Learning from history

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Fri, 2006-08-25 03:16

It's said that “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It might also be said that those who are unable to learn from history -- or who don't even know their history -- cannot honestly expect to have their ill-formed and baseless opinions taken seriously. History has many lessons for those both alert enough to identify them and honest enough not to evade them:

  • From the Dark Ages comes the lesson that taken together faith, mysticism, an ethic of blind sacrifice and a focus on some non-existent other world leads to dirt-poor misery in this one. (The same lesson can be learned either from the thousand years of the Western Dark Ages, or from what looks to be at least a thousand years of Islamic Dark Ages.)
  • The Inquisition and Islamic jihad between them show the truth of Voltaire's dictum that those who believe absurdities tend to commit atrocities.
  • From the Enlightenment comes the lesson that between them reason and a focus on this world provide a way out of the darkness.
  • The Industrial Revolution shows that reason applied to production leads to an enormous increase in human welfare, (and from it also comes the further lesson that reason is man's unique means of survival).
  • That the Industrial Revolution happened first and most spectacularly in Britain shows that a legal environment protecting freedom and property rights is necessary for such a revolution to happen and to endure.
  • The relative success of the US Constitution shows that if you know what you're about that it's possible to tie up the government to protect freedom and property rights at least some of the time.
  • From two World Wars and a century of slaughter comes the lesson that totalitarian state worship is not the route to human happiness.
  • From the bloody failures of collectivism comes the lesson that 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need' is a recipe for human sacrifice and bloody slaughter.
  • From the rise of Nazism comes the lesson that appeasement rewards the aggressor; that all evil requires is for good men to do nothing.
  • From the Holocaust comes the lesson of the banality of evil, and the evil of blindly following orders.
  • From the spectular post-war economic successes of Germany and Japan comes the lesson that trade and capitalism are better than totalitarianism and bloody conquest.
  • From the rise of the Asian Tiger economies comes the lesson (again) that freedom and prosperity are directly and inextricably linked.
  • From the Fall of the Berlin Wall comes the lesson that non-freedom and poverty are also and inextricably linked.
  • The continuing fatwah on Salman Rushdie; the murders of Theo van Gogh, Daniel Pearl, Nick Berg and Paul Marshall Johnson; the deaths of September 11 and the bombings of Bali, Madrid and London -- between them the lesson is there that war has been declared between barbarity and civilisation.

All these lessons are there for those who choose to open their eyes and learn them. Taken together, the lesson from the events of history is that reason, individualism and capitalism are a recipe for health, wealth and happiness in this world, and their polar opposites a prescription only for death, misery and destruction.

UPDATE: Speaking of history, Stephen Hicks has just spent two hours he didn't have exploring this great timeline history of the universe (right). Ignore his warning at your peril.

LINK: Timeline history of the universe - JohnKyrk.Com

TAGS: History, Philosophy, Ethics, Politics, Objectivism

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Good points

Jeff Perren's picture


All excellent points. Although, picking up and moving is not really all that easy, your basic theme is completely sound.



James Heaps-Nelson's picture


Yes, the renaissance also had globalization and technological advancement, but the wherewithal to vote with your feet for a large section of the population wasn't there. Today, if a business owner finds that American workers are too lazy or cost too much, he can go directly to India, China, Malaysia or Vietnam. Today, capital flows worldwide to areas that are least taxed. Biology research goes to the UK, South Korea and Sweden where it is less regulated.

Countries and businesses are brutally punished for bad policy and bad strategy. This trend will only accelerate. If we manage to keep the terrorists in check, global markets will force changes from governments willy nilly.


Partly True

Jeff Perren's picture


"However, there are trends that aren't captured very well by history such as our rapid technological advancement and unprecedented globalization."

Only partly true, I think. 800 years ago, the world was mostly Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. As the Middle Ages evolved into the Renaissance, trade routes expanded and technology developed. There are many parallels today to that period.

One that's scarcely noted today is how much like the Middle Ages is the thinking in many modern schools, corporations, and American society in general. The environmental movement, just to pick one concrete example, would feel completely at home in that period. The mistrust of reason, the collectivism, the anti-materialism that threads throughout American culture is medieval.

There are countervailing trends, other threads, but these are defintely present.

See, history informs even the items you mentioned.


True. I didn't mean to suggest that history is the ONLY source of data. But without history you get only very short term data. MUCH harder to know what to do with it, without the longer term, larger perspective.


James Heaps-Nelson's picture

I rebelled against the paternal side of my family and studied engineering instead of history or literature. My father was a PhD in Latin American History.

There are recurring patterns in history: Hitler failed in Russia for many of the same reasons Napoleon did. The peace on Nicias between Athens and Sparta ended much the same way the agreement at Yalta between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

However, there are trends that aren't captured very well by history such as our rapid technological advancement and unprecedented globalization.


Reality . . .

User hidden's picture

is the data of philosophy. That includes the things that happened in the past, but not exclusively. There is plenty of reality around us all the time to induce Objectivism. Not that I don't think history helps. Even Ayn Rand said the data of the Industrial Revolution made her be able to discover Objectivism, but existence, consciousness, people, etc are always here and always have been for data.


A blast from the past!

Marcus's picture

On a related note, Aldous Huxley, made Henry Ford the founding father of a self-negating futuristic society in "Brave New World". Ford was always quoted by his followers as saying that "history is bunk".

This book review just popped up in nature as one example of what history is good for....

Nature 442, 871(24 August 2006)

A blast from the past
Sandra Knapp1

-The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe
by Brian W. Ogilvie

In his beautifully crafted book The Science of Describing, Brian Ogilvie shows that history has much to teach us. His detailed examination of how the science of natural history developed in the two centuries before Linnaeus has lessons for all scientists, not just biologists.

Natural history is often thought to be an old-fashioned, out-of-date discipline, but go to any scientific meeting on genomics and you will hear talk after talk about what might be called the natural history of the genome. We are in a new era of discovery extraordinarily similar to that of the Renaissance natural historians. Ogilvie's book throws up parallels by exploring the development of natural history, focusing on botany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when plants were better studied than animals and information about them was a currency in the scholarly world.

Humanist tendencies to value empirical experience over theory were critical to the development of what Ogilvie calls the "science of describing" — the accurate description and documentation of what Renaissance scholars observed. Ogilvie argues against the idea that there was a seamless line leading from medieval botanical herbalism to today's natural history, as many of us were taught. Instead, he makes the case that the Renaissance studiosi (mostly botanists) rejected the teaching of the ancients and the necessity of utility as a primary concern in their work. They were more concerned with documenting what they saw, and, importantly, with assessing the evidence, figuring out whether the descriptions they were given were accurate or not.

As European exploration of the world gathered pace, the number of new plants and animals to be described exploded. This expansion of experience coupled with the weighting of objects over texts meant that these men (and they were all men) were dealing with a fact-rich universe — just as we are today. Travellers' tales — second-hand descriptions of animals such as walruses and reindeer, or plants such as cloves or bananas — presented a problem. Who to believe, other than one's own eyes? What 'knowledge' was reliable?

Because these men were trying to document what Douglas Adams called "Life, the Universe and Everything", nothing could be left out. To cope with this, the Renaissance studiosi developed a technique that we still use (and perhaps misuse) today: citation. Sources were carefully compared, dependent sources were acknowledged, and all were part of the description itself. This way, everyone knew where the information had come from, and could weigh and assess it themselves. But it was not enough just to trust authority blindly. Independent corroboration — a cornerstone of the modern scientific method — was also the central tenet of Renaissance natural history.

We already know that the methods we use today were invented by our antecedents, so what does this book have to tell today's scientists, working in the molecular and electronic age? Maybe not a lot in terms of the detail, unless you are fascinated by what other people did, as I am. But if you allow your mind to freewheel while reading the book, many resonances will begin to emerge. Issues we are coping with today were also issues in the Renaissance, such as standardization, coping with a superfluity of data and the limits of technology. Standardization allows collaboration: the Renaissance natural historians had a 'Republic of Letters'; we have multidisciplinary, multinational teams. Technology in the Renaissance was in part limited by human memory; today we have machines and computers that can do basically anything.

This book is not only about the development of a discipline in an exciting time, but about how science is done. The trajectory of science is never-ending, but what fascinates me is that so much that our predecessors did has come around again, albeit in a different guise. Yet the solutions to these problems are as varied as the communities in which we work. We are all limited in our own ways. Ogilvie uses the example of the sundew to illustrate how Renaissance botanists were blind to certain things — they never seem to have noticed the plant's ability to trap insects. We can laugh at this oversight now, but what are we missing about the behaviour of subatomic particles or transposable elements?

As a natural historian, I enjoyed Ogilvie's history of my discipline. After reading the book, however, I feel he has done more than just write about the Renaissance science of describing; he has written the story of how science constantly reinvents itself, seen through the lens of the pre-Linnaeans. I recommend this book to everyone: not only will you laugh at the descriptions of the walrus and the banana, but it will make you think in a different way about how and why you do what you do.


Melissa Lepley's picture

I think history helps teach us social cause-and-effect.

Observation and experimentation of the physical world teaches us about physics, which allows us to understand why things happen in nature. History is the observation and experimentation of society. While I'm not espousing the "social sciences"...seeing what happened and why in the past can help predict the repercussions of actions in the present. It's certainly not perfect, and can't be called a "science", but it's far better than stumbling towards the future blind and deaf.

Of course, I love learning about history, so I'm hardly impartial...



Teaching History is Essential

Jeff Perren's picture


Among many other possible responses, just one quick one.

Since history is the data of philosophy, where would these ideas come from?

At best his view is an extreme form of fantasy combined with Rationalism.

Brilliant post PC ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

.... and Sandi, de Bono is a pretentious, hugely over-rated fool. Forget him! Smiling

Your post is well

Sandi's picture

Your post is well documented, but may I toss a spanner around the room?

I read a book which really took my attention, many years ago from Edward De Bono "I Am Right You Are Wrong"

Edward insisted that it was not such a good thing to teach history in schools, moreover, why spend time looking over your shoulders instead of looking towards where you are going.

He was as bold as to state that history was a waste of time in education and it was a hinderance. Children should be looking forwards for ideas and never be subjected to the influence of history.

When initially reading reading this, I thought "bloody marvellous", now a few years later, I would love to hear Soloists opinions?

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