In 94 B.C, Chinese historian Sima Qian completed his magnum opus Records of the Grand Historian, a piece chronicling the times of the legendary Xia emperors to the then contemporary reign of Emperor Wu of Han. For his work, Qian is considered to be the father of Chinese historiography much akin to Thucydides for the West.
However, there is a question which perplexed Qian amidst reviewing the annals of history. This is a question which many people, from historians to philosophers, have struggled with as well: why is it that good people suffer while the evil thrive?
From a theological perspective it wouldn’t make any sense. If there is in fact an all-powerful, all-good deity, then surely he would guarentee that the righteous lived fulfilled, happy lives and that the wicked incur his wrath. Many theories have been put forward regarding why it is that a god would do this ranging from the idea of free will to humanity being unable to comprehend the will of an omnipotent holy stomper. However, Qian, a believer in ‘The Way of Heaven,’ viewed it differently.
Qian concluded that while those who do good may suffer and tyrants may succeed in their own life times, it is the duty of a historian to guarantee that in the end, good triumphs.
Take for instance Ivan IV, Grand Prince of Muscovy, better known as Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was a very skilled conqueror who extended to territory of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy twofold and turned the nation into the Tsardom of Russia. However, Ivan was a brutal dictator who would order the deaths of noblemen and peasants alike on no charges just for fun, then subject them to inhumane, vicious torture. In his lifetime, Ivan was viewed as a hero who defeated Kazan, Astrakhan, and the Ottoman Empire. However, for his crimes against humanity, he leaves the legacy of Ivan the Terrible, a godless tyrant whom very few idolize to this day. Thus while Ivan may have lived a fulfilling life himself, all generations to come would view him for the monster he was.
From this perspective, I have gathered that the retelling of history is more than just a fun hobby to tell stories of the past. Rather, I believe the preservation of history to be a great moral task to ensure that ultimately it is the good whose memory we can hold in high esteem.
When I think back of my passion for history and the beliefs I would stand by, I would always get furious when people could look towards tyrants like Isabella II of Spain as exemplary rulers whose actions led their nations to golden age. I think this is in part due to the fact that I feel honoring wicked rulers such as Isabella is disrespectful to the Jews and Muslims who were mutilated in the Spanish Inquisition. As such I feel it is important to impart my opinion regarding Isabella or Pol Pot or even Joe McCarthy to honor those who suffered during their rule.
I don’t have ancestors in Spain or Cambodia and none of my family was targeted by the McCarthy administration, but for me, the familial bond is no more important than the human condition. Those who suffered in Rwanda and Angola did not do so to get neglected by the rest of the world. Because of their hardship, they should be viewed as martyrs whose memory we should keep by retelling the tales of Rwanda and Angola and assuring that even if we cannot stop all evil in this world, we can at least make sure we do not emulate the tyrants of history.
We owe it to our ancestors not to repeat the same mistakes their generations made, and we owe it to our ancestors to tell their story so that they may never be forgotten.