Some exercise in historiography

May 2017

I have elsewhere on this site endorsed a Bayesian epistemology, which uses a concept called background knowledge. In a historical context, background knowledge is basically everything we knew or thought we knew about the past before beginning to investigate whatever evidence we're trying to account for. But this itself can be a point of dispute, and the Bayes formula needs actual knowledge to work correctly. This means we need to be as conservative as possible in judging how much background knowledge we really have. In the following I reflect on some efforts to fine-tune my own knowledge about the past.

Whole books have been written to catalog famous quotations that were never actually spoken, or have been misattributed, or otherwise deviate from the historical facts as best they can be determined. It is easy to get the idea that if a saying is famous enough for everyone to have heard about it, it was probably not uttered, or at least not originated, by whoever is usually given credit.

Whether this matters, beyond our concern for just getting our historical facts right, depends on the purpose of saying “So-and-so said such-and-such.” Such-and-such might be a proposition that we are urged to believe, and so-and-so will be some authority whom we’re not ever supposed to disagree with. But this is just an argument from authority, which is called fallacious for a reason: Nothing is true just because of who says it. The reverse tactic is also often tried, which is to discredit a statement by attributing it to one of history’s villains. Again, though, no idea is false just because some really bad guy believed it. In either case, then, the accuracy of the attribution is actually irrelevant to the credibility of the statement. Rather than learning whether we should believe or disbelieve the statement, we’re learning something about the critical-thinking skills of those who are eager to remind us of who said it. From that perspective, it actually does not make any difference whether so-and-so actually said such-and-such.

But of course it makes a difference to anyone who wants to get their history right. It also matters to the epistemological weight we assign to what is typically referred to as common knowledge. We all know, don’t we, that Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death”? Well, nearly all of us believe he said it, and we’re pretty sure that there is no reason to doubt that he said it, but if it’s a fact that he didn’t say it, then it’s a mistake to say we know that he said it. And it does seem that he might not have. It’s a perfectly excusable mistake, considering that we all learned it from our schoolteachers. However, most of those same teachers also fed us that myth about Columbus having to defy a consensus of experts that the world was flat. That story is known to be false, and historians have known it to be false for as long as it’s been told, and the fact of its falsity has been floating around the ideosphere the whole time: It is not a some obscure bit of historical trivia. Anyone who is the least bit curious can discover in a moment that none of Columbus's adversaries told him he was a fool to think the earth was round, because they all already knew it was round. (More on that in "Columbus was wrong.") It is not quite so easy for the lay person to discover the uncertainty around the Patrick Henry story. We don’t know that he didn’t say “Give me liberty or give me death,” but we can’t be sure he did say it, either, because the evidence doesn’t justify such confidence.

Then there is what some have judged to be the wittiest insult of all time.

I am not sure when I first heard the story, but I was probably around 30. Somewhere in a public setting, probably Parliament, one British politician says to another something like, “Sir, I don’t know whether you’ll die by hanging or of some loathsome disease,” and the other replies, “That would depend, m’lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.” Various versions popped up again in my reading from time to time, and in every case the author clearly felt certain that the exchange had actually occurred. Being accustomed to reading only authors I trusted, I didn’t doubt it, either, until I started getting on in years and noticed that an awful lot of what passes for common knowledge is not knowledge at all. One day it occurred to me to put Google to work on this anecdote.

The first thing I noticed was a disagreement on the identities of the two antagonists. Many sites said they were Disraeli and Gladstone, others the Earl of Sandwich and a radical politician named John Wilkes. That’s usually a bad sign. When a famous conversation is attributed to multiple sources, it’s usually because it never really happened in the first place. But not always. There is also a tendency to take a catchy statement made by an obscure person and put it in the mouth of someone more famous, and among British politicians before the 20th century, few are more famous, or more famously antagonistic, than Disraeli and Gladstone.

If the exchange actually occurred, then, it was more likely between Wilkes and Sandwich, but people who tell the story almost never say how they learned about it. In most contexts, that is no problem. In most contexts, we’re not doing historiography. But if we want to know whether it really happened, we need to know who first told the story and where they got their information. In due course I found a site that claiming that the anecdote made its first published appearance in a book called The Four Georges, by historian Charles Petrie, and that Petrie identified the principals as Wilkes and Sandwich. Further research revealed that Petrie published The Four Georges in 1935, died in 1977, and was regarded by his peers as competent but not stellar (the latter possibly because of his political conservatism).

So, a competent historian—a modern historian, at that—said it happened. Therefore, it must have happened? Not so fast. Petrie could not have witnessed the event himself in either case. He was born in 1895, by which time Disraeli was dead. (Gladstone died in 1898.) Wilkes and Sandwich lived during the 18th century. Any historian, no matter how competent, cannot be any more reliable than his or her sources. Besides, impromptu conversations are almost never recorded on the spot, or at least they weren’t until just a few years ago. Petrie’s source, whoever it was, had to have been relying on memory. If the exchange had occurred in Parliament between Disraeli and Gladstone, there might have been an official record of it, but what was the situation in which Wilkes and Sandwich traded their insults? Who was the witness, how long afterward did they write about the exchange, and why?

To check Petrie’s source, I had to read the book. Fortunately, Amazon had it for a price I could afford. Petrie presents the story on pp. 114-15:

It was at Medmenham that Wilkes quarreled with Sandwich, it is said, because the former introduced an ape at a stage of the proceedings when the latter was incapable of distinguishing it from the Devil, and so mistook it for His Satanic Majesty. In revenge, Sandwich exposed Wilkes in the House of Lords. However that may be, Wilkes turned the tables with the most stinging repartee in history. Upon Sandwich on one occasion remarking to him so that others might hear, “’Pon my soul, Wilkes, I don't know whether you'll die upon the gallows or of the pox,” Wilkes replied, “That depends, my lord, whether I first embrace your lordship’s principles or your lordship’s mistresses.” Wilkes was one of the greatest wits in a witty age.

OK, but according to whom did this conversation happen? Petrie doesn’t say. The book is well documented, having footnotes on nearly every page, but there is no source given for this incident. Not directly, anyway. The context is a description of typical goings-on at a fraternity to which Wilkes belonged, called the Hell Fire Club, and Petrie references two books as sources for his information about the club’s activities. The author of one, Charles Johnstone, was not a historian but an 18th-century novelist, and his book about the Hell Fire Club was apparently intended as a satire. The other, E. Beresford Chancellor, was a historian whose career overlapped Petrie’s. Unfortunately, I have no immediate or convenient access to the book of his that Petrie cited. So, did Petrie get the story from Chancellor, and if so, where did Chancellor get it? At this point, I have no way to know.

I don’t think for a minute that Petrie just made it up. He must have read it somewhere in the course of his research and, like everyone else who has heard it since then, found it irresistible. Considering Wilkes’s reputation, it was certainly a plausible story. Petrie could easily have made the leap from “possibly true” to “probably true,” a temptation to which most of us succumb at least occasionally. But, why not identify his source, if he was so confident? I have no idea, but he might have known or suspected that his source was unreliable. He would also have understood that just because a source is unreliable doesn’t mean they’re not telling the truth, but still, no self-respecting historian will want to admit to depending on an unreliable source.

Sometimes we just don't know whether something happened the way some historian says it happened, even if we know the historian has a reputation for competence, and this is especially so whenever he is not forthcoming about his sources. The best historians are as human as the rest of us, subject to all the same temptations whenever they can spice up their prose with a delicious anecdote. This anecdote could be true. The incident could have really happened. But to say that it could have happened is not to say that it did happen; but also, to say it could have not happened is not to say it didn't happen. We don't have to decide one way or the other if the evidence is not sufficient to warrant a decision.

Nothing important in our understanding of Georgian (or Victorian) England depends on whether, or between whom, this exchange actually occurred. It's a great story, nothing more, and is no less entertaining if it happens to be apocryphal. But the truth of many stories no less embedded in the public mind is more consequential, and many are no better attested than this one, and some are not even almost as well attested. When their credibility is questioned in just the way I have questioned the credibility of this one, the usual reaction is accusations of either revisionism or hyperskepticism. But is either them really contrary to the proper exercise of reason? Not without some question-begging.

Questions of history are fouled by a deep ambiguity. All words are defined by usage, and history is routinely used to refer either to the past itself or to some narrative about the past. The actual past cannot be revised, obviously. It is what actually happened, and whatever did happen cannot be changed. Julius Caesar either was or was not assassinated in 44 BCE, and there is no revising either the occurrence of nonoccurrence of an assassination. But if we want to know anything about what was happening in Rome during that time, we cannot go there to witness it. Until someone invents a time machine, we have no choice but to read what some people have written about whatever was happening in that place at that time. And we also have no choice but to make some judgment about the credibility of those writings. Any narrative about the past can be called a history, and it usually is whenever the narrative is judged to be credible. Every history ever written about Julius Caesar, or about the Roman empire during his time, has agreed that he died by assassination. That is a powerful consensus, and so far as I am aware no one has ever suggested that it might be mistaken.

Some 16 years after Caesar's death, another famous ruler, Egypt's last pharaoah, Cleopatra, died. The only possible witness whose testimony has ever been available was the then-emperor of Rome, Octavian, later called Augustus, and although he was at the scene, we don't have his own account of the event. According to much later sources, he told somebody that she had killed herself, and until modern times that is what all historians have also said. The popular version of the story is that she let a snake bite her. Most of those who have offered any dissent have said it was more likely she drank some poison or injected herself with it. In more recent times, though, and especially on the Internet, a few have claimed that Octavian himself killed her and made up the suicide story in order to save his reputation for being a good guy.

That is revisionism, which, if we must use the term, can be usefully defined as a questioning of some historical orthodoxy. It is a proposed revision, in other words, to whatever narrative has been generally accepted. It is an apparent historical fact that Cleopatra either committed suicide or was murdered. Until recently, suicide has been part of the accepted narrative. Now a few people are claiming the narrative should say she was murdered. And there can't be anything nothing wrong with that, if they can produce good evidence to support their claim. It the narrative is mistaken, it should be changed. The relevant issue is whether we should believe it is mistaken, and that should depend only on the evidence that is currently available to us. And nobody really questions that, by the way. Everyone agrees that if we find a mistake, we should correct it. The only people who call it "revisionism" with intended disparagement are those who insist that there is no mistake to be corrected.

So, was the suicide narrative a mistake? Probably not, so far as I can tell. The snakebite version does seem unlikely to me, for various reasons, but I don't see any problems with Cleopatra's taking a swig of poison in such a situation as she was in. Did Octavian have the means and opportunity to kill her? Yes. Did he also have motive? Of course, but we all know what it's like to have conflicting motives, and he had at least as much reason to keep her alive as to kill her. Those who advocate the murder hypothesis have no evidence that I can see beyond a presupposition that any man in power must be different in his moral nature from any ordinary man. Would I say he couldn't have killed her? No, not at all. The evidence of suicide is not as overwhelming as it is for Caesar's assassination. He could have killed her. But the evidence tends more to support than oppose the historical consensus that she killed herself.

The study of history is not about finding an infallible narrative. We cannot have infallible knowledge about the past, but we don't have infallible knowledge about any other empirical matter, either. We have evidence or we don't, and if we have it, it can range anywhere from almost worthless to very good. Whatever we believe about the past, though, ought to depend on nothing else. We should meanwhile accept that no matter what we believe, and no matter why we believe it, it will always be possible in principle that we're wrong, but we can live with that possibility and still have some justifiable beliefs about what happened in this world before we ourselves came into it.

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(This page last updated on May 7, 2017.)