Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Essence of History is Tradition

Hence the essence of history is not to be found in facts but in traditions. The pure fact is not as such historical. It only becomes [286] historical when it can be brought into relation with a social tradition so that it is seen as part of an organic whole. A visitor from another planet who witnessed the Battle of Hastings would possess far greater knowledge of the facts than any modern historian, yet this knowledge would not be historical for lack of any tradition to which it could be related; whereas the child who says “William the Conqueror 1066” has already made his atom of knowledge an historical fact by relating it to a national tradition and placing it in the time-series of Christian culture.

Wherever a social tradition exists, however small and unimportant may be the society which is its vehicle, the possibility of history exists. […] [287]

Yet even the religion that denies the significance of history is itself a part of history and it can only survive in so far as it embodies itself in a social tradition and thus “makes history.”


Source: Christopher Dawson, “The Kingdom of God and History,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 285–287. Originally published in The Kingdom of God and History, ed. H. G. Woods et al., vol. 3 of Official Oxford Conference Books (New York: Willett, Clark & Company, 1938).


The fact does not tell the story; the story, as it were, tells the fact. It is the latter that gives pattern and meaning; it is the former that lacks meaning of its own. Moreover to arrange such disordered material, to give it narrative shape, is not to diminish historical particularity but to acknowledge it. To see meaning beyond the local is to see it in the local. After all, we grasp our truths in the solid, the tactile, the here-and-now. We exercise a faculty of imagination without which historical insight is impossible. […] In the parochial we [xxvi] glimpse the perennial. In time we grasp Time’s end, its very purpose and meaning.


Source: Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxv–xxvi.

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