The great virtues of studying history.
Last semester, I wrote a final research paper for my African history class about the mission work in East Africa of my school’s founding order during the late 1950s and 1960s. Almost all of my support came from interviews with retired mission priests on campus and primary documents from the order’s United States Province archives.
As I combed through official reports, personal letters, and candid photographs, I realized something about myself: I like to know things. Studying the lives of others, especially when they are so far removed from me both temporally and geographically, serves as both a crucial reminder of their humanity and a way to better understand my own life narrative.
In his groundbreaking work of philosophical history, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre explains that one of the markers of an authentically lived life is narrative unity. That is, an individual should be able craft his or her personal story in a cohesive way and recount episodes of that story to others.
MacIntyre suggests that we achieve narrative unity through practices, which may afford us virtues, internal goods (like self-acceptance or confidence), and external goods (like recognition, wealth, or friendship). For a practice to make us virtuous, we must undertake the activity for its own sake — virtue follows from there, and then we may reap the internal and external benefits.
Consider the study of history in light of MacIntyrean narrative unity. The goal of any historian is to construct some kind of unified story about a particular person or event in a particular time, almost entirely on small figments of existence. The evidence of practices — letters, journals, photographs, doodles — allows historians to piece together narratives and seek the truth of the human condition.
It is also through the historian’s craft that we may understand our own stories. Studying history is a practice in and of itself, and various projects provide for us a sort of timeline of events. It has been an invaluable exercise in patience, charity, humility, and concentration.
More important, though, is the way history forces us to consider our lives in a grander context. The field is so complex that even the most minute and specific subjects — comic book heroes or Disneyland during the Cold War — can dramatically alter the way we conceive of both our contemporary society and past events. With a holistic approach to history, subjects like math, chemistry, and philosophy suddenly become infinitely richer.
My faith is arguably the most significant part of my identity, and studying religious history has become an invaluable avenue for better understanding the Church and her flock. From early monastic women in Medieval Europe to missions in the fledgling United States to the global impact of the Second Vatican Council, history allows me to place myself into a much grander context.
It has been a transformative practice to explore my faith through the different lenses of history and observe how all of the intricate, seemingly inconsequential details have set the stage for contemporary Catholics.
Lilia Draimeis a junior at a Catholic university in the United States, and her column, Living Christ on Campus, will appear every other Thursday. Aleteia has decided to keep Lilia’s institution anonymous so as to keep the focus on what she has to say about issues that impact all young students struggling to live their faith on college and university campuses, whether those institutions be Catholic or not.