History from Above and Below

Everything you were taught about why the world is the way it is was planted in your mind to promote a particular narrative of our world.

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By studying history, though, we empower ourselves to challenge received wisdom and create knowledge of our own. Sometimes doing history from below (rather than above) is as simple as broadening the scope of your evidence beyond the relatively controllable published record. It might mean deep dives into personal diaries, letters, newspapers, pop and material culture, archeological evidence, or the introduction of a variety of methodological approaches to oft-studied subjects.

Further Readings/References:

Bertolt Brecht

Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil,” 


Anthony Comegna: From its very earliest iterations, really the first written histories that we have, history has been overwhelmingly conducted from above. If you collect, say a thousand random historical tones, the really old books in the libraries from across the ages, probably 95% or more of them will have been written from above. That is to say they’re about great men, [00:00:30] their great deeds, the great kingdoms and empires and nation states they construct and rule. Histories from above are about the big books, the big ideas, the big institutions, the big thinkers, the massive events and the golden ages.

This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. By studying history we empower ourselves to challenge received wisdom [00:01:00] and create knowledge of our own. There are many, many different methods one can adopt to do exactly that. Today we’ll be speaking about two very broad approaches to constructing narratives of past events and interpreting their meaning for both actors in the past and for ourselves in the present and the future.
I recently asked Jason Kuznicki, a historian here at the Cato Institute, to give us some examples [00:01:30] of how exactly historians and historical education in the Ancient and Medieval periods especially tended to support or justify existing institutions.

Jason Kuznicki: The earliest histories that we have are essentially chronicles. They are chronicles of kings or emperors, when they ruled, what events took place when they ruled and maybe some short commentaries about what they did well or badly. When we [00:02:00] get to the Greeks, the founder of history conventionally is Herodotus, although there were lots of historians before them they were mostly chronicles. Herodotus though wants to tell a story of civilizational conflict between Greece and Persia. He is very intent on particular ideas about how an individual relates to the state. The state [00:02:30] to him is in a sense a theater of virtue, it’s a way for people to demonstrate their virtue or lack thereof. It is the opportunity that we have on earth to show that we can be self sacrificing for something that is greater than us, which ought to be our country, our homeland, which is exemplified by the state or by the polity.

Anthony Comegna: Our study of history instructs [00:03:00] us as to how the state should be run, what kind of state we should want, and therefore what kind of society we should have, how it should be organized and so on.

Jason Kuznicki: Ancient historians were very explicit about this. People like Herodotus and later Thucydides, very clear that what they were doing was writing an instruction manual, a manual for how to have a good polity and how to be a member of it, and how to do a good job at that. That’s why you [00:03:30] would study history, was to improve your participation, to improve your civic participation up to and including by sacrificing your life if necessary.

Anthony Comegna: What exactly changed between the Ancient Medieval world and today to make historians and people studying the past take average people and every day events seriously?

Jason Kuznicki: Average people began to have more disposable income. This is one area [00:04:00] where there really is an economic cause. The economic cause really is the rising bourgeoisie. People wanted to read histories about things besides just state power and how to be a good citizen soldier. People nowadays have much more interest in reading cultural history and in reading scientific history, and in reading lives of people who simply led interesting lives whether or not they were functionaries of [00:04:30] the state or guiding the state in some way.

Anthony Comegna: To your mind it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the intellectuals themselves, it’s more about the marketplace.

Jason Kuznicki: I think it is a market driven phenomenon. When you look at who wrote histories in the Ancient world, they tended to be people who were already of the upper classes, and they tended to be people who were already very deeply involved with the government in one way or the other. Even in Imperial Rome where you’ve got political histories that were sometimes written from a critical [00:05:00] viewpoint, they are still very intensely political history. Tacitus writes in this vein a lot. You find much less writing about what is it like to just live in say a Roman town and what’s day to day life like for people, or how did Greek theater develop, what’s the history of the theater. You don’t find histories like that so much.
Anthony Comegna: It strikes me that people used to very interested [00:05:30] in Philology and things like that as a matter of history, learning the origin of language. I mean, that’s a very from below sort of history, and people have a deep interest in that.

Jason Kuznicki: You’re absolutely right that Philology is an example of history from below. The beginnings of that, I think, come from the church because church men were very intensely interested in language. This is not something that relates directly to the state or to government. It comes from the fact [00:06:00] that they are themselves highly literate. They are very concerned with the meanings of words because of theological disputes and the need to get their theology right. They are concerned because they believe with Isidore of Seville that words have power, words are ontologically important. They are important in the order of the universe.

When Isidore of Seville writes this very long treatment of etymologies and of the imagined origins of [00:06:30] words, he’s trying to get a handle on creation. He’s trying to understand creation. Now, a lot of his etymologies turn out to be completely fake and spurious, but it’s an interesting attempt to show how things work, and to do so by looking at the history of words. It’s a very interesting document, the etymologies is, in the history of history.

Anthony Comegna: Because history from above is [00:07:00] usually about these great, big people, these great, big blob units, political units like kingdoms and empires, they’re usually narratives that are entirely connected to the perspectives of elites in society. Elites are the only people, after all, who have possessed a strong historical voice throughout most of time. This is sometimes not necessarily a choice the historian makes, [00:07:30] so much as it is a choice thrust upon them by the weight of the evidence. So much of what we have that we know about the past simply comes to us from the elite echelons of society. Gradually, as we learn about the past this way, we come to actually understand the world from the elite point of view, so much so that we even internalize it and accept the world that is given to us, that we’re born into, [00:08:00] as though it were the world that naturally is supposed to be.

We take history as given as though it’s a fact of nature. It has been said by many different people in many different ways that history is myth trying to become nature. That’s exactly what history from above tends to promote. A world in which some rule over others seems so natural to some of us, that to pause it otherwise is often immediately dismissed as Utopian, foolish, [00:08:30] even dangerous simply to bring to expression. Is there no saving grace here? After all, haven’t those with the most concentrated political power, the greatest amounts of wealth, and the most cultural influence been the most significant to history when everyone’s contributions are tallied up?

Well, you might think that if you’ve never seriously considered history from below. You might not have considered history from below in part at least because [00:09:00] elites do not want you to seriously consider it. To them, they are the natural rulers and we are the natural slaves, surfs, or today democratic rubber stampers. The historical record has been terribly biased by the perspective from above. A view from below is therefore an absolutely necessary corrective.

History from below is the history of average people, marginalized people, every day activities, emergent social phenomenon, [00:09:30] things that are not centrally planned or put into place by a single will acting. It’s the history of those people and subjects largely excluded by traditionally histories. For some examples of this, some ideas to get us going here, I want to turn to a poem. This is a poem called Questions From a Worker Who Reads, 1935. 

Narrator: Questions From a Worker Who Reads by Bertolt [00:10:00] Brecht, 1935. “Who built Thebes of the 7 gates? In the books you will read the names of kings. Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock? And Babylon, many times demolished, Who raised it up so many times? In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live? Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the [00:10:30] masons go? Great Rome is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it, the drowning still cried out for their slaves. The young Alexander conquered India. Was he alone? [00:11:00] Caesar defeated the Gauls. Did he not even have a cook with him? Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down. Was he the only one to weep? Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War. Who else won it? Every page a victory. Who cooked the feast for the victors? Every 10 years a great man. Who [00:11:30] paid the bill? So many reports. So many questions.”

Anthony Comegna: Naturally one should not only do history from below, but we certainly cannot simply do history from above either. Rather, we should be painfully aware of how shifting our perspective shifts the facts of the past [00:12:00] as well an interpret our sources accordingly. Let’s go through some examples to see exactly how history from below is a necessary corrective to essentially millennia of history from above.

More often than not history from above results in narratives that serve the self interests both of the historians and the powerful people who benefit from intellectual defenses of the status quo. A professor of mine in graduate school, named Marcus Rediker, [00:12:30] was the best lecturer I ever saw. He started his semesters with undergraduates by pointing out to them the idea that history is myth trying to become nature by giving a list of several very widely accepted historical myths. First the poor will always be with you. This is a Bible verse, Mark 14:7, “The poor will always be with you.” Well, is this necessarily the case? Is poverty a fact of nature [00:13:00] or a fact of history? Are we condemned to forever have rich and poor, simply because there always have been rich and poor? I certainly see no particular reason to think so, and when we accept a statement like this as a fact of nature rather than a fact of history, we come to accept the world we’re used to as though it was the only world that could or ever should be.

Our second myth is that a woman’s place is in the home. [00:13:30] Now, throughout most of time and in most places around the planet, men have forcibly subordinated women through a long series of historical events, culminating in societies that imagine it is natural and right that women be constrained from individual participation in society. Does this mean, however, that there is something in the genetic code of women that will cause them to explode or become damaged if they leave the house and run for parliament? Certainly not. Obviously that’s ridiculous. [00:14:00] Genetics may aide patriarchy, but the concept depends not on our DNA, but rather our laws and customs. Our histories produce patriarchy, not our natures.

Race is perhaps an even clearer example of this. Race is an entirely contrived category. It’s socially invented with absolutely zero genetic basis. Certainly people do look different from one another, I will grant you that, but phenotypical [00:14:30] differences in skin tone or hair type account for a vanishingly small portion of our genetics, so small in fact that if you plucked a random white European and a random black Sub-Saharan African, the two individuals are more likely to share a greater amount of their genetics than they would with random individuals in their own populations. So similar are the fundamental building blocks nature provides us.

History however provides us with something much different and [00:15:00] much more sinister. The law condemns some people to be slaves on the basis of their biology. The law elevates others to the position of permanent or potential masters. These legal and social categories are not given by genetics. They are the products of centuries and millennia of deliberate action, usually on the part of the powerful few, to justify their exploitation of weaker parties.

[00:15:30] Next is the myth of the pilgrim fathers as America’s great origin myth, which provides purpose and mission, and therefore justification for our society. Most people probably do have some sense that the Puritans and Separatists in New England did not in fact hope to establish this continent as some sort of Libertarian escape from the old world where people could finally live freely and practice their religion. In reality, the Colonial elites [00:16:00] uprooted the old world governing institutions and grafted them onto American soils. They imported the very same sorts of tyranny they supposedly wanted to escape. This is shocking, but from roughly 1500 to 1800 five out of every six immigrants to the new world were unfree. What, was that Bacon’s New Atlantis or some city on the hill, or were the Americas much closer to a prison [00:16:30] planet?

Well, each of these myths are powerful, primarily because they are half truths. Yes, people are biologically different. No, those differences do not necessarily imply condemnation to particular social existences. Yes, poverty has always existed and does not seem ready for conquest any time soon. No, this does not mean that we will never be able to eliminate significant material want. [00:17:00] Yes, many colonists fled Europe and elsewhere to live freely on the frontiers of civilization. No, these actual liberty seekers were not successful on the whole.

There were small pockets of libertarianism and individualism, but they were quickly and relatively cleanly rounded up and ironed out. Historical myths captivate you with the truth and hoodwinks you with the falsehood. All the while, you are likely [00:17:30] so impressed with the truths that you don’t even notice the trickery already afoot in your brain.

Who exactly creates these myths? Who’s interests do they serve? You’ll never really know until you do the work of history from below. Sometimes doing history from below rather than above is as simple as broadening the scope of your evidence beyond the relatively controllable published record. [00:18:00] It might mean deep dives into personal diaries, letters, newspapers, pop and material culture. You might have to use archeological, anthropological evidence. You might introduce a variety of methodological approaches to often studied subjects. Practically every type of history you can imagine can be practiced both from above and from below. The very best historians are able to put together a holistic picture of human action and interaction, [00:18:30] such that everybody, everyone and their agency can be accounted for, no one unduly emphasized and no one’s existence unjustly denied space in the record. That’s the sort of method we have adopted here.
So often we like to think that brilliant and courageous entrepreneurs should take the place of emperors and legislators in dominating the historical record, but perhaps we should remind ourselves from time to time at least that pencils are not [00:19:00] handed down to us from great entrepreneurs. They are built by countless millions from below.

Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.