The Sanction of the Past

  • J. H. Plumb


For as long as we can discern, the past has loomed ominously about the lives of men, threatening, demanding and hinting at cataclysm. It has contained portents and omens, one god or many. Its dark firmament has glittered with examples, a few benevolent, most doom-laden. Embedded in this mass of belief, which fulfilled, as we shall see, diverse and necessary social purposes, were bits and pieces of truth, notices of events which had taken place, names of men and women who had actually lived. But until very recent times there was no history as we know it; little intention in all those who dealt with the past of searching for what actually happened and, having discovered this, subjecting it to analysis, in order to discover what controlled, in material terms, the destinies of men.1 Even the greatest historians of antiquity, Herodotus, Livy, Tacitus, Ssu-ma Chi’en or Ssu-ma Kuang, never disentangled themselves from the past, from its myth or its social use; only perhaps Thucydides grasped the nature of the problem — the need to reconstruct the past as it happened — and decided that the solution, in any large sense, was impossible, and so he devoted himself to contemporary events, events which he could explore through his own senses before Time had eroded or destroyed the evidence.1


Seventeenth Century Historical Literature Social Emotion Social Purpose Civic Virtue 
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Copyright information

© J. H. Plumb 1969

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. H. Plumb
    • 1
  1. 1.Christ’s CollegeCambridgeUK

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