Edmund Burke: those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.
Samuel Clemens: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
William Gibson: If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increased communal prosthetic memory…
We live in arguably the most history-aware time in the evolution of human civilization. Yet, does it matter? More history books are written each year than in the previous five thousand, and we still seem to continue stumbling forward into the future; making the same mistakes; learning nothing. Rinse and repeat. Perhaps history is irrelevant because the future is now irrelevant, as Gibson alludes in his quote. Perhaps all we need to do now is adjust ourselves to this new “endless digital Now” and let the future take care of itself. Bliss.
And yet knowledge is power. History is not about learning dates, it’s about studying human nature. History is the one great teacher of the human condition; to study it is to peer through the lens of time deep into the human soul. History doesn’t repeat itself because we don’t know it. History repeats itself because humans have not fundamentally changed in five thousand years of recorded history. History teaches us that people almost always react similarly when placed in similar situations. Consequently, it allows us to infer how people will probably react in similar situations in the future. Even in today’s endless digital now; perhaps even more so, given the current flippant attitude towards the lessons history has to teach us.
Does it matter when that last tree was cut down on Easter Island? No. What matters is the lesson: that when faced with dire circumstances, people will prefer to find solace in worshiping mythology over accepting hard reality. Does it matter when Hitler invaded Poland? No. What matters is the lesson: that wars are almost always instigated and perpetuated by the delusions of grandeur that is the heroin of dictators and totalitarian regimes. Does it matter when genocide struck Rwanda? No. What matters is the lesson: how easily people are turned against one another, such that tribal differences and revenge become more important than unification against oppression.
If you want to understand why people are currently in such denial about climate change, study Easter Island and replace “mythology” with ‘technology’. Not concerned with presidential power grabs and the concept of a “strong” executive branch? Then consider that history teaches that concentration of power almost always leads to delusions of grandeur. Confused as to why people continue to vote against their economic interests? Study Rwanda and think about tribalism, and human nature. These are the insights that history teaches us. This is why it will always be relevant.
The fundamental lesson of history is that we are destined to repeat it whether we study it or not. But that does not mean there is nothing to learn from it. Indeed, while ignorance may be bliss, another fundamental lesson of history is that those who don’t study it are easily manipulated by those who have. So, you can be played, or you can wise up.
Study your history.