The Lessons of History

The classic saying about history is “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, attributed to philosopher George Santayana. Unfortunately, too many people interpret it to mean that a careful reading of the historical record will produce a recipe box for dealing with current problems.

However, a staff writer for the New Yorker makes a better case for understanding the past.

But the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out. The advantage of having a historical sense is not that it will lead you to some quarry of instructions, the way that Superman can regularly return to the Fortress of Solitude to get instructions from his dad, but that it will teach you that no such crystal cave exists. What history generally “teaches” is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they’re making it.

Unfortunately, we currently have a large chorus of “experts” who push the idea that events in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere are the worst challenges the world has ever faced and require US military force.

The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been—and, thus, than they really are—or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult.

I’m no historian, but even a cursory review of the many world crises, threats, and wars that have been part of just my lifetime clearly shows US responses usually caused many more problems than they solved. Those are some lessons from history missed (or ignored) by too many of our current trigger-happy leaders.

I could continue, but my occasional rants on political topics in this space are usually incoherent at best. So I’ll end with just one more very appropriate pull quote about history and war from the article.

What history actually shows is that nothing works out as planned, and that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war—sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it. History is past, and singular, and the same year never comes round twice.

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