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A Short Guide to Studying History for the Busy Student

john lukacs student's guide to study of history

The following is an excerpt from John Lukacs’s excellent little book A Student’s Guide to the Study of History, now just $4 at the ISI bookstore


What is history?

No definition will do. Earlier in this century, two German historians tried to give such definitions. They were ludicrous, running to sixty words or even more.

They remind us of Dr. Johnson’s great saying: “Definitions are tricks for pedants.” Ha! I just wrote: reminds and that re-minds me, instantly, of another great Johnsonian saying: that we (teachers or, indeed, everyone) are here less to instruct people than to remind them. Remind; to think, and to become conscious, of something that we already know—even though we have not been thinking about that in this way. A good description—a description, not a definition—is this: “History is the memory of mankind.”

Now, memory—every kind of memory—is enormous, just as the past is enormous. (The past is getting bigger every hour, every day.) But it is not limitless. There is the entire past. There is that portion of it (a varying portion, but let that go for a moment): the remembered past. And there is a yet smaller portion of that: the recorded past.

For a long time—and for many professional historians even now—history has been only the recorded past. No, it is more than that: it is the remembered past. It does depend on records; but it is not merely a matter of records.

But this is true of every human being. You have your own history, because you have your own past—ever growing and ever changing; out of this past surges your memory of your past’ and here and there exist some tangible records of your past. I am coming to your records in a moment, but, first, a few matters about memory.

The Role of Memory

All human thinking—conscious and unconscious—depends on memory. There is no function of the human brain that is not connected with memory. For a long time neurologists thought that memory was a very important part of the brain, but only a part; their present tendency is to recognize its central function, (Even our dreams are inseparable from memory: it may be said that when we dream we do not think differently; we only remember differently.) If our memory ceased we could not go on living; we would, for example, walk through a window instead of through a door, not knowing—more precisely, not recalling—that this is a window and that is a door.

As the great Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard said;“We live forward, but we can only think backward.”

One more thing about the past. The past is the only thing we know. The present is no more than an illusion, a moment that is already past in an instant (or, rather, a moment in which past and future slosh into each other).

And what we now about the future is nothing else than the projection of our past-knowledge into it. We know that it will get dark at night, because it has always been so. Notice, too, that even in “Science Fiction” the author puts himself at a point from which he relates the fabulous events he describes backward—that is, he writes in the past tense. The reason for this is that the human mind cannot for long sustain attention to a narrative that is composed in the future tense. In sum: our sense of the past is profoundly inherent in the functioning of our minds.

Socrates said that all knowledge must come from human knowledge and from knowledge of the self: Gnothi se auton—Know Thyself. (Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”) What this also means—and what it has come to mean (about this condition, see later)—knowing yourself means knowing your own history, your own past. This knowledge of the past is the very opposite of a burden—a good example of how the function of the human mind differs from the functions of matter. By knowing something our mind may or may not be enriched; but it may be eased. Of course memory may be inaccurate and even fallible.

But human memory is inevitably historic, to some extent. Your grandfather tells some of his experiences during World War II; their content is historical at least in some ways and to some extent. In sum: it is not only the history of mankind that is the remembered past; so is everybody’s, including your own.

But then you may ask; My grandfather keeps telling us this fabulous story about the war, and he always talks so much. How much of that is true? But one day he brings out a newspaper clipping from Stars and Stripes, reporting the exciting capture of that German armored train by Battalion C, Company A, of the 28th Division—his division. That printed record seems to confirm the Grandfather Story. (That this newspaper story may be sensationalist or inaccurate is another matter—that, too, we must leave for a moment, except that your eye may be caught by something slightly disturbing therein: your grandfather’s name is misspelled in it, and his hometown is wrong.)

On Physical Records

And here I get to the matter of records. Aren’t they what history is? Yes or, rather, no: because history is something more than mere records. But—and that is the important point—your own records are historical, too/yes, you don’t have many of them. There is your high school yearbook; a few ticket stubs; some photographs; in your mother’s cupboard, a few old postcards; and, lo, there is a letter from your great-grandmother describing her honeymoon trip to Havana in, say, 1924.

Well, all of these are historical records, not only because their very shape or form or color or scent vitalizes one’s memory and imagination. In that letter of your great-grandmother the handwriting is old-fashioned, spiky; the paper has yellowed, and the ink has faded; they bear marks of the past, of a past: but there is more to that. That plain old letter is as much of a historical record as, say, a typescript record of a cabinet meeting of the Eisenhower presidency.

As a matter of fact, more of a historical record. Why? Because the record of that cabinet meeting was probably drafted and typed by a secretary, without President Eisenhower’s seeing it, and perhaps even without his signing it. But your great-grandmother’s letter was handwritten, by herself. Even if it contains a few routine phrases such as “wish you were here,” it is genuine and authentic. And it is the authenticity, the genuineness, of every human document—of every human expression—that counts.

The Historical Person

In sum: your great-grandmother was as much of a historical person as was President Dwight David Eisenhower; and her remnant “records” are but one proof of that. In sum: there is no difference between a historical source and a “non-historical” source, because there is no difference between a “historic person” and a “nonhistoric person.” (Shakespeare, in Henry V: “There is a history in all men’s lives.”)

Let me reformulate this: All men’s lives are historic. It is not only that there is some history in their lives. They are components of the history of their times.


John Lukacs is the author of more than thirty works of history, including the acclaimed Five Days in London and The Future of History.

Image by Hector Martinez via Unsplash.


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