This is a brief collection of thoughts on history and its importance for us today, culled from the web and printed sources. I do not necessarily identify with them, but find them thought-provoking and certainly wise in their own way. For more extensive discussions, see the other sites in “Why History I” here on my webpage:
Emil Cioran: “We have convictions only if we have studied nothing thoroughly.”
History Helps Us Understand People and Societies
In the first place, history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave. Understanding the operations of people and societies is difficult, though a number of disciplines make the attempt. An exclusive reliance on current data would needlessly handicap our efforts. How can we evaluate war if the nation is at peace – unless we use historical materials? How can we understand genius, the influence of technological innovation, or the role that beliefs play in shaping family life, if we don’t use what we know about experiences in the past?
History Helps Us Understand Change and How the Society We Live in Came to Be
The second reason history is inescapable as a subject of serious study follows closely on the first. The past causes the present, and so the future. Any time we try to know why something happened——whether a shift in political party dominance in the American Congress, a major change in the teenage suicide rate, or a war in the Balkans or the Middle East——we have to look for factors that took shape earlier. Sometimes fairly recent history will suffice to explain a major development, but often we need to look further back to identify the causes of change. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change.
History Provides Identity
History also helps provide identity, and this is unquestionably one of the reasons all modern nations encourage its teaching in some form. Historical data include evidence about how families, groups, institutions and whole countries were formed and about how they have evolved while retaining cohesion.
History Teaches How to Analyze Our World
The study of history builds experience in dealing with and assessing various kinds of evidence—the sorts of evidence historians use in shaping the most accurate pictures of the past that they can. Learning how to interpret the statements of past political leaders—one kind of evidence—helps form the capacity to distinguish between the objective and the self-serving among statements made by present-day political leaders.
Why study history? Because we are human beings, possess a memory, function by using experience, our own and that of others.
Alexander Pope: Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; / he proper study of mankind is man.
Bertrand Russell: History is invaluable in increasing our knowledge of human nature, because it shows how people may be expected to behave in new situations. Many prominent men and women are completely ordinary in character, and only exceptional in their circumstances.
George Santayana: Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.
We could, perhaps, revise that by saying, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned,” period.
In the final analysis history solves and settles nothing. We cannot and must not hope for final solutions. History shows us something far more valuable for our living purposes. It is perhaps the best means to achieving full consciousness of both necessity and freedom, permanence and change – of the always difficult but honorable terms of mortality, on which human beings have repeatedly failed, and in failure have created deathless values. In this consciousness we may know more freedom amid our necessities, more rest amid change. (Gerhard Rempel)
St Augustine, Confessions 11, 20: Three Kinds of Time:
It is now plain and clear that neither past nor future are existent, and that it is not properly stated that there are three times, past, present, and future. But perhaps it might properly be said that here are three times, the present of things past, the present of things present, and the present of things future. These three things are in the soul, but elsewhere I do not see them: the present of things past is in memory; the present of things present is in intuition; the present of things future is in expectation. If we are permitted to say this, then I see three times, and I affirm that there are three times. It may also be said that there are three times, past, present, and future, as common usage incorrectly puts it.
He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever. (Chinese proverb)
He who breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom. (J.R.R. Tolkien)
He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. (Albert Einstein)
He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass. (George Herbert)
He who can take no interest in what is small, will take false interest in what is great.
He who fails to prepare, prepares to fail
He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool. Shun him. He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a child. Teach him. He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep. Wake him. He who knows and knows that he knows is a wise man. Follow him. (Arab Proverb)
History is a set of lies agreed upon by the victors.
History is a set of lies agreed upon by the victors.
He who blames others has a long way to go on his journey. He who blames himself is halfway there. He who blames no one has arrived. (Chinese Proverb)
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thoughts out of Season, Part II: The Use and Abuse of History, Schopenhauer as Educator. Trans. Adrian Collins (New York: Russell & Russell, 1964)
“The fact that life does need the service of history must be as clearly grasped as that an excess of history hurts it . . . . History is necessary to the living man in three ways: in relation to his action and struggle, his conservatism and reverence, his suffering and his desire for deliverance. . . . History is necessary above all to the man of action and power who fights a great fight and needs examples, teachers and comforters. . . The great moments in the individual battle form a chain, a high road for humanity through the ages, and the highest points of those vanished moments are yet great and living for men; and this is the fundamental idea of the belief in humanity, that finds a voice in the demand for a ‘monumental’ history” (16-17).
“What is the use to the modern man of this ‘monumental’ contemplation of the past, this preoccupation with the rare and classic? It is the knowledge that the great thing existed and was therefore possible, and so may be possible again.” (19).
“If the man who will produce something great, have need of the past, he makes himself its master by means of monumental history: the man who can rest content with the traditional and venerable, uses the past as an ‘antiquarian historian’: and only he whose heart is oppressed by an instant need, and who will cast the burden off at any price, feels the want of ‘critical history,’ the history that judges and condemns. There is much harm wrought by wrong and thoughtless planting: the critic without the need, the antiquary without piety, the knower of the great deed who cannot be the doer of it, are plants that have grown to weeds, they are torn from their native soil and therefore degenerate.” (23)