History is the discipline that deals with the study of the past through the use of sources, that is, documents, testimonies and stories that can transmit knowledge. More precisely, history is the research on the facts of the past and the attempt of a continuous and systematic narration of the same facts, as they are considered important for the human species.
The word “history” comes from the Greek ἱστορία (historia) and the Latin “historia,” meaning “research.” Already among the Greeks the meaning came to extend to the result of that research, then “knowledge gained through investigation”, but also the acquisition of this same knowledge through the telling of events in the past. Ἱστορία comes in turn from ἵστωρ, -ορος (histōr, -oros): in the Iliad (18, v. 501 and 23, v. 486), ἵστωρ is the one who in a dispute can judge by giving due weight to the reasons of the disputants, a kind of judge of first instance, but in the fifth century BC. C. the term, in Herodotus (2, 113), passes from the legal to the properly historical and already possesses its dual nature (indicating both the activity and its result). Ἱστορ shares the same root of the perfect oîda (“I know”), linked in turn to the notion of “see” expressed in Indo-European as *woid- (reconstructed form), which in turn falls in various forms in the languages belonging to that language family. In Italian, the word history has come through the Latin historia (“research”, “knowledge”), which descends from the Greek istoria.
It is with the sense of “knowledge acquired through investigation” and “research” that Aristotle used the term in his Περί Τά Ζωα Ιστορία (Perí Tá Zoa Istorìa) or, in the Latinized form, Historia Animalium.
It was still with the Greek sense that Francis Bacon used the term in the late 16th century, when he wrote about “Natural History”. For him, historia was “the knowledge of objects determined by space and time”, the kind of knowledge produced by memory (whereas science was provided by reason and poetry by imagination).
In all European languages, the noun history is still used to indicate both “what has happened to men” and “the study by a scholar of what has happened”: the latter meaning is sometimes distinguished by the capital letter, “History” or by the term “historiography”, which indicates precisely the dedicated literature and the body of interpretations produced by historians.
The awareness of history begins to appear in Greece when the time of existence is no longer marked only by natural cycles and by repeated and recurring social acts, but broken by rapid economic and political changes, until the memory of recent transformations of life and customs accumulates. Epic poems are born and Homer is the great storyteller of a tradition fabulously, but not unfaithfully, evoked and wished for. The sense of the past, however, is not yet a sense of history: this is the result of a critical reflection on contemporary society of those who confront themselves with their past or seek their destiny in it.
The V century BC. C. marks the apogee and therefore the crisis of the city-states: the awareness of the contrast between the different constitutions, the different rights arises. Aeschylus and Sophocles reflect in the sacred form of tragedy the collision between the new human right and the ancient divine right; the Sophists translate it secularly in the contradiction between the “law” of positive law and the “nature” or primordial political truth and to regain. However, there is no mediation between the two levels: history is not founded on absolute justice and nothing leads one to think that it can achieve it. The century, with the fall of the great Athenian democracy, closed under the sign of uncertainty and pessimism. The widespread feeling of human unhappiness and injustice was thus channeled into the regret of a mythical “golden age”, made of Arcadian simplicity, in which fatigue, wars and diseases were unknown. From this golden age man had come decaying and would return to it only at the end of an immense cycle, which would then be eternally and immutably repeated. This was Plato’s and the Stoics’ conception of history.
Stability is good, change is decadence and corruption: a political system must remain as stable as possible. It is true that Greek mythology does not lack the exemplary figure of human progress, Prometheus, but Prometheus is chained by the supreme will of the gods. The essence of classical Greek tragedy lies in the contrast between men’s aspirations for freedom and progress, aspirations that are strongly if not sharply felt, and the closure imposed by an external and victorious fate. To this frustrating dilaceration between history and ethical aspiration Thucydides had opposed a compact conception, resolutely immanentist and programmatically scientific of history.
The becoming of history has its roots in the life and political struggle of men, cities, states; its important components are economic and technical progress, which, however, does not imply progress, an overall improvement in the quality of life, happiness and morality of man. According to Thucydides, in fact, human nature does not change and, indeed, dictates to men, “with different aspects, according to the continuous change of circumstances”, a constant pattern of behavior, that the careful study of the past helps to bring to light to “acquire foresight for the future”, and that has its fundamental law in the need to assert its power not to be overwhelmed and in the “domination of the strong over the weak”. The political determinism of Thucydides leaves no room for a consolatory extra-historical ethics: the law of the strongest is absolute, it is not contradicted by the gods.
With the beginning of Christianity, on the other hand, history is seen for the first time not as being turned backwards or on itself, but projected forwards: it is true that man was driven out of Eden, but providence, after the sending of the Savior, regulates the future of earthly life in such a way that it is possible for men to gain eternal life: happiness in the afterlife. History leads to the Last Judgment and to the prize, it leads therefore to a well-defined and desirable future goal. However, the goal is transcendent, the path is a “valley of tears”, a journey of trial. Medieval pessimism denies meaning to the hypothesis of progress in this life, yet it pervades men with tension towards the future.
The Renaissance, with the recovery of the values of Greek and Roman classicism, introduced the idea of the exemplarity of certain moments in the history of civilization and, with the achievements of philology critically turned to the study of antiquity and the great geographical discoveries, spread in humanity a more complex self-awareness: the awareness of the variety of events and “adventures” of peoples on Earth.
The feeling of a solid ideal of civilization, no longer conceived only in imitation of the great examples of the classical tradition, but as a new task of building a happy society in harmony with the dictates of reason and nature, and the sense of historical adventure, of the flourishing and declining of peoples and their cultures, of proceeding always poised between the consolidation and perfection of the social order and the precipice of barbarism and dissolution, merge into the great Enlightenment and specifically Volterra’s idea of history as difficult and risky progress. This category of progress was made ideologically and politically operative by two principles: as C. Montesquieu, discoverer of sociology, had pointed out, the life of a people, of a society takes place according to an esprit général, which is produced by various interconnected factors: “climate, religion, laws, government maxims, historical examples, morals and customs”; unhappiness and barbarism were the result of irrationality, prejudices, superstitions, unjust institutions at the service of the greedy overpowering of idle parasites: the clergy and the aristocracy.
It was therefore a matter of intervening rationally on institutions to change the esprit général of society. Voltaire is the first “philosopher of history” in a fully modern sense, because by freeing history from every theological hypothesis, still influential in G. B. Vico, he makes its nature as a human work transparent, while encouraging the bourgeoisie to take it resolutely into its hands to follow and innovate its course. The problem of the “sense of history”, in the three meanings of direction, value and meaning of its development, received an answer that was not strictly systematic but persuasive.