Professor Flinders Petrie

Professor Flinders Petrie on ‘The Value of History’

From Whitefriars Journal,vol. III, no. 12, February 1910, pp. 195-96.

On Friday, October 22nd 1909, Professor Flinders Petrie was entertained by the Club, Friar Edward Clodd occupying the chair, the subject of talk being “The Value of Historv.” In proposing the health of the Club guest, the Prior said that Professor Flinders Petrie was descended from the Australian explorer Flinders. He, the Professor, had for thirty years been excavating in Egypt. Professor Petrie had gone to the valley of dry bones and made them live. He represented the newer school of archaeology, and sought to solve the riddle of the Egypt of the past by translating the graven epitaphs.

Professor Flinders Petrie remarked that a well-known politician had said that there was no value in history. He denied that assertion. Mankind did not disregard the order of things in the rotation of the seasons. And history was of no use to the opportunists. It had enabled one to realise what the dangers might be in the future by a knowledge of those which had been encountered in the past. If one knew that going down a lane meant being knocked on the head, one would choose another route. It was not the questions of the inevitable but of the probable for which we had to study history. Human nature remained as it always was. It had not changed in ten thousand years. It was knowledge and not motives that had changed. Knowledge might change, but human nature remained permanent. In past ages there had been selfishness and generosity. And the essential motives must be always foresight and self-control. Whatever conditions were established, economic conditions would always remain. In the Middle Ages the law endeavoured to control the business of the people. Immediately there came into being two classes – those who tried to enforce, and those who tried to evade the law. Evasion was only profitable to those who were technically engaged in the process. Frequent changes of conditions were dangerous. A nation in a sense seemed to get into the habit of taking drugs. The great lesson of the Middle Ages was that things would always get into a state of equilibrium, but if one were always changing the conditions there was a perpetual want of some fresh, startling excitement. If we studied the past we should have less desire to thrust our own conditions on people who did not need nor desire them.

There was often confusion between the public and the private character of the man. Richard I was one of our worst rulers, and yet, like Charles I, he was blameless in his private life. George III, King Oscar, Franz-Joseph – all good men in private life – were incapable of ruling. History showed that the state of democracy did not endure for long. There was the fifty years’ democracy of Athens. Democracy in Rome was succeeded within a generation by a series of dictators. People thought that a dictatorship was impossible in England, but according to history it is not impossible. The tendency was to substitute the dictation of commissioners for the process of law. There was a remarkable parallel between the present time and that of 1640, and a great lesson was to be learnt from that period.

In his work in Egypt he had endeavoured to trace out the history of civilisation. He had discovered seven complete rotations in the world’s civilisation. These he proceeded to describe. His point was that there was no standing still, either in history or in life. Changes had to take place. But one might be an old man at thirty or at eighty, and it was the pride of the skilful physician to delay age as long as possible. The immediate present was urgent, but the problem was to prepare wisely for the future.>

Mr. Robert Sewell, FRGS, author of A Forgotten Empire and The Dynasties of Southern India, spoke of the value of history in connection with races. He did not believe so much in cycles. In India a change was taking place in races that we had educated. The Indians had studied magnificently those things which had been taught them. But one great mistake had been made, and it was that they had not been instructed in the history of their own country. That was, to a large extent, the reason for their unrest.

Friar Sir Francis Carruthers Gould next spoke, and he was followed by Mr. E. S. P. Haynes (author of The History of Religious Persecution), who said that the value of history to the ordinary man was that it gave him a sense of proportion, and the study of history ought to be encouraged in Spain, as well as in India.. The Rev. Friary Grundy next spoke, and he was followed by Mr Holland (Director of Education for Northamptonshire).

Friar Harold Spender expressed his admiration for the painstaking researches of Dr Flinders Petrie. In looking over his excavations one was impressed by the feeling that it had all happened before; people sat on drawing-room chairs, ladies painted their faces, children played with dolls, people went to church, and so on. All we knew of the past was but a drop in the ocean. History repeated itself, but never in the same way, and to his mind a knowledge of history was of little good. It depended on the temper in which one read it, whether with fear or with splendid hope. Dr Flinders Petrie was scarcely justified in the conclusions he drew from mediæval history. It was true the law-makers and lawyers were generally at issue, and as soon as society was constructed afresh the lawyers would endeavour to undo it. (Laughter.)

Friar Moulton Piper referred to the value of history as ‘copy’, on account of the ideas and entertainment that it gave. The Prior thanked Professor Petrie for his able remarks, and the Club guest then replied.