© Damen, 2002

22. Positive Themes.

When allowed to choose their own subject and thesis—that, is, not presented with a roster of questions or topics—all too often students seek to demonstrate that something does not exist or did not actually happen. For instance, they attempt to show that, because so little remains of life in the ancient world, we today really know nothing meaningful about some aspect of it. So, for example, they argue that politics didn't influence economic policies in Western Civilization, since most rulers in the past demonstrate no real understanding of commerce. Right or not, themes like this are about as hard to execute as historical studies get, and I strongly advise you to steer clear of such negative themes.*

That's not to say negative themes are somehow inherently wrong. They're not. Obviously, an expert historian can show that all kinds of historical data are lacking. A negative theme is simply wrong for most students, because demonstrating that something did not exist in the past depends on a comprehensive understanding of ancient history, entailing both knowledge of all possible instances where something might have occurred and also wide-ranging study, prudence and enough data that one can say with assurance something could never have happened in the past. That's often impossible, even for experts.

Here is an example. There is simply no external corroborating evidence for the existence of Moses or the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt as recounted in the second book of the Bible. Still, few historians today—and, frankly, none with any sense—would assert that the exodus of a number of Hebrews from Egypt in some way resembling the biblical account could never have happened under any circumstance. In reality, we know so little about this period in history it would be unprofessional of anyone to weigh in on either side of the issue, certainly the "negative" side. Given the tattered data remaining from the thirteenth century BCE—and at that, most of it patently propagandistic one way or another—who can say for sure anything didn't happen back then? We're lucky to be able to say what little we know did! So, it really isn't possible to argue that Moses and the Exodus never happened, even though our current picture of this era provides no corroboration that this part of the Bible reflects historical reality.

Instead, it's far easier to prove something does exist, especially in an arena where information is limited. In other words, a "positive" argument is much easier to effect. To wit, we may not know about every building constructed in classical Athens, but we do know quite a bit about the Parthenon, and from that it's easy to demonstrate the presence of certain tendencies in classical architecture. Whether or not all the principles of construction seen in the Parthenon were employed in all buildings erected then, its design certainly embodies a clear love of balance and "optical symmetry" (the appearance of perfection, straight-looking lines, elegance and lightness). So, to judge from the Parthenon, those principles look to be definitive in classical architecture.

A positive theme like that makes for a paper far easier to write than trying to argue, for example, that the Parthenon was unique and atypical and that we, in fact, stand to learn little about classical architecture in general by studying the Parthenon. While it's one of few buildings preserved from its day—and so who's to say it's representative of its time?—nevertheless, in terms of constructing an argument, though the Parthenon surely was unique, if there's even one classical building found resembling it in some way, then the negative theme of the Parthenon's singularity in its time comes crashing to the ground, because even a single piece of contradictory information severely undercuts a negative argument. If, instead, you argue in favor of something and later contradictory evidence comes to light, you can claim it's just an exception. One of the benefits of a "positive" theme is that exceptions don't necessarily undermine your argument. They're just that, exceptions.

The lesson here is to aim at proving something in your writing, not disproving it. It's just so much easier to assemble data that support a case than to look across a field of ruins and try to show what wasn't ever there and never could have been. Before doing that, a person really has to understand a subject fully and thoroughly, which is a point few ever reach.

*By "negative," I mean arguments designed to prove the non-existence of something, as opposed to "positive" themes which argue in favor of something.

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