Why History? (2: Lessons)

History comes from the ancient Greek word historia which means “to enquire” or “knowledge”. And that is what history is, a vast repository of knowledge that we can enquire into. About, well, anything.

We need history because it can be the best educator you will ever require. Any decision you or I, our governments, our armies make, can find the reasoning to back it up (or to abandon the course) in the past. We need history so we can learn from the mistakes of the past, in order to avoid making them in the future.

One of the great consistent failures in humanity is not an inability to recognise the mistakes of the past, but a failure to learn from them and avoid those mistakes. Past experience can never prove the future, but the correct study of history in line with other modern factors can provide you with the best possible outlook.

Some things are always in flux, but certain historical constants are permanent. We need to study history – you need to study history – to correctly identify what those constants are. Is the rise of democracy a historical constant or a trend? Will people always rebel over higher taxes, when will they submit? How will this TD vote? What is the best route for my army to cross the desert? How can you even begin to claim to know the answers to all of these questions without the study of the past, without knowing how all of those who came before did it (or failed to do it)?

“Generals always fight the last war” is a simplistic but accurate summation of the problem regarding this idea. Too many people ignore history in their lives and decision making, deluding themselves into thinking that they and their time are somehow special, unique, free from the burdens that held others back in the past. This is a grave misjudgement, a rejection of history that has so often doomed men and women. To use another military quotation “We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should make use of that experience.” Some things change. Many things don’t. Sometimes, you should fight the last war.

The trick is determining whether the study of past events can aid you in the present or whether it is a waste of time (no pun intended). New problems for the human species do pop up occasionally, but only rarely. For the vast majority of the decisions and events that define our lives – in the last year for example, the Arab Spring, recession, Republican nomination choices – all have a foundation in their course from historical events, and all of them could have been predicted (or even changed) with the correct study of history and applications of its lessons.

History is the science that is most effective for doing this. The more established social sciences are useful, but as mentioned in my first post, no other discipline has the scope or longevity of history. Study history, so you can do better than those that came before.

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