In my statements of purpose for graduate school, I once wrote that, for me, the appeal of history is the appeal of the grandest story in existence, made all the more poignant by our roles as active participants. If this is so, I have come to realize, we are perpetually doomed to experience history as if hearing a familiar tale for the second time. The curtain has fallen on the premier; the conclusion of all ends has occurred, as far as the living are concerned, and it has led to us. This foreknowledge, this perfect hindsight, can manifest among those who study history as a certain fatalism that infects how we approach our craft. If we already know the effects of past events, it can be difficult to conceive of any other result stemming from them. In my own approach to history, I strive to challenge these notions wherever I can.
Nothing in history has ever been inevitable. This is my eternal rallying cry, the sands in which I plant my standard. Even the smallest action taken differently than those recorded could have wildly altered the course of events that has ultimately resulted in the present world. The fates of history have turned on so small a thing as a bundle of dropped cigars, erratic weather patterns, and the fickle whims of countless individuals that, in any other moment, could have swayed another way. Similarly, you can never know all ends of a story as it is read; while general trends or predictions can be observed, you can seldom be certain of what the next page bears. If we keep this uncertainty in mind, we can draw close to viewing that grand historical narrative in all its complexity as if for the first time, unsure of what will occur even as we know what has happened. In so doing, the events of the past can be interpreted with more nuance: paths not taken are filled with possibility, and what ultimately did not happen can be seen to bear just as much influence on the course of history as what actually occurred.
When you forget this abundant variability of history, when you begin calling certain events and trends and results inevitable, you close yourself off to the stunning kaleidoscope of threads and possibilities our sources offer us. When information departs from the decided-upon outcome, it is seen as problematic, irrelevant, or, worse, ignored or modified to fit that outcome. Only by rejecting such historical certainty can we appreciate the full spectrum of history’s brilliance, and from variability stems a resolute certainty: just as every chapter, sentence, and even word in a masterful story is necessary for the crafting of its conclusion, and once revealed that conclusion requires that the rest of the story could not have happened any other way, so too is every facet of history vitally significant. Every moment in history is thus worth studying not for any grand demonstrable importance, but simply for the inherent value it derives from having happened in the precise manner and at the precise moment it occurred, emerging from the realms of chance and possibility to help weave the grand tapestry with which I remain endlessly fascinated.
2 replies on “Pillars of History: The Fallacy of Inevitability”
Bryan, I am curious, having read this twice I initially thought you were going to attack Marxist historical criticism by name and you seem to have made no mention of it anywhere in the article. The very nature of Marxist theory postures it as an antithesis to your statement that “Nothing in history has ever been inevitable” – and yet you don’t go so far as to refute academic Marxism by name. Is this active avoidance of the topic on your part? A decision to ignore something deemed illegitimate? Or do you think that particular “flavor” of historical analysis is still a legitimate method to tease out the circuitous avenues that events have slowly paved towards this present temporal intersection? I must assure you that this is not a baited question.
Jon, what a wonderful observation! As it turns out, Marxist determinism never even crossed my mind when writing this piece, even though it is perhaps the best example of what I was arguing against. Upon reflection, I believe that this was at least partly due to a subconscious dismissal of it as illegitimate, as you surmised. My ideas for the post came from two main sources. The first was repeatedly encountering a kind of grass-roots fatalism, as I kept reading authors and historians who loved to use the word ‘inevitable’ to describe particular historical events (especially the First World War). This tendency also kind of ties into your question, since modern historians of the Marxist school of historiography many times overlook that fact that, though economics, money, and class play a significant role in history, humans are as often irrational and unpredictable as they are rationally self-serving. My second source was more from the opposite end of things and grew out of my graduate school experience. I wrote my masters dissertation on fears of an event that never actually came to pass. While hindsight shows that it almost certainly never would have happened, my efforts to demonstrate that the fears were serious and should be considered as such opened up a wealth of possibilities for re-assessing the situation. Hope this answers your query!