The Purpose of History

Payton writes about history in his chapter on the Rennaisance. He says as succinctly as I can find the purpose of telling history:

People have been writing history for as far back as we know. From the earliest records of civilization, people have kept track of events that had taken place, listing and commenting on them. For a long time that record-keeping was oral, but eventually those records began to be written down and handed on from one generation to the next. These early accounts are often called annals (since they recorded what happened from year to year) or chronicles (if they took a broader scope). These could be bare lists of one thing after another, or they could be crafted to tell a story about a particular group, city-state, people or leader, often emphasizing the great thing done by them.

Any such narrative was intended to drive home a point. The narrator was not particularly concerned to “get the facts straight,” and he would have been nonplussed by a call to try and be unbiased in considering the data. Chronicles passed on what needed to be remembered and should be believed; their purpose was to entertain and instruct. Through them people could remember what they should remember, learn what they needed to know and see how to live. (p. 54-55, italics in original)

History is a story that tell the meaning — the story of who we are as a people (or who I am as a person). It may or may not be more than tangentially connected to what actually happened. Unfortunately, mythic histories tend to be acted out in a way that wants to bend reality to the meaning and supposed purposes of history. That is especially a problem with the powerful, or the self-destructive. I may (or may not) write more about that later.