Conteporary history in the late twentieth century is thus no longer, I submit, a personal whim or passing fashion. It is now a necessity—a psychic necessity to counter the pressures of life in a high velocity age and a technical necessity to rescue and preserve evidence for future historians. These are some, of the reasons, I believe, why contemporary history has acquired a new role in our academic life. The question -remains about the impact of this adventure on historical art and method.
That impact, I believe, has been wholly salutary. It has, for example, compelled all historians to ponder the limits of their craft. The comfortable old view was stated long ago by Aulus Gellius: “Alius quidam vet erum poetarum … Vent at em Temp oris fihiam esse dixit”—“Another one of the old poets … called Truth the daughter of Time.” Time, in other words, was counted upon to winnow out emotion and prejudice and leave the scholar, all passion spent, in calm command of the historical reality. The modern way of putting the point is to say that only the passage of time can give the historian the perspective he needs for objective analysis.
But our century has become increasingly dubious about the purifying effect of the passage of time. This is because it is not obvious in practice that time has been, in fact, the father of truth, if by truth we mean the agreement of historians. The passage of time, for example, does not liberate the historian from his deepest values and prepossessions. Wherever vital issues or strong emotions are involved, whether events are as remote from us as the fall of the Roman Empire, the life of Christ, or the rise of Pericles, distance does not create consensus or guarantee certitude. One comes to feel increasingly that historians agree only when the issues as well as the people are dead -and that the assurance with which historians are accustomed to pin down the past sometimes results from the happy fact that there are no survivors to challenge their reconstruction. Of course, time increases the amount of documentation available to the historian writing about the past, and this gives him a significant, and ultimately decisive, advantage over the historian writing about the present.
Yet, if the historian of the past has wider documentation and a longer view, the contemporary historian, especially if he has shared, in Holmes’s phrase, “the passion and action of his time,” offers a perspective that cannot be lightly rejected. It is wholly possible, for example, that contemporary writers, trapped as they may be in the emotions of their own age, may still, or in consequence, understand better what is going on than later historians trapped in the emotions of a subsequent age. So Tocqueville, reflecting on the French Revolution, observed that what contemporary writers
know better than does posterity are the movements of opinion, the popular inclinations of their times, the vibrations of which they can still sense in their minds and hearts. The true traits of the principal persons and of their relationships, of the movements of the masses are often better described by witnesses than recorded by posterity. These are the necessary details. Those close to them are better placed to trace the general history, the general causes, the grand movements of events, the spiritual currents which men who are further removed may no longer find since these things cannot be perceived from the memoirs.
It is not true that contemporaries misjudge a man. Competent contemporaries judge him … much better than posterity, which is composed of critics no less egotistical, and obliged to rely exclusively on documents easily misinterpreted.
Perspective, in short, is not a state of reality; it is a state of mind. What Hamilton in the seventieth Federalist well called “the dim light of historical research” is not a laser beam but a flickering candle. “Man is fed with fables through life,” wrote Jefferson, “and leaves it in the belief that he knows something of what has been passing, when in truth he has known nothing but what has passed under his own eye.” “Every true history,” said Croce, summing up the epistemological issue, “is contemporary history.” So in one age political conflicts are interpreted in religious terms, and in another religious conflicts are interpreted in political terms, and so on until one must conclude that if truth is the daughter of time, it takes a wise father to know his own children. In the words of Dewey,
We are committed to the conclusion that all history is necessarily written from the standpoint of the present, and is, in an inescapable sense, the history not only of the present but of that which is contemporaneously judged to be important in the present.
One must ask forgiveness for summoning high authority to labor so elementary a point, except that the point is all too rarely applied to the argument about the validity of contemporary history. Indeed, if one were in an aggressive mood, it would be possible, I think, to contend that contemporary history can be more exacting in its standards—of evidence, of precision, of judgment, of responsibility—than the history of the past; for contemporary history involves the writing of history in face of the only people who can contradict it, that is, the actual participants. Every historian of the past knows at the bottom of his heart how much artifice goes into his reconstructions; how much of his evidence is partial, ambiguous; or hypothetical; and yet how protected he is in speculation because, barring recourse to sances on wet afternoons, no one can say him nay, except other historians with vulnerable theories of their own. The farther back the historian goes, the more speculative his history becomes, until he gets to ancient history, which is a kind of brilliant ingenuity lavished on aimless and fragmentary remains, an exercise less in reconstruction than in creation.