History: Narrative and Analytic

Although history encompasses everything from the development of eggnog to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, we tend to think of it merely as a concise rendering of past events.

There are two sides to history. One, indeed, encompasses the recording of events. The other is an analysis of the meaning of these events. The first is called narrative history, and the second analytic history. Today, most history books, as well as articles, contain at least a little of both. This makes sense because by studying events as they occurred in the past, we can get insight to what is happening today, and what may happen tomorrow. History is about people, and strange as it may seem, people are fundamentally the same today as they were 3000 years ago.

Narrative History

In narrative history, a story is told, Xerxes invades Greece or Kirov is Murdered. It is interesting in the way of a novel, or in the manner of a series of newspaper articles. In fact, this is the way that much of narrative history is written. It is based on the writing and other historical evidence created at the time. These are called primary sources.

Documents, such as ledgers, memorandum, newspapers, correspondence, diaries, coinage, ciphers, and tax rolls, are all primary sources that contribute evidence that is accumulated and put together to tell a cohesive "narrative". Sometimes the evidence is contradictory. Just as there are arguments today about events, hundreds of years ago there were arguments about the events of the day. Did Richard III really order the death of his nephews so he could take the crown of Great Britain? Did Chavez really lose the recall election in 2002?. People still debate these issues.

One of the clichés of history is that the winner writes history. There is some truth in this, but ultimately the losing side almost always gets another chance to make its argument again. Although using primary sources does not end the argument, it does ensure that history is debated using facts as close to objective reality as is possible. What is nice about history is that new information comes to light years after events. Presidential papers are released. Soviet archives are opened. Archeological surveys find ruins that corroborate or discredit ancient stories or myths.

Analytic History

If the historical narrative is argued and discussed, analysis of historical data finds even more scope for discord among historians. The meaning of certain events is often seen through a lens that is colored by the time, place, and ideology of the historian. Views of certain historical figures tend to evolve. Julius Caesar is sometimes seen as a hero, and at others a villain. Some say he saved Rome by creating the Empire, others (including many of the U.S. founding fathers) that he destroyed the Roman Republic, and ushered in an age of tyranny.

Certainly battle rages on the legacy of this king or that president, and the interpretation of the lives and events of people of the past has a tremendous influence on the present. The fact of disagreement does not invalidate the historical process. The student of history must impose a pragmatic filter upon the analysis. He must view it in the light of what works and what does not. For example, if we look at history through the prism of the Marxian dialectic, we must see all historical events as a movement towards the inevitable working class controlling all resources and eliminating the need for government. Yet trying to fit history into the neat confines of this Hegelian construct is an impossibility in light of the fact that every communist system imposed on society has resulted in the rule of an oligarchy that actually restrained the working class and created poverty. Historical theory must conform to facts not the reverse.

So there is a danger in trying to use historical analysis and theory as a governmental and economic tool. This danger is greatest when the tool moves away from the scientific and becomes a dogma. Historical analysis can effectively be applied to government policy and economics with limited scope when it has been tested by events over and again. This is especially true in military history, where historic leaders, who were students of history, Caesar, Napoleon, and Patton demonstrated an amazing competence in war. They were able to learn from the experience of others; thus, to multiply their own natural abilities.

Historical Synthesis

Ultimately, good history is a synthesis of narrative and analysis. It is a good story, all the more gripping because it is true. Second it always carries a moral, a lesson to be learned, if it is only the example of some success or failure that can be applied to a life, an organization, or a government.


The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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