Historical Portraiture

W. Bruce Lincoln: In War's Dark Shadow: The Russians before the Great War; Dial Press; New York.

Or the many reasons for reading about the past, perhaps the most natural and common one is curiosity and the love of a good story. Although it probably is the least philosophical approach, there always will be a place for the slice­of-life history because a well-written depiction of life in an ancient polis, a single battle in the midst of a larger war, or a tumultuous decade in another land during another time is intrinsically interesting. Certainly, the historian should do more than simply weave a fascinating tale, but it is the story that first captures our attention. As in literature a good story is insufficient; in addition to knowing what happened, we also want to know why. We ask the historian for causal explanations: Why did the polis and its unique institutions develop as they did? How did the stronger side waste its superiority and lose the battle? Is there a reason that turmoil suddenly intensified after years of calm? The answers never are simple and certain, in part because there are so many ways of explaining the same events.

Some historians look to great men, believing that individuals can and do mold history. They study Stalin to understand Soviet Russia in the 1930's, and they study Gandhi to understand India during the same decade. Others, Leo Tolstoy for example, reject that premise and posit that history is the result of complex events, myriad persons, and unexplainable forces....

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