“History is a lie commonly agreed upon”-Voltaire

history

There is no as such specific definition of history upon which all historians agree. Some historians say that ’’History is an outward expression of thoughts’’. Some say that ‘’History is one a series of discourses about the world’’. Some say that the valid definition of history is that ’’History is the selection of past events’’. The important thing to know here is that the history is different from what we say the past.  The basic distinction between the two is that past consists of collection of events and history is the interpretation of those gone events.

Past > History

There are many historians who believe that history does not consists of truth. But they argue that history should always be written for many purposes including knowing about past, comparing lives of people in the past and the present and for many other purposes. A famous historian of 18th century named as Voltaire is also among those who consider history as a lie.

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) was a French writer, historian, philosopher and advocate of freedom of expression and religion. He not only displayed his interest in writing history but he also wrote many novels, essays, poems, plays and books on scientific works. He was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world.

I also agree with this great historian’s saying, ‘’History is a lie commonly agreed upon’’. Basically what Voltaire wants to say is that historians write lies and everyone except some historians takes historical writings as a truth and give these constructed truths as references when talking to others. History is socially constructed by historians. What the historians do is that they just combine scattered events occurred in the past and every historian writes history in his own way. When a historian writes history in his own way, there comes the problems like biasedness and role of power (by ignoring general public and their opinions and write what the authoritarian wants). As I used the terms like biasedness and role of power so firstly it is important to elaborate those as following:-

Biasedness: It is the inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair. This means that the historians are biased while writing history. In my opinion, as a human, naturally, we all are biased. It is very rare that a human is impartial. We can expect that the history written by historians can be biased. They just write what they want and what intrigued them. For instance, a historian always takes into account his nationality, race, class, sex and many other groups he belongs to. These things restrain a writer of history to write close to the truth. Another example is that John F. Richards (a British historian and a Professor at Duke University and South Carolina) writes about Mughal Empire and its decline. I believe, even if an average student reads his book or article, he will reach the conclusion that writer totally focuses on the wealth and money power of Mughals before decline and the reason for dwindle of Empire was agrarian crisis(according to writer) and he totally disregarded their(British) colonialism in subcontinent. The thing that was hindering the writer to write truth was his nationality.

Role of Power: Power has a great influence in our every aspect of life. For instance, an individual has to face power in house (parents), in educational institutions (teachers) and even in corporate life (bosses). Power also has a great role in writing history. Generally, history is mostly written by the powerful (i.e rich historians) and they write what they want. They either utterly ignore the history from below or express history to others as among poor everything is fine and there is no need to write about them. Sometimes authorities (i.e Governments or Emperors) ask historians to write what makes them happy and they do it because they cannot refuse them and they know if they would deny, they would be punished. For instance, Mughal emperor Akbar was pretty much interested in saving his great works through history writings so that the future generations might be able to see his loyalty to the general public elaborating the development made by him in subcontinent. George Orwell an excellent English writer elaborates the importance of power among authoritarians in his famous novel ‘’George Orwell 1984’’ that autocrats usually are interested in their power and its persistence and have nothing to do with good of masses. What I believe is that if they do nothing for people, they had to put history in document form representing their uprightness so that they can be remembered.

Biasedness and role of power restrain a historian from writing true history and because of these factors historians have to write a lie.  Historians also claim that they reach close to the truth and find it using facts and figures. No doubt, there exist some statistics to support historian’s opinions in their historical writings, but in fact, as R.G. Collingwood (a great English philosopher and historian of early 20th century)  suggests that “The facts of history are nothing, interpretation is everything.’’ Carl Becker an (American historian) also says that “The facts of the history do not exist for any historian till he creates them”. So logically, there is a distinction between facts and historical facts. Facts are simply always there but historical facts are created by historians and are socially constructed and socially constructed things does not exist in their pure form.

The other important point regarding history as a lie is the Empiricist and Marxist approach towards history. Both describe the same events in different ways. For instance, Empiricist focuses on sense of experiences and mere observations and facts and does not try to look at the reasons and Marxist focuses generally on logics and reasons behind events and the other distinction is Marxist also pay attention to class differences. So, same event and sometimes same historian but different interpretations cause distractions from truth. Voltaire was a Marxist (believed in reasons). He also advised scholars that anything different from the normal way of nature was not to be relied (also believed in Empiricism).

If we see the other side of the picture, we come to know that if history is a lie, why it is written. The best answer is given by Penelope J. Corfield (a world known Professor in world top universities) in an article named as “All people are living histories – which is why History matters” and his claim is that many significant things which belong to us are extensively related to our past like our languages, cultures, traditions, religions, scientific inventions, and genomes (which every individual has a different) also evolved from past. In short, history is not useful but it is essential. History, although a lie, but should be written as George Orwell in “George Orwell 1984” writes a famous sentence emphasizing the importance of past saying that “He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.”

Although Voltaire found the historical records faulty, he believed rationale and educating the illiterate masses would lead to progress.

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