"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 25, 2016

Learning From The Past–Why Is It So Difficult?

There is one thing about the past – it definitely does repeat itself.  So why, then, is it so difficult to predict the future?

Shakespeare’s Histories are a testament to the inevitable recycling of history.  Although his plays were stories of far different characters – Richard III, Henry IV, Henry VIII, John, and Richard II – the dramas they played out were predictably similar.  Palace intrigues, family squabbles, war, civil strife, greed,  power struggles, and murder.  Human nature might produce dismal, sorry outcomes; but the tales of how kings, princes, and consorts conspire and plot to achieve their ends are rip-roaring adventures.  Which was why Shakespeare wrote in the first place.  Not to illustrate the Grand Mechanism of History (Jan Kott), and its perpetually turning wheels, but to show off the infinite varieties of greed, arrogance, amorality, and canny deviousness.  


Richard, Iago, Edmund, Dionyza, and Tamora are compelling because of the evil they do.  The malevolent treachery of Richard is not new, but who can turn their eyes away from this twisted, frightening, and cruel man?

                    Titus Andronicus www.lecturalia.com

Shakespeare could not predict the events of history, only their character.  It was inevitable, thanks to human nature, that human beings would always act out of the same motives, aspirations, fears, and desires. Their self-protective, self-interested, and violently aggressive nature would always be expressed in the same way, although with varying degrees of difference.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason (1905).  As correct as the observation may seem, it misses the point – history repeats itself no matter what.  Even a cursory look at events over the last 1000 years if not before, shows this to be true.  Nothing really has changed since early dynasties of China, medieval English monarchies, Renaissance Popes, or 17th century empires.  The problem is many-fold.

  Santayana www.nndb.com

First, we cannot accept the fact that history has an inevitable momentum.  Although events might have happened in similar ways in the past, things are different now.  Modern liberal democracy, built on the Enlightenment principles of rationality, knowledge, and the search for truth and a solid religious foundation shares nothing with past autocracies and brutal demonic leaders.  We are living in the dawn of a Neo-Enlightenment.

This of course is nothing but arrogance.  There is absolutely no evidence for a progressively improving world.  No age has been any better than any other.  Even during the Age of Enlightenment (1715-1789) there were just as many wars as in any other period – four Russo-Turkish wars, two wars of Spanish succession, the Russo-Swedish war, the Anglo-Spanish war, the Russo-Persian war, the Seven Years War, and hundreds of other more minor conflicts.   These wars were fueled by the same ambitions for power, land, and wealth as all others.

       Russo-Turkish War www.dinofbattle.blogspot.com

The second reason we do not learn from history is intellectual myopia.  We cannot see that even though the Hapsburg and Stuart monarchies looked different, they were nothing of the sort.  The shoguns and mandarins of China were as different from Europe in culture, philosophy, and society as one can get; and yet they acted no differently when it came to rule.   The shoguns do indeed having something to teach us; but we are simply too shortsighted to get the picture.


No one in the State Department or the Pentagon saw the coming chaos in the Middle East.  The toppling of dictators was an expression of pent up democratic sentiment, the American arguments went, and once the people were freed from autocracy, they would coalesce quickly into Western-style democracy.  Cheers were heard throughout the United States when the stature of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad. “See”, the NeoCon proponents of the Iraq war said. “We were right.”


Didn’t American strategic planners even look at the Balkans, and how they came apart once the Yugoslavian dictator Tito died?  Were not wars of ethnic, religious, and linguistic separatism common?

The third reason history passes us by is because of a fundamental American belief in progress.  “We can make the world a better place”, the mantra of politicians, volunteers, and community activists, reflects both a can-do philosophy and religious faith.  God did not make an evil world, but he did create the Devil to tempt and test us.  Our efforts to expunge any and all traces of evil is our Christian destiny, our way of showing our faith in Jesus Christ, our hopes for his grace and admission into his Kingdom.


The most unexplained ignorance of the past, however, is in our daily lives.  Despite the fact that over half of American marriages end in divorce, we continue to spend an average of $30,000 on weddings, believe in our hearts that we will be with our partners forever, and have an absolute trust in the institution of marriage.   Despite the fact that men are all unfaithful, that cheating and tomfoolery are as common as sunrise, and that men at best are desultory domestic partners, women on the altar continue to ignore the facts.

“Where there is a will, there’s a relative” is the oldest saw in the books; but yet “It can’t happen to our family” persists.  It is rule that families fight over rights, inheritance, legacy, property, and lineage.  Edward Albee could only offer cold comfort after he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Yes, George and Martha flayed each other to the bone; but marriage is the crucible of maturity, the playwright said.  Without its enclosure, we will never grow up.

Children are all self-centered little ankle-biters who grab toys.  Why is it a surprise that they grow up and prosper in the very competitive American market?  Or better yet, why is anyone surprised at Bernie Madoff, the Enron executives, The Seven Dwarfs of the tobacco industry, or Volkswagen?
Americans are born optimists, and this is the final confounding piece of the historical ignorance conundrum.  We hate to believe the worst of people, and assume that Madoff and his ilk were only aberrations from the norm.  Yet these crooks show up everywhere – on the stump, in the pulpit, around the corner.

Is there any way, then, to cure our myopia or at least wear corrective lenses? A good dose of amoral cynicism would help.  The world is neither a good nor bad place, neither guided by a beneficent God nor a malevolent Devil, neither progressing toward a utopian Good nor regressing towards evil and corruption.

Starting with the premise that historical events will always and inevitably repeat themselves in some form or another would also help.  If it is assumed  that wars, sectarianism, and concentrations of power, wealth, and territory are the norm, not the exception, then we might be able to at least suspect their reemergence.

Reducing human nature down to its essential elements– as above, aggression, self-interest, self-preservation, territorialism, concentration of power, etc. – and accepting the fact that it is the engine of all human enterprise, hardwired, absolute, and untouchable, is the best antidote of blurred historical vision.

It is hard to image a bride looking into her husband’s eyes and saying to herself, “I know you are going to cheat, sweetheart.  I just don’t know when”; but that might be the most sensible observation she – and we, looking into the eyes of Vladimir Putin or the Ayatollah of Iran – can make.


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