William H. McNeill – History as Myth

Last Friday, the great historian William H. McNeill died. I still have surprisingly endearing memories of reading his A World History one winter, in the middle crowded New York City Wendy’s, surrounded by high school kids just done with their day, his narrative silencing every one and every thing. And this year during a brief illness I finally went through his Plagues and Peoples in a few days. In both books his ability to use both “inferences and large doses of imagination” in telling huge but human stories was more than evident.

His obituary can be found here. Below is a 1981 op-ed where he says that truth “does not reside in exact recording of every detail. It never has. Instead, it resides in myth — generalizing myths that direct attention to what is common amid diversity by neglecting trivial differences of detail.” His ability, as far back as 1981, to see the massive complexity of history, admit the limitations of knowledge and language, but not fall into the rabbit hole of claiming nothing beyond the smallest details can be expressed, is heartening. We need “new visions, new generalizations, new myths, global in scope” (or, as I put it, more convenient gestures) to help us organize life and history. And there is very little else but juggling and organizing history over and over again, with no end in sight, and no comfort of certainty.



by William H. McNeill

Most historians disdain myths, believing that their job is to dispel error by showing how shorthand, mythical interpretations of the past fail to explain all the facts. Yet myth is more subtle than such practitioners admit.

Historians’ assaults on myth are themselves based on a myth: the faith that facts speak for themselves, that infinite detail somehow organizes itself into meaningful patterns without the intervention of human intelligence, and that historical truth resides in faithful transcription of recorded words and deeds.

Few if any historians really believe these doctrines today, yet the practice of the profession, mummified by Ph.D. training programs, routinely perpetuates the writing of research monographs whose only point is to show that no one has quite managed to find a formula that could fully take into account newly noticed details.

The trouble with this approach to truth is that it makes the world unintelligible. If to study the forest one first must describe every leaf, the task become Gargantuan, self-defeating. Before it can be completed, the leaves will have fallen–long before the researcher is able to draw back far enough from detail even to glimpse a single tree, much less the forest or ecoysystem of which each leaf was a part.

Truth, in short, does not reside in exact recording of every detail. It never has. Instead, it resides in myth–generalizing myths that direct attention to what is common amid diversity by neglecting trivial differences of detail. Such myths make subsequent experience intelligible and can be acted on. When results conform to expectations, truth has been tested and the mythical formulation gains or retains plausibility. When experience contradicts expectation, it is time to mend the myth, if one can, to look for limiting conditions or overriding patterns that somehow distort its applicability.

In this way, the “laws” of nature have been emended over the centuries most successfully. Human society is, however, more complicated than atoms and molecules, and efforts to make human conduct intelligible and predictable have never met with much success. Yet our social existence depends on shared values, symbols and meanings, proclaimed and acted upon, at least sometimes, by hundreds, thousands, and millions of persons.

Historians seek to make sense of such behavior. So do others: economists, lawyers, moralists, psychologists, journalists. To say that it cannot be done is not a real option, for if learned professionals decline to engage in the high calling of formulating useful myths, others will. The simple fact is that communities live by myths, of necessity. For only by acting as if the world made sense can society persist and individuals survive.

In the short run, habit and custom take care of the problem of how to act. Ideas and ideals, abstract principles, and historical vision are nonetheless essential. In ordinary times, they reinforce habit and custom by explaining why behavior should conform to established norms and what happens when norms are, and are not, observed. In times of breakdown, however, new myths surge forward, proclaiming new ideals and finding (or inventing) new examples from the historical record to justify and reinforce modified patterning of behavior.

Whether conservative or revolutionary, this is heady stuff. High passions and extremes of heroism and villainy command more attention than routine behavior. Yet it is also true that recognition of patterns that locate human experience within one or another enduring system of which humanity is a part may set limits upon our hopes and expectations. This can temper abstract ideals and may even promote wisdom.

Reading, writing, and teaching history contributes more than most other intellectual disciplines to the unending evolution of ideas and ideals whereby people seek to regulate their public conduct. Indeed, the principal reason for studying the past is that it promotes the formulation and reformulation of useful myths about the conduct of public affairs, creates and confirms public identities, and offers models of behavior for leaders and followers alike that help to guide us through present perplexities.

Ever since World War I, when the United States became a world power, our historians have dodged their myth-making responsibilities. Preoccupation with detail has saved them from thinking seriously about the world in which we, as 20th century humans, find ourselves.

The American and (world public) badly need new visions, new generalizations, new myths, global in scope, to help us navigate in our tightly interactive world. If historians fail to advance suitably bold hypotheses and interpretations, then politicians, journalists, and other public figures will continue, as now, to use unexamined cliches to simplify the choices that must be made.


2 replies »

  1. Nice tribute. The historian I took to when I was younger was Will Durant. These days we have very few historians like Toynbee, Durant and McNeil who embraced all of human history and tried to make sense of it. Thanks for the post.


  2. I’ve never read Mr. McNeill before, but I’m fascinated by faces, and I love Mr. McNeill’s. A wizened and alert old face. There’s something you can always tell just in the glance a person has. Mr McNeill’s face is warm and open, but not overmuch; it’s set like a jewel in an overall coolness. He also has a deep smile which manifests just barely on the surface. That indicates his scholarly care and restraint, but also he looks like he had a good sense of humor, a dry wit, loved telling stories, indubitably a joy in his mastery of words.


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