In a previous post, I explained that I am interested in history because I love stories. Not everyone shares this interest, however, and they reasonably ask why they ought to study history at all. Peter Stearns offers a strong response to this objection and describes the many practical benefits of an historical education. Often, these justifications get dumbed down to some variation of the old cliché: “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”
The irony of this statement is that anyone who does bother to read history discovers that it is, in fact, one long chronicle of the same mistakes being repeated over and over again. Only the costumes change.
Well, not just the costumes, of course. Circumstances and conditions can change quite a lot from one era to the next. Bronze gives way to iron. Horse drawn carriages give way to automobiles. The belief that we become ill due to imbalances in “humors” yields to germ theory.
With all this apparent progress, then, why do we continue making the same errors again and again? A careful reading of history reveals the answer. The lesson–which is rarely discussed in history classes because it contradicts dearly held modern notions–is that one very important domain remains untouched by the relentless march of progress: human nature itself.
My little daughter Helen, born just three months ago into the most technologically advanced and materially wealthy culture the world has ever known, is running the same basic “software” as a little girl born into a hunter-gatherer tribe 15,000 years ago.
If history doesn’t convince you, literature will. Read Shakespeare and you will find yourself encountering characters who live in a dramatically different world from your own. Look past the cultural set-dressing, however, and you’ll find people just like yourself. The same ambition to amount to something. The same blinding infatuation of new love. The same grief at the death of a loved one. The same sense of bewilderment and rage in the face of betrayal. And the same desire to transcend all of this, to somehow reach for something higher or better.
If you take an interest in evolutionary psychology, you will find that it confirms what the great artists and historians have been telling us all along. Namely, that basic human psychology has remained largely unchanged in the face of all our material and scientific progress.
That may seem like a grim reality, but there is good news. The history, literature, art, and philosophy of past ages applies as much to you as it did to the people who created it. The great treasure house of human wisdom–from the cave paintings of paleolithic times to the novels of Flannery O’Connor–are yours.
Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Paradise Lost, and The Great Gatsby were written by and for people just like you. Confucius, Epictetus, the Buddha, and Augustine are speaking to you. Michaelangelo, Turner, Bosho, Rodin, and Dogen have made things for you.
I have seen The David,
Seen the Mona Lisa, too.
And I have heard Doc Watson
sing Columbus Stockade Blues.
-Guy Clark, Dublin Blues