Interview with Dr. Richard Gamble

History has come a long way since the giant ants of Herodotus. Though history has abandoned the mythic, it can still suffer from poor interpretation and philosophy. Dr. Gamble is helping students explore different sorts of historical consciousness in a traditional Hillsdale course on The History and Philosophy of History. The Hillsdale Forum spoke with him about the genesis of the course, Whigs, John Lukacs, and civil religion.

You’re teaching a class on the “History and Philosophy of History” this spring. Could you talk a bit about how you started teaching this class and what it covers?

I saw the class in the catalog in the course offerings for the history department, and I was interested in the kinds of questions that a philosophy of history class explores. That interest goes way back in graduate school to some of the first classes I had in my Ph.D. program and some of the books I read in them. I wanted to share some of those books which were so important to me. At the time Paul Moreno was teaching it and there had been a limited amount of student interest at the time, so he was willing to have somebody else teach it. I taught it pretty much experimentally with a handful of students around a seminar table. A student at the time who was very interested in the course talked it up for a year or so and the next time I taught it I had maybe 30 students in it and it really took off. It still puzzles me a bit why there is so much interest in it, because we deal with the most abstract questions there are. I warn students that every day we think about thinking about history. Why that fascinates people I’m not entirely sure, but I’m glad it does. It’s the kind of intricate interior question that fascinates me and I love watching how people in the past have thought about the past, about how history works. I’m most interested in the train wrecks, bad philosophy of history. It’s intriguing to watch to what goes wrong and how it goes wrong and what the consequences are of that philosophy of history going wrong. I keep teaching the course and it has maintained a high level of student interest. I had thirty students last time, with twenty-five or so this coming semester. A lot of the books I’ve kept the same, some of them I don’t dare take out of the course, for they are indispensable: Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History, [John] Lukacs’ Historical Consciousness, Oakeshott, Collingwood, and a C.S. Lewis essay. I keep playing around with the others. This year I’m reintroducing E.H. Carr’s book What is History?, which is a materialist view of history.

Who is your favorite example of a “train wreck” or bad philosophy of history?

Probably George Bancroft, the most widely read celebrity American historian in the 19th century. He wrote his multi-volume history of the United States and started publishing it in the 1830s, and was still revising it in the 1880s. It’s estimated that one out of every four households in America owned his histories. He knew everybody, he served in the Andrew Johnson administration as a foreign minister to Prussia, he knew Bismarck; he had an extraordinary career. But he imbibed a really high octane version of German idealism, which he combined with transcendentalism and unitarianism, and it’s just fascinating to read his histories and see how he does what he does. It almost reads like a parody of what Herbert Butterfield warns against in the 20th century. It’s so easy to show what he’s doing. My American Identity class is almost 400 years of train wrecks, but I think it teaches something very important. We teach good writing by giving students examples of good writing, but also pointing out the flaws in their own writing, logic, syntax, and grammar. We’re in the business of pointing out mistakes. I think there’s a parallel to historical thinking. You have to learn how to see, you have to learn how to hear these flaws in historical thinking in order to recognize the good stuff. You learn by reading the good stuff but you also learn a lot by reading the bad stuff and being able to recognize it. As historians, we learn how to develop this eye by having these errors pointed out to us. We learn how to discern high quality historical thinking along the way.

Who’s your favorite example of a historian with a good philosophy of history?

I’ve learned the most from Herbert Butterfield and John Lukacs. Lukacs has been central to how I think, to what I aspire to accomplish, since I first read Historical Consciousness in the late 1980s. I think I found a copy of Historical Consciousness in a used bookstore and didn’t even realize how significant he was, didn’t realize that people I knew knew him, never imagined that I would one day get to know him, certainly never imagined that blurbs by him would be on the back of one of my books and that he would review the other one for the Los Angeles Times, it’s just mind boggling to me. He’s been really formative in teaching exemplary handling of the nuances of history and teaching me what it means to be cautious as a historian, not to make evidence tell you more than it can tell you, not to push too hard on a thesis, how to deal with what Butterfield calls the texture of the past, to guard myself from oversimplifying things, to force them into a mould. Lukacs is very sensitive to language, to patterns of thought, to how fluid and complex cause and effect can be, and I end up quoting him at least once a week in class. He has a gift for memorable phrases. In fact, I just quoted him on Christmas Eve, the line that something is true but not true enough. Just to understand what that means—a historian can tell you all true things about an event, or a time period, or a person, but has left something indispensable out of the story, which changes the interpretation, changes our perception of it. So it’s true, but not true enough. It’s very difficult to cultivate that ability and check myself to make sure I’m not misleading the reader in any way. I’m always daunted by the fact that when we say things and put them into print we keep saying them. When somebody picks up that book 5 or 10 years from now we are still saying that thing. That’s a little bit scary.

Given the way that these ideas have affected your own writing, let’s talk about the relationship between Lukacs, Butterfield, and your first book.

The War for Righteousness was a revision of my doctoral thesis at the University of South Carolina which I completed in 1992. I had been assigned to read Butterfield in my first Ph.D. graduate course in the fall of 1986, don’t think I understood it. I get more out of it each time I reread it. In writing the book I was guided by Lukacs. I was trying to model what I was doing off of what I read in Historical Consciousness. Nobody ever told me to do this, nobody ever recommended that I do this. I just decided that this is what I wanted to do. The way he sets up a hierarchy or concentric circles, the way ideas can work out into the culture and back again was what fascinated me. This is very difficult to demonstrate, and I’m not sure I was successful, but I tried to imitate and model what he was doing, to see how ideas work in a culture. At the time I didn’t understand these things the way I understand them now. I understand more clearly now what I was hoping to do 25 years ago. I tried to build the work using concentric circles, starting with the way the ideas as they were taught in seminaries, in colleges, and in universities. I then watched how those ideas were implemented in the churches and in interdenominational organizations. I looked at how it affected missionary activity overseas, and finally looked at what they were saying about foreign policy. I watched these ideas take root, watched as they tried to implement them through the course of the war, first as Americans trying to come to terms with a European war, and then as Americans and Christians confronting America in a world war. Then I returned to America, trying to bring the circles back in again. I massively reworked my dissertation in 1994, and that is more or less the version that came out as a book in 2003.

Given what you said about not completely understanding Lukacs and using his ideas in writing The War for Righteousness, how did that process change when you wrote your second book, In Search of a City on a Hill?

What I tried most consciously to experiment with and implement in In Search of a City on a Hill was to take Lukacs’ idea which he repeats many times in Historical Consciousness that it is often more important to know what peopled do to ideas than what ideas do to people. I tried to watch that happen with the one phrase “city on a hill”. I was able to do that over a four hundred year period and write a micro-history, a history of a phrase. I wanted to figure out what happens when John Winthrop in 1630 takes the phrase “you shall be as a city on a hill” out of the gospel of Matthew and puts it into his sermonA Model of Christian Charity”, and it’s my conviction that those words do not mean the same thing. Spoken by a different person, in a different context, in a different time, and spoken for a different purpose, they become transformed. Something happens to those words when they are picked up and moved. In the same way, something happens to the phrase “all men are created equal” when it’s lifted out of the Declaration of Independence and put into the Gettysburg Address, even if the author believes he is being faithful to the original meaning. The author is a different author, the context is a different context, the event is a different event, the occasion is a different occasion, and the purpose is a different purpose. The purpose of the Continental Congress of using that language in the Declaration is different, regardless of any discussion of right or wrong, than the purpose in 1863 when Lincoln quotes those words. The historian of ideas has to be super sensitive to all those nuances. You might miss the most significant things if you ignore those nuances. That doesn’t mean that a historian believes those words can mean anything, that they are utterly open-ended, but it does mean that context matters. These are real human beings, saying or writing these things at a real moment in time, to a real audience, and those words are going to be used in a real way. And then if somebody else a day or a century later uses those words, they may be different yet again. You have these layers and layers and layers. Back to the example of “city on a hill,” you have Jesus’ words quoted in gospel of Matthew, you have Chrysostom writing about them centuries later, you have Calvin quoting Chrysostom, you have John Winthrop quoting them, and then you have Ronald Reagan quoting Winthrop quoting Jesus. These layers build up and build up and it takes a lot of hard work to pay attention to what;s actually going on.

At the end of the book you talk a lot about the danger of decontextualizing phrases and then using them in the political realm. What’s wrong with American civil religion?

There’s a problem of civil religion whether it appears in Rousseau, or Hobbes, or Locke. Civil religion is not a uniquely American problem. I need to address the problem while wearing different hats: I have concerns as a historian that we have to pay attention in this careful way so we get the history right. Then I have a concern as an American, because I want to get the history right so I understand America and what it has been. I want to understand the American experience, to understand how America has talked about itself and whether that is healthy or unhealthy. But then I consider my primary concern as a Christian. America is not eternal, history is not eternal, but Christianity is about forever, so this is a higher priority for me, and my concern is that because of those principles that I tried to map out earlier, I believe that when the Bible is appropriated for purposes different from or alien to the purposes of the church, this will change the meaning of the Bible’s words, will do damage to those words, will miseducate people and mislead them as to what those words mean. If you take the phrase “city on a hill” and lift it out of its original context, if you transpose it from the identity of the church and move it over to America, it doesn’t survive the transfer. My argument is that it distorts both our understanding of the church and its mission, and America and what it’s capable of doing. If we take the spiritual language of the “city on a hill” it can mislead us about what the earthly or political the mission of the church is supposed to be. We can end up secularizing or politicizing the church without even realizing it. In the very same moment we can end up, through the same exchange, in spiritualizing the nation-state. The same transaction can lower the calling of the church, trivialize it’s significance, and it can exaggerate the calling of the nation state, can over-spiritualize the calling of the nation state. As Christians we need to be able to tell the difference; we can affirm both as good in God’s purposes, but having distinct purposes and callings, one eternal and one temporary, one being spiritual and one being mundane. That’s at the very heart of what I do, trying to sort out that confusion. One of the things that started distressing me about a decade ago was that I realized that criticism of civil religion was coming almost exclusively from the political and theological left wing. Orthodox Christians and political conservatives were just about silent on the question of civil religion. I couldn’t stand what I was seeing happen to the Bible, Christian theology, political rhetoric, and it seemed like conservative Christians and conservative Americans just weren’t noticing. This is what attracted me to Dr. [Darryl] Hart’s work. I don’t want this to sound arrogant, but we’re in a pretty small group. Generally, self-described conservative Americans tend to be supporters of civil religion because they have come to the point that they think that if you criticize civil religion you’re criticizing America. And it is unbelievably difficult to get people to understand that just because I don’t want America described as if it were Jesus doesn’t mean that I don’t love America. You can love America as your home, as your place, even enough to defend it with your life, but this doesn’t mean for one minute that you have to confuse it with a member of the trinity. We seem to have lost our ability to love our country in a normal way. America doesn’t have to be turned into something it’s not, it doesn’t have to be inflated or turned into an abstraction—I don’t know how to love an abstraction, but I know how to love a place and how to love people. 

What is your philosophy for teaching history?

My goal is to equip students to pay attention in a way that is distinctive to the discipline of history. This is something I’ve come to understand in the last few years. One of the things that makes the disciplines different from each other is that each has its own way of paying attention. The way we would read a document in a political theory class is different than the way we would read it in a literature class, is different than the way we would read it in a history class. Same words on the page, but it could be read in a different way by each discipline, and each of those could be legitimate readings. One of my most important tasks in the classroom is to cultivate the way of reading that is proper to the discipline of history, that is appropriate to it, that does what history does best. And there are lots of things that the discipline of history cannot do. This is something else I’ve learned from Lukacs. He talks about history being a chastened discipline, a chastened mode of thought, and that’s complicated to understand in practice, but it imposes a certain modesty on us. We ought only to go as far as the evidence takes us and we have to know when to stop and say that we cannot say any more than this. So I try to convey that to students, that we have evidence in front of us, we ought not to make the evidence say something it does not say, we have to learn how to be good listeners, to learn to watch for patterns (and try not to impose patterns where they do not exist). The history student has to be trained day by day to see what’s always been there but has never been obvious. That takes a lifetime, but it’s the work we start doing in History 104, and we take that to a higher and higher level, and by the time we get to Philosophy of History we are reading people who are thinking about history, thinking about the process of thinking. Whether that’s actually on my mind or not in any classroom, it’s always what I’m doing.

Image courtesy Elena Creed.

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