Why Study History?

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Is it important to study history? Why do we need to know what’s come before us? Isn’t it enough to just “live in the moment?” Renowned historian Victor Davis Hanson explores these important questions.

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Why study history?

Ironically, this question is as old as history. 

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Thucydides, the great chronicler of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, and the man many call the “first historian” said that “…I have written my work, not…to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

Thucydides hoped that what he was writing would help future generations understand what transpired in his day. If they could learn from it and make better decisions, his efforts would not be in vain.  

More than two millennia later, the American social thinker George Santayana said much the same thing, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

But while knowledge of the past is a prerequisite to wisdom, it doesn’t give the historian a crystal ball. 

We must be modest in our claims: studying history provides an invaluable guide—but only a guide—to current and future political, economic, military, and cultural challenges.

Just as it is dangerous to be ignorant of past events, so too it is equally risky to assume that history across time and space will repeat itself in exactly the same fashion. It never does.

Still, with the proper caution, studying history can warn us of dangers ahead. 

For example, across the ages appeasing or ignoring enemies has rarely proven to be a prudent strategy. Usually, it’s disastrous. 

The Greek city-states’ coddling of the Macedonian king Philip II, the weak Western democracies’ reaction to the aggression of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and the indifference shown to the dangers of radical Islam by an affluent West in the 1990s make the point. 

There is another—perhaps less recognized—value in studying history.

Every generation, none more than our own, suffers from a pernicious presentism—the arrogance that those now alive have created the most prosperous period in history. The result is that too often we judge a materially poorer past by the same contemporary standards of an affluent and leisured present. 

Those who study history can avoid these fallacies.

Aside from the fact that the present is the beneficiary of the accumulated intellectual, moral, and scientific contributions of the past, proper knowledge of the hardships of prior ages teaches us the value of humility.

To take just one possible example, it might be an easy thing to chronicle what seems to us prejudices recorded among the wagoneers on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. It is quite another to imagine how the trailblazers struggled to survive one more day in an age without effective medicines, labor-saving machines, or adequate shelter.

Studying history also confers much needed perspective. 

It’s neither fair nor wise to attempt to apply the moral standards of today to say, the far more deadly 17th century when life, in the words of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to many like a public health crisis without precedent—until we take time to learn of the global outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus in 1918. The “Spanish flu” killed nearly 600,000 Americans in a nation of 100 million, with a worldwide toll of perhaps 50 million dead—and yet our nation and planet survived and learned from it.

One of the ways that I used to endure the tedium, dust, and noise of tractor driving was to remember that my farming grandfather covered the same ground with a team of horses. It took him two days of back breaking labor to cultivate four acres of land. I could do it in an hour—sitting down.

But while technology improves, human nature does not. That means we have, if we bother to look, a timeless connection to those who went before us. Their struggle to make sense of life is our struggle. In this regard there’s still much to learn from King David, the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, or Elizabeth I. And, we can draw strength and courage when all seems lost from inspirational figures like George Washington, Frederick Douglass, or the Wright Brothers. 

Finally, the study of history teaches to value caution over certainty. We should avoid making judgments about who’s good and who’s bad as if we were watching a morality tale in the present.

Major historical players like Julius Caesar, Robert E. Lee, and Napoleon were complex men who at points in their lives did some good things. That these efforts ultimately led to bad outcomes—made far worse by their own outsized talents—is one of the many tragedies of history.

So, why study history? 

Nobel prize winning American novelist, William Faulkner summed it up as well as anyone, “The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.”

I’m Victor Davis Hanson, senior historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for Prager University.