Two Facts You Should Know
About History
Before You Start Studying History

Copyright (c) 2005 Dianne L. Durante

This essay was written when I was homeschooling my daughter in history.

First Fact: Ideas Matter

As I was typing the word “Nineveh” in the Ancient Civilizations time line, a poem I’d memorized as a teenager sprang into my head, perfectly remembered although I hadn’t thought of it for years.

by Arthur O'Shaughnessy (1844–1881)

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world's great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire's glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song's measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world's worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

I realize now that this poem moved me as a teenager because I was a nerd in a school where athletics were more admired than brains. For me, "Ode" was an affirmation that people who thought and dreamed were important in the world.

Even then, I knew that you can’t get things done by sighing, mirth or a deathless ditty. On the other hand, five thousand burly men can’t build a ziggurat, a Parthenon or a DNA model with sheer muscle – somebody has to conceive the idea, make a plan, and see it through. World-shaping accomplishments require both mental and physical effort, but it’s the mental that drives the physical.

Look at it another way. What you believe as an individual determines what you’ll achieve. If you think you’re helpless and incompetent, you won't be establishing a multi-billion dollar company any time soon. In the same way, what most people in a civilization believe drives what that civilization achieves. Suppose the dominant belief is that men are helpless pawns of the gods, and that their ruler does and should have absolute control of their lives, from their jobs to whether they live or die. Most people living in such a civilization will be too cautious or too terrified to challenge the accepted order of things with new scientific theories or artistic innovations.

That’s why, in the essays that follow, we don’t simply list events such as the Trojan War or the Fall of Rome. We discuss what people believe about the way the universe works, and what type of government they have, as well as what they produced in the fields of science and the arts. We are looking for the ideas that explain their actions.

So the first fact to remember when studying history is: Ideas and actions both matter, but ideas come first.

Second Fact: History Is a Continuum

For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

The second fact to remember is: History is a continuum. Scholars break history into periods - Sumerians, Babylonians, Greek, Baroque - because dealing with 7,000 years as a unit would be impossible. Remember, though, that in one way or another, most periods are transitional rather than self-contained. They preserve some ideas from "dead" ages, and give rise to new ideas that only become dominant later.

In 480 BC, the traditional date for the end of Archaic period, the whole population of Greece didn’t die out, to be suddenly replaced by a spanking new batch of Classical Greeks. In the Classical period many older Greeks were still very much alive and still thinking very Archaic thoughts. Besides the living memories of older people, there were the great achievements of civilization – the ziggurats, the cities, the science, the statues, the literature – still there to remind current generations of the ideas and values of their predecessors, and to spur innovators on to greater heights (literal or metaphorical).

So when you’re studying history, don't think of it as a series of separate, distinct periods. Look for connections. Integrate your knowledge. As we move on to the Egyptians, ask yourself how the ideas of the Egyptians were similar to those of their contemporaries the Sumerians and Babylonians, and how they were significantly different. How did those differences affect their achievements? What ideas made the Greeks so different from the Egyptians and the Sumerians? What drove the Romans? What ideas do these civilizations share, what ideas do they not share, and what were the results in their actions and achievements?