History and Historians

Revilo P. Oliver

Prof. Oliver at home, 1969

A conservative is essentially a man who is willing to learn from the accumulated experience of mankind. He must strive to observe dispassionately and objectively, and he must read from his observations with a full awareness of the limitations of reason. And he must, above all, have the courage to confront the unpleasant realities of human nature and the world in which we live.

That is why history, the vast record of human trial and error, is a discipline for conservatives. It necessarily lies beyond the emotional and intellectual capacities of children, savages, and “liberal intellectuals,” who instinctively flee from reality to live in a dreamworld in which the laws of nature can be suspended by the intervention of fairies, witch-doctors, or “social scientists.”

History is a high and arduous discipline in which it is always necessary to collect and weigh complex and often elusive data, and in which, as in so many other fields of research, we must frequently content ourselves with a calculation of probabilities rather than a certainty. And when we try to extract from history the laws of historical development we find ourselves calculating the probability of probabilities – as difficult and delicate a task as the human mind can set for itself.

Fortunately for us, in the practical affairs of this world prudence and common sense (though somewhat uncommon qualities) are an adequate guide and do not depend on answers to the great questions of philosophy. A man may learn not to buy a pig in a poke without finding solution to the epistemological problem that Hume posed so clearly and that yet remains unsolved. We can learn much from history without answering the ultimate questions.

Our minds, however, by their very nature desire a coherent philosophy that will account for the whole of perceived reality. And we live in a time in which we are constantly confronted by claims some obviously mere propaganda but others seriously and sincerely put forward – that this or that development must take place in the future because it is “historically necessary.” Furthermore, we live in a time in which all but the most thoughtless sense that our very civilization is being eroded by vast and obscure forces which, if unchecked, will soon destroy it utterly – forces that we can identify and understand only if we can ascertain how and why they are shaping our history. And here again we are often told that those forces represent a destiny inherent in civilization itself and therefore irresistible and inescapable.

That is why the development of a working philosophy of history is the most urgent, as well as the most difficult, task of Twentieth Century thought.

Greece and Rome

History as the reasoned reporting of political and social change was the product of the Greek mind. Indeed, it could be argued that the capacity for history in that sense is the exclusive property of the Western culture that the Greeks created and we inherited – but it would be a fairly long argument. We cannot indulge ourselves in it here, any more than we can undertake a survey of ancient historians. But we should observe that the two basic conceptions of the historical process between which the modern mind must choose were both formed in Classical antiquity. I merely mention two historians who illustrate the contrast.

If we consider his almost superhuman dispassion and objectivity, the intellectual power that enables him to extract the essential from great masses of detail and so write concisely of highly complex events, and his lucid presentation of the evidence included by theory of thesis, we must regard Thucydides as the great historian of all time. With perfect precision he tells us what happened and how it happened; he sees reality with an eye that is never blurred by a tear for his country’s fate; and the implacable lucidity of his intellect is no more perturbed by a theory to be demonstrated than it was perturbed by the temptation, which no other writer could have resisted, to add at least a few words to explain or defend his own conduct as a general or to mention his own misfortunes. We cannot read Thucydides without deep emotion, but the emotion is ours, not his; we cannot read him without pondering the lessons of history, but they are lessons that we must draw from the facts, not accept ready-made from the writer.

The future will always resemble the past because human nature does not change; men will always be actuated by the same basic desires and motives; the limitations of human reason and of human willingness to reason constitute a kind of fatality, but the events of history are always the result of human decisions, of wisdom or folly, in dealing with matters that can never be calculated with certainty in advance because the result will to some extent depend on chance – on factors that cannot be predicted. Nations, like men, must suffer the consequences of their own acts – consequences often unforeseen and sometimes unforeseeable but there is no historical force which compels them to decide how they will act: they are subject, therefore, to no fate, other than that inherent in the limitations of their physical, mental, and moral resources. History is tragic, but it is tragedy in the strict sense of the word, the result of human blindness.

That conception of history contrasts strongly with another, with may be described as either more cowardly, since it does shift responsibility, or more profound, since it tries to account for decisions. The elder Seneca, writing his history of the Civil Wars after the fall of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Precipitate, was certainly influenced by the Stoic conception of a universe that operates by a strict mechanical necessity in vast cycles from one ecpyrosis to another, endlessly repeating itself. Seneca saw in the Roman people an organism comparable to a man and undergoing, like men, a kind of biological development. Rome spent her infancy under the early kings; adolescent, the nation established a republic and, with the indefatigable vigor of a growing organism, extended its rule over the adjacent parts of Italy; with the strength and resolution of maturity (iuventus), Rome conquered virtually all of the world that was worth taking; and then at last, weary and feeling the decline of her powers, unable to muster the strength and resolution to govern herself, she in her old age (senectus) resigned herself and her affairs into the hands of a guardian, closing her career as she began it, under the tutelage and governance of a monarch.

Unfortunately, the surviving fragment of Seneca’s history does not tell us how soon he thought decrepitude would be followed by death. We cannot even be certain how strictly he applied the fatalism implicit in the analogy; he seems to have believed that nations, like men, could in their maturity a little hasten or retard the onset of senility by the care that they took of themselves. But at best, human will and wisdom can but little affect the biological necessity that carried all living things to the inexorable grave. Seneca was thinking of Rome, rather than of Classical civilization as a whole, but this analogy anticipated the essentials of what we now call the organic, or cyclic, conception of history.

The Modem Dilemma

Modern history begins with the Renaissance, an age which thought of itself, as the name indicates, as a “rebirth” of Classical antiquity. For a long time, men’s energies were concentrated in an effort to ascend to the level of high civilization represented by the great ages of Greece and Rome. The most common metaphor described cultural change in terms of day and night: Civilization had reached high noon in the age of Cicero and Virgil; the decadence of the Roman Empire was the gloaming that preceded the long night of the Dark Ages; and the revival of literature and the arts that began with Petrarch was the dawn of a new day – the return of the sun to illumine the earth and rouse the minds of men. This metaphor was intended to mark contrasts, not to draw an analogy. Culture did not come to the world as the sun rises and sets, independently of human effort; on the contrary, literature, philosophy (including what we now call science), and the arts were the products of the highest and most intense creativity of the human mind. It followed, therefore, that civilization was essentially the body of knowledge accumulated and maintained by the intellect and will of men. This sense of constant striving precluded a cyclic or deterministic conception of history, while the awareness that the thread of civilization had been all but broken during the Dark Ages precluded a facile and unthinking optimism.

From the dawn of the Renaissance to the early years of the Twentieth Century men thought of the history of civilization as a continuum that could be reduced to a line on a graph. The line began at the bottom somewhere in pre-history before the time of Homer, rose steadily to a peak in the great age of Athens, dipped a little and then rose again to the Golden Age of Rome, fell steadily toward zero, which it almost reached in the Dark Ages, rose a little in the later Middle Age, and with the Revival of Learning climbed sharply toward a new peak. History thus conceived divided itself into three periods: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern.

That linear conception of history was simply taken for granted by historians. Guicciardini, Juan de Mariana, Thuanus, Gibbon, and Macaulay differ greatly from one another in outlook, but they all regard the linear conception as apodictic.


The Nineteenth Century brought to the West the assurance of military superiority over all the other peoples of the world. It seemed certain that the white man, thanks to his technology, would forever rule the globe and its teeming populations. And from this confidence sprang a mad-cap euphoria a bizarre notion that progress was inevitable and automatic; that civilization, instead of being a precious and fragile creation that men must work very hard to maintain and even harder to improve, had become self-perpetuating and self-augmenting; and that the line on the graph, having risen higher than the highest point attained in antiquity, was destined to move upward forever and forever. That childish fancy, to be sure, did not impose on the best minds of the century (e.g. Burckhardt), but like a heady wine it intoxicated many writers (e.g. Herbert Spencer) who passed for serious thinkers in their day. And it did serve to suggest to reflective minds the question whether or not there was a destiny inherent in the nature of the historical process itself as distinct from the wisdom or folly of decisions made by men.

Toward the end of the century, deep misgivings that could no longer be repressed found expression in such works as Theodore Funck-Brentano’s La civilisation et ses lois, Brooks Adams’ The Law of Civilization and Decay, and Henry Adams’ The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma. No one thought of doubting the supremacy of the West or its perpetuity, but men began to wonder whether civilization was not falling to a lower level. And to find an answer, they sought to establish a “science of history” – what is now called historionomy in English and metahistoire in French – which would ascertain the natural laws that govern the development of civilization.

On the eve of the First World War, a few remarkable minds, prescient of the coming catastrophe, formulated the historical question in more drastic and fundamental terms: Was the civilization of the West mortal and already growing old? Would a traveler of some future and alien civilization meditate among the moldering ruins of New York and London and Paris as Volney had meditated among the ruins of Babylon, Baalbec, and Persepolis – and perhaps, like Volney, soothe himself with illusions that his civilization could endure, although all its predecessors had left but heaps of broken stone to attest that they had once existed?

Power in the World

We must understand that the grim question thus posed was at that time, and remains even today, entirely a question of internal decay – of a sickness or debility of the Western mind and will. It was not then, and had not yet become, a question of strength relative to the rest of the world. The power of the nations of the West was, and is, simply overwhelming.

In 1914, men debated whether or not Russia was part of the Western world. Assuming that it was not, it was obvious that there were only two non-Western nations on earth that possessed the military and industrial capacity to offer serious resistance to even a medium-sized nation of the West. And neither Russia nor Japan could have hoped to defeat a major western power except by forming an alliance with another major power of Europe or America. And despite all the efforts of the west to destroy itself in fratricidal wars and by exporting its technology and its wealth to other peoples, that remains in large part true today.

The retreat of the West has been self-imposed, and we must not permit the screeching of “liberals” to distract our attention from that obvious and fundamental fact. Great Britain, for example, was in no sense compelled to relinquish India as a colony. During the great Indian Mutiny of 1857, fifty thousand British troops cut their way through the whole of the India subcontinent, and in little more than a year reduced to complete submission its population of more than one hundred million. And this, nota bene, was done at a time when the only basic weapon of warfare was the rifle, so that a man with a rifle on one side was the match of a man with a rifle on the other side, except insofar as discipline and individual intelligence might make some difference in the use of the common and universally obtainable weapon. In 1946, Great Britain, with all the weapons that are by their very nature a monopoly of great nations, could have snuffed out in a few weeks the most formidable revolt that Nehru and his gang could conceivably have instigated and organized.

The power is still ours. The greater part of the globe lies open for our taking, if we as a nation resolved to take it. Despite all the frenzied efforts in Washington to sabotage the United States for the past thirty years, it is still beyond doubt that if we were so minded, we could, for example, simply take the whole continent of Africa, exterminate the native population; and make the vast and rich area a new frontier for the expansion of our own people. No power on earth – certainly not the Soviet that we have so diligently nurtured and built up with our resources – would dare to oppose us. To be sure, there are good reasons for not annexing Africa, but if we are to think clearly about our place in the world, we must understand that lack of power is not one of them.

That the Western world, with it virtual monopoly of the instruments of power, should slavishly cringe before the hordes for which it felt only contempt when it was less strong than it now is, is obvious proof that our civilization is suffering from some potentially fatal disease or decay that has deprived us – temporarily or permanently – of the intelligence and the will to live. Every philosophy of history, or, if you prefer, every system of historionomy, is simply an effort to diagnose our malady – to tell us, in effect, whether the debility and enervation of the West is the result of a curable disease or of an irreversible deterioration.

Historical Understanding

The social and political questions of our day are all primarily historical problems. To think about them rationally, we must begin by consulting the record of human experience in the past. And we soon realize that if only we knew enough about history – and understood it – we should have the answers to all our questions.

Unique events are always incomprehensible. And every change is unique until it has been repeated often enough to be recognized as forming part of some intelligible pattern. We could not identify even so simple a sensation in our own bodies as hunger, had we not experienced it a thousand times and observed that a good meal invariably abolished it – for a while.

No man lives long enough to behold with his own eyes a pattern of change in society. He is like the midge that is born in the afternoon and dies at sun set, and which, therefore, no matter how intelligent it might be, could never discover, or even suspect, that day and night come in regular alternation. Unlike the midge, however, man can consult the experience of the comparatively few generations of his species that have preceded him during the comparatively brief period of about five thousand years in which human beings have had the power to leave records for the instruction of their posterity.

That, unfortunately, is not enough history to give positive and indubitable answers to many of our questions – but it is all that we have. The historian today is often in the position of the Greek philosophers who tried to decide whether the solar system was geocentric or heliocentric, and could not reach a definite conclusion simply because there was not available in the world a record of sufficiently exact observations recorded over a sufficiently long period of time. The modern historian who tries to explain the rise and fall of civilizations may possibly find the right explanation; but if he does – and if he is really a historian – he knows that, at best, he is in the position of Aristarchus, who first systematized and formulated the heliocentric theory, and who must have known that the theory could not be proved during his own lifetime or for many years to come. (I.e. not until the annual parallax of at least one fixed star had been determined. This was first accomplished by Bessel in 1838 – three centuries after Copernicus.) What Aristarchus could not anticipate, of course, was that the level of civilization would so fluctuate that it would be twenty-one centuries before men could be certain that he had been right.

The historionomer, though aware that his hypothesis must remain a hypothesis in his time, can draw an analogy in terms of a historical certainty. When civilized mankind lost interest in the problem that Aristarchus tried to solve with his unverifiable theory, it was headed toward a Dark Age in which men forgot facts that had been ascertained – an age so stultified that men forgot that they had once known that the earth was a globe, and so relapsed to the primitive notion that it was flat.

About the Author

Revilo P. Oliver (1910-1994), an American scholar of international stature, taught Classics at the University of Illinois for 32 years. He knew twelve languages, and wrote articles in four of them for academic publications in the US and Europe. He earned his doctorate from the University of Illinois in 1940, and in 1947 he began his teaching career with the Classics department there. During the early 1950s he was both a Guggenheim and a Fulbright fellow.

A brilliant and meticulous stylist, Oliver’s writing could be elegant and erudite or sarcastic and scathing. Between 1955 and 1959, he was a frequent contributor to William Buckley’s National Review. He helped to organize the anti-Communist John Birch Society, and for some years served as a member of its National Council. Oliver was a frequent contributor to the Society’s main periodical American Opinion until 1966, when he resigned following a policy disagreement with founder Robert Welch.

He was a friend and supporter of the Institute for Historical Review. From 1980 until his death he was a member of Editorial Advisory Committee of the IHR’s Journal of Historical Review.

This essay appeared in The Journal of Historical Review, Sept.-Oct. 1994 (Vol. 14, No. 5), pages 23-27. It is from a lengthier writing, first published in 1963, that was reprinted in the anthology America’s Decline: The Education of a Conservative (1982), pages 182-183, 187-189, 190-191 and 212-213.