Musings – How We Ought To Think About History

I often find myself frustrated with the lack of historical perspective present in contemporary political discourse. History is something pundits have little use for– why bother when one can blame society’s problems on the politicians one wishes driven out of office? This proclivity to see evil only in the machinations of one’s political opponents is not without consequences. It shortens our strategic vision, undermines our ability to plan on the long scale, and horribly distorts our perceptions of humanity’s workings.

It is common to say that Rome was not built in a day. This saying, uttered oft without thought, contains more wisdom than most will allow it. Rome was not built in one day. Nor in a year, or even a decade. It was through centuries of tribulation and toil Rome found its glory.

Rome was not an anomaly. History has yet to provide a kingdom whose rise was bounded by a single night and day; the annals of the past record no empires who fell twixt sun’s rise and set. It is an opposite pattern that has ruled since the days of antiquity. Those few events that fundamentally and irrevocably change the course of human affairs span generations and define eras. The important dates we were told to memorize in grade school – battles, ascensions, speeches, and sackings – are simply guide posts used to mark the way.

This distinction is missed by most with whom I discuss matters of society and state. The problems and concerns of today are just that – concerns of today. For most, the days of Reagan are as far back into the past as the eyes should gaze. Anything beyond that is history, and history is a world apart.

This is not to say that history is seen as completely useless. To the contrary, history is pulled into political discussions all the time. But this is done is search of lessons, patterns, and laws. History becomes a textbook – a list of isolated patterns and examples the modern man is supposed to consult before he embarks on his journeys.

Things could be worse. We could be paying history no attention at all. I am gladdened to see that history is offered a place in our debates. I truly am. Yet as glad as I am to see my countrymen concern themselves with history, I worry about the unintended consequences of the way many approach it. Those who approach history looking for lessons are sure to find them. Remarkably less sure are the veracity of these lessons. It is all too easy to project patterns onto a past that containing only chaos. Easier still is to find moral axioms in records written in shades of gray. More oft than not, history of the lesson book is history of the dogmatist.

Intelligent men and women can work around this, of course. It is quite easy once one realizes that reality is messy, difficult to separate into variables dependent and independent, and populated by only a few with a claim to the title of devil or saint. Harder to work around is the assumption implicit in any attempt to search the ancient then for lessons applicable to the present now: the very division of existence into a “then” and a “now”.

This division makes little sense. It is a barrier that atomizes us from our past, arbitrarily separating our lives from the forces that formed them. That is the thing about history: it is an ongoing process. The trends and transformations that fashioned our grandparents still work upon us today. History cannot be relegated to the past,  for history is happening now. I find that the benefits of studying history are rarely present in the case examples such study may find, but in history’s unparalleled ability to explain how things are and will be. History provides a unique tool to humanity: the opportunity to see reality through the Long View.

The other day (via Fabius Maximus) I came across an exemplary example of what happens when you put this type of thinking put to work:

It is an easy thing to say America’s financial system is broken; it is another thing altogether to show how it became so. In this latter task the author brilliantly succeeds. Key to the essay’s success is the author’s conscious choice to view events through the perspective of the Long View. Eschewing easy partisan shots on Washington’s current administration (or the last), the author searches deep for the roots of our current crisis… and finds them stretching back to 1913. What follows is a history, leading to the present day, of the events that have pushed America down the road of state corporatism.

It is my suggestion that you read the whole thing. Read it, and remember that the events of today are best seen with a Long View.

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