Agassi revealed his addiction to Crystal Meth during the 1997 season

Recently, Andre Agassi wrote a book and revealed that he was on crystal meth during the 1997 tennis season and even threw a few games away because of its addiction. He was criticized widely for his actions by many in the Tennis circles, and rightfully so, but what caught my attention was the speculative debate within the media about the motive behind his revelation. The obvious connotation here was that Agassi was possibly doing this to gain publicity for his book to increase its sales. They wondered why Agassi would do this at the cost of tarnishing a very good reputation he earned through a widely popular Tennis career.

I admired his game in the 90s, he was the most instinctive Tennis player that I ever watched and he could conjure up angles on the Tennis court that most could only dream of, but just like any normal sports fan, I know very little about Agassi the person beyond his Tennis game. He was a dynamic personality, very articulate and always seemed to give a favorable impression in interviews, but I can’t even begin to guess what his true motive was behind his new revelation and in all honesty it is of little interest to me. It could be that since he was writing an auto-biography, he felt compelled to reveal the truth that he was hiding from everyone else, or as the sports talk speculation went, it could also be a publicity stunt to sell more copies of his book. The answer to that can only be answered by Agassi but that is really not the focus of this post.

What if I was a popular personality and decided to write my autobiography? Would I be interested in revealing those unsavory aspects of my life that I am not very proud of, or would I hide them in my closet or gloss over them and only focus on those events that I am proud of that I know will show me in positive light? Why reveal the ugliness in my life or the bad deeds I committed to the rest of the world? What possible good can come out of tarnishing my hard earned reputation? Surely, there is no harm in the world continuing to believe in my legend, even if it is false at some level. So, how does the rest of the world get a truthful, unbiased perspective of my life and personality unless I intend to present one myself? Would a biography or an analysis from a historian solve that problem? What of those thick biographies of world figures? Do they only tell the truth that favors the characters of their subjects? Can a reader ever know the “truth” about a historical personality or a historical even in its entirety?

My true interest here is not so much on Agassi’s motives or for that matter his virtues but in the general nature of characterization of a life along with the mode of interpretation and presentation of an event for the rest of the world to read, comprehend and assimilate in a historical context. How can history present a truthful, objective and balanced perspective on personalities and events? Specifically, how should history be written or revised and corrected so that it is truly reflective of what it ought to be? To answer this question, first you have answer for yourself what is history and why you should bother with it?

R.G Collingwood - a historian and a philosopher

History records and explains past events and life and development of people and their surroundings, in a chronological order. Value and significance attached to history is one of a subjective viewpoint, an opinion that each one of use has to arrive at on our own. Such personalities as Karl Marx and Henry Ford have debunked history, Marx calling it “a nothing” and Ford calling it “more or less bunk”. On the other end of the spectrum, philosophers such as G.W.F Hegel and Sigmund Freud warn us of ignoring history at our own peril, with Freud stating that “only a good-for-nothing is not interested in his past”. My view on history leans
more towards the latter than the former and I can’t explain its importance any better than this synopsis from the British philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood:
“History is for human self-knowledge. Knowing yourself means knowing, first, what it is to be a person; secondly, knowing what it is to be the kind of person you are; and thirdly, knowing what it is to be the person you are and nobody else is. Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what they can do until they try, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.” This is a perfect summarization of how I feel about history.

If you believe in this value of history, the obvious question to ask is how it should be written to provide this value, because as it stands right now, beyond the places, dates, names and pictures, the veracity of our documented history addressing the life of significant personalities and cause and effect of significant events is rightfully subject to doubt and extensive debate. The reason for this cynicism is partly because most of the remnants of our past history are a conceptualization of historians who weren’t direct participants of those events or those lives. Even the occasional collaborative records of those who experienced those events are suspect with potential bias driven by populism and nationalism.

So it seems like an easy question to answer, just be objective and report the truth, but in reality that is more complicated than it appears on the surface. The realization of complete objectivity in documenting history is a subject of great debate among historians because in majority of the cases it cannot be achieved in documenting anything substantial beyond the dates, names and places. Picking on Agassi again for illustration, imagine that he hadn’t written his book yet and hasn’t revealed anything about his crystal meth addiction, and imagine I am a historian who is interested in writing Agassi’s biography. Let’s say I follow sports and write about Tennis and know of Agassi as much as any other scribe in the Tennis circle, but have little insight into Andre Agassi the person. I clearly don’t have enough to write his biography to present his characterization beyond that of a mere outside observer. So I approach him about this, get his approval; find out about his life and present a comprehensive and truthful biographical perspective on it.  But, a true objective appraisal would have required me to decide on the truth based on purely observable phenomenon and I would have had very little to report on.

John Lukacs is one of the prominent historians of our times and author of much acclaimed “Five Days in London”, an account of Winston Churchill’s decision between May 24 and May 28, 1940, the weekend when his War Cabinet had to decide whether to come to terms with Hitler or fight on alone during those early days of WWII.  Here’s his assessment of objectivity as it applies to human knowledge:

John Lukacs - a contemporary historian and author of "Five days in London"

Knowledge, which is neither objective nor subjective, is always personal. Not individual: personal. The concept of the individual has been one of the essential misconceptions of political liberalism. Every human being is unique, but he does not exist alone. He is dependent on others (a human baby for much longer than the offspring of other animals); his existence is inseparable from his relations with other human beings.

But there is more to that. Our knowledge is not only personal; it is also participant. There is—yet there cannot be—a separation of the knower from the known. We must see further than this. It is not enough to recognize the impossibility (perhaps even the absurdity) of the ideal of their antiseptic, objective separation. What concerns—or should concern—us is something more than the inseparability; it is the involvement of the knower with the known. That this is so when it comes to the reading, researching, writing, and thinking of history should be rather obvious. Detachment from one’s passions and memories is often commendable. But detachment, too, is something different from separation; it involves the ability (issuing from one’s willingness) to achieve a stance of a longer or higher perspective. The choice for such a stance does not necessarily mean a reduction of one’s personal interest, of participation—perhaps even the contrary.

Francis Parkman - a great American historian

For an approach to writing history, Francis Parkman, the famous American historian of the 19th century declares..
“Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.”

Beyond that, no matter how truthful and unbiased I might think the biography I wrote might be, there are always going to be elements within that you the reader cannot certifiably verify as true or false. Has Agassi revealed all his secrets to me? Why would Agassi be interested in disclosing any anecdotes of his life that can reflect negatively on him? Worse yet, what’s to stop him from bending the truth to project him better?  So, at the end of the day, it comes to my application in understanding Agassi, his life and his times, and my ability to present an unprejudiced and unbiased view. Even if I happened to be influenced by Agassi maybe because I was once a great fan of his and slant the biography to make him look favorable or choose not to print some facts that would have shown him in a bad light, you the reader are only left to make your own opinions and either trust the veracity of my report or not.

This is not to say that there haven’t been situations where perceptions of historical figures have been proven wrong and re-adjusted by revisionist history. In fact, history is replete with characters ignored or reviled and later revived and adored when the times of our world caught up with their idea or vision. There are many examples of great people who didn’t get their due during their time because few could identify with their point of view. Either they were too eccentric, too out of the norm or too radical – just too different from the mainstream or the popular view of their time. So, they were ignored, ridiculed, shunned and in some cases even arrested and imprisoned. These are people across all walks of life – thinkers, leaders, philosophers, inventors, poets, painters, economists, authors, actors and even comedians – but contemporary history is always a product of its own times and any review of history cannot be done without keeping its chronology in context. There are very few absolute truths outside the disciplines of science and history is no exception. All it means is that, even in this day and age when there are more scientific methods than ever before to verify the truth behind an inquiry, one who is seeking historical knowledge has to understand this and make their own judgments with the information they have. Like Hallett Carr and John Lukacs suggest in their own way:

Before you study the history, study the historian, and before you study the historian, study his history.