The Lessons of History

Posted By August 12, 1998 No Comments
Among the many transgressions of the Institute is the frequent citing of the “lessons of history.” Nor are we alone in brandishing the authority of Clio [a pretentious reference to the Muse of History]. However, aside from an extremely scarce volume from Will Durant, nobody appears to have listed what they regard as the lessons of history. After some consultation with our usual sounding boards, here is a partial list of 21 “lessons of history”. We await additional ones.
1. Nobody learns from history. What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments have never learned any thing from history, or acted on the principles deduced from it – G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History
2. Human motivations never change while our worldviews and expressions often do. Hi! Ni! Behold the man offlint, that’s me! Four lightnings zigzag from me and return. – A Navaho War Chant and earlier way of saying … Yea, though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for I am the meanest A/Cg”JiI’j;i’i’$-i1r in it. – US Special Forces unofficial slogan.
3. Problems don’t always have solutions. My only solution for the problem of habitual accidents and, so far, nobody has asked me for my solution, is to stay in bed all day. Even then, there is always the chance that you will fall out. – Robert Benchley, Chips off the old Benchley
4. Violence does solve problems or else changes them. That war is an evil is something that we all know, and it would be pointless to go on cataloguing all the disadvantages involved in it. No one is forced into war by ignorance, nor, if he thinks he will gain from it, is he kept out of it by fear. The fact is that one side think that the profits to be won outweigh the risks to be incurred, and the other side is ready to face danger rather than accept an immediate loss. – Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Wars
5. What goes around, comes around. Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. – Matthew 7:12 (King James version).
6. Trouble slides in on an exponential curve. Go, sir, gallop, and don ‘t forget that the world was made in six days. You can ask me for anything you like, except time. – Napoleon Bonaparte.
7. Never discount randomness. A little neglect may breed great mischief. . .for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and/or want of a horse the rider was lost. – Benjamin Franklin, Preface: Courteous Reader
8. History doesn’t repeat itself; it just looks that way. Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave … – H.A.L. Fisher, History of Europe
9. Progression’s not inevitable. For civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or its transmission may bring it to an end. – Will Durant; Our Oriental Heritage.
10. Today’s radical may be tomorrow’s conservative. What have we learned by the middle of the journey? In brief,’ that the radical future is an illusion and that the American present is worth defending; and that we were part of a destructive generation whose work is not over yet. – Peter Collier & David Horowitz, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ’60s.
11. Judge intentions by core interest and power bases, not by statements. With affection beaming in one eye, and calculation shining out of the other. – Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit.
12. Good doesn’t always triumph. o judgement! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason. – Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Ill, ii [110].
13. All politicians are crooked. Politicians [are] a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who, to say the most of them, are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from honest men. I say this with the greater freedom because, being a politician myself, none can regard it as personal. – Abraham Lincoln, Speech 1837
14. God does march on the side with the biggest battalions. Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not. – Hilaire Belloc “The Modern Traveller”
15. It is a mistake to legislate people’s behaviour. Adam was but human – this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple ‘s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. – Mark Twain, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson
16. Mother Nature is more dangerous than we are. “Since the beginning of history malaria has killed half of the men, women and children that have died on the planet. It has outperformed all wars, allfamines and all other epidemics. – Andrew Nikiforuk. The Fourth Horseman
17. Talent only appears when the circumstances are right. When a rising generation of educated people does not have to worry about securing its livelihood, about choice of profession, when it does not feel obligated to become accountants 0 ]’ lawyers, and can risk becoming artists or philosophers, or founding new theatres, or writing poetry, because it knows it can always find the means for making a living, that period always witnesses a cultural explosion. – Norman Cantor, The American Century
18. Keep governments on a lean diet – or else. The Emperor’s unnwnerable officials kept an eye even upon the humblest citizen … staggering under his crushing buyden of taxes, in a state which was practically bankrupt, the citizen of every class had now become a mere cog in the vast machinery of government. In so far as the ancient world was one of progress in civilisation, its history ended ‘with the accession of Diocletian. – lH. Breasted, Ancient Times
19. The main factors are out of our hands. To discuss civilization is to discuss space, land and its contours, climate, vegetal ion, animal species and natural or other advantages. It is also to discuss what humanity has made of these basic conditions. – Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations
20. Never trust those who would hammer square pegs illto round holes. Anyone who had once learned to submit absolutely to a collective beliefand to renounce his eternal right to freedom and the equally eternal duty o/’individual responsibility will persist in this attitude, and will be able to set out with the same credulity and the same lack of criticism in the reverse direction, if another and manifestly ‘beller’ beliefisfoisted upon his alleged idealism. – Carl G. Jung. The Undiscovered Self
21. Never attribute to cleverness that which is explainable by stupidity, serendipity and error. The chapter of accidents is the longest chapter in the book. – John Wilkes, attributed