Thinking Historically (Part One)

BurkeWhen one considers the scope of the human experience it is hard not to recognize that we live in an age of advancement that should mesmerize and enthrall. We, after all, seem to perpetually live on the cusp of progress as one new development gives way to another and we become an increasingly more technological civilization.

In a sense we have always been motivated by the desire to grow and advance, believing that, through our advancements, we will master our surroundings, perhaps even nature itself. We have done so with a Utopian view that, through this mastery, we can expel problems like famine, disease, inequality and war to extinction. Why wouldn’t we though? In so many ways it has made our lives easier and better. We have more access to information than any other point in history, we have more means to have our voices heard and to open the channels of communication to foster a deeper understanding of the experiences of others. We have more access to food and clothing than any other time, and, diseases that once crippled and killed have become nothing more than a nuisance in many ways.

Yet, in a very real way our advancements, for as much as they have propelled us forward, have done us one great disservice. They have left us feeling as if we are somehow above the lessons of history. Yes it is something to be looked at and read with a degree of curiosity and interest, but as for what it should mean to us, we have far outgrown it. How could we not have, after all, when we far exceed the wildest imaginations of the minds of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin or any of their early students?

One of the reasons, if not the core reason, that the Founding Fathers were able to build a lasting republic based on democratic principles in an age when enlightened despotism was the order of the day was because they were students of history. Understanding it as more than a series of dates and places, they looked at it critically to explain to them human nature and the evolution of events that that nature could spur on. They reasoned that while humanity progressed and learned, changing with time in their understanding and outlook of the world, if it did not learn from its achievements and its mistakes it would never grow past them, dooming itself, as it was, to the old cliché so often recycled it does not need repeating.

TrumanIn a very real sense they heeded those famous words that almost perhaps sounded like a warning in their ears, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” They knew that they were not immune to the traps of Greece or of Rome, those grand experiments that rose and fell under the same sun they now bloomed under. They knew they were not free of the same excesses that had been witnessed in all the great civilizations that had prospered and flourished only to soon after fade from former glory.

We wise to remember that as we consider our path forward.

Our freedom and democracy, whatever liberty we are afforded by the laws of nature, do not exist free of history, nor can we view ourselves free of our bonds to it. In a larger scope than he perhaps intended, we would be wise to take heed of the words of Patrick Henry as he spoke on the floor of St. John’s Church in 1775, stating “I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.”

In the end we must decide what sort of society we want to be. The best was to do that is to train ourselves to think historically, to consider it not as the study of past events but as lessons in the nature of politics and government, humanity and human nature, and yes, even the meaning, purpose and course of progress and advancement. This gives us the ability to learn, to adapt and to grow without repeating the past errors amidst the arrogant assumption they are no longer applicable because we have ultimately transcended them.

The purpose of this post, and the ones that are going to come, is not to condemn science and technology, progress and advancement. To do that would be to condemn the human spirit, a spirit that is always looking to the frontier as the answer to the challenge of its soul. It is, instead, to remind us that we do not live in a vacuum, free of the lessons of history. Countless others have, in their hubris, have believed that, and despite their advancements, fell into the same traps and enticements they believed they had far surpassed.

It is, instead, intended to remind us of who we are, where we came from, and what that should mean to us as we stand on the precipice of the future.

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