Moral History – Part 1

The Tale That Came First or A Time Before Facts

The following text sprung from an exploration of the subtle difference between the word “story” (histoire) and “history” (l’histoire) in the French language, and how history with a big ‘H’ becomes history with a little ‘h’ – transitioning from actual to symbolic, from objective to moral, so that we may “learn from history“.  In this way I decided upon the term ‘moral history’ to describe a particular type of history that is intended to convey one or more moral lessons, rather than being a factual document of past events.

The concept of moral history serves to highlight the difference between raw facts and contextual concepts: moral history is the overall motivational ideas that result from a particular historical event or series of events.  Many of these ideas are common tropes found in books, movies and other works of fiction. For example, the main theme of the history of world war 2, besides the obvious and age-old concept that war (read: “death and suffering”) is bad, is that dictatorships are bad, racial discrimination and persecution is bad, and that we shouldn’t allow similar atrocities to reoccur.

Within the context of the moral (hi)story, everything is felt and understood on an implicit and symbolic level.  Facts become symbols, and the details are only relevant insofar as they help create context around the main themes of the story.  The raw facts; dates, names statistics etc, are not useful to the individual, and an emphasis on facts implies that knowing such details will have a significant impact on the overall themes. Whether or not Hitler is responsible for the deaths of 2.3 million, 1 million, or some other large number of people, does little if anything, to change the story.  The real life equivalent would be watching a movie in which the death toll was displayed on screen.  In terms of attempting to elicit a greater emotional response, this tactic seems absurd and possibly even counterproductive.

For all intents and purposes Hitler isn’t real, he’s the archetypal villain; a symbol of evil who we don’t even need to understand or know on a deep level because his role in the story is straightforward.  He wasn’t the bullied child that later turned bad, so that now we can sympathise with him, he was just a run-of-the-mill bad guy.

Moral history is in fact the distant ancestor of History as we are taught in school.  Out of necessity stories with implicitly understood meaning that actually changed or affected our behaviour have existed much longer than the relatively recent fact-based history.  Before facts even existed there were stories that explained why things were the way they were, and why we should do certain things or avoid others.  While some of those ideas and behaviours may seem backwards in light of our factually-driven education, the fact (story) remains that it was the tale that came first, and has been instrumental in shaping our relationship to the world.

In the same way that we live by metaphors, we also live by the stories that contain them, whether or not those stories have a basis in reality.  Our memories are notoriously unreliable, especially over long periods of time, so it makes sense that we remember the symbolism of events rather than the details of what actually happened.  Nuance and exceptions-to-the-rule are comparatively more cognitively taxing than a simplified black-and-white version of events.  Not only is this easier to handle for the individual, it also makes information much easier to pass on to others.

But as with any compression process, this of course means that we are vulnerable to bias, because once we have adapted to the symbolism of perceived events, or even, adapted to the perceived symbolism of a particular story, it becomes more difficult to change our minds if it turns out that the fundamental story or its interpretation is incorrect. 

But in a way, if we treat the bible say, as a symbolic story; a moral history, if it is revealed to be a work of fiction this shouldn’t undermine the truths it contains – the actionable and valuable, implicit advice about how to act in the world.  However, if we place the emphasis on objective truth (History) we risk failing to see and understand the symbols within the story, and thus learn from it.  We generally don’t go to the cinema to watch documentaries, or come with the expectation that everything we watch must be based on a true story.  We understand that the people we see before us are just actors playing characters, and it is usually the characters and what happens to them that interests and captivates us, not the actors themselves.  Once inside the story, instead of seeing the actors from the outside, we begin to feel, and empathise with those on the screen.  We fail to see that the people before us are often millionaires, unlikely to have to live the kind of hardships that their characters must endure.  This process of suspension of disbelief is necessary in order for the storytelling mechanism to function correctly.

Movie watching, or novel reading could be seen as a ritual in which we willingly engage with the fantastic for pleasure, and to reinforce the values that we and our culture have.  This ritual serves as moral exercise in which we practise hating the bad guys and rooting for the underdogs, and are rewarded with a sense of relief when things turn out well for our heroes, or when a dislikeable character sees the light and joins the forces of good.  We reaffirm to ourselves who it is we are, where we want to go, what we wish to achieve, and all the infinite number of possible ways that things could go wrong that we want to avoid. 

It’s necessary to consider that the environment in which storytelling was born was very different from the one we live in now.  In a world where life consists mostly of hunting, gathering and rearing offspring, the stories you can tell don’t have the capacity to be as deep and detailed as they have evolved to be under the changing conditions of technological progress and social diversity.  When viewed from this angle, we could say that the stories we tell haven’t dramatically changed from “beware the tiger!”, or “fear the darkness!” , but instead, our means and ways of telling them, aided by technology, literacy (storytelling ability), and diversity of culture or experience, have grown to be ever more complex.

Moral history is effectively an implicit consensus about the meaning and implications of past events.

If history has a purpose, if keeping records of past events and occurrences serves a valuable end, it is to affect the future, whether that is to inspire us to change things, or to remind us to hold onto certain important values.  We can’t use history as an oracle to predict the future, and even if that were the case, this is not how history is taught; history is not the science of prediction.

History as it was taught to me in school only somewhat resembled a moral tale, and mostly consisted of facts, figures and “important dates” to be remembered.  Needless to say, I didn’t learn anything.  It seemed that the storyteller had been replaced by the keeper-of-the-facts, and that at some point in history the role of the tale had been shamefully demoted for the crime of being too fanciful by modern, objective standards.  The thing is, we don’t need to be taught moral history in the same way that we learn factual history, and the purposes of both also differ.

Thanks to archaeology, evolutionary biology and psychology, we are now in the process of creating prehistoric history.  Such a history is evidently different from the ones in which we were around and capable of writing for ourselves.  There is obvious room for much speculation and invention of just-so stories, but at the same time, the fact that there is comparatively less evidence for what happened at the time, means that such stories help fill in the blanks until we find better answers – much like how stories traditionally functioned.

Moral pre-history is a tale of how life came to be, out of nothing.  How single-celled organisms first flourished, and how against the odds life forms multiplied, diversified and spread across the planet.  It is a survival story that traces the strength of the human spirit back to a single, common ancestor and a series of chance events.  Later on the story includes segments about intelligence, creativity and ingenuity, how we progress and self-modify through compounding knowledge, but the main theme is that we were once the asexual underdogs that survived hell and high water, and that we must continue to improve on that theme.

While the list of facts about our pre-history may continue to grow ever clearer and ever-more detailed, short of them including a god or alien intervention, the moral history will likely remain the same.  There are of course people who wouldn’t derive the same meaning as this, and it’s conceivable that groups of people could be, for a brief moment in history, taught and raised to believe a different moral history (e.g through a dictatorship), but this transgression is unlikely to permanently affect the trajectory of moral history, and probably will in fact only serve to strengthen the dominant values.  We recognise the existence of extreme cases involving extreme individuals, and that they are not representative of what we humans want for ourselves in the long run.

Either the facts are predictive or the moral tale is instructive, but without one or the other the study of history is a self-contained intellectual pursuit which contradicts its own history.

As with other problems that spring from an imbalance between our evolutionary biology and our current state of technological advancement, it could be that we have yet to learn how to properly apply the analytical tools we have recently had bestowed upon us.  As if symbols were just relics of the past to be replaced by a simple, fact-based, true-or-false dichotomy that takes everything on face value.  But if science has taught us anything it is that we still have our tribal, implicitly-operating, metaphor-driven brains, we just happen to think we have outgrown them.  The moral history of history itself is that we must learn from the past in order to avoid repeating mistakes, but also to be guided towards our greater potential.  This is the most universally understood idea about history.

Suspension of disbelief doesn’t necessarily mean that the story becomes easier to follow, it simply

means that you are using the right tool for the job.

If we try to imagine what the moral history of one of the terrorists involved in the world trade centre attacks might look like compared to say, one of the surviving victims, we might immediately assume that they clash, however it seems more likely that they must converge.  For example, the terrorist believes that freedom is good, that one must stand up for their beliefs and be willing to go to war if necessary.  He also thinks war is bad, doesn’t actually want to die (like most soldiers and average people) and would prefer if given the choice, not to have to kill others.

In a way, the moral history is like an idealised version of events that works to self-replicate through us.  In the same way that we tend to paint a picture of what somebody is like and then act in accordance with it, the primary objective of such an image or story is to structure our behaviour through sub-conscious heuristics.

The symbols used by advertising agencies work in the same way as in a moral tale, except on a much smaller timescale, and for a very different end.

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