Tag Archives: wisdom


Another year is winding down, and that almost always puts me in a somber mood.  Unlike the revelers who’ll be tooting their noisemakers in Times Square three days from now, I have always thought of New Year’s Eve as a time for reflection, a time to evaluate the past twelve months and take stock of the course of my life.

Seneca the Younger

One of my favorite quotations in my commonplace book comes from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.).  A philosopher, statesman, and playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ.  He was also as pagan as they come.

I have quoted primarily from Christian writers in sharing passages from my commonplace book, but that’s not because we have nothing to learn from unbelievers.  The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author.  I think the quote below is a case in point.

Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate VitaeOn the Brevity of Life:

The majority of mortals . . . complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. . . . It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it.  But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.  So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.

Read woodenly, Seneca seems to be denying one of the most undeniable declarations of Scripture, namely that our lives are short.  Time and again, we hear the biblical writers remind us that our lives are no more than a “breath,” a “passing shadow,” a “puff of smoke” (Job 7:7, Psalm 144:4, James 4:14).  But far from dismissing this truth, he is calling us to confront a more haunting one: when our lives are at an end, it won’t be the length of our time on earth but the portion of it that we have squandered that grieves us most.

At its best, to quote historian David Harlan, the study of history invites us to join a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  From across the centuries, the pagan Roman admonishes us: “It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. . . . The life we receive is not short, but we make it so.”  Not a bad reminder for 2018.

The Preciousness of the Past, or of Memory and Mirrors:

So I’ve already devoted more than enough time to common misconceptions about the value of history—it’s time to think together about why we should find value in studying the past.  My list is not exhaustive, and it’s far from the last word on the matter, but here is how I typically answer that question at the beginning of the courses I teach.

In our short-sighted pragmatism, we often insist that academic pursuits immediately translate into a higher potential income after graduation, which is another way of saying that we all too commonly equate education and vocational training.  Vocational training is a good thing—we all need to know something about how to make a living—and I do honestly believe that a rigorous study of history has benefits that can help to put bread on the table.  I want all of my students to improve their abilities to read critically, reason logically, and communicate persuasively, and I think that these are skills that are widely transferable to any number of vocations.  And yet these are incidental benefits—as wonderful as they are—and emphatically not the main benefit we seek.  We study history primarily not to earn a better living but to live a better life.

History serves this purpose in several ways.  For the moment let me focus on two, both of which I can best illustrate with metaphors.  First of all, history is a form of memory.  (I like Christian historian John Lukacs’ definition of history as the “remembered past.”)  If we take the analogy seriously, it can teach us a lot about history’s value.  I asked my students recently to list the attributes of memory as an exercise for thinking about the pitfalls and opportunities of studying the past.  Astutely, they noted that memory can be faulty, that it is sometimes selective and self-serving, and that it may change over time—all of which is also true of history.  But they also identified some of memory’s priceless benefits.  “Memory is crucial to our sense of personal identity,” one student noted.  “Without it we would be unable to function,” observed another.  The same could be said for history.  History is crucial to our sense of collective identity.  Just as memory helps in answering the question “who am I?” history helps in answering the question “who are we?”  And because history gives us a memory before birth, it can connect us with the insight and experience of those who have gone before us.  In a figurative sense it actually lengthens our life’s span, broadening our perspective and enabling us, not to predict the future, but to meet it more wisely.

If history is a form of memory—reminding us of who we have been—it can also be a kind of mirror—revealing to us who we are now.   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.  As a Christian who focuses on the study of American History, I am struck that we do not have to go back very far in time to encounter individuals who professed the same faith that we do, who lived in the same part of the world that we do, and who nevertheless viewed the world very differently than we do.  When we take such encounters seriously, we 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.

In sum, history’s greatest value is not utilitarian but moral.  At its richest, it furthers our pursuit for a heart of wisdom, the quest at the very center of what it means to love God with our minds.