Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (New York: Modern Library, 2009), 208 pp., $22.00.
Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (Modern Library Chronicles) "EVERYONE IS entitled to his own opinion," Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "but not to his own facts." Samuel Butler, the nineteenth-century English author, wrote that "though God cannot alter the past, historians can."
Whether modifying facts or opinions, historians have been fiddling with history since Herodotus proclaimed his goal of "preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory." Herodotus divorced history from Homeric myth; he consulted written sources, traveled and conducted interviews, and explained to readers what he knew and what he only inferred. But he rarely let informational accuracy get in the way of a good story, and he had a purpose beyond glorifying the past-namely demonstrating the superiority of Greek self-government to Persian despotism.
Subsequent historians followed his lead. Thucydides strove for balance in his treatment of the Peloponnesian War, or said he did; but he admitted to having made up speeches of his heroes based on "what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation." Plutarch was unabashedly moralistic, drawing lessons from the lives of the Greeks and Romans he portrayed in parallel. Julius Caesar justified his conquest of Gaul as a way of legitimating his conquest of the Roman state. The Venerable Bede infused his history of the English church with miracle stories that revealed the hand of God behind the whole development. Edward Gibbon, by contrast, blamed Christianity for undermining the Roman Empire; he concluded his magnum opus acidly: "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion." Karl Marx generalized generously in declaring that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."