Historical Revision and “Presentism”

Revisionists believe historical figures must be held accountable to our present beliefs and sensibilities.  Our progress and achievements must be the standard to which every person, past and present, is held. 

Such foolishness is partly to blame for the iconoclasm afflicting our culture today.  We are willing to destroy our past because men(and women) living then did not achieve what WE think they should have.

The late, great historian, Henry Steele Commager  cautioned the country about just such a phenomenon in 1951:

Commager in the 1940s

“Ideally, the past should be understood on its own terms. Historical events should be examined in the light of the standards, values, attitudes, and beliefs that were dominant during a given period and for a given people, rather than evaluated exclusively by current standards.”



3 thoughts on “Historical Revision and “Presentism”

  1. I like your post, but I think Commager was wrong. Historiography needs to judge, reassess and reevaluate constantly, as times change and knowledge advances. Doing this makes history valuable for us living in the present. For example, Aristotle had a view of the universe that is completely wrong, with planets moving on crystal spheres, and the earth at the center of the universe. Was he right about that in his time? I think he was wrong then and wrong now. His view needs to be evaluated, using history like a scientific method. What we know of history, like what we know of science, is just our best, imperfect, ever changing hypothesis of the truth.


    1. We can re-examine Aristotle’s opinions, but must not call him a “fool” or a “sorcerer.” We are too quick to do this with our own historical figures. See the little fools covering Jefferson’s statue at UVA etc.


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