So why study history at all? I ended my last post with this most basic of questions that I want my students of the American Revolution to grapple with. Notice I’m not asking specifically why we should study the American Revolution per se. We’ll get to that soon enough. The question is why pay attention to any part of the past? It’s a question that 21st-century Americans don’t have a ready answer for. As the late Christopher Hitchens put it, we live in a “present-tense society.”
In their thoughts on the value of history, I think most Americans fall into one of three basic groups. The first group (I can’t tell you how large it is, but it’s too large), sees no value in history at all. These are the disciples of Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual automobile tycoon who famously lectured a reporter that “History is tradition. We don’t want tradition. The only history worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”
The second group thinks of history as a form of entertainment. This is the audience that the so-called History Channel targets with documentaries on Bigfoot, “Ghosts in the White House,” and “Ancient Aliens.” Pawn Stars, anyone? Ice Road Truckers? Let me know if you can figure out what these programs are doing on the History Channel. If forced to choose, I’ll take Henry Ford over the History Channel any day—it’s better to dismiss history entirely than to trivialize it so grotesquely.
The third group believes that history is important but for the wrong reasons. Some of the attitudes in this category are innocent enough. Here I have in mind those who look to the past as a stockpile of simple lessons. I can never think of this group without calling to mind one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. If you know the movie, then you know that the villain Vizzini is a perfect example of someone who treasures the past in this way. After he and the Dread Pirate Roberts agree to a battle of wits to the death, Vizzini ridicules his masked opponent for ignoring one of the “classic blunders” of history. The most well known is “never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but the second is “never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.” Spoiler alert: it’s right after this that the Sicilian Vizzini keels over dead.
The unwitting inspiration for the “lessons-of-history” group is Georges Santayana, a resolutely atheist Spanish-born philosopher who famously wrote that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The quote is buried in a 1905 philosophical treatise titled The Life of Reason, and for the life of me I cannot figure out how Santayana’s dictum came to be so popular. What I do know is that we take the quote entirely out of context and force it to mean something that Santayana didn’t remotely have in mind. The philosopher was making an observation about the nature of knowledge—as philosophers like to do—while we have turned it into an axiom about the value of history. Santayana meant merely that the acquisition of knowledge is incremental, which means that memory is essential to learning. Well duh. We have transformed this truism practically into an assertion that history is cyclical and historical patterns are unchanging. By studying patterns from the past, we tell ourselves, we can, like Vizzini, discern laws to guide our future.
Given how ubiquitous it is, it may surprise you to learn that almost no professional historian would agree with Santayana’s statement as it is popularly (mis)understood. In The Landscape of History, for example, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis dismisses the claim as “fatuous.” In her book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, British historian Margaret Macmillan describes Santayana’s pronouncement as “one of those overused dicta politicians and others offer up when they want to sound profound.” At bottom, academic historians take for granted that human behavior is far too complex to be reduced to such a formulaic or mechanistic basis as “condemned to repeat it” seems to imply.
As Christians we can readily concur with them. Our popular misreading of Santayana makes his dictum an echo of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who hoped that his History of the Peloponnesian Wars would be read by “those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past.” Although as Christians we believe that there is a fundamental element of continuity in the human condition—namely, the perpetual need of fallen humanity for God’s grace and forgiveness—one of the consequences of the spread of Christianity was to challenge this ancient view of human history as cyclical. Because we recognize Creation, Fall, and Redemption as central to the human story, we view history not as cyclical but linear. History is a “story with a divine plot,” as C. S. Lewis put it—an unfolding, meaningful movement toward a divinely appointed culmination.
We need a better justification of the study of history than either Santayana or Vizzini can supply. Toward that end, I introduce a series of metaphors to stimulate our thinking about history’s potential value. In the interest of time, I’ll share just two.
First, the study of history can serve as a mirror—helping us to see who we are. In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul warns us against being conformed to the values of the world. Unfortunately, many of the cultural values that influence us deeply become invisible to us. We see them as “natural,” and what we see as natural we eventually cease to see at all. One of the great benefits of studying history is its potential to remind us that the way things are now is not the way they have always been. It can be a lot like traveling to a foreign country, except that we are traveling across time instead of space. Our historical travels can help us become self-conscious of our values in a way that we have not been; they literally become more visible than before. Thus the study of history helps us to see both ourselves and our world with new clarity, and it is only when we are really see the values that shape us that we can effectively resist the world’s efforts to squeeze us into its mold.
Second, the study of history can function as a grand dialogue across the ages, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” to quote historian David Harlan. When we embrace this dimension of history, we approach the past in a posture of humility. Rejecting what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” we open ourselves to the possibility that those who have gone before us weren’t all idiots. We listen to them. We allow them to ask us hard questions, maybe even to speak truth into our lives. The idea of history as conversation also invites us to show love to the poor and the powerless, drawing into the conversation voices and perspectives that are easily marginalized or ignored, both now and in the past.
In sum, history has the potential to help us to see more clearly who we are, and to think more clearly about who we should be. Its value is not utilitarian, but moral. It helps us, not to predict the future, but to meet the future more humanely.