In our post-truth politics, fake (and even deepfake) news-saturated era, considering the source of your information is crucial. Gleaning what happened yesterday remains challenging enough; understanding the past is a strenuous task. Politicians, pundits, and Hollywood often reference history to reinforce their arguments, however, the majority get the history wrong (e.g. the television series The Crown or Chernobyl). As with many areas in life, Fr. Bernard Lonergan provides relevant advice for our pseudohistory milieu. Lonergan was keenly aware of history’s value, which remains essential for us to apply in our professional and personal lives. This awareness was a lesson he learned through his own inquiry.

Textbook Thomas

Lonergan was not impressed with St. Thomas Aquinas when he first encountered him through secondary sources. But he knew he had erred once he began reading the primary sources. Lonergan realized the textbooks got it wrong. After conducting his own research on the saint, Lonergan concluded that most work concerning Thomas lacked historical perception, and scholars misinterpreted and misrepresented him. Lonergan corrected this issue by applying his own historical methodology – he looked forward with the eyes of Thomas, rather than backward with hindsight bias. Scholars had put their own contemporary ideas in Thomas (particularly his insight concerning grace), drawing conclusions that Thomas never intended.

 

St. Thomas Aquinas

Tacitus versus Gibbon

Lonergan’s lesson with Thomas cemented in him a deep respect and interest in history because it fueled Lonergan’s fascination with our process of discernment. History is inquiry. Since we all possess an innate desire for inquiry, according to Lonergan, we all must confront history. It is important to note, there are two types of history: one version from those who lived it, and the other from those who write about it. The past that occurred is fact. The problem, however, is we all interpret that same past divorced from the actual past. Herein lies the challenge: how do we remain objective? Furthermore, how do we interpret what those of the past experienced and not allow our feelings to color understanding?

To overcome this conundrum, we must maintain historical “biography” rather than contemporary “autobiography” – we must grasp the “life and times” of historical figures. Fidelity is vital to history, without it we succumb to value distortions and false proclamations. Take for example Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Written with Enlightenment sensibilities, Gibbon argued that Christianity played a major role in Rome’s collapse, yet the east (Byzantine Empire) lasted for another millennium and Christianity was always stronger there than the west. Thus, Christianity did not equate downfall and doom. Nonetheless, Gibbon’s captivating prose continues to allure readers. To understand Rome (and the eventual fall), turn instead to the Romans themselves, such as the writings of Julius Caesar, Tacitus, or Ammianus Marcellinus.

Edward Gibbon

 

More Than A Good Look

Therefore, we must defer to the primary source. This is the guidance Lonergan provides, and it is sound advice to follow. We are all creatures of our sociopolitical milieu, but the goal of true objectivity is any principled person’s goal. Self-understanding is paramount to shedding biases and we must practice objectivity when examining the past (and the present). Within history resides understanding of the human condition and our place in the world. Moreover, history provides lessons that guide us toward a better understanding of ourselves: Lonergan stressed this idea, and that maintaining a grasp on history is critical to living a virtuous and good life. He believed historical insight provides us with understanding. If we lose our spirit of inquiry, however, processes of bias erode our progress leading to decline. As Lonergan quipped, “Knowing is not just taking a good look.” Indeed, the next time someone references history, consider the source – then go discover the truth for yourself.