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“In every age, society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God.”—Russell Kirk, Roots Of American Order (1974)

As I approach my fifteenth year teaching history at Hillsdale, and my seventeenth (or so) year of teaching at the college level over all, I find myself more and more taken with biography and the idea of personality as the fundamental and driving “forces” behind history.

“Oh, he’s just a biographer”

As a graduate student, I found—much to my surprise—that few professional historians viewed biography as anything other than a way of selling out to popular desires and public appetites.  

Biography, it seems, carried about as much weight in the scholarly world as did a People magazine article.  Indeed, the two things might very well occupy positions on the same spectrum of ignominy. That Barnes and Noble filled their history sections with biographies might be just damning evidence of the form’s ability to corrupt the profession. Real history, I was taught, involved economic desires and manipulations, shadowy motivations, and, ultimately, a profound cynicism about the world.

Any other view, it was explained to me by several professors, was mere romanticism, unworthy of the serious and objective scholar.

In the hands of most historians, reality is believed to be nothing more than a con game, won only by those who understand power, its sources, and its ends. A person says and said a thing only because such a thing said got him somewhere and gave him an advantage over the less intelligent and less powerful.

For those of you who did not attend graduate school in the (in)humanities, bless you. Remain innocent!


Needless to write, my own understanding of history differed (and continues to differ) significantly from that of most of my professors and of most of the other graduate students.

As far as I could tell, even in graduate school, the most interesting aspect of history was the human person and his or her abilities and failings, his or her responses to normal and extraordinary life. Indeed, nothing seems more interesting. How did one respond in the face of a moral decision, a political revolution, an attack on one’s culture, a collapse of one’s financial security, an environmental disaster, etc.  And, what about in normal things: child birth, etc?

It’s even more mind boggling to imagine just how many actions—conscious and unconscious—had to be taken, how many persons had to turn the right corners at the right time, to be in the right place at the right time, to make the right decision (or lack of one!) at the right time for any single one of us to be here at this moment. Now, multiply that huge imcomprehensibility by the number of persons you know or, more shockingly, by the seven plus-billion folks alive in the world today.

How can any one of us limited creatures fathom such a thing? And, then, for the sake of argument, imagine how little you really know about yourself. If you’ve made it this far in the article, I know what you’ve been doing the last several minutes. As least a part of you. But, what about you? What all did you do in the last minute? Wonder if you should keep reading this thing? Talk to your co-worker? Pause to wonder what a strange noise might be? Pet your cat sitting comfortably in your lap. All of this, in some mysterious way, makes up human existence and, consequently, history.

And, remember this as well: each person is not to be repeated. Each person, as John Paul II used to state, is an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom.

The whole complex of human relations and human history is so deep and wide that the heart skips a beat in the emotional gravity of it all. Truly, as C.S. Lewis argued in the early 1940s, we each bear the weight of glory.

How did I escape the clutches of “professional historians”?

I suspect several things saved me from the cynicism of my graduate school peers and professors. First, I happened to have grown up with an interesting set of characters, all of whom had their own ideas and ideals, but who, tellingly enough, respected the ideas of others. This was simply a part of growing up in an agricultural area in Kansas. Interesting folks abounded.

Second, being raised Roman Catholic, I knew that God manifests Himself and His grace through His saints. Each a unique reflection of Himself, each a wondrous soul wrapped in the garments of a particular time and place.

Third, I think an early introduction to the works of Russell Kirk and Hayek. Kirk always celebrated rather poetically the eccentricities (the gifts and abilities) as well as the centricities (the norms) of the human person, while Hayek’s scholarship demonstrated rather rigorously and logically the necessity of methodological individualism and its opposite, “the fatal conceit.”

These two are not alone. Whether they called it methodological individualism or personalism, most of the best thinkers of the last century have understood the immense complexities of human life.


But, over all, I think it has far more to do with experience than anything else.  I’ll never forget the brilliances and dignity of a grandfather, the love of a great aunt, and the shining glory of the arrival of each of my children—each a unique reflection of the infinite.

Life is complicated.  We are complicated.  Amen.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Real history, I was taught, involved economic desires and manipulations, shadowy motivations, and, ultimately, a profound cynicism about the world.

    That sounds like a very sad life. But if “real” historians are interested in how people respond to the challenges of life, wouldn’t biography—the study of one life—be the best way to study it?

  2. Alas, we may be able to blame Gibbon (scribble, scribble), or Spengler, or Toynbee for the desire to find great overarching patterns to human activity. Or, we could just as reasonable pick on Olaf Stapleton. Whichever, it remains that if one does biography, one must recognize the importance of individual people in history. If one attends to the broad sweeps, one may safely ignore disconcerting and inconvenient details which challenge one’s paradigms of hopelessness before the Impersonal. (And, these people say they *don’t* believed in God? What of their Moloch of *History*?)

  3. As a professional video biographer, I can understand some of your frustrations and feelings. You should check out the Association of Personal Historians, which has a terrific bunch of writers and filmmakers all over the world who help people tell their stories. As a video biographer my favorite part of the process is the interview with the subject and hearing their stories first hand. Everyone has a story, full of drama, defining moments, crisis, moments where we test our integrity and reveal our values and character. I have learned from every video biography I ever made.

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