June 3, 2016

Momligano on Historiography

I am finally getting around to reviewing a classic. Earlier this year Wesleyan's History & Theory graciously blessed the internet with a digital publication of a famous piece by the late great Arnaldo Momigliano called "The Rules of the Game". Originally published in Italian in 1975 and recently translated by Kenneth W. Yu, Momigliano's essay from 41 years ago seems timely for discussions going on among today's scholarly Jesus researchers. To whet your whistle, here's a bit of Yu's abstract:
Here, as elsewhere, Momigliano is interested in detailing the link between ancient documents and their historical interpretations in later millennia. Ancient sources, he cautions, do not capture ancient realities transparently or completely, but are mediated documents whose historical value hinges, within certain limits, on the historian's analytical questions, inflected as they inevitably are by different ideological commitments. For this reason, he places special emphasis on the comparative method, stressing difference rather than similarity, and advises that historians with various areas of expertise collaborate, a point underscored throughout the essay.
The essay is organized as ten individual complimentary theses and I'll note the gist of each here. Thesis I urges attention to ancient sources. Thesis II treats epistemology and the historian's scope. Thesis III equates methodology with interpretation of sources, invoking Polybius & Thucydides, but highlights the importance of eyewitness testimony, autopsy, and oral traditions. Thesis IV compares histories with historical novels, preferring documented facts but highlighting the necessity of hypotheses:
The competence of the historian is manifest from his not ascribing certainty to the dubious and from not making generalizations from isolated examples. In some cases the historian should say: I don't know. At other times, he might advance a hypothesis but with caution. Yet it is not enough that a hypothesis be plausible. The hypothesis put forward ought to be more plausible than any other hypothesis, and before offering a hypothesis, the historian should make a concerted effort to seek out and weigh alternatives. When faced with uncertainty, the serious historian consults his colleagues, above all those who have proven themselves to be notoriously skeptical and relentless. Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you what kind of a historian you are. [. . .] Because more hypotheses are constructed in the study of ancient history than in modern history, there is a greater risk of advancing farfetched conjectures. Ancient history is a favorable field for charlatans.
What makes this essay so enjoyable is that lightning bolts like that one are followed without pause by a new sound of rolling thunder. Theses I - IV required just nine paragraphs. The last six need just fourteen.

On to the next Thesis. Thesis V discusses types of artifacts - this author uses "documents" for coins, remains, etc - and keeps the focus on difficulties of interpreting both what is extant and what is missing, especially for ancient studies. There are gems here as well. Thesis VI makes a point that is hugely important in current discussions: "Every document is the product of a specific situation and tells us something about it. [. . .] The goal of the historian is to recognize the specific situation that will allow him to place the document in its precise temporal and spatial context." Thesis VII talks about fabrication and propaganda, polemicists and forgers, including the "pious fraud".

Thesis VIII makes my heart sing. It's not enough to determine origin and purpose of documents/artifacts. The historian "wants to understand the process, the chain of events that the documents imply or suggest... to make intelligible what occurred at a certain time to certain individuals or groups regarding certain aspects or questions of human life." Underscoring the importance of methodology for different types of inquiries, Momigliano offers a pragmatic illustration of the hermeneutical circle while discussing Schliemann's research into Troy.

In Thesis IX, it seems the maestro anticipated the postmodern turn, and perhaps even our recent "post-post" embrace of perspectivalism. Within the constraints of theses I - VIII, the historian takes many liberties, such as the freedom to choose a problem, a hypothesis, and a mode of (re)presentation, although the choice of which evidence is relevant is where collegial critiques become vital.

In his longest section, Momigliano discusses faith based and theoretical commitments with the same careful respect, but cautions that a religious historian should not make every house his sanctuary, and Herodotus should not become class conscious in the eyes of a Marxist. Again, multiple perspectives are hinted at as the solution, and "comparison is helpful not to indicate similarities but to emphasize differences." Critical points get pounded again and again, underscoring the proper relativism of classic historical method, including this one-two punch against anachronism and positivism:
Two of the gravest temptations for a historian are the hasty interpretation of texts and drawing conclusions from them that the texts themselves do not permit. But just as dangerous is the delusion that what is not documented never existed, or that what was normal in a certain time and place was also common in other times and places.
I want to observe one detail especially. I have rarely heard as strong a definition of what is problematic about positivism: "the delusion that what is not documented never existed". Analysis of evidence is critically paramount, but we absolutely cannot do history properly apart from hypothesis.

In concluding, Thesis X draws the two major points towards a synthesis. The historian's work is interpreting sources, but the historian's task is interpreting "that reality of which his sources are telling signs or fragments." An artifact is a trace of past lives. An artifact's meaning depends on it's situation. The historian takes what is partial and fits it into a whole.
What ultimately makes a historian is the ability to read the document as if it were not a document, but an actual event of past life. A grammarian sees a text as a set of words to analyze, but a historian comprehends the circumstances . . . To see how the historian transforms sources into the life of the past, it is easier to learn from Herodotus, Guicciardini, Burckhardt, and Marc Bloch than from any manual of historical method.
Amen and amen. May it ever be so.

I would urge everyone who is marginally intrigued to go read the entire PDF (or enhanced html version), and once again many thanks to Wesleyan, H&T, and to the translator Kenneth Yu for making this breathtaking resource available to the public.

On a personal note, while I fully intent to keep learning all that I can from the brilliant scholars of New Testament criticism, I've been particularly thrilled in these past few years to find Jesus scholars who step beyond the hermeneutics of a grammarian and step into the hypothesizing of actual historians, and who do this not just with creative imagination but with a proper historical imagination that is rigorous and discplined.

When they talk about doing history, they do not sound very different from Arnaldo Momigliano.

May their tribe henceforth increase...

1 comment:

Chris Keith said...

Bill, thanks for posting this!! Great find.

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