“Let us study things that are no more. It is necessary to know them, if only for the purpose of avoiding them. The counterfeits of the past assume false names, and gladly call themselves the future.” - Victor Hugo
I have a deep love of history. In fact, it was my minor in college and to a large degree was my focus through later life in graduate school. It was not merely that history told interesting stories of success, ingenuity, and new adventure. Those are interesting and inspiring, of course. Whether you’re talking about the great stand of soldiers at the Battle of Marathon, the miraculous rescue of soldiers from Dunkirk, or the first landing on the moon, the victories of history are compelling and should inspire us to never settle for complacency. But more than anything my interest in history came from looking at the mistakes, tragedies, and paradoxes of the past. For me, there was always a moral and existential curiosity to why humanity has done what it’s done when it appears to trespass on its own code of conduct. Why have we failed the way we have? How did we justify certain behaviors that we have justified? How have we, historically, been a species that is both able to triumph above the supposed limits of what it means to be human and yet, at the same time, choose to act (sometimes simultaneously) in very subhuman ways?
I think this is what has drawn me to the World War Two era more than anything. The recency of that war is enough to break any illusion that the massive failures of humanity lay into the depths of the past. While the generations of that war are slowly diminishing, there are still hundreds of thousands of individuals living who watched their parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends be marched at the butt of a gun into extermination. And the paradox that some of those holding the guns went home to be with their wives and children, who would have seen the murder of their own family as a great evil, who would have fought tooth and nail to protect them, is a paradox that spans history and many different situations. In almost every society within every period of history we see the routine excuses made by those who have acted one way in one circle while pretending to be something else in another.
We live in a world in which “progress” is seen as realistically plausible as long as we keep our eyes and ears set on the path before us. Where, for the most part, we are not taught to look on history as a guide but rather something we have moved on from. This, of course, is one of the lasting myths of modernity: a notion that we have gotten to where we are because we’ve been working our way up out of the past (for example, “classical education” is contrasted with contemporary education primarily because it sees the past as something we should always be looking at if we want to be moving forward)! But this is a dangerous assumption. It says, in effect, “we don’t even need to look at the past because if we keep marching ahead we will eventually outpace all the evil of the past.”
Evil cannot be outpaced for it always is present in different forms, with various justifications, excuses, and rationalizations. This is what Victor Hugo, author of The Les Miserables, calls the “counterfeits of the past” masquerading themselves as “the future.” I might even add “the present.” The benefit of looking through the lens of history is that you get to see the kind of rationalizations and justifications people gave to their evils and injustices. Almost every society at every time has decided that one population group or another deserves less value and personhood than another. Almost every society at every time has been willing to look the other direction when injustices are being done outside of their immediate region, especially if looking in that direction would make life more difficult (we rationalize our comfort not necessarily by making excuses but by pretending we don’t see things in the first place). And, yet, almost every society at every time has seen itself as the pinnacle of progress. They look down on those that came before them without asking how the future will look back on them. I wonder, sometimes, what injustices and evils the year of 2,100 will look back on regarding my time and think “how could they have even thought or behaved this way?”
C.S. Lewis once called “experience, the most brutal of teachers.” I wholeheartedly agree. But I think history is a close second. Though we may, ourselves, lack the experience we can rely on the experience of others. And typically, if we do not look at our history to learn from it, we will find ourselves needing to deal with it through experience.
Questions to Consider
- What is one lesson from history that you believe our contemporary society is forgetting?
- If experience is the most brutal of teachers and history--the study of other people’s experiences--is the second most brutal of teachers,