Characteristics of a Historian

A competent historian should strive to have the following characteristics:

 A zeal for truth, which postulates sincerity and frankness in stating the facts, however much feelings may be hurt. Cicero said, “It is the first law of history that it dare say nothing that is false nor fear to utter anything that is true, in order that there may be no suspicion either of partiality or hostility in the writer.” Additionally, British historian Lord Acton said, “Impartial history can have no friends.”

Honesty requires that important facts and circumstances, good or bad, be recorded. To omit can create the wrong impression and is virtually the same as falsification. The suppression of the truth is the suggestion of a falsehood. Additionally, be aware that sources often passively or actively did not hold themselves to this standard. When studying a source, remember that the failure to mention facts does not imply their non-existence. Never forget that the normal is taken for granted, both now and in the past. The argument from silence is invalid as a linchpin of historical “proof.”

Industry is also important as research takes a lot of time. A historian must learn to be economical in his work and must be prepared to research to near exhaustion. No research is wasted; a negative result is often as valuable, if less satisfying, as a positive. It must also be remembered that it is the substance of the fact that matters, not the accidentals. All circumstances attending an event in history do not have to be known before the record can be made “as it happened.” It is helpful to think of law and the concept of reasonable doubt as a guide. If historians attempted to acquire all of the facts they would find themselves in indefinite or even infinite study and the field would not advance.

Concentration is closely tied to industry. It is the mental alertness that makes a historian ready to recognize and account for every piece of causal information that can help master a subject. Aspects important to particular research automatically reveal themselves as such, at least if one is wide awake to the task. A finely honed ability to simply concentrate helps the researcher separate the wheat from the chaff.

A critical sense and sound judgement are a historian’s primary assets. Candor is always desirable, but it must not be restrained. If research reveals something about a subject that is negative and non-essential, omit it. Don’t engage in superfluous, tell-all practices for their own sake. However, also beware of a lack of criticism, which is an injudicious attitude of mind.

Both the mania for the extraordinary or narrow and exaggerated conservatism that looks upon criticism as the natural enemy of cherished traditions are both pitfalls. Hypercriticism is the abuse of a good thing. Overrating internal evidence, absorption with trifles, and an itch for novelties and an urge to upset established beliefs and traditions on no grounds of adequate evidence renders any valid criticism suspect. They are the historical version of crying wolf. In the end, the nature and true spirit of critical research is a benefit to the field. For example, the impression may be that modern critical investigation has cast doubt on many ancient and medieval sources of history and that they should be regarded skeptically. The fact is that a considerable proportion of the old historians have stood successfully against rigid scrutiny. This shows that criticism at its best is constructive and is a preservative of traditional viewpoints.

Objectivity is really just the other side of the coin from a zeal for truth. It is a detached and neutral attitude in the historian that enables him to deal with material in light of the evidence alone. Von Ranke’s exhortation to record a thing “as it really happened” is especially germane. However, there are some misconceptions about objectivity. It doesn’t require the historian to be free from prejudice or to approach the task free of principles, theories or philosophies of life. It doesn’t mean a historian must divorce himself from sympathy for his subject or refrain from forming judgements or drawing conclusions. Instead, the historian simply needs to be aware of his own biases and predispostions. Impartiality, rightly understood, on the part of the historian is a practical ideal. Events can be recorded “as they happened” as far as the evidence permits and historical truth can be achieved– even though numberless details remain unkown. The question of whether history can be objective is kept alive by loose and unwarranted use of the term. The debate is speculative and has little practical bearing on the historian’s actual task. The temptation to succumb to the ideal of objectivity must be fought with a pragmatic understanding of the term.


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