Priya Satia, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History (Harvard University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Priya Satia (PS): At a basic level, I wanted to tell the story of the British Empire. But I also wanted to tell it in a way that might help us resolve the lingering moral ambiguity around the empire, even after the work of generations of anticolonial thinkers: the persistent habits of assessing its pros and cons (rather than condemning it outright as violent, racist, exploitative) and of marginalizing it as the work of a few bad actors (rather than acknowledging its deep importance in shaping Britain, as much as other regions). These habits are a result of the continued influence of the ethical outlook that enabled empire, an outlook that deferred judgment to the future, creating an echo-chamber of protests about good intentions. This historical mode of ethical thinking required suppression of ordinary ethical instincts, as the architects of empire counted on future vindication of acts that they recognized as morally dubious in the present. In excavating history’s and historians’ role in empire, I also wanted to reflect on the role that historians might have in public debate today, in navigating the fallout of empire that makes up our present.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

PS: The book tells the story of the British Empire from the era of slavery and conquest through the era of decolonization and partitions. But it is also about modern conscience and imperialism—a work of intellectual history examining the ethical thought and notions of selfhood that enabled imperialism, as well as anticolonial responses to them. It explores the role of historical thinking, from the Enlightenment through the era of liberalism and social Darwinism, in enabling conquest and colonial violence, and the role of radical and anticolonial thought in remaking the historical discipline in the era of decolonization. It helps us understand the legacies of modern imperialism (racism, diasporas, climate change, global inequality, notions of secularism) and make sense of current conversations around reparations and memorialization, as well as the crisis in the humanities.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

PS: This book very much builds on my previous work, which shared a preoccupation with conscience and empire and the role of historians in public debate. In my previous books, I serendipitously homed in on two critical moments in which new ideas about history shaped Britons’ understandings of their agency as empire-builders. The protagonist of Empire of Guns (2018), Samuel Galton, defended his seemingly paradoxical life as a Quaker and gun-maker by making arguments about the way Britain’s unfolding national history constrained his options in that moment. In Spies in Arabia (2008), the architects of the British Empire in the Middle East likewise justified their actions with arguments about where they and the Middle East were in world history. In articles on British and South Asian intellectual history in the era of decolonization, I found anticolonial thinkers offering critiques not only of colonialism but also of the historical imagination that enabled it.

But while this previous work focused on explaining particular historical phenomena—the industrial revolution, the invention of air control—Time’s Monster is a synthetic work, tracing how evolving ideas about history shaped the functioning of the British Empire over the entire modern period. It shows how history came to function as a mode of ethical thought, as well as the challenges to that way of thinking. Ever since I joined the historical discipline a quarter of a century ago, I have grappled with the feeling that it was somehow deeply implicated in the colonial history that I was trying to understand. This book allowed me to finally tell that story.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

PS: I hope historians and humanists, generally, will read it, but also economists and other social scientists, as well as those interested in the history of the particular regions covered by the book (the United Kingdom, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, and so on). I also hope it attracts general readers interested in the story of the British Empire and the ethics of imperialism, including current conversations around statues, reparations, and memorials, but also the origins and significance of Brexit. I would like the book to change how we think about history and its public role; I hope it makes us aware of history’s long complicity in power and helps us imagine more redemptive ways in which it might serve public debate now. Most importantly, I hope the book helps us recover the other, more reliable modes of ethical thought that a certain mode of historical thought and style of history-writing tried to displace.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

PS: I am currently working on essays on Orwell and empire, as well as more personal essays on writing and history.


Excerpt from the book (from chapter 2, pp. 12-15)

Let us take “ethics” to mean the moral principles, the concepts of right and wrong, that guide a person’s behavior, including a person’s sense of the capacity to act, what we call “free will.” Conscience is a cognitive process of rational and emotional responses to an act or situation based on that value system. Science can tell us much about its genetic and cultural foundations, but the latter requires historical explanation, too. We are occupied here with that cultural quotient. Before the modern era and the introduction of historical systems of ethical accountability, we had access to many others, which remain with us. Most were religious, and most religious traditions assume their value system to be inherent in all humans, that is, not culturally or historically specific. Many religious systems of ethical accountability took narrative form, as history does. Humans are hardwired for narrative: We tell stories to make sense of existence, and among the stories we tell are those that encompass ourselves as worldly actors, that explain how and why our own lives unfold the way they do, that tell us what stirs the cauldron of change.

Take, for instance, cosmic theories of agency, like astrology, which tell us that the positions and movements of heavenly bodies determine our nature and future. Human agency is tightly constrained in such theories; we are pawns in a cosmic game. A believer in astrology, armed with his birth chart, would behave differently, and have a different sense of his agency, from someone ignorant of his position in that cosmic tapestry. There are several possibilities: He may be more passive, waiting for the stars to shape his destiny as predicted. Or he may use the chart as a guide on how best to cocreate with the cosmic energies at work in his life and in the world. Or, if he has kept the chart in a drawer and forgotten it, it may belatedly help him cope when his independently motivated exercise of his agency meets with defeat: the consolation that he has not failed but that it was simply not in the stars. He is aware that he is in a story whose action cannot exceed the frame made by the positions of the planets and stars at his birth; the chart shapes the script he imagines his actions to fulfill. It both shapes his sense of agency and provides ex post rationalizations of his actions and their outcomes.

Beyond the stars, for many, God is shaping how and why change happens, how life unfolds. Divine intervention—the act of God—is the ultimate force before which human agency is nothing, is annihilated. It has enormous powers to clear the conscience, the clearest basis on which to claim “It wasn’t me.” A belief in reincarnation might, on the other hand, mold our actions by challenging us to imagine how they might catch up with us: If we act without empathy towards someone today, will we pay karmically in the next life? Is my destiny inextricably linked to the fate of others? Other religious traditions promise ethical accountability in an otherworldly afterlife—heaven or hell. The sway of original sin and the capacity for free will and redeeming grace preyed on the conscience of major Christian philosophers, most notably Saint Augustine. In the eschatological worldview of many sects within the Abrahamic tradition, the final account, Judgment Day, will come at the end of times, the last day of history. The testaments that tell us all this are related as histories—chronicles of human events in which the divine is an active participant.

In Hindu thought, guidance on human agency emerges from a mythical prelude to the era of human history. Our current era, the Kali Yuga, roughly coinciding with the timescale of the historical discipline, is part of a cycle of four yugas, or epochs. It is an age of darkness and destruction and relatively short human life that will be followed by a return of the Satya Yuga, an age of truth and perfection, and the cycle will continue. This yuga began in the fourth century BCE upon the end of the war recounted in the cyclical mythology of the epic poem known as the Mahabharata. This story of the previous yuga includes a battlefield conversation between the warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna, in the role of charioteer. The chapters that make up this conversation comprise the Gita, a guide to the virtuous exercise of agency. Arjuna is unsettled at the idea that the war demands that he kill members of his own family. He cannot bear the idea of being responsible for the deaths of those he loves. Krishna persuades him that he must fulfill his duty as a warrior and engage the enemy, regardless. He must act out of duty without regard to consequence. Here is a path to absolution of conscience, an escape from bad karma, passed from a previous yuga to ours as a cultural inheritance, swept from myth into mortal, historical time, where countless people have drawn on it in decisions about when and how to act.

Along with such religious, mythical, and astrological understandings of agency, we have inherited the idea that the worldly narrative of history can guide the exercise of agency. It emerged in the eighteenth century from the Enlightenment search for a universal system of ethical evaluation based on reason that might exist apart from both organized religious belief and the internal impulses that signal the workings of conscience—a more worldly, if not secular, ethics. History became central to the Enlightenment episteme of ethics, or “moral philosophy,” the branch of philosophy focused on systematizing concepts of right and wrong conduct. In his Letters on the Study and Use of History (written in 1735 and published in 1752), the Tory politician and man of letters Lord Bolingbroke explained history’s uses as moral philosophy: “Thes are certain general principles, and rules of life and conduct, which always must be true, because they are conformable to the invariable nature of things. He who studies history as he would study philosophy, will soon distinguish and collect them, and by doing so will soon form to himself a general system of ethics and politics on the surest foundations, on the trial of these principles and rules in all ages, and on the confirmation of them by universal experience.” The evolution of the work of the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith offers a useful example of the eighteenth-century gravitation towards history as a system of moral judgment. His first attempt at explaining moral sentiments with the 1759 version of The Theory of Moral Sentiments was almost entirely unhistorical. Smith expressed the experience of moral judgment primarily by recourse to visual metaphors about the internal eye, seeing inside. However, over the thirty years that Smith spent revising it, the text became profoundly historical. By 1790, it was as much about observing outside events: “It asserted a sequence over time in moral judgment, in which individuals start by judging other people, and then judge themselves,” explains the historian Emma Rothschild. Smith piled in more and more “illustrations” from history showing the experience of moral judgment, explicitly noting history’s uses in moral reflection, the way we absorb ethical values by imaginative connection with lives in the past. For him, writes Rothschild, moral sentiments were “an experiment in historical observation, and historical imagination.” Observation of one’s own society, in one’s own time and place, might yield only a parochial rather than universal morality; history insured against this risk by offering illustrations from the lives of the great.