The Value of a Multidimensional Approach to History

Commencement_république_messine_Auguste_Migette_1862Typically, when one is studying history, the surface facts tend to dominate. This is largely due to the fact that without a basic framework of understanding the time period, the prospect of study becomes rather daunting. After all, without names and dates, how is it possible to get any sort of grasp on the subject era? A study of the 20th century would become formless if the timetable of the first fifty years wasn’t provided. However, the framework, though somewhat valuable in and of itself, should be regarded as merely that, a framework. When the study of history goes beyond names and dates, it becomes infinitely more valuable.

It is easy enough to pass oneself off as a credible authority on the American Revolution if one can name several of the Founders and the dates of a few key battles. However, sometimes the encyclopedic approach only goes so far.  If, for example, one knows the surface facts of the Revolution but knows nothing about the philosophy that spawned it or the continuing effects of it, then that knowledge becomes cursory and shallow.

For example, without Montesquieu, Locke, or Blackstone, the Revolution would quite likely never have happened. None of these figures were had any direct role in any of the fighting, yet they were necessary to the transformation in thought in the colonies that led to the first shots being fired. Though Jefferson, Washington, Jay, Hamilton, both of the Adamses, Henry, and Madison had all been born in the colonies just as they were in real life, without the aforementioned people, their lives would have turned out rather ordinary and they would perhaps be relegated to simple footnotes in history textbooks.

Yet a normal study of the American Revolution will not yield this information. Nor will it tell of the religious foundation of the colonies that did so much to inspire the Founders. Obviously, as Owen Stroud noted in his piece several weeks ago, America is not a Christian nation, yet it undeniably possesses a heritage entwined with the history of the Church. For example, in 1630, John Winthrop coined the term New England, coupling it with the words of Jesus in Matthew 5 in reference to a city on a hill. This sermon gave rise to the idea that America is somehow unique, with a special purpose and mission in the world. No other country, except for ancient Israel, had this type of pronouncement over its founding.

The names and dates approach can also lead to confusion as to how the American Revolution and the French Revolution are connected. On the surface, they both happened within the same 25 year span, so it appears that they perhaps came from the same cause. Yet this could not be further from the truth. The French Revolution was based out of the philosphy of Voltaire and Rousseau, both leaders of the violently anti-Christian Enlightenment movement. The American Revolution had large connections to parallel philosophies from the Protestant Reformation.

Again, the names, dates, and other surface facts of history do matter, but they are not the entire story. Most of history, for it to become truly relevant, must be dug up through study of the culture in which it took place. The culture cannot be fully understood with a simple historical overview, it must be delved into by the further study of its literature, religious movements, art, and philosophy. Without these, history becomes muddled and rather incomprehensible. Only in looking at historical events through a multidimensional lens do we finally discover that the world did not come to be as it is through a certain series of divisible events, but through the slow progression of different societies.

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