…Taking off in an airplane makes you feel both large and small at the same time. You can’t help but have a sense of mastery as your airline of choice detaches you from the ground, lifts you above the traffic jams surrounding the airport, and reveals vast horizons stretching out beyond it… But as you gain altitude, you also can’t help noticing how small you are in relation to the landscape that lies before you. The experience is at once exhilarating and terrifying.
So is life. We are born, each of us, with such self-centredness that only the fact of being babies, and therefore cute, saves us. Growing up is largely a matter of growing out of that condition: we soak in impressions, and as we do so we dethrone ourselves – or at least most of us – from our original position at the center of the universe. It’s like taking off in an airplane: the establishment of identity requires recognizing our relative insignificance in the larger scheme of things. Remember how it felt to have your parents unexpectedly produce a younger sibling, or abandon you to the tender mercies of kindergarten? Or what it was like to enter your first… school…? Or as a teacher to confront your first classroom filled with sullen, squirmy, slumbering, solipsistic students? Just as you’ve cleared one hurdle another is set before you. Each event diminishes your authority at just the moment at which you think you’ve become an authority.
If that’s what maturity means in human relationships – the arrival at identity by way of insignificance – then I would define historical consciousness as the projection of that maturity through time. We understand how much has preceded us, and how unimportant we are in relation to it. We learn our place, and we come to realize that it isn’t a large one. “Even a superficial acquaintance with the existence, through millennia of time, of numberless human beings,” the historian Geoffrey Elton has pointed out, “helps to correct the normal adolescent inclination to relate the world to oneself instead of relating oneself to the world.”… Mark Twain put it even better:
“That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for [man] is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that the skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.”
Here too, though, there’s a paradox, for although the discovery of geologic or “deep” time diminished the significance of human beings in the overall history of the universe, it also, in the eyes of Charles Darwin, T.H. Huxley, Mark Twain, and many others, dethroned God from his position at its center – which left no one else around but man. The recognition of human insignificance did not, as one might have expected, enhance the role of divine agency in explaining human affairs: it had just the opposite effect. It gave rise to a secular consciousness that, for better or for worse, placed the responsibility for what happens in history squarely on the people who live through history.
What I’m suggesting, therefore, is that just as historical consciousness demands detachment from – or if you prefer, elevation above – the landscape that is the past, so it also requires a certain displacement: an ability to shift back and forth between humility and mastery. Niccolò Machiavelli made the point precisely in his famous preface to The Prince: how was it, he asked his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici, that “a man from a low and mean state dares to discuss and give rules for the governments of princes?” Being Machiavelli, he then answered his own question:
“For just as those who sketch landscapes place themselves down in the plain to consider the nature of mountains and high places and to consider the nature of low places place themselves high atop mountains, similarly to know well the nature of peoples one needs to be [a] prince, and to know well the nature of princes one needs to be of the people.”
You feel small, whether as a courtier or an artist or a historian, because you recognize your insignificance in an infinite universe. You know you can never yourself rule a kingdom, or capture on canvas everything you see on a distant horizon, or recapture in your books and lectures everything that’s happened in even the most particular part of the past. The best you can do, whether with a prince or a landscape or the past, is to represent reality: to smooth over the details, to look for larger patterns, to consider how you can use what you see for your own purposes.
That very act of representation, though, makes you feel large, because you yourself are in charge of the representation: it’s you who must make complexity comprehensible, first to yourself, then to others. And the power that resides in representation can be great indeed, as Machiavelli certainly understood. For how much influence today does Lorenzo de’ Medici have, compared to the man who applied to be his tutor?
Historical consciousness therefore leaves you, as does maturity itself, with a simultaneous sense of your own significance and insignificance. Like Friedrich’s wanderer, you dominate a landscape even as you’re diminished by it. You’re suspended between sensibilities that are at odds with one another; but it’s precisely within that suspension that your own identity – whether as a person or a historian – tends to reside. Self-doubt must always precede self-confidence. It should never, however, cease to accompany, challenge, and by these means discipline self-confidence.