Approaching History - Through the 'Looking Glass'
Updated: May 1
I have a favourite pair of sunglasses. They're not particularly trendy, they weren't very expensive but the lenses are yellow and the world looks amazing through them. There is some science behind this that motorcyclists, golfers and pilots (among others) will be aware of.
The yellow lens acts as a blue light filter, reducing eye strain, mental fatigue, increasing contrast and facilitating far sight vision. Yellow is also a powerful teaching aid, particularly for dyslexic students who find the contrast of bright computer screens and sometimes white paper too high. The yellow lens is varied in application and useful to many.
The lens itself is a fascinating and ancient piece of technology. The word lens derives quite literally from the Latin word for lentil, due undoubtedly to the double convex shape, but the technology itself predates its later Latin nomenclature.
Possibly the earliest example we have of a lens is on display in the British Museum, London. The Nimrud Lens dated 750-710 BCE was excavated from the ruins of the Assyrian palace of Nimrud in 1850. Debate as to its function is wide ranging...
a magnification aid for fine tool working
telescopy - the ancient Mesopotamians had undeniably advanced astronomical knowledge
a fire starter, for which there is direct written reference in the Epic of Ishtar & Izdubar
a decorative element for a piece of furniture
The latter is the official stance. It is also the one I find least convincing for a number of reasons that, for the sake of brevity, I won't dive into!
My point is that the use of lenses and light alchemy is ancient.
We find it referenced, investigated and documented through the Ancient Greeks as early as Aristophanes in the 5th century BCE on through Ptolomy's Optics in the 2nd century CE. We can then follow the trail around the globe and across time through a wealth of scientific and philosophical enquiry concerning the nature of vision, the physics of light and the mechanics of the lens.
Ways of Seeing - Ancient & Modern
The story of the lens takes us on a journey through the biology of sight, the invention of the spectacle, the development of telescopes and microscopes, investigation into the very nature of reality, the discovery of exoplanets and on ad infinitum. All the while being driven by our desire to 'see', whether that is more clearly, farther or simply from a different point of view.
From its infancy as a piece of ancient technology the lens remains vital to our interaction with the world today. In the white noise of the digital world we are easily removed from the recognition of the antiquity of ideas and technology no matter their intrinsic importance to our modern societies. We take for granted that these things 'just are' without considering the context of how they came to be.
The Lens of History
Back in the 80's when I was going to school in Scotland, the history we were taught was of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, exploration, great inventions and the industrial revolution. When I attended school in England, the history I was being taught then was of Kings and Queens, the English Civil War and WWII. It was quite a different experience but fundamentally so because each country was teaching history through its' own lens.
History is just that. A lens. One that allows us to look into the past. Sometimes we look through the eyes of those who saw it as their present, at other times by those who are looking from their own removed present. Whatever perspective we look from we must always remember that the lens through which sight is given belongs to its own place and time and is tempered accordingly. We should never seek to whitewash or destroy history simply because we don't like the view through a particular lens. There are those who would disagree, Spanish Conquistadors and Adolf Hitler among them.
History is full of genuine hardship and horror but it is also testament to those who stood in the face of adversity. Stories of ordinary people who did not have the luxury of 'down time' and the digital revolution. Theirs was a very different 'lived experience'.
Only two generations ago my grandmother was born into poverty in the Glasgow tenements. I remember how painfully crushed her feet were from a childhood spent wearing shoes that were too small for her. Go back another couple of generations and I find a great great grandfather who spent his life deep underground in the coal mines, was never afforded the luxury of an education and therefore 'made his mark' on his wedding certificate. As I sit here typing I am grateful for the opportunities in this time and place in history. That is the only real difference in our circumstances - opportunity.
If we become disconnected from the past we lose our sense of orientation and our potential for meaningful progression. The digitised world needs to recalibrate remembering that only by looking through many different lenses, as we do when we visit the optician, can we increase and clarify that vision.
Herodotus Histories written in the 5th century BCE. His intention?
"...so that the actions of people will not fade with time."
He does not mean to glorify their actions, he means to interrogate as is indicated in the true meaning of the title - history meaning inquiry.
He wanted to get a bit of perspective, to identify patterns and pitfalls, laying bare humankind's missteps so that we might not repeat them. Viewed through one lens, his magnum opus is essentially a record of what has been tried and how it has failed. But looking through other lenses reveals that it is also incredibly funny in places and packed with some of history's greatest stories like that of the stand made by the 300 Spartans against the Persian invasion at the gates of Thermopylae. It is also undeniably fantastical here and there and well worth the read.
Plato (c.427-347 BCE) also makes reference to the recording of history in his Timaeus and Critias with the revelation of the Egyptian priest to Solon.
"...In our temples we have preserved from the earliest times a written record of any great or splendid achievement or notable event which has come to our ears whether it occurred in your part of the world or here or anywhere else..."
These two examples taken from the beginnings of Western tradition don't stand alone. The recording of history has always been a global phenomenon - wherever mankind resides, he records his presence. What these two examples illuminate is the emergent reason for recording history and the importance of memory for future generations.
Options of Approach for the 21st Century
ONE. We burn all the books and delete all the information lest it hurt someone's feelings or the agenda of another. Future generations can then set about thinking that they are the first humans to ever have any of the ideas that cross their minds. So having effectively blinded ourselves, humanity repeats the same mistakes and suffers as a consequence.
Or... TWO. We face history, think on it, discuss it, share it and then adjust our attitudes and behaviour accordingly so that we avoid the mistakes but build on the good stuff being able as a consequence 'to stand on the shoulders of giants' .
Granted there is no guarantee that we won't make all new mistakes and suffer as a consequence of those, but at least history gives us a head start on avoiding a lot of major missteps and the waste that is pointless repetition.
A Paradigm Shift
The great Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo Da Vinci said
"To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else."
For too long now creativity has been squeezed out of the curriculum and made accessible only to those able to fund extra curricular learning, private or further education. As a consequence history is taught through a prism that fractures and disconnects the strands. We need to change the lens.
The history of art is as old as the history of humanity, evolving alongside us and through us for practical, ritual, political and personal reasons. It is the universal language of an immutable force that emanates from us regardless of age, gender, race, time and place. It touches on all aspects of human endeavour from the mathematical and scientific to the societal and creative. It is a lens into our past that speaks to our shared identity as human beings.
The creative impulse is present at the dawn of humankind's time on earth, from the first handprint left on a rocky surface to the most recent Banksy found in East Anglia. It is an essential characteristic of the human condition, for some it is evidence of a divine spark, for Albert Einstein it was
"intelligence having fun"
History as an essential key to the future
We humans have a responsibility to our present and consequent future that depends on our ability to engage with our past.
The echoes of history are not always comfortable but valuable lessons resonate from all corners. It is only with open minds, creativity and genuine empathy that we can engage in meaningful dialogue and action effective change.
No man is an island. We are each part of a much larger universal story.
We are a species of story tellers. We have a wealth of history to draw upon and our own stories to add for posterity. That includes the good, the bad and the ugly. We must remember the reasons behind our traditions for recording history and from there explore that history and the lessons it memorialises through as many different lenses as possible.