Time’s Monster by Priya Satia review – living in the past | History books


In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Prison”, written in 1963 while in prison for participating in a prohibited march against segregation, Martin Luther King Jr. describes receiving a letter from a “white brother in Texas Who had told him that “all Christians know that people of color will eventually have equal rights, but you may be in too much of a religious rush.” “Such an attitude,” writes King, “stems from a tragic misconception of time”, from “the oddly irrational idea that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.”

I remembered this line while reading Priya Satia’s book Time monster. Because it is the same “irrational notion” on “the passage of time” against which Satia, professor of international history at Stanford University, opposes.

Time monster is a book about history and empire. Not a simple story, but a tale of how the discipline of history itself enabled the process of colonization, “making it ethically thinkable.”

Satia’s story begins with the Enlightenment, when the traditional idea of ​​time as cyclical unfolded into a linear view of history, which has come to be seen as “something compellingly advancing.” History has become something that humans have made but also something that humans have made. Humans and history were both considered to have agency. This allowed “history to exercise the power of moral judgment.” Morality was defined in terms of the progress brought about by the unfolding of history. History has revealed the institutions and peoples that had “become obsolete”. Obsolescence, observed novelist Amitav Ghosh, is “the modern equivalent of perdition and hellfire.” The “most powerful words of damnation” in the modern world, Ghosh noted, “is the curse of being on the ‘wrong side of history’.”

The Enlightenment’s obsession with progress, combined with an unwavering attachment to moral universalism, suggests Satia, helped “normalize the violence of imperial conquest.” Colonialism came to be seen as morally just, a way to advance non-European peoples, to free them from their own barbarism.

Liberal imperialism was inherently contradictory, both demanding and denying freedoms and freedoms. So John Stuart Mill, in his classic book On freedom, could argue that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government for dealing with barbarians, provided the end is their improvement.” Those who have not progressed sufficiently along the path of history should not be treated as fully “civilized” peoples. “The profession of a historian,” suggests Satia, “has proven to be essential in smoothing out” such contradictions, allowing the sheer brutality of the British Empire to be overlooked as the “collateral damage” of necessary progress.

Time monster is an essential and important reworking of the relationship between history, historians and empire. It is also a frustrating account. The thread that runs through Time monster is the need to understand the catastrophic consequences of entrenching ethical claims in particular historical narratives. Satia castigates historians – Thomas Macaulay, James Mill, and John Robert Seeley, among others – for serving as servants of imperial power. In the final chapter, however, she fears that historians have been sidelined by political leaders in recent decades and that new types of experts – economists and political scientists – have taken their place, experts who still seem more willing to carry the bags of the powerful. .

Historians who criticize imperialism must, Satia insists, “assert their policy expertise against the monopoly claims of sociologists” to help shape contemporary foreign policy. Many historians were, she observes, opposed to the war in Iraq, but were too far removed from the sources of power to have any influence. She even calls on historians to “take up” the Enlightenment project of “arriving at (new) value judgments throughout history”. Historians today, in other words, should continue to use history as a means of deriving moral standards, but with different standards, a morality that supports the powerless rather than the powerful. This is a requirement which may seem obvious, but it is also a requirement which runs counter to most of the arguments of the preceding chapters which condemned the very act of using the lessons of history to elaborate moral standards.

Satia also wants to abandon a linear view of history and “reconsider history as cyclical, if not aimless”. The “fatal flaw” with Enlightenment-derived notions of history, she argues, is that they place humans rather than “biology, geology, and astronomy” at their center. In fact, the idea that humans make history, rather than just being made by history, was one of the great leaps in Enlightenment thought. The problem was that history also came to be seen as something that progresses automatically, that there was, in King’s words of criticism, “something in the flow of time that will inevitably cure all ailments.” “. It was a view of history that allowed certain peoples and nations to be condemned as backward or obsolete and provided moral justification for colonialism. However, to replace it with a conception of history as “circular”, which by definition abjures the possibilities of permanent change, a notion of history which is defined more by “biology, geology and astronomy” than by human activity, doesn’t seem to me, to be much of a gain.

Time monster helps to lay bare the discipline of “collusion in the empire” of history. But it also reveals, perhaps unwittingly, what remains precious in the ideas of the Enlightenment on history and humanity.

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and the British Empire by Priya Satia is published by Allen Lane (£ 25). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Comments are closed.