Thinking Historically (Part One)

BurkeWhen one considers the vast scope of the human experience it is not hard to recognize that we, at present, live in an age unique in the gradual evolution of civilization. Ours is, after all, an age of advancement, of unparalleled progression, development and improvement. It should, when we consider it against the backdrop of where we have come from, mesmerize and enthrall us. After all, we seem to perpetually be on the cusp of enlightenment, of social, and technological breakthroughs beyond the imagination of our ancestors in an increasingly more scientific society.

It isn’t to say that advancement is somehow unique to our current society, or our present age. In truth, we have always been motivated towards growth, and advancement. Engrained in our nature, whatever our motivations might be, we have always sought to master our surroundings. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the American experience, one framed, shaped against the backdrop of the great frontier, challenging its people to be more, to do more. Faced with the challenges of the limitless potential of this new land, they would be forced to show grit and unbridled determination, ingenuity and innovation, not just to survive, but to flourish and prosper as a nation and a people.

Yet, in many senses, we have gone beyond, accelerating at a pace that would have surpassed the wildest imagination of our ancestors. One need only consider the fact that for thousands of years we travelled by sail, or by horse, with essentially the same technology used by Founding Fathers as by Pharaoh before them. Medicine, for the large part remained unchanged, and without significant advancements, with practices like bloodletting existing from Ancient Greece until the 19th Century. Though advancements were made they were slow in progress, and even slower to evolve. Now change seems to occur on an almost daily basis with changes made.

It has created for us a curious predicament. Though we see the immediate benefit, understanding that through advancement we reap a benefit an unparalleled benefit that lets us live longer and more comfortably, that allows us to be connected in ways that we never have before, carrying us places we have never been, and offering new and exciting opportunities, it has also changed our way of thinking. Once where we believed that history offered us instruction, guiding us to a better path for the future, we almost see look on it with a sense of bewilderment now. It interests us but only in so much as visiting a zoo or watching a movie interests us. In many senses we just fail to see how it relates to us, our experiences and to our society. It is, perhaps, why we find it so easy to revise and rewrite history to fit our needs and our purposes, creating a narrative that suits us better than the present one.

We have become a society that doesn’t understand the experience that history has in our lives.

It reminds me of the words of economist F.A. Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom”. In a very simple way, he explains the disconnect between history and the contemporary world when he writes

Contemporary events differ from history in that we do not know the results they will produce. Looking back, we can assess the significance of past occurrences and trace the consequences they have brought in their train. But while history runs its course, it is not history to us. It leads us into an unknown land, and but rarely can we get a glimpse of what lies ahead.

We have taken this to mean that somehow we live outside of history even while we create it. Though we can watch history with interest, that’s ultimately where it ends. The lessons that it offers no longer apply because we are changing too fast, advancing too quickly for them to be relevant. At least that was how it was explained to me as of recent.

Yet, even Hayek would go on to expound upon his idea of the separation of history from current events when he would write:

Yet, although history never quite repeats itself, and just because no development is inevitable, we can in a measure learn from the past to avoid a repetition of the same process. One need not be a prophet to be aware of impending dangers. An accidental combination of experience and interest will often reveal events to one man under aspects which few yet see.

A true study of history isn’t solely a study of names, events, times and places. It is a critical assessment whereby present thought is shaped by the past, by historical knowledge and understanding, to make the choices and the decisions necessary to secure a more solid standing in the future. It is realizing that though history may never occur the same way twice, it can teach us something about how we must react to different situations and circumstances that may arise.

TrumanWhat we must be acutely aware of is the fact that we are not above the lessons of history. We need to have the ability to think historically, and to apply those lessons not only to our reasoning, but to our lives and to the world around us. It is only in that way will we be able to approach the challenges, the struggles and the successes of the new frontiers that lay before us with the fresh thinking that we need to adequately tackle them.

This post, and the ones to follow, are not intended to condemn. It is not my intention to look with contempt on technology, science or advancement. To do so would be to look upon the human spirit, a spirit that is always looking to the future, to that vast undiscovered country that lay before it, with a sense of the endless possibilities. It is, instead, meant to serve as a reminder. We do not live in a vacuum free of the lessons of history. As far as we may have come, as quickly as progress may be upon us, we are still bound by the same laws and lessons of the generations passed. The only difference is that by failing to recognize the importance of history we fail to realize that there was a path of least resistance to bring us where we wanted and needed to be, we needn’t have ventured so off course.

We cannot let our hubris get the better of us as we stand on the precipice of the new frontiers that lay before us. It is only when we realize that that we come to the understanding that there is more for us to learn from the generations that have come and gone before us and we strengthen our future by properly discerning and applying the lessons of our past.

One thought on “Thinking Historically (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Thinking Historically (Part Two) | Fragile Freedom

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