History is a tragic muse for rulers—we should teach more of itby Simon Schama / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Simon Schama: “when you’re a historian, you really oughtn’t to be knocking on the doors of power; your job is to keep the powerful awake at night.” (© Richard Saker/ Rex Features)
I am not the stuff of which rule is made. The nearest I ever got to supreme power was when I was Vice President of the American branch of Pen, the writers’ organisation, and I was asked whether I’d think about becoming President. The truth is that President Schama didn’t strike me as anything to be taken seriously.
There is a sense in which, when you’re a historian, you really oughtn’t to be knocking on the doors of power; your job is to keep the powerful awake at night, to turn them into insomniacs. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of Jewish history and traditionally there has been a fierce debate about what “power” can mean in the Jewish tradition. Moses, for example, is not a ruler; he’s not a king. As soon as kings do show up there are problems with them—David, Solomon and Saul. The debate becomes really fierce at the time of the Hasmonean dynasty. There was a rebellion against the Greeks in the middle of the 2nd century BC and it set up an autonomous Jewish kingdom, which immediately went “conqueror” and started to expand the territories. All the Pharisees would say, “this kingship has only ended up making us like the Greeks.” There’s something ill-fitting about the Jewish tradition and acts of power, so it’s difficult for me to think in ruling terms.
Having said that, there are certain things that I would instantly, dictatorially apply. I would love it to be the case that when you speak too loudly on a mobile phone a small but painful electric charge goes straight into you, to make you stop. I hate people shouting o…