June 17th, 2019


The science of history

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published March 30,2018

The science of history

His name was Ibn Khaldun. He lived from 1332 to 1406 in this our Common Era, which was the only thing common about him.

Descriptions bestowed on Ibn Khaldun, according to Eric Ormsby in the March 16 Wall Street Journal, include First Philosopher of History and father of sociology, among many another honorific. English historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who wrote the 12-volume A Study of History, replete with its own misapprehensions, described Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah ("Introduction" in Arabic) as "undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place." And for once Professor Toynbee got something right.

Not just scholars but the widest variety of writers from politicians to sci-fi authors have cited Ibn Khaldun. To note just one example, the late great Ronald Reagan and/or his discerning team of speechwriters. During a press conference on Oct. 1, 1981, Mr. Reagan referred to "a principle that goes back at least, I know, as far as the 14th century, when a Muslim philosopher named Ibn Khaldun said, 'In the beginning of the dynasty, great tax revenues were gained from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, small tax revenues were gained from large assessments.'"

It seems the trickle-down theory of economic development was well known long before lowering the rate of taxation on capital gains could bring prosperity for all.

Much like Confucius before him, the Arab scholar was by turns an official secretary of a government department, a chancellor, a judge, and a diplomat. Call him a man of many parts. And he won plaudits from all those with whom he negotiated on behalf of his sovereign, a number of whom sought to add him to their own administrations. But knowing the brutal ways of politics, Ibn Khaldun politely declined the honor.

In 1364, Ibn Khaldun was dispatched to deal with a Christian ruler, Pedro of Castile, aka Pedro the Cruel, who offered him a high-ranking position he had the wisdom to turn down. And when Damascus was surrounded by Tamerlane's Mongol troops, Ibn Khaldun had to be lowered from the city walls in a basket to negotiate with the enemy -- and did so well that again he was offered a post in his now former enemy's government, which he again declined. The man's specialty, it seems, was making friends and influencing people. Not a bad talent for a diplomat-philosopher.

Ibn Khaldun knew well the dangers of cultivating the powerful of this world. He might find himself promoted only to be demoted, or even imprisoned. He wrote his great Muqaddimah when he took refuge in a remote castle in Algeria where, as he recalled in his autobiography, words and ideas came "pouring into my head like cream into a churn." For he combined the diplomatic skills of a Henry Kissinger and Prince Metternich without sharing their cold-blooded willingness to betray friends and allies when he thought it necessary or just desirable.

Do you think Ibn Khaldun expanded the definition of history when he redefined it as science, or did he reduce it? According to his theory of history, dynasties rise and fall through a series of predictable stages. Arab historiography up to Ibn Khaldun had regarded history as one event after another, without any meaningful connection between events. And while Ibn Khaldun dutifully pays his respects to the centuries of Arab historiography before him, he disdains so traditionally hidebound a view of man's history. He discerns certain patterns in history and calls them laws, according to which history has got to be more than a random collection of people, places and things. It can be philosophy taught by example, full of lessons for humankind if only we would pay them sufficient attention.

Clio, muse of history, has seen all this before, and heard all kinds of explanations for causation in the long, long history of history itself. Ibn Khaldun expresses his admiration for those who hold fast to their ancient tribal identity as the core of national feeling. He praises the will and spirit of the old nomads out of which the nation and national identity sprang. However wracked by illness and malnutrition, they are healthier in spirit and will than their descendants. While the too highly civilized have grown bored with life, having all their needs attended to by professionals.

He worries that the appearance of doctors and lawyers in a society is a sure sign of decadence, not progress. But he brings to mind the kind of spoiled leader who yearns for primitive times in the abstract, but cannot bear the pain of an aching tooth when it's all too real -- and not a matter of philosophical speculation.

Me, I'll take modern science every time when it's matched against witchcraft and superstition. As for the study of history, Bernard Bailyn got it right when he said that it's sometimes an art, never a science, always a craft. History has certain qualities of art that would be much missed if they were absent -- like inspiration and aspiration for the better things of life.

Ibn Khaldun, despite his attachment to the idea of history as an objective science, seems to have had the soul of an artist.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.