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The most challenging issue for a biographer of George Whitefield (as with Patrick Henry) is his identity as a slave owner. I admire Whitefield and Henry, as well as similar figures of their time such as Jonathan Edwards or George Washington, but their owning people as slaves remains an unavoidable moral problem. How does one admire a historical figure who kept slaves? How does an author fully convey his disapproval of American slavery, while not condemning an individual altogether? I am not sure that I have gotten the balance exactly right, but we want to avoid two extremes. One extreme might suggest that Whitefield was a great man of God, and that harping on his owning of slaves denigrates his memory as a Christian hero. The other extreme might say that whatever Whitefield accomplished for God was fatally tainted by his owning slaves, so he is better forgotten or just used as a cautionary tale. George Whitefield and slavery

A Greek myth is basically a way of explaining the world, or it was a way of explaining the world to a primitive people who didn’t have any explanation of the sun or the moon or the disasters that happened — like earthquakes and floods and fire. It was easy to make a myth about it, and to say that it was down to the gods. What’s so fascinating about the Greek myths in particular is that the gods are terribly human. They’re in Olympus but they’re recognizable to us. They have a lot of quirks and foibles and they do all the things that humans do: Zeus cheats and lies and he is the most appalling serial adulterer. The stories also, perhaps, help explain how to behave and the consequences of certain actions — a bit like the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not…” or something terrible will happen. So, for instance, Ixion, who commits the first murder, ends up in a fiery pit, tied to a wheel, forever revolving, because that was not a good thing to do. They’re a guide to life as well as being stories. Lucy Coats on Greek Myths

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No Byzantine ever referred to himself as Byzantine—it was ‘Roman’ all the way. It was, in fact, the librarian of the wealthy 16th century Fugger family, Hieronymous Wolf, who coined the term “Byzantium”; its common usage, in turn, taking root only as of the early 20th century among the gentleman-scholars of Oxford University—so intrigued, as they were, by the empire’s fall from grace and its even harder fall from Memory. The Genius of Byzantium: Reflections on a Forgotten Empire

From the blogosphere to the nightly news, there are routinely stories and discussions that cry out for the perspective that history provides, but its often nowhere to be found except in its most presentist and vulgar forms. (Presentist history is so focused on the present that it distorts the past, using it for contemporary purposes rather than first understanding it). The absence of good history from our public debates stems from a variety of factors. From the outside looking in, many Americans, including professional journalists and politicians, simply don’t understand what historians do and don’t really understand what knowledge of the past looks like or what it accomplishes. People tend either to be uninterested in history, or to use it for cheap validation of their opinions. The Atlantic’s Reparations Cover Story Is A Revelation. Whose Fault Is That?

Too often, empathy can dissolve into squishy nothingness that leaves us sputtering, “Well, he was a man of his time after all…” This attitude is ultimately incoherent, because it relies on an arbitrary definition of what was considered “normal” at any given time. If the overwhelming majority of people of your class and birth were of a certain view, then you are granted absolution. But what if the issue splits people 60-40 rather than 90-10. Where is the line between hero and villain? Was William Lloyd Garrison not a man of his time? Was his life experience so dramatically different from that of numerous other antebellum whites? How do we account not just for his political radicalism, but for his absence of racial prejudice? There is a fine line to walk here. When we speak of people being “of their time,” it ought not be a statement of absolution for them, but indictment for us. Put another way, the endpoint of properly practiced historical empathy is not redemption for the people we study, but a more sober assessment of ourselves and humanity. I don’t look at Lee with empathy so I can conclude that, in the end, he was a decent sort of chap. Robert E. Lee Wasn’t a Good Guy, But That Misses the Point

History is not a presentation of truths. It is an interpretation of events from the point of view and with the biases of the chronicler. It is often mixed with hearsay and in many cases reflects the national mythologies of one or another side in any conflict or comparison. This is true not only of early history, but of what was reported yesterday. We ought never to presume that we have completely accurate information or factual presentations. We seldom know for certain what is true, what is reality and what is neither. Vladika Lazar Puhalo

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