How many times have I encountered this expression, “the definitive history of” this man’s life, this period of the country’s history, this account of whatever it was that happened? Many times, although the writers who make use of this expression are probably not making it up, faking it, are probably sincere, probably believe that the account of whatever it may be they are reading, say the life of Abraham Lincoln, the 1930s depression, the fall of the Berlin Wall, that this account is somehow definitive, the final word on the history of the events and people of the period described.
And of course it isn’t. No history is ever definitive. It can’t be. For no event is ever fully known. If there ever were a proper context for the Biblical phrase from 1 Corinthians 13:12, “through a glass, darkly,” it has to be the writing of history, or the attempt to give a full account of a life or an event. The definitive history or full account will not be known in this life. “Now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.”
But wait! hold on! Does that mean that Henry Ford is right and that history is “more or less bunk”? Or at least that the history of anything is at best only one man’s futile attempt to say “definitively” what happened. Yes Ford is right,* and while history may not be entirely bunk there is nothing definitive about my or anyone else’s account of what happened. Most people understand this to be the case. Certainly those whose business it is to know what happened, doctors, lawyers, detectives, mothers, just about everyone.
So why would anyone ever think that one account of an event or a life could be definitive? The answer is simple. We want to know, even when in every instance full knowledge is not going to ours. Certainly the word definitive should never have been used in regard to history. All one can say is that some histories are better than others, at least to some of us, and that there will be no agreement as to that history which tells it best.
*Actually Henry Ford was right about many things, or he at least he often said the right things. He said, for example, nearly 100 years before I did, in 1924, and he said it well that “Any man can learn anything he will, but no man can teach except to those who want to learn.”
Would that I had heard and understood these words before going into teaching. Still even today there are those who go into teaching without seeming to know this, the all importance of the learner, just as there are those who go on writing history as if their own version of events and people were somehow the last word. It wasn’t of course.