Today’s history is Whig history on steroids. Whig history is just the application of the anti-Christian good guys vs. bad guys narrative to the past, with the Left cast as the heroes and their clients the innocent victims. The fact that this history is generally accepted and almost never contested gives the Left tremendous moral authority. Conservatives are cast in the position of arguing “Yes, we’ve always been wrong in the past, but this time we’re right!”
The solution cannot be to simply tell Whig history in reverse, casting the Right as the heroes and victims. Why not? As a good guys vs. bad guys story, it’s anti-Christian, for one thing. Now, you might grant this but say that it is a rather abstract objection. Seeing oneself as one of the good guys battling bad guys is tremendously motivating, so aren’t we giving a major advantage to our enemies by not making use of this motivator given that they’re using it? This is a strong counterargument, but in fact there is a more practical reason why we cannot use the reverse Whig template.
We wish to embrace our ancestors and inherited culture, meaning Western civilization at the broadest level. Now, it is a fact that most great men of the past were neither pure Leftists nor pure Reactionaries, but had elements of both in their thought and their work. The Left, given its fundamental hostility to the past, is free to denounce a greater and greater fraction of their ancestors; to Leftists it is clear evidence of increasing moral purity that ever fewer of the thinkers of the past and ever less of their thought is judged tolerable. Declaring more and more the dead white men reprobates is indeed what the Left, in its urge to purge, is doing, but it’s not something we want to do. (In fact, the Left’s renouncing most of the great men of the past as being basically on our side might turn out to be a great favor to us.)
The truest interpretation of history is the one that takes the past on its own terms rather than subjecting it to contemporary preoccupations, and it is the one that encourages the broadest sympathies.
Here I believe that the quantitative work of legal historians, archeologists, and population geneticists will be increasingly useful. A useful check on whether the aspects of history that most catch our attention are truly the most important or only reflect contemporary preoccupations is whether those actually had the largest effect on the largest number. To give a simple example, if one massacre killed ten times as many as another contemporary to it, but historians are much more interested in the one with the much lower body count, we should suspect bias; the burden of proof is on the one who says the smaller massacre was the more significant. I doubt these quantitative re-orderings will be kind to the Whig narrative. (Consider their presumption that McCarthyism was more significant than communism.) For example, recent books have advanced the thesis that medieval exogamy laws were enormously important for the development of our society, something that never figured into popular grand narratives.
Accumulation of data can point out the biases of Whig history, but it cannot supply an alternative ordering principle. I think the best alternative would be a Hegelian dialectic without the progressive teleology. Call it the “tragic interpretation of history”. In any given age, society finds itself in the tragic dilemma that, given its material basis, basic organization, and spiritual/conceptual presuppositions, certain genuine goods are incompatible with each other. Hence arises conflict between the holders of rival goods. Both have valid motives; there are no bad guys. Both sides fight heroically for their incompatible visions until, through the struggle, society alters so that the configuration of rival goods changes. Goods that were incompatible become compatible, or goods that were compatible become incompatible, or the pursuit of new goods becomes possible. Thus a new era of conflict begins. Through the changing of eras, some spiritual goods are gained, others lost. No age is morally superior, and the moral quality of individual men comes from how they dealt with the constellation of goods-claims in which they found themselves. Perhaps some goods and valid interests will always be in tension.
Thus we may understand the contest between Optimates and Populares, between Guelphs and Ghibellines, between Yankees and Confederates. Thus, if we wish the rending of Christendom ever to be undone, we will have to learn to understand the parties of the sixteenth-century Reformation. We should always say that both sides were right (not necessarily equally right), but neither could be entirely right, because the presuppositions of the time shared by both sides prevented either from being able to fully incorporate the good championed by the other. Even the nineteenth century liberals, we freely admit, had some valid motives. From all eras, we recognize the greatness of great men and women and the decency of common men and women. Our regard for our ancestors expands capaciously over rival factions, for we are their synthesis.
As I said, I think such a way of viewing the past is the most honest and objective, because it takes the past on its own terms. Read the records of both sides; refrain from applying contemporary political categories; don’t condemn, but come to appreciate their motives; appreciate also the beliefs both sides took for granted. Make good use of our ability to manipulate large quantities of data to ascertain the effects on the masses of men. However, it’s also the most congruent with a properly reverent mythology of the past, which every healthy people needs. We do not want to cast out any faction of our ancestors into outer darkness, but to recognize them and their struggles as glorious.