Do We Learn Anything from History?



W.J. Astore

As a historian, I like to think we learn valuable lessons from history.  Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them, or so my students tell me, paraphrasing (often unknowingly) the words of George Santayana.

We applaud that saying as a truism, yet why do we persist in pursuing mistaken courses?  Why two costly and destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Why an energy policy that exploits dirty fossil fuels at the expense of the environment?  Why a foreign policy that is dominated by military interventionists in love with Special Forces and drones?

In part, I think, because our decision makers have no respect for the lessons of history.  They think the lessons don’t apply to them.  They think they can make history freely: that history is like a blank canvas for their creative (and destructive) impulses.  They figure they are in complete control.  Hubris, in other words.

Such hubris was captured in a notorious boast of the Bush Administration (in words later attributed to Karl Rove) that judicious study of the past was, well, antiquarian and passé.  Why?  Because men like Karl Rove would strut the historical stage to create an entirely new reality.  And the rest of us would be reduced to impotent watchers, our only role being to applaud the big swinging dicks at their climactic “mission accomplished” moments.  In Rove’s words:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Rove’s rejection of history stemmed from hubris.  For the character of Joaquin in Scott Anderson’s novel Triage, history is “The worst invention of man” for a very different reason.  History was to be reviled because it tries to make rational what is often irrational; history invents reasons for what is often unreasonable or beyond reason.

In Joaquin’s words:

“We invented history for the same reason we invented God, because the alternative is too terrible to imagine.  To accept that there is no reason for any of it, that we are only animals—special animals, maybe, but still animals—and there is no explaining the things we do, that happen to us—too awful, no?  … To hell with history.  If there is anything to be learned from any of it, it is only that civilization is fragile, that in war it takes nothing for a man—any man, fascist, communist, schoolteacher, peasant, it doesn’t matter—to become a beast.”

As a good Catholic, I was taught that wisdom begins with the fear of God.  A secular version might be that wisdom begins with the fear of history.  Our history.  Because it teaches us what we’re capable of.  We invent all sorts of seemingly reasonable excuses to kill one another.  We grow bored, so we kill.  In the words of Joaquin, we come to slaughter one another “because we wanted to see how blood ran, because it seemed an interesting thing to do.  We killed because we could.  That was the reason.”

The beginning of wisdom is not the fear of God.  It’s the fear of ourselves—the destruction that we as humans are capable of in the name of creating new realities.  The historical record provides a bible of sorts that records our harshness as well as our extraordinary capacity for self-deception.  Such knowledge is not to be reviled, nor should it be dismissed.

The more we dismiss history—the more we exalt ourselves as unconstrained creators of new realities—the more we pursue policies that are unwise—perhaps even murderously so.  If we learn nothing else from history, let us learn that.

17 thoughts on “Do We Learn Anything from History?

  1. Hmmm, somehow I hadn’t encountered that highly interesting quote from Mr. Rove. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels founded the modern school of materialist analysis of historical events. They taught us that there are economic motivations underlying the clashes of nations/armies. Iraq was an easy target, as Saddam’s military was pathetic. But the underlying motivation was to seize their crude oil reserves. Afghanistan? This appears to me an untamable, unconquerable wilderness. But did the US absorb that lesson from the Soviet Union’s quagmire there? Of course not. Hubris does enter the picture. And some men (and women, I suppose, nowadays) do voluntarily go off to war to try their hands at killing, to “test themselves.” [See MATTERHORN, by Karl Marantes (I may have botched last name, sorry) and A RUMOR OF WAR, by Philip Caputo.] But it is also possible to resist war, to refuse to become “a beast.” And a Universe without “God” is too terrible to contemplate? (I also was not familiar with the novel TRIAGE you cite.) I couldn’t disagree more vehemently. The real story of how we came to be here, which will not be found in Genesis or any other chapter of the bible, is truly The Greatest Story Ever Told. Year by year, as Science advances, we put together new pieces in the puzzle. Until we vanish into the void of self-created planetary catastrophe, which is well underway. Thus, the epitaph of the human race will be: “So much knowledge, So little wisdom.” You read it here first.

  2. “History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

    Of Roman history, great Niebuhr’s shown
    ‘Tis nine-tenths lying. Faith, I wish ’twere known,
    Ere we accept great Niebuhr as a guide,
    Wherein he blundered and how much he lied.”

    Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

  3. Pingback: Do We Learn Anything from History? | Stop Making Sense

  4. Imitating a totalitarian system, whether Fascist or Communist, is not learning from history; it’s only repeating it. Both systems failed in Europe; yet, Bush, Jr. tried one (Fascism), and Obama’s working on the other (Communism). O’s Communist system isn’t working, either. Just take a look at Obamacare; it’s a total fiasco. And, his foreign and security policies? In both, he’s Bush, Jr. on STEROIDS.

    “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” ~ Georges Santayana

    • Eileen, you are a very confused lady. Since we’re discussing history it might be a good idea if you tried studying some of it. By means of what tortured reasoning did you reach the conclusion that Obama’s ‘system’ is ‘Communist’. I’ve heard this kind of ignorant baloney trotted out by Americans many times before. Who deliberately misinforms you? Your church I suspect, since it is often from American Christians that I hear these preposterous notions. These people are messing with your mind.

    • Eileen, Obama is as much a Communist as you are not an idiot for saying he is. A Communist would not let Wall Street run the country like he has. And ObamaCare will prove to be as successful and necessary as Social Security and Medicare presently are. In fact, in time, it will likely evolve into Medicare for all.

  5. Ms. Kuch.. Come on now! you know better! If Obama’s “system” is “communist” than indeed the moon is made of green cheese. The Affordable Care Act is’nt working because O. let the corporatists write the law and he is continually tweaking it to their favor. Yesterday by exempting another large group of employers.
    Obama has stayed on the path to Fascism that the Republican Party defined during the Bush Administration. He has enhanced it by taming the opposition in his own party by throwing them occasional liberal legislative bones embellished with eloquent liberal rhetoric. There isn’t a hint of left thinking in the man. .
    You do a disservice to history by even mentioning Obama in the same sentence as Communism ( which is a right wing mantra about him) Just to remind you; Fascism is unregulated capital owning the means of production while Communism as it developed in Russia was the state owning the unregulated means of production. Repent! Obama continues to give away state owned common services , like education, prison, etc to corporatists.

    • K. Marx

      Great answer! I do not know it is: stupidity, ignorance or most likely influence of media and education (or all mentioned) that I can see that people like Eileen Kuch mention the US president a communist. Richard Hofstadter had said “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” so is electoral body.

      By the way, Upton Sinclair said that fascism is “Capitalism plus murder”

  6. What the USA & many other nations learn from history is to keep making the same mistakes over again and expect the same or different results. They learn to keep doing what’s insane. George Warmonger Bush invaded Afghanistan & Iraq. Ehud Barack Obama invaded Libya and continued the Iraq War before deciding when to end it. He decided to end the war in Afghanistan two years before leaving office.He kisses the Republicans’ & corporations asses because he’s afraid to stand up to them.

  7. One of the big problems with drawing the right conclusions from history is that its writing is a political excuse; most often the literary exercise of victors’ justice. Not surprising since most mainstream history is heavy on the recounting of human government’s many wars, when one considers that the first victim of war is truth. It was Churchill who said that he would be treated kindly by history, since he intended to write it himself. Any objective examination of his record does not reveal him in the same flattering light as his self-penned hagiographies. Unfortunately, filled as we are with our grade school jejeune just-so history fables, designed with the end of socializing us to become complacent citizens with the elitist status quo, it often takes major traumatic events producing cognitive dissonance, before we are willing to question all our unexamined assumptions. During the exigencies of the last decade plus, I learned more from Howard Zinn’s histories and the once-shunned Chomsky than I had from the prepackaged yet ultimately misleading narratives I was raised to believe.

  8. Pingback: Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the End of History | The Contrary Perspective

  9. One lesson we’ve learned well : war enriches the military industrial complex. Another is that money money easily purchases government..

  10. History may be factual or not. Practical history, as in the field of technology or the medical world is definitely worthwhile. We have grown be leaps and bounds. Yet, in the field of psychology we are cripple. Man has never come to understand himself and how he thinks. Man has mastered the elements of the earth for good and evil. However, very few have come to understand the inner world of awareness and the process of one’s own thinking. These individuals have come to understand and put to an end the birth of greed, violence, fear, conflict and sorrow.

    We must come to realize we live in two worlds, the world as it is and the world as we think about it. The sad part is, not knowing the difference between the two.

  11. In a college ‘history’ class (late 1960s) the Professor sated history was changing and that in the future historians would be expected to write “correct” history. Now I spend most of my time reading history, mixed with a little, very little archeology. I try to use ‘primary sources’ as much when I can find them. I conducted ‘oral history’ interviews with men and women of up to 103 years old. I visit the places where events were supposed to happen. History is very slippery stuff almost a collection of myths and often made up of self-serving narratives. Nevertheless it is a useful pursuit filled with useful information. It reveals that to a great degree human beings motivations, reasoning and actions (within the context of technology) have a definite pattern. To often those making decisions and putting them into action don’t know history. Of course a nation, ethnicity or race disregards history for it’s myths that support its ideals.
    “One of the duties of a historian is to separate the past as it was from all the superimpositions of imagination.” Enrique Krauze
    Krauze assumes ‘as it was’ is discoverable, from what I’m finding that is only partly true. To often what is ‘correct’ is what the reader or writer wants to believe.
    All historians need to have ‘seen the elephant’!

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