Commonplace Book #54

Let me first consider briefly some aspects of my own study of history.  I have in mind here criticism that I have received or that I have repeatedly leveled at myself regarding my thinking about, say, William James, a figure long dead.  “You have really not done James full justice in your discussion of his religious views.”  Or again, “You really need to be more charitable to James in your analysis of his courtship and marriage.”  Notice that the vocabulary of moral and spiritual virtue–here justice and charity–easily insinuates itself into appraisals of thought as well as action.  If I have grown to treat my colleagues and my students with justice and charity, am I more or less likely to treat historical subjects such as William James in the same manner?  I am surely more likely to do so.  And would such treatment increase or decrease the quality of my historical thinking?  Again, I think that the exercise of charity toward my historical subjects is bound to make me a better historians: more cautious in appraisal, more sympathetic with human failings, less prone to stereotype and caricature.  And insofar as this is so, the manner of teaching others to think historically ought to cultivate at least through force of example, the virtue of charity.

Mark Schwehn, Exiles from Eden, 50-51.