Part of thinking historically involves learning to appreciate the crucial value of context. Historical context is critical to historical understanding for one basic reason: none of us lives in a vacuum. Humanly speaking, our lives are influenced (not determined, but profoundly influenced) by what has gone before us. Indeed, if there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.
Waxing poetic, historians sometimes liken human history to an enormous, seamless tapestry. (Imagine the wall of a European castle here.) Although it is possible to extract and examine a single thread, it is in contemplating the larger pattern that we can best understand the purpose and significance of the individual fibers. In sum, the particular makes little sense without reference to a larger whole. Similarly, when wrenched from its historical context, an isolated historical fact may intrigue or entertain us (good for crossword puzzles or Jeopardy), but it has nothing meaningful to teach us. No context, no meaning. It’s that simple.
Curiously, not everyone finds it easy to relate to a textile analogy. This is where Hollywood comes in handy. When teaching on the importance of historical context, I often enlist the help of a movie that many of you are likely to watch this Christmas season. I have in mind Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Hollywood rarely aids the life of the mind–and in truth, the movie’s theology is really messed up–but when it comes to the importance of historical context this film gets it right.
To begin with, the very structure of the movie teaches that context is indispensable to understanding. If you haven’t seen it (and if so, what’s the matter with you?), the story begins on Christmas Eve, 1945, as countless prayers waft toward heaven on behalf of the protagonist, down-on-his-luck George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. In response, the senior angels Franklin and Joseph call for George’s guardian angel, an “angel second-class” named Clarence Odbody, played by the marvelously eyebrowed Henry Trevor.
Clarence appears immediately, and when Franklin and Joseph explain that someone on earth (George) is seriously contemplating suicide, Clarence offers to rush immediately to his aid, but his mentors stop him short with a sharp rebuke. “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him,” Joseph scolds, and for the next hour and a half they provide Clarence with historical context for the present crisis. All told, fully two-thirds of the movie consists of flashback, powerfully driving home the message that we can’t comprehend any moment in time without knowledge of what has preceded it.
But not everything that has gone before will be relevant. In briefing Clarence, Franklin and Joseph practice what one historian calls the principle of “selective attention.” Rather than overwhelm Clarence with a flood of facts, they choose the events and circumstances in the past that have been most influential in shaping the man George has become. In turn, this helps Clarence to comprehend what George’s current circumstances mean to him.
In reviewing George’s life, furthermore, the senior angels also remind us that our lives unfold within multiple contexts. Some of the circumstances that they review are intimate details quite specific to George, for example his rescue of his brother Harry or his longstanding yearning to see the world and build modern cities. Others grow out of George’s family context, for instance the centrality of the family savings and loan business or his father’s decades-long struggle with “old man Potter.”
Both categories involve the kind of personal pasts we preserve and pass on in conversation around the dinner table without realizing that we are functioning as historians But George’s life was also touched by distant, much less personal developments that affected the entire nation or even the world–the kind of events that get into textbooks and which we instantly recognize as “historical.” So, in the flashback we see how George’s past intersected with events such as the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919, the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the Second World War.
Finally, the movie points us toward a bedrock truth about the human condition that explains why context is always important to historical understanding. If Clarence is initially mystified as to why it should be important, by the movie’s end he understands fully and expresses the underlying principle with eloquent simplicity. After showing an incredulous George that the world would have been starkly different if he had never been born, Clarence muses, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. . . .”
Clarence’s insight into the unlimited interrelatedness of human experience–we could call it Odbody’s Axiom–is at the heart of all sound historical thinking.