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.
Uncompromised, uncompromising news
Get reliable, independent news and commentary delivered to your inbox every day.
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.