History: An Ocean without Shores

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Is history an ocean of knowledge without shores? Is it a seamless fusion of interdisciplinary knowledge? How does it reach us and help us develop our perspectives of lived and living lifestyles? Why does it motivate us to integrate for common good?

These are some important questions whose answers we shall try to seek through the following discussion.

History is an important medium that makes us understand the interplay between social beings in a given society. It encompasses everything that comprises a society including its institutions, belief systems, its economics, politics and religions, and its science, technology, philosophy, literature, commerce and its occupations and pastimes. It is a complete and an all-embracing study of civilizations whose evolution, flowering and prosperity are the offspring of historical forces that act as a stimulating factor in causing them to occur.

When a Civilizational change takes place to push the society towards a new epoch and next phase of its development, history comes forward to take up the arduous task of documenting the transition, with all its characteristics, challenges and lows and highs, for the posterity to enable the people consider its pros and cons carefully, and draw useful lessons from it to shape their present as well as their future accordingly. It undertakes to record truthfully and unmistakably why and how the change happened and to what extent did it impact the people and was it to their benefit. The glorious and magnificent triumphs the men and women earn in the process of their transformation and the failures and tragedies it brings in its wake for many to confront in their ownward-march towards their goals are adequately circumfused by history.

While doing so it doesn’t leave anything to chance or unattended, unrecorded and unnoticed. It takes everything into cognizance that concerns the human life in all its dimensions and manifestations. Whatever is crucial to human existence it takes stock of without any favour, fear or prejudice. And whatever else is injurious to the health of a society or State it doesn’t hesitate to weigh that on the scales of objectivity, honesty and justice.

It never dares to disown people come what may. Instead it owns them overwhelmingly right from their cradle to their grave and in their totality and with both their positives and negatives and joys and despairs. It determines their birth burg, parentage, community, nationality and other related aspects of life and continues associating with them through their ups and downs, their birth, upbringing, wedding, procreation, prosperity, disposition etc, etc. It documents everything including their emotions, aspirations, feelings, pleasures, recreations, sports, expeditions, and fears and oppressions which they experience in their lives. It doesn’t shy away from unveiling the ugly faces of their superstitions, obscurantism, scourges and irrational practices to which they adhere.

It records even flirtations and love- making of handsome men with beautiful women, and rendezvouses of youthful, enthusiastic aashiqs with their dam pretty, awesome mashooqas, and tu tu main main (petty squabbling) between love birds for our felicity and entertainment.

Also it uncovers the debauchery of Kings and Queens and illicit relationships of royals, nobles and courtiers with their paramours. The love affairs of Princes with ordinary damsels too get due attention. The accounts of violent encounters stemming from hurdles created by villains for stalling the attempts of lovers to connect with their sweethearts also find their space in history.

History evaluates the great works of innovations, inventions, discoveries, mechanisms, research and other experimental assignments and their ability to make life comfortable on the planet earth. It extensively explores the disciplines of considerable significance whose knowledge is indeed necessary for us to learn how to overcome existential quandaries, and resolve amicably differences and disputes that arise to linger on endlessly in the society to disturb its socio-economic equilibrium and devastate its sources of production. Alongside natural calamities like floods, famines, fires, earthquakes, flues or any other Pandemic, it covers other areas prone to outbursts, protests, wars, intrigues, conflicts and similar other issues.

It pushes forward the facts that give us clues we can use to comprehend the essence of difficult issues and unfamiliar circumstances. It enables us to appreciate the context in which situations arise to bring the change in the society for human betterment. It delineates the hidden nuances of decadence that afflicts the society due to human error, negligence, greed, corruption, ignorance, arrogance, exploitation, crimes and degeneration, and badly affects each area of existence and spoils the very essence of life, giving a specific colour to social fabric to mark it differently with gloom and despair.

Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima teaches us how societal advancement and decadence takes place due to the clannish instinct that brings cohesion (assabiyya) among the people of similar backgrounds, inspiring them to work together for social growth, and achievement of military prowess to conquer towns and put at their mercy the urbanites, and create new regimes. But with the passage of time they get spoiled due to excessive indulgence in luxury, pride, pleasure and extravagance and as consequence lose their assabiyya (solidarity) which compels them to increase taxes that pave way to their final decline. The decaying society is conquered by another group of people who after consolidating their power get attracted to its refinements, sophistications and urban luxuries in the hot pursuit of which they become madly cruel and degenerate beasts only to be eventually removed from the scene by another set of rulers who too become, in course of time, lax and victim of the same circumstances to pave way for new regimes to begin the cycle afresh. The process of the rise and fall, thus, revolves like a cycle.

But Toynbee’s formula of change is altogether different. Unlike Ibn Khaldun’s it holds the creative and civilized people entirely responsible for the rise and fall of civilizations. His study attributes the genesis and growth of societies/ civilizations to a Creative Minority who find solutions to respond to challenges civilizations face in cyclic manner. The people follow them blindly till the Creative Minority lose their creativity and degenerate into a Dominant Minority due to their own weaknesses, arrogance and frailty of character and worship of self. The change of hearts of Creative Minority results in the disintegration and breakdown of civilizations.

Contrary to these scholars Karl Marx gives us altogether a different perspective about the rise and fall of societies. He believes that the history is determined by materialism which has throughout remained a moving force behind the advancement of epochs and eras from primitive to feudal to capitalistic stages. He attributes historical progression of civilizations to their economic system, and the very nature of production relations that is always disposed towards setting productive forces against social relations. The conflict it ensues ultimately brings around a change, an overwhelming change like that of shifting feudalism to capitalism. Driven by impersonal forces of history, the change is the offshoot of the clash among social classes. It is a harbinger of total transformation. It is, thus, the people’s way of living and working in a given society that determines the shape of its history rather than the rulers who rule the roost.

As against these constructs, the Capitalist view of history is based on acquisitive efforts of workforce and employers who follow their own self interest while pursuing their respective goals of earning wages and making profits. Through the unending pursuit of their own benefits, they replace one epoch with another to ensure that the modern economy strikes its roots in the society with all its inbuilt institutions and corporations and attendant disparities between the workers and employers. The health and prosperity of the new system, controlled by private owners for profit generated by the exploitation of the workforce, depends on the market forces/ the law of supply and demand which also determines the prices of goods. The untiring endeavours of the workmen and the huge investments made by the capatalists benefit the whole society which by and large recognizes the inequality between the two on the belief that the capatalists are divinely ordained to be wealthy, talented, meritorious and virtuous than their employees. This attitude becomes a cause of annoyance and loud protestations of the workforce.

Then there is Subaltern school of history that is more interested in exploring the position and role of common masses: peasants, artisans, handicraftsmen and ordinary men and women who constitute the bulk of society and are exploited for no fault of theirs. Deprived of benefits of social living, justice and equality and excluded from the socio- economic institutions of society, these common masses are always clouded by gloom and despair and their voice goes unheeded and is often lost in wilderness. Seemingly on the left, this chool of thought is opposed to the Marxian interpretation of history that remains focused on the elite consciousness which in turn inspires the masses for their protests against their colonizers.

In all these cases History draws, thus, a clear line of demarcation between right and wrong, virtue and evil, moral and immoral, good and bad and beauty and ugliness. It shows how the historical forces operate to motivate the human behaviour of mutual interdependence to integrate people together for common good. It teaches us why and when these forces instigate people to disintegrate themselves and fall apart on the basis of religion, language, race or culture, embroiling them, thus, in violent communal skirmishes, riots and bloodshed.

It becomes quite clear now that history is indisputably an ocean without shores which absorbs and accommodates all streams, rivers and their tributaries in its vast and deep waters to shape ultimately a seamless fusion of knowledge, wisdom and experiences. It is essentially and inherently a multidisciplinary subject that accumulates enormous materials relating to different epochs and aspects of life to make a huge repository of knowledge. It explores societal issues through multiple perspectives and interdisciplinary approach, and always remains on look out for collecting, after every event/episode, food for its thought to reflect that unequivocally for our good. It inspires other disciplines, like philosophy, anthropology, science, arts, literature etc to have their separate histories whose compilations involve subject-specific and history-based methodology.

The wisdom so accumulated by history reaches us via the monumental works which historians compile after a painstaking research and thorough analysis of the data they collect from a variety of sources such as archives, archaeology, museums, architecture, artifacts, handwritten manuscripts, folklore, diaries, letters, and other primary and tertiary sources. These works are real sources of truthful historical Knowledge as they are shaped by independent, impartial, apolitical and non-commissioned historians. They reaches us through the objective channels of informations and publications rather than that of propaganda, and Twitter and WhatsApp Universities.

Objective historians take full and final responsibility of acting as impartial intermediaries between history and people (readers). Through their comprehensive nonpartisan works, they enter into a dialogue with us to clarify our understanding, and remove our doubts if we have any regarding any historic episode, event, thought or personality. They constitute an unshakable bridge between us and our predecessors, between our past and present, and between two distinct realms of our lived and living lives and, thereby, provide us with a vital link, passage/pathway that facilitates our journey to our future. The feedback they supply is used to improve societal conditions and rectify wrongs if any, enabling us, thus, to repeat not what have remained the cause of our ancestor’s angst.

Let us now turn to another important question. Does history tend to repeat itself?

Despite not being an organic and thinking specie, history works like a robot in the hands of nature and obeys it actively to carry its commands, and, thereby, tends to repeat itself. Whatever nature wants it to repeat, it does so obediently. Without any reservation or hesitation it repeats natural clamities like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, pandemics, floods, fires occasionally with same speed, energy, ferocity and magnitude as it did in the past, and brings colossal devastation in their wake. Man-made calamities too repeat but with more severity than before. The invention of gun powder, and the advanced technology and science and nuclear weaponry have given altogether a new dimension and colour to wars, making them more dangerous than before. But the underlying cause of the wars has remained unchanged and is almost the same as it was in the past, especially the same passion and same lust for power, territories, economic gains etc. Their consequences are increasingly identical to earlier ones and are likely to happen similarly in the future as well. We are not far too far to press the nuclear button of third World War with the consequences of total devastation because the historic recurrence of striking similarities are bound to happen in the future. The study of the past and the present becomes, thus, very important to understand that we live by same desires, same feelings and same aspirations as our ancestors . It enables us to forsee what is likely to happen in future not in linear terms but as a terrible repetitive process and sameness.

(Dr. Ahad is a historian and author)


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