Truth and Un-sanitized History

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have spent the last couple of days introducing to new readers to things that I have come to believe. Since I am a historian I will continue to do that today.

I have a passion for truth, especially in the realm of historical thought, in fact over the past few years this passion has deepened to a level of profoundness that I never dreamed. In fact for me this passion has become a duty, a duty to truth; an un-sanitized, warts and all examination of subjects attempting to strip away the veneer of myth in order to find truth. This is not easy, but it is what my life has become, knowing that in the long run I will not discover all truth, but hopefully point others to examine history, the sciences, philosophy and even theology to find truth. The process can be uncomfortable, especially when confronted by facts, documents, scientific and archeological data which shows what we used to think was truth, as either incomplete, romantic myth, or even complete lies, untruths and fabrication. Oscar Wilde once wrote,“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” That is the nature of truth. It does not matter if it is truth about history, biography, philosophy and religion, science, politics, economics or any part of life. To actively seek truth means that one must open up themselves to the possibility of doubting, as Rene Descartes wrote: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” I admit that this is not comfortable, but it is necessary.

As a historian I have a tremendous passion for truth, and for unsanitized history and for me this means looking at what we know with a critical eye, to compare and examine sources to question what we or others knew before. Far too often what we believe about our own history is often more preserving myth more than by asking hard questions and applying reasoned critical study. To do this is dangerous, because to do so we have to admit that what we know today could be proven wrong at some time in the future when new facts, documents, archeological finds or other historical or scientific are discovered. To those content with half-truth, partial truth or even myth this is disconcerting, and those of us who attempt to unravel myth from fact and present things in a new way are called “revisionists” as if that is somehow a bad thing. The sad thing is we are having to revise in many cases, supposed history that was revised by people who needed to propagate myth, such as with those who promoted the myth of the Lost Cause, the romantic, noble Confederacy which for well over a half century was propagated as historical truth. This myth was sold to the American public in such in film, television and books, fiction and non-fiction alike, to the point that much of white America, even outside the South accepted the myth of the Lost Cause as truth. Films like Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and even Disney’s Song of the South, helped ingrain the myth as truth, and even today when so much more is known, many people hold on to the myth and attack those who differ. 

A lot of my readers may wonder why I write so much about the American Civil War as well as the ante-bellum and Reconstruction eras of American history. For me they are very important for a couple of reasons; first they are eras, that for good and bad define us as a nation and people. Second, they still have relevance to what happens today, especially in the understanding of liberty, civil rights and race relations.

I have a passion for this. The American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg are intrinsic parts of who we are as Americans today. The events of that war and this battle continue to reverberate in many aspects of our political, social and national life. Thus for me teaching about this event and what happened on the “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg, as Abraham Lincoln called it, and even 150 years later it matters far more than most of us realize.

Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain is an icon of the Civil War and American history. A professor of Rhetoric and Natural and Revealed Religions at Bowdoin College he volunteered to serve with the 20th Maine Infantry, his military career in the Civil War has been depicted in movies such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals and written about in biographies and even historical fiction. Chamberlain was one of the heroes of Gettysburg, and his story has a myth like quality, but he too was a complex, contradictory and sometimes flawed character. However, Chamberlain attached a great importance to passing down the stories of people who did noble deeds and who lived exemplary lives. He wrote, “The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.”

I sincerely believe what Chamberlain said and I am getting ready to lead another Staff Ride for students from our Staff College to Gettysburg next month.  I do beleive that the power of noble deeds needs to be preserved and passed on to the future.  Even the deeds of less than perfect, often contradictory and sometimes even scandalous  individuals. That is part of the task of the historian. I do this in what I teach and what I write, both in the academic setting as well as on this website.

We live in a time of great cynicism, some of which I can understand. We also live in a time where many people and our institutions operate in a “zero defect” culture, those who fail in any way are shunted aside, punished or even chastised or ostracized. However, when I look at the men who fought at Gettysburg, or for that matter almost any individual who has accomplished great things, none are perfect people and many have great flaws in character, or supported causes or ideologies that were evil. That being said, even less than perfect people can rise to do great deeds, deeds that need to be remembered, passed down and told to succeeding generations.

Many great leaders, or other men and women that we consider today to be great, influential or important were or are quite fallible. Even those who did great things often made gross mistakes, had great flaws in their character, and some lived scandalous lives. Such deeds may tarnish their legacy or take some of the luster away from their accomplishments. But I think that these flaws are often as important as their successes for they demonstrate the amazing capacity of imperfect people to accomplish great things, as well as the incredible complexity of who we are as people. No one is perfect. There are degrees of goodness and even evil in all of us. It is part of the human condition. That is the beauty of un-sanitized history, that is the beauty of stripping away myth to discover the humanity of people, and to recognize who they are, who we are, the good, the bad and even the ugly.

When I look at the perfection that imperfect people expect of others I am reminded of something that William Tecumseh Sherman said about his relationship with Ulysses Grant. These were flawed men, but they were in large part responsible for the Union victory in the Civil War. However, to be honest, neither man would never reach the level of command that they rose to in our current military culture, nor would they rise to the top in corporate America. They are too flawed. Sherman said it well, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.” 

That is a part of my passion about Gettysburg and my appreciation and admiration of the brave men who fought in that battle. As I continue to write about that battle and about those men I hope that my readers will gain a new appreciation of their complex and contradictory natures, as well as think about what that means to us today, as individuals and as a society, for it is only when we strip away the myth and seek the truth. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

Those truths can be scientific, they can be historical or literary, and quite often the truth can also be quite personal.

As John F Kennedy said at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

So until tomorrow, have a thoughtful night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under civil war, History, philosophy

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