In his fascinating new book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs quotes C.S. Lewis from a sermon he gave at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in 1939.
We need an intimate knowledge of the past not because the past has anything magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.
What Lewis says here about the basic assumptions undergirding different periods of time is what I find most profitable about reading history, including biographies and memoirs. It’s not only that life looks different in these previous eras from our current vantage, it’s that the assumptions themselves about life can be seen more clearly with the benefit of historical distance.
There are ways of reading history that are either arrogant or nostalgic. That is, we have a tendency to think that we’ve progressed beyond whatever it is that strikes us as remedial about the past or we look wistfully back to what seems better than our current age. Lewis, I think, is suggesting something different- reading history for what it reveals about the assumptions we take for granted. It is a rare, almost impossible thing to have one’s most deeply held assumptions to be revealed for what they are, assumptions that have not been universally held. This is the gift of history.
In addition to Jacob’s book, here are a few others I’ve read this year which have helpfully challenged my assumptions: Grant, Ron Chernow (2017); City of God, Augustine of Hippo (426); Demanding Freedom, Brandon O’Brien (2018); Black Elk The Life of an American Visionary, Joe Jackson (2016); and, The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter (2011).