History Is a Lie

François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), also known as Voltaire, was a French writer, historian and philosopher who was famous for his political works. All his literary writings were famous, including plays, poems, novels, essays, historical and scientific works. His best-known histories are The Age of Louis XIV (1751), and his Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756). He broke from the tradition of narrating political and military events, and emphasized traditions, societal history and achievements in the arts and sciences. One of his famous sayings, “History is the lie commonly agreed upon”, is quite contrary as some agree with it while others argue that that is not the case. Based on the analysis and readings I agree with what Voltaire said.

Some people associate history with past whereas history is not the same as past. As past is the occurrence of all the events even the minor ones while history is the selection of some events from the past which are then given meaning to by the historians. So what we study is not actually history but historiography (the writings of history). An example of which can be a person selling gingerbread man in a low lying area and some random people come to his stall and beat him up and kill him [1]. So the historians will not give importance to this event – which is definitely part of the past but it is not the part of written history.

At the same time history is majorly affected by the involvement of the role of power in its writing. History is always created by the winners. This means that the people who are on the winning end of any event will determine what the correct history will be. This can be seen with the example of Germany losing the World War I and their complete humiliation which directly lead to the rise of Hitler and in turn World War II. This implies that colonialists like the British are the ones who write the history and having all the power they make sure that its written just the way they want it to be. For example, the British colonizing the subcontinent, now when we read historical records, all of it can be seen in favour of the British and they claim that they conquered India as a part of the white mans burden and in order to spread their superior culture which was way higher than the inferior culture of the Subcontinent.

When talking about the role of power in the writings of history some examples that really pop up can include that of the ‘Akbar-nama’. When the writer came to him he himself made him write it to ensure only those attributes and characteristics are mentioned which he wants the people to know about. Another example that can be taken into consideration is the fact that General Zia-ul-Haq when came to power changed the history textbooks completely, he tailored it according to his preferences.

Moreover, everyone’s truth is different, what might be the truth for one is not necessarily the truth for the other person as well. For example what was the truth for the Hindu Indians was not the truth for the Muslim Indians at the time of the War of Independence of 1857. Not only that but the opinions about the same war were very different when written by the British as compared to that written by the Indians in general. It is because of all the untouched and undiscovered information that we still have related to the past that we cannot decipher it all and reach to proper conclusions about something. One way that we can learn about history can be learning history from below. This includes learning the area history- history relating to certain areas that are not given as much importance for example the South-Asian history. In other words the history of the common people (no influence of power involved). Added to this will be the subaltern history, which means the history of the minorities of a region. For example, the history of the minority castes in India.

History is an ongoing discourse. One discourse leads to another and in turn engages it. This means that history is mainly an interpretation of the past events which in turn implies that history is a lie, because every historian’s interpretation of the same event is different. For instance a person who goes to a fish monger to buy fish, he then takes it home, from that time onwards it’s up to the person who he cooks and then serves it [2]. Same is the case when it comes to the historian and his facts. The facts are there, now it’s completely up to the historian as to how they interpret and make use of them.

This can be a problem when searching for the truth as the interpretations does not match. When we take into consideration the Hiroshima and Nagasaki incident some historians claim it to be a bombing done on purpose while the others argue it to be a normal testing of an atomic bomb. On the other hand no one took into consideration that why were the lives of innocent people put in danger. Furthermore, the book 1984 by George Orwell puts further light on how power manipulates the opinions of ordinary people and how their lives are in turn affected. The way the Big Brother in the book takes control and makes sure that Winston does not do anything against him is actually how power works in reality as well. We see the common man coming into the pressure of those in power and giving up on their free will even in democratic countries. So in situations like that when not only the history and its writings are being manipulated but even the thoughts and perspectives of humans are being manipulated to their comforts, how can we expect to know the reality about past. [3]

History can be problematic in three main areas which include: epistemology, methodology and ideology. In epistemology they are concerned mainly about the objectivity of history and are always in the search of truth but in history discovering the truth is very difficult so this is where the problem arises. As the past is gone and there is no way that they can be checked against except the accounts of other historians which are their interpretations. On the other hand they can be checked against the oral sources which many of the historians do not take into consideration as they consider them to be not as reliable as the written/documented sources. At the same time historians are faced with problems in the fields of methodology and ideology.

Many a times when we give some event of history an overview, it does appear to be true, but once we go into the depth and excavate minute details we may not know what actually happened and what not. For example we know for a fact that World War I and II did take place when we go into the details of all the events that happened or not, there might be many meager events missed out as some historians might not consider it important.

To conclude all I would like to say is that in my opinion history is a lie commonly agreed upon. This is because we can never know the truth as the past is gone. All we have is the interpretations. History is an ongoing discourse. One leads to another, hence it’s a maze which never leads us to the truth majority of the times. For instance when looking at a landscape put of a window the historian may see it very differently as compared to a geologist, sociologist and so on. Also, the facts cannot and do not speak for themselves, instead they are given voice by the historians who decide to use those facts according to their context. So the same fact might be viewed upon differently by each historian. Facts are more like the play dough that is moulded and sculptured in any shape or form as liked by the historian. Many of the historians will have different viewpoints regarding the same issue, which means that there is no road in history that leads you to the truth.