Learning lessons of history
"The biggest challenge facing the great teachers and communicators of history is not to teach history itself, nor even the lessons of history, but why history matters. How to
ignite the first spark of the will o'the wisp, the Jack o'lantern, the ignis fatuus [foolish fire] beloved of poets, which lights up one source of history and then
another, zigzagging across the marsh, connecting and linking and writing bright words across the dark face of the present. There's no phrase I can come up that will
encapsulate in a winning sound-bite why history matters. We know that history matters, we know that it is thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and
infuriating, that it is life."
Stephen Fry, Making History
"…can we possibly refuse to admit that there exist in each
of us the same generic parts and characteristics as are found in
the state? For I presume the state has not received them from any
other source. It would be ridiculous to imagine that the presence
of the spirited element in cities is not to be traced to
individuals, wherever this character is imputed to the people, as
it is to the natives of Thrace, and Scythia, and generally
speaking, of the northern countries; or the love of knowledge,
which would be chiefly attributed to our own country; or the love
of riches, which people would especially connect with the
Phoenicians and the Egyptians."
Socrates / Plato ~ who lived long, long ago ~ in Ancient Greece
It is remarkable that most men read little History. Even scholars, whose business it is to read, complain of its dullness. This fact may suggest that it is not rightly written for
it should, should it not? Correspond to the whole of the mind, to whatever is lovely and powerful. No man can think that this all-containing picture if seen in good light could
be devoid of interest. …
Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The value of history is, indeed, not scientific but moral: by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will,
it enables us to control, not society, but ourselves -- a much more important thing; it prepares us to live more humanely in the present
and to meet rather than to foretell the future."
Carl Becker, 1873-1945, U.S. historian
How possible is it to learn lessons of history?
When it comes to ' the lessons of history ' there are doubtless many things we could aspire to learn. Some of those would be more practically useful, in terms of contributing to the normal and decent functioning of well-meaning societies, than others.
On the first part of this page some quotes are presented showing how some observers express disillusionment about Humanity's
all-too-frequent failure to learn worthwhile lessons from history!
The last few quotations, on the other hand, show an appreciation that deeply important lessons about Human Existence can actually
be learnt from the study of History.
Following on from these initially dismissive, and then aspirational, overviews of the possibility of learning lessons of history some important ideas about the Study of History that
have been expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson ~ aka the Sage of Concord ~ are considered.
"We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let's face it, is mostly the history of stupidity."
"That men do not learn very
much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of
could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party
blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the
stern which shines only on the waves behind."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended
to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience
and history teach is this - that people and governments never have
learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.
Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a
condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be
regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone."
G. W. F. Hegel
"History repeats itself because no one was listening
the first time."
"Those who cannot learn from history are
doomed to repeat it."
N.B. This quote is sometimes paraphrased as:-
"If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them." (or similar)
In its original setting this "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it" quote seems to have actually read:-
"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible
improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
"Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it."
Leaving disillusionment aside we can
now turn to some glimmers of hope that
learning lessons from History is possible
"Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this,
we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents in this
as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged."
Abraham Lincoln (in the context of The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865)
"History is for human self-knowledge ... the only clue to what man can do is what man has done.
The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is."
R. G. Collingwood
"What man is,
only history tells."
"Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant
and universal principles of human nature."
Is it credible that Societies could well be often founded on Human Nature???
"Whatever concept one may hold, from a metaphysical point of view, concerning the freedom of the will, certainly its appearances,
which are human actions, like every other natural event, are determined by universal laws. However obscure their causes, history,
which is concerned with narrating these appearances, permits us to hope that if we attend to the play of freedom of the human will
in the large, we may be able to discern a regular movement in it, and that what seems complex and chaotic in the single individual
may be seen from the standpoint of the human race as a whole to be a steady and progressive though slow evolution of its original endowment."
Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View
What is the business of history? What is the
stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage
of history? Man : evidently man and human
nature. There are many different elements in history. What are they?
Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the
development of humanity, and of humanity only;
for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for
nothing else than humanity is free. ...
... Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean
all the essential elements, their mutual relations
do, as it were, discover themselves. We draw from
the nature of these different elements, if not all
their possible relations, at least their general and
Introduction to the History of Philosophy
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Or to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his famous Essay ~ History
"In old Rome the public roads beginning at the Forum
proceeded north, south, east, west, to the centre of every
province of the empire, making each market-town of Persia, Spain,
and Britain pervious to the soldiers of the capital: so out of
the human heart go, as it were, highways to the heart of every
object in nature, to reduce it under the dominion of man. A man
is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and
fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him,
and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish
foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg
presuppose air. He cannot live without a world."
"There is one mind common to all individual men....
....Of the works of this mind history is the record. Man is explicable by nothing
less than all his history. All the facts of history pre-exist as laws. Each
law in turn is made by circumstances predominant. The creation of
a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain,
America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom,
empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of this manifold spirit
to the manifold world."
Emerson, alike with very many of the thinking persons living in the USA in the eighteen-thirties who had the inclination and leisure time to interest themselves in ideas, was greatly influenced by the works of Victor Cousin!
Even before he had first read Cousin, (in 1829), he had
expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations.
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness.
(Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)
In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization.
(Journal entry of December, 1824)
Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books …
(This dates from January - February, 1828)
"The first glance at History convinces us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their characters and talents;
and impresses us with the belief that such needs, passions and interests are the sole spring of actions."
Georg Hegel, 1770-1831, German philosopher, The Philosophy of History (1837)