Learning From History


I am a big fan of a podcast called “Hardcore History.” It’s interesting to me for a number of reasons, not least among them that I love learning about history. I think that it is a very valuable thing, and I find it strange that despite our culture’s essentially ubiquitous familiarity with the famous quote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” very few people bother to even learn history, much less learn from it. Dan Carlin’s podcast, “Hardcore History,” is a good place to start.

That said, here is what’s on my mind today. As I was listening to one of these podcasts the other day, the subject was on the buildup to World War I and the war itself, the podcaster made an interesting observation. He said that after the Napoleonic Wars in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a fundamental shift in how wars were won. In times past, manpower, training, and strategy were mostly what determined the winner of a war. Yes, technology helped here and there. The English Longbow, the forging of steel, etc. Yet essentially war had not changed drastically in all of human history up to that point. (For those of you history buffs out there, we can certainly debate the merits of the phalanx versus the legion, the Mongolian advent of using a majority force equipped with ranged weapons, etc, but all of these things are innovations on the margin, and we will set them aside for now for the sake of brevity and cohesion.) Alexander the Great’s army could conceivably have faced the Carolingian army from a thousand years later and won.

After the Napoleonic Wars, this sort of thing was no longer the case. War technology was shifting so quickly that every fifteen years a new army would be able to utterly obliterate the army of fifteen years prior. The American WWII army would have ruined the American WWI army, which would have destroyed the American Spanish War army, which would have obliterated the civil war army, which would have easily conquered the revolutionary army. Never before in history had the mere fact that time had passed meant so much to a nation’s fighting ability. All of the sudden air warfare was on the scene as an entirely new, unstudied branch of war. Submarines became effective. Machine guns meant that a single man could wipe out an entire company if it was exposed. Every few years man surpassed the war-making ability of their ancestors, and historically speaking this was an anomaly.

Apart from being a fascinating topic of study for its own sake, this idea of technology allowing modern fighting forces to be so drastically superior to their forerunners makes me wonder how our worldview has been shaped as a people growing up in this world. Historically, it is bizarre that every fifteen years (less, even) a fighting force becomes overwhelmingly superior to what it once was, but we all grew up with the understanding that this is just how the world works. There is no question that great scientific and technological strides have been made (setting the moral debate aside for the moment), but I would offer this hypothesis: this trend of quick obsolescence makes us arrogant.

Most of us are not trying to be arrogant, I think, but there is this sort of tacit understanding that we are better than our fathers. That we’re more enlightened than our grandparents. That our great-grandparents were bigots and our great-great-grandparents were barbarians. Here is the problem with this widely accepted idea:

We stand on their shoulders.

In both a technological sense and otherwise we stand on their shoulders. I once read a book by scientific historian James Hannam (I believe it was in his book, forgive me if I err) in which he very poignantly asks the question, ‘If you had to demonstrate that the world revolves around the sun, could you do it?’ Some of you, perhaps, but I would wager not many, and those of you that can, remember that it is much easier to figure out a problem when you already know the correct solution. Our place in time was not by our own choosing. The triumphs of ages past do not belong to us. We are the dwarf who stands atop the shoulders of a giant, seeing farther than them both, but we forget that there is a giant beneath us, so we believe ourselves taller than any who have ever gone before us.

Man is still man. For all of our incredible war machines and instruments of labor and cars and airplanes and smart phones, these all yet require a person to operate them. I am well convinced that if we took an ancient Mesopotamian and adopted him into our society, after the culture shock wore off he could be coding in C++ in very little time. He could be taught how to drive a car. He could learn to do the things we do, because man doesn’t change and we are not smarter than our fathers. There is a lot to learn from them, in fact, but our arrogance often keeps us from doing so.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Believing those from the past to be inferior to ourselves is an excellent way to avoid learning from history.


3 comments on “Learning From History

  1. Nate Gabriel says:

    This is great. I agree unreservedly.
    I mean, we probably *are* more intelligent because of environmental effects like technology allowing us to get all the right nutrients in early childhood, but that’s just more standing on other people’s shoulders.

    • Thanks, Nate! I would respond to your point of us being more intelligent today as being a dubious proposition at best, for a few reasons. I have not done enough research on this, but I’m told that in days past when the rivers were allowed to overflow and flood the land every few years the result was a richer, more mineral-dense soil that provided more nutritious crops than those we consume today. Also, when we think of people from the past we tend to think of Europe in the middle ages for some reason. I’m not speaking of poor, disheveled, oppressed people who were forced into serfdom. These people didn’t write much, naturally. The writings we have from the past are largely from those individuals who were blessed to be born into either a) prosperity or b) a well-developed empire. In both cases, malnutrition would hardly have been an issue.

      It is so easy to think that we are smarter than those who have gone before us. It simply isn’t true.

      • Nate Gabriel says:

        I don’t know, I’d bet that we have better early childhood nutrition than the average historical empire. Also probably less infectious diseases to affect development and definitely better literacy. Literacy’s probably an unfair comparison, though. I can totally agree that being from the future doesn’t make us any better or intrinsically smarter, but I’d be surprised if the extrinsic environmental factors have no effect, for pretty much the same reasons we’re slightly taller than our ancestors. It’s also easy to think that nothing really changes, but some things do change. I think this is more likely than not one of them.

        Plus, the Mesopotamians didn’t have Mozart, and as everyone knows listening to Mozart is responsible for like 95% of intelligence enhancement.

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