Fr Georges Florovsky: Do You Realize You Are a Historical Being Who Can Either Create or Destroy?

Feast of St Panteleimon the Great Martyr & Healer and St Nicholas of Novgorod the Fool-for-Christ

Florovsky_Square_6.jpgTHE ULTIMATE purpose of a historical inquiry is not in the establishment of certain objective facts, such as dates, places, numbers, names, and the like, as much as all this is an indispensable preliminary, but in the encounter with living beings. No doubt, objective facts must be first carefully established, verified and confirmed, but this is not the final aim of the historian. History is precisely, to quote H. I. Marrou, “an encounter with the other” (De la connaissance historique / On Historical Knowledge). A narrow mind and an empty mind are real obstacles to this encounter, as they obviously are in all human relations. History, as a subject of study, is history of human beings, in their mutual relationship, in their conflicts and contacts, in their social intercourse, and in their solitude and estrangement, in their high aspirations and in their depravity. Only men live in history – live, and move, and strive, and create, and destroy. Men alone are historic beings, in a full sense of the word. In the historical understanding we establish contact with men, with their thoughts and endeavors, with their inner world and with their outward action. In this sense, Collingwood was undoubtedly right in insisting that “there are no mere ‘events’ in history.”

What is miscalled an “event” is really an action, and expresses some thought (intention, purpose) of its agent; the historian’s business is therefore to identify this thought. (Collingwood, Autobiography)

In this sense, Collingwood insisted, “history proper is the history of thought.” It would be unfair to dismiss this contention as a sheer intellectualism, as an unwelcome ghost of obsolete Hegelianism. Collingwood’s emphasis is not so much on the thought as such, but on the intelligent and purposeful character of human life and action. In history, there are not only happenings and occurrences, but actions and endeavors, achievements and frustrations. This only gives meaning to human existence.

In the last resort, history is the history of man, in the ambiguity and multiplicity of his existence. This constitutes the specific character of historical cognition and of historical knowledge. Accordingly, methods must be proportionate to the aim. This has been often ignored in the age of militant and doctrinaire positivism, and is still often forgotten in our time. Objective knowledge, more geometrico, is impossible in history. This is not a loss, however, since historical knowledge is not a knowledge of objects, but precisely a knowledge of subjects – of “co-persons,” of co-partners” in the quest of life. In this sense, historical knowledge is, and must be, an existential knowledge.

~Fr Georges Florovsky, “The Predicament of the Christian Historian”


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