is the motto of enlightenment.”

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

Sam Wineburg is a professor at Stanford University and his book questions the interpretation of history and how it is taught. This book disputes the conventional notion that there is one true history and one best way to teach it. Since ancient times, the pundits have lamented young people’s lack of historical knowledge and warned that ignorance of the past surely condemns humanity to repeat its mistakes. In the contemporary United States, this dire outlook drives a contentious debate about what key events, nations, and people are essential for history students. Sam Wineburg says that we are asking the wrong questions. The author who is a cognitive psychologist has argued that although most of us think of history and learn it as a conglomeration of facts, dates, and key figures, for professional historians it is a way of knowing, a method for developing an understanding of the relationships of peoples and events in the past. He has studied what is intrinsic to historical thinking, how it might be taught, and why most students still adhere to the “one damned thing after another” concept of history (Wineburg, 2008).

Wineburg’s essays offer “rough maps of how ordinary people think about the past and use it to understand the present.” Arguing that we all absorb lessons about history in many settings, in kitchen table conversations, at the movies, or on the worldwide web, for instance—these essays acknowledge the role of collective memory in filtering what we learn in school and shaping our historical thinking (Wineburg, 2008).

Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, What Does It Mean to Think Historically?

Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke have suggested the “five C’s of historical thinking” approach that can be used to transfer the craft knowledge of teachers to the students. The five C’s change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency. The authors feel that these together describe the shared foundations of a discipline. They stand at the heart of the questions historians seek to answer, the arguments and the debates in which people engage. These ideas are hardly new to professional historians. But that is precisely their value: They make implicit, the ways of thought explicit to the students and teachers who are trained. The five C’s do not encompass the universe of historical thinking, yet they do provide a remarkably useful tool for helping students at practically any level learn how to formulate and support arguments based on primary sources, as well as to understand and challenge historical interpretations related in secondary sources (Thomas, 2008).

Conclusion

The paper has discussed various texts through the centuries that have influenced and changed the way people thought and acted. The works have also helped me to understand the study of history in a better way.

References

Bentley Jerry H. June 1996. Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History. Web.

Christine of Pizan. 1400. The City of Women. Web.

Dennis O’Neil. 2008. Darwin and Natural Selection. Web.

Gracchus Babeuf. 1796. The Manifesto of the Equals (Trans Bronterre O’Brien. London: H. Hetherington, 1836. Reprinted by Augustus M. Kelley, New York). Web.

Jackson, Peter. 1998. Marco Polo and his ‘Travels. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. Volume 61(1). pp: 82-101.

Marx Karl, Engels Fredrick. 1848. . Web.

Sophists. 2000. Philosophical Background of the Fifth Century B.C. Web.

Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke. 2008. Web.

Wineburg Sam. 2008. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. Web.

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