Contemporary culture loves origin stories. It’s not just that when we make our superhero movies, we always start with the origin—we even like to start the same franchises over and over again. For historians, the allure of the origin can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to see why. To borrow a phrase from David Marquand’s ecstatic review of Inventing the Individual, origin stories “persuade us to ask ourselves who we are and where we are going by showing us where we have come from.” The idea of finding in the past the hidden meaning of our present can be the very thing that captivates people about history in the first place.
But origin stories are also slippery things. Can we really ever say where something actually began? As we follow the “roots” of something like an idea back through history, what exactly determines when we can say, “stop! Here’s the origin”? And the significance we invest in that search creates some pretty strong pressures around what we’re looking for. If the essence of a thing emerges from its origin, then where we identify that point is a comment on the thing itself. Larry Siedentrop finds the “origins of western liberalism” in ancient Christianity: for Marquand, that tells us something crucial about how liberalism should be practiced today. Of course, others have found those same origins elsewhere—in slavery and imperialism, for example—and drawn quite different conclusions.
In her provocative review of another recent book on liberalism, Katrina Forrester explored this very problem: the way scholars have used origin stories to structure the meaning of their subject. Rather than seeking further back in time for the truth about liberalism, Edmund Fawcett’s book Liberalism: the Life of an Idea looks to the nineteenth century, when the word itself came into use. Rather than looking for the hidden roots of the concept, he asks how it was used by the thinkers who first invoked it. Now, that’s still an origin story of sorts, but it’s also a rejection of the idea that what happened longer ago gets us closer to the essence of a thing. Instead, it fits more closely with the notion that meaning is utterly dependent on contemporary context. That context will change over time, in all sorts of subtle, complex, and sometimes-dramatic ways (that’s history!); but if your aim is to find out what something really means, you won’t necessarily get closer to it by looking further back.
David Armitage has called for the “return of the longue durée” in the history of ideas, but the more vibrant trend seems to be a backlash against just that. It goes beyond the history of liberalism. In his two books, The Last Utopia and Human Rights and the Uses of History, Armitage’s Harvard colleague (late of Columbia) Samuel Moyn has mounted a powerful case against those who look for the origins and true meaning of human rights long ago. While works like Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights are centred in the eighteenth century and the French Revolutionary doits de l’homme et du citoyen, Moyn instead focuses on the decade after 1968, when human rights was born “as a political practice” (to use Fawcett’s phrase). “Human rights history,” he writes, “should turn away from ransacking the past as if it provided good support for the astonishingly specific international movement of the last few decades.”
So for historians concerned with the relevance and impact of our work, who aren’t content to be mere antiquarians, where should we go from here? Do approaches like Fawcett’s and Moyn’s simply pull us towards ever more recent history as we search for an understanding of our contemporary world? I don’t think they have to. Historians still need to explain the infinitely complex processes that brought us to where we are now, processes that were always structured by their antecedent conditions. There’s a bit of the ancient and medieval world, not to mention a bit of early America, in all of us.
But we should take on board warnings like Forrester’s, when it comes to the power of origin stories to shape and mislead. There’s a part of us that wants to reach for the very beginnings of things and try to grasp their ultimate meaning. If we take the attitude of historicism seriously, though, we’ll know that such quests are bound to be futile. Origins still have a compelling rhetorical power, but scholarship like Moyn’s reminds us that they are not intrinsically more meaningful than any other moment. When historians go in search of beginnings, we should pay special heed to the ends they have in mind.