What is history 8: EH Carr History as Progress

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Feature Carr What Is History?

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What is History 8 by EH Carr: The next two Lectures or Chapters 5 and 6

History as Progress & The Widening Horizon


In What is History: Sleep Patterns we found that what we view as normal wasn’t necessarily the same in other periods. Sleep patterns were quite different before the coming of electric and gas lighting. Similarly the view of history has changed as well.

The two brilliant lectures in EH Carr’s What is History on the historian and his facts and causation were covered in the two previous articles: What is History 5: EH Carr Historians & their Facts and What is History 7: Causation in History covering EH Carr’s earlier lectures 1 to 4 in the book.

The current lecture 5 on History as Progress is perhaps Carr’s most brave and modern chapter in the book. While speculative, it raises issues that we still need to deal with, both in our understanding of history and our current understanding of what civilisation means. As such, the topic needs to be confronted and not marginalised.

The previous What is History? articles have been 1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns 3, The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their Facts, 6 Religion and 7: EH Carr Causation.

Progress in History

The changing view of History

The ancients were basically unhistorical in Asia, Greece and Rome, that is, basically uninterested in the future or the past. EH Carr says:

Poetic visions of a brighter future took the form of visions of a return to a golden age of the past — a cyclical view which assimilated the processes of history to the processes of nature.

…It was the Jews and the Christians, who introduced an entirely new element by postulating a goal to which the historical process is moving — the teleological view of history [towards an end or purpose]. History thus acquired a meaning and a purpose at the expense of losing its secular character.

This was also the medieval view of history.

The Renaissance restored the classic view of an anthropocentric [human focused] world and the primacy of reason, but for the pessimistic classical view of the future substituted an optimistic view derived from the Jewish-Christian tradition.

…History became progress towards the goal of the perfection of man’s estate on earth.

These ideas in Britain reached a pinnacle in the 19th century:

The cult of progress reached its climax at the moment when British prosperity, power and self-confidence were at their height; and British writers and British historians were amongst the most ardent votaries of the cult.

Carr says that in 1910 Dampier, a tutor in his college, still continued the trend but by 1920 it was in retreat:

The hypothesis of progress has been refuted. The decline of the west has become so familiar a phrase that quotation marks are no longer required.

Carr gives a delightful quote to the contrary by AJP Taylor whom he says gives us fascinating glimpse into Oxford academic life:

All this talk about the decline of civilisation, he writes ‘means only that university professors used to have domestic servants and now do their own washing up.’

Nevertheless, by 1960 it was only a brave man who would talk about progress in history, but EH Carr does just this.

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