A Preface to Gustavson
A Brief Look at History Through Carl Gustavson and his book: “A Preface to History”
Professor James Jeffers
History. The term is one that tends to illicit thoughts of great men and women, revolutions, monumental events, and the progress of human societies. The lay student of history, that is one who approaches history in a novice as a high school student might, considers history to be a simple analysis of dates and era made important by various causes and effects. The novice historian is placated by merely understanding when some event happened coupled with a simple explanation as to the how’s and why’s. What the novice historian doesn’t understand is that the study of history is mush deeper than simple memorization and much more rewarding for the inquisitive mind.
What is the fundamental difference between the novice and the initiate historian? R.G. Collinwood states that “history teaches what man has done, and therefore what man is” (Holter 9). This seems a simple definition in light of what Carl Gustavson in his book A Preface to History teaches us. Gustavson states that to study history is to learn “ how the world…was put together” (Gustavson 3). A comparison of the two statements yields significant differences in how one might approach history. Simply understanding what man has done and what man is (to use outmoded gender identity – we all realize that, contrary to what the Greeks thought, man is not the measure of all things) horribly underestimates what history has to offer and an understanding of it’s true wit. Ah, but Gustavson’s term is much more apt. Learning how the world was put together, while true of the real nature of historical study, is so much more fascinating than a simple look at the people involved. Carl Gustavson’s book offers several approaches to understanding history and historical mindedness and utilizes several distinct examples to present how the world was put together through a look at the individual and the revolution in history.
Historical mindedness is a way of thinking; a form of reasoning that helps the historian deal with historical materials (Gustavson 5). Gustavson reiterates throughout his text that one must study more than simple names and dates in history. One must look at the various forces at work in the world to truly understand history. This is a difficult task for those who have simply approached history in the fashion of names and dates as mentioned prior. One must first realize that the past exists everywhere in the present, that civilizations, religions, and governments owe their present incarnation to thousands of years of historical evolution. This task seems daunting and in fact is so. Gustavson however offers us a roadmap to begin or slow journey to historical mindedness.
There are seven distinct tenets one must learn and utilize in considering historical mindedness. These tenets will help to reveal the multifaceted past to the ever-learning eye and mind of the historian. Furthermore, the historian can easily apply these self-same tenets to better understand their own lives, cities, states, and nations.
The first tenet Gustavson describes is in how we look at history. “The first characteristic is to be curious of what lies beneath the surface of history” (Gustavson 6). Essentially, Gustavson shows us that there are two ways of seeing history: one is a superficial observation of events or people in history and how we tend to simply focus more on the story of what these events or people are responsible for. A novice historian should note that looking at just the “story” is not enough. We tend to summarize these events to hastily and not completely think through the underlying causes or forces which may have been effecting this event or person for decades. The second way to look at history is to consider it as the powerful embodiment, terrible pleasures, or intense tensions of a society (Gustavson 6). The historian should look at other forces that led to the events, people, or occurrences glossed over in textbook or film or analysis. In all, the historian must be curious and delve for reasons not at first obvious to the untrained eye. Without this curiosity, the novice historian is doomed to only study dates and names from history. We learn about Abbot Suger as the man responsible for introducing stained glass to Gothic Cathedrals in
“In studying any present problem, idea, or event the mind of the historian inevitably gravitates in the direction of the past, seeking origins, relationships and comparisons” (Gustavson 6). Events do not simply unfold without having some effect on other places or people. Further, we must be wary of finding associations between one event from the past and the series of events that invariably led to that event. We must be able to decipher the minute reasons as well as the monumental that led to an event. Consider for a moment the Titanic. There are a number of symptoms or reasons which led to the disaster. It is easy to simply say that the great vessel struck an iceberg, causing it to sink. But we must also consider the people, propaganda, and events which inexorably drove the ship to a watery grave. The known history of the ship Captain’s ineptitude, the desire to push the ship’s speed beyond safe capacities, the moniker of being unsinkable, the lack of lifeboats for all the people, the selective process of letting first-class women and children leave before even letting the women or children of the lower classes on deck to flee. There is a defined history to each of these elements rooted in the past where someone decided evacuation procedures. Where one placed a ‘value’ on the life of an upper-class woman or child above the woman or child from the slums.
The third tenet is where the student of society “must try to discern the shapes and contours of the forces which are dynamic in society” (Gustavson 6). Society is by no means a simple construct. Society has been brimming with great inventors, prophets, humanitarians, philosophers, humanists, extremists, and etc, since recorded history (and most likely before that too). We can break down the world into regional or religious or industrial societies like European, Christian, or Agrarian. But, to understand, say, Christian society we must be aware of how all the various elements of Christianity have effected it. We must do this to fully grasp what impact social forces have had on history, even a small part of it. We could easily say that in the
“He stresses the continuity of society in all its forms” (Gustavson 6). The past never stops working. Its various effects are easily recognized in the present in a variety of ways. The world of today is nothing more than a simple cross-section of the entirety of history. One that dates all the way back to the emergence of humanity. The problem is that most people have a tendency to resist change. A level of complacency or comfort is established. The longer the complacency, the more resistant to change one becomes. History tends to remain in a state of continuity more than change. We can see this law to this very day in out own country. Blacks had been enslaved in our nation/colony for several centuries before their liberation during the Civil War. Blacks had been looked upon as second-class citizens, if not third-class. The freeing of the slaves did not bring about a sweeping acceptance of Blacks as equals. They were free, but the inequalities on the rights and treatments of Blacks proliferated until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s and still to this day.
“Society is perpetually undergoing a process of change” (Gustavson 7). Change is inevitable. Resistance is inevitable. The people and the planet have been evolving, changing if you will, for eons. Change is typically slow and very, very necessary. Society would stagnate if not for change; it would essentially be retarding itself without change. Nothing can invariably stop the eventual evolution of time, age, ideas, or practices. Change can be brought on by cataclysmic events like natural disasters or plague. These are the events we tend to see; yet small, almost insignificant events can also be the lynchpin for significant change. Johannes Gutenberg created a printing press during the course of
“He must approach his subject in a spirit of humility, prepared to recognize tenacious reality rather than what he wishes to find” (Gustavson 7). The historian must never wear blinders, must never have a preconceived notion of what he or she wants to find. By creating the image of what you hope to find before doing research in your subject, you are doomed to omit the very real facts which surround your topic. You have to be aware of what IS. We all have a tendency to look through rose-colored glasses at some point in our lives. We have a tendency to block-out criticism of our race, religion, nation, or family. If we approach history in the same way, we miss whole story. The haughty history we attribute to our own nation in respects to freedom, wars against Nazi fascism and their concentration camp agendas, and our opposition to ethnic cleansing look much different to those Black-American’s descended from slaves, those Japanese-Americans held in interment camps during World War II, and those Native Americans all but exterminated in our race to conquer the West. Only after we look at the ugly reality history can teach us can we finally make a real attempt to control or direct the forces of nature or society.
“Finally, the historian knows that each situation and event is unique” (Gustavson 7). History does not, in fact, repeat itself. There are no laws that govern history as their laws which govern science or mathematics. The factors which influence history are numerous and ever changing. As our own society progresses scientifically, culturally, religiously, and artistically, this same progress will exert its considerable will on changing the face of present history. We stand as the benefactors of what history might teach us so that we can learn from our mistakes and well as our triumphs. We take the hard-earned lessons from the stock market crash of 1929 and try to learn from them so that we might implement safeguards preventing a repeat of that same event. We learn from the terrible decimation of
How might we become historically minded ourselves? The simple events listed prior are well known to most. They seem monumental in some ways….distant in others. But we can not take for granted what historical-mindedness can do for every one of us. One can apply these rules in discovering their heritage or family lineage. They can be applied to the study of one’s hometown, state, or nation. They can be applied to learning the fundamental differences between one’s religion and the mold from which it came. They can be applied to better understanding a social or political party or movement. The possibilities are endless, the only restriction is the ambition of the historian.
By applying these tenets, one may now approach history having many of the tools needed for rational analysis and deconstruction. History can be approached in a number of different ways. We can look at history like weather, as Gustavson outlines in chapter 3 of his text. The historian can not predict and never will be able to do so much like a meteorologist. Weather is full of high-pressure systems and anomalies just as history is. We tend to see weather as nothing more than wind or fog or rain, never regarding all the complex variable needed in order to actually create wind or fog or rain.
Gustavson also likens history to a clipper ship, saying that people must understand the forces that control the destiny of their ship just as much as the forces which shape the destiny of a people or a state (Gustavson 4). We also as individuals can approach history by actively seeking ties to the past. We touch history by our contact with our elected officials, our museums, our antiques, our observance of holidays, or a visit to historical sites just to name a few.
However, in our desire to touch the past, we cannot be blind to the driving forces which influenced and changed history. There are four specific principles that Gustavson mentions that we should be aware of in our studies. These are continuity, change, social forces, and causation.
Change and continuity tend to go hand in hand. There is no sudden or unannounced change. Both change and continuity are dynamic processes that never end. Change cannot exist without continuity and vice-versa. They are co-dependant entities. Gustavson uses the interesting metaphor of football as his example of change and continuity, detailing how various forces molded and shaped the sport into what it is today. The ways of scoring and the fundamentals of the game have remained relatively unchanged. This continuity is offset by the continuing changes to rules and regulations. This same set of circumstances can be modestly applied to social and political systems as well. Gustavson implies that each modification upsets the ‘game’ somewhere else, and that these modifications bring renewed demands for revisions (Gustavson 67). Most changes that happen in society are relatively small and imperceptible. The benefits of said changes might not be seen right away, and often the times in which these changes were enacted go by relatively unnoticed. The historian’s job is one in which they must emphasize the correct changes in the correct quantities. Gustavson shows us how:
1) Each historical event is conditioned by a background composed of various social forces
2) These social forces emerge very gradually
3) The expected process of social change is one of evolution, not abrupt change
4) Rapid-fire change might occur, but do not overlook the long term effects
The third principle is social forces. Social forces play a major role in the life and times of every individual and many of these forces exert pressure on a man or woman for the whole life. Gustavson defines social forces as “human energies which, originating in individual motivations, coalesce into a collective manifestation of power” (Gustavson 28). There are six social forces which play heavily into this definition: economic, religious, institutional, technological, ideological, and military (Gustavson 28). These six forces are quite expansive and cover the majority of social forces at play in the day to lives of people in their manifestation of power. Holter makes reference to a few other social forces including competition, awareness of one’s class, and education (Holter 19).
The fourth and final principle is causation. Gustavson begins his discussion by saying that all people inevitably ask what caused something to happen. Typically, many cite a simple answer, like a person was responsible (Luther caused the Reformation), or a single act (the bombing of
· What was the immediate cause for the event?
· Had there been any background of agitation for those who are victorious in this episode?
· Were there personalities involved on either side whose strengths and weaknesses attributed to the outcome of the struggle?
· Were any new ideas stimulating the loyalty of a considerable group of people?
· How did the economic powers react and support this issue?
· Were religious forces active and involved?
· Did new technology influence the situation or outcome?
· Can the events be partially explained by weakened/strengthened institutions?
· Was the physical environment itself a factor in the situation?
We cannot overlook two last factors on our analysis of historiography: the role of the individual and the role of revolution. These represent two inexorable forces adding pressure to the façade of history.
The role of the individual in history has been debated between two schools of thought: those who support the Great Man Theory, and those who favor determinism. The Great Man Theory presses the idea that the major developments of human history are the work of one great man. This man seems to exert almost superhuman leadership, genius, and control over the fate of their and subsequent generations. These men are so gifted that rules governing society seem not to apply to them. They master and mold the circumstances of their time in accordance to their will. By this school of thought, the Great Man can be decisive during times of crisis where his personality and character are elevated to a high status.
The other side of this is the determinist mindset. Determinists consider that leadership is more appearance than action. Determinists believe that “history is a record of a constant process of evolution toward a predetermined goal in which interruptions may occur, and there may be unforeseen delays and detours, but the ultimate result is foreordained” (Gustavson 124). By this definition leaders do not truly lead. Determinists admit that an individual can influence events, but only if the circumstances are ripe for such influence. Here, the leader is simply the voice of change and can only achieve anything so long as he acts in accordance with the will of the group. The leader is dependent on outside factors.
Gustavson states very clearly that history is the story of the successful, that those who have succeeded are those who write history (Gustavson 127). However, Gustavson also points out that some social forces are too powerful for any man, regardless if he is a Great Man or a Determinist Man. The majority of long term trends are not the work of the individual. While there may be instances in which some one is inexplicably in the right place at the right time to enact a serious social change on his own, these instances are exceedingly rare and are typically through the will of the people who carry out the Great/Determinist Man’s legacy.
Revolution, the other force yet to be discussed, is defined simply as a deviation from normal evolution. We like to think of revolution in lofty terms of a cataclysmic upheaval of people who shirk off the bonds placed on them by the inequities of a selfish government and the tyrannies of evil men. This could not be any more incorrect. Gustavson lest us know in no uncertain terms that every situation leading to revolution is unique, and that any broad statement designed to cover numerous revolutionary episodes leave themselves open to be eviscerated by the keen historian (Gustavson 98). A revolution is a phenom, one that pits a social or economic group against another in an attempt to wrest control of the state under circumstances of violence (Gustavson 99).
Revolutions are few and far between and the vast majority end in utter failure. If this is the case, then why do we favor violence in trying to enact change? Why do we not continue with peaceful actions in hopes of speeding up the evolution of our state? Gustavson gives three reasons:
1) Powerful social forces may be driving society in a certain direction that is retrograde to the will of one specific group or force
2) Initial events disturb the traditional equilibrium in a community causing a ‘pressure point’
3) Violence might only be the “froth” in the turbulent undercurrents of a society
Furthermore, revolutions are not so simple as to be defined by conventional terms or beliefs. Revolution is not necessarily caused by the misery of the people. Gustavson points out that extreme poverty and suffering tend to breed apathy rather than rebellion (Gustavson 100). These people who suffer are too busy just trying to survive and are not committed or qualified to lead or follow a rebellion. At best, those who suffer might be the cause of mob scenes or uprisings, but typically lacking leadership, these events are doomed to failure.
The tyranny or brutality of government is not a principal reason for revolution. Governments are not overthrown, they commit suicide (Gustavson 103). They commit suicide by showing weakness or incompetence. The reason for this is that, again, the longer a government rules, the less likely it is to change, whether by enacting social reforms, tax reforms, legal reforms etc. When confronted by resistance to a policy, these governments tend to buckle, fueling the idea that they can be overthrown.
People do not rise spontaneously, storm the citadels of government, and seize power. While most revolutions claim to serve the interests of the people, many serve the interests of one specific group. Revolutions tend to be pressed forward by just a handful of insurgents who, if removed, can not rally the mob to their cause. These men speak enthusiastically to a crowd that was “heterogeneous…inspired by mass psychology and probably led by men who suddenly saw their opportunity” (Gustavson 105). Events of this nature tend to bring men of like mind together, giving them a greater sense of purpose. Typically, this group is made up of moderates and extremists. When the confrontation turns violent, it is typically the moderates who first take power, later ousted by the extremists who believe the moderates were not enacting radical changes.
Revolution is not designed to gain greater freedom for the people. Gustavson writes that the new administration will exercise more effective control than that which was ousted and will likely enact a positive lessening of personal liberties by disguising them as the removal of abuses of the previous regime (Gustavson 108). Hence, while revolutions have become a focal point of study for many a student, historical analysis of military revolutions like the French or American Revolution, can be dissected and deconstructed down to a multitude of complex forces all at work together, whether a weak government, political radicals, or financial instability not to mention religious forces.
Gustavson’s book fairly effectively in his presentation of historiography and historical mindedness. He begins by defining and introducing the ideology behind historical mindedness, presents a number of forces that help to define history through the ages, and finally discusses some of the more predominant pressures on history like revolutions. At the same time, Gustavson mixes metaphors and analogies in which to make the reader better associate hi or herself with the lessons being taught. Gustavson’s ‘voice’ is recognizable throughout the book and he gently prods the young initiate of history to further understanding through correlations to well-known events and examples. He writes rather effectively, though at times his language and verbiage is a bit lofty, emphasizing the logical, rational, and the analytical. While the examples are well-detailed and well thought out, they represent events of a by-gone age and at times Gustavson fails to tie it all together with the modern age. In his defense, Gustavson never interjects heavy-handed opinions, serving to let the facts he presents speak for themselves. In this way, he allows for a variety of conflicting viewpoints to be presented, as in the Great Man/Determinist Man discussion, and allows the reader to more or less decide for him or herself which they prefer. While he offers us this privilege, he also warns us about consequences of neglecting either argument.
Gustavson has left virtually no stone unturned. His use of example and episode is thorough enough to answer the questions one contemplates on the surface, but leaves one with enough of a taste to make them seek more answers on their own. All in all the book is quite effective, although it’s age leaves some speculation as to how some of the principles put forth in the text might respond to a society that seems to be evolving at the sped of light when compared to other previous eras.
Gustavson, Carl G. A Preface to History.
Holter, Howard. “Humanities 501: Defining the Humanities: History Course Guide”.