The Purpose of History

I love history, but I don’t often question the “why” of history. In some way, I delight in knowing something that is important, but widely ignored. Is this an ego thing or is it a process of bringing attention to something important? The most often used quote is from the writings of Winston Churchill “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But he wasn’t the first to ponder the concept.

Edmund Burke is often misquoted to say, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” What he actually wrote was, “People will not look forward to prosperity who never look backward to their ancestors.” George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Burke may have started the conversation, Santayana simplified it,and a politician made it popular.

Edmund Burke is widely misquoted by the way. The other “quote” that he may never have said, is “The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. This might have been a mash-up of Thomas Jefferson’s, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” Scholars have not found this quote in his published books, the closest is “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice, in a contemptible struggle. “. That’s a lot of words for a declarative sentence.

A little Google search on history quotes gave me the following…

1. “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”, Napoleon Bonaparte

2. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”, Desmond Tutu

3. “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”, Confucius

4. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”, James Baldwin

5. “History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”, Ambrose Bierce

6. “The history of mankind is the instant between two strides taken by a traveler.”, Franz Kafka

7. “What is history? An echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future on the past.”, Victor Hugo

8. “History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.”, Alexis de Tocqueville

9. “History is mostly guessing; the rest is prejudice.”, Will Durant

10. “History is a race between education and catastrophe.”, H.G. Wells

11. “History is a vast early warning system.”, Norman Cousins

12. “A myth is far truer than a history, for a history only gives a story of the shadows, whereas a myth gives a story of the substances that cast the shadows.”, Annie Besant

13. “Isn’t history ultimately the result of our fear of boredom?”, Emile Cioran

14. “History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.”, Lord Acton

15. “Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity.”, Hermann Hesse

I think Hesse has it right. The very concept of humanity is the purpose of history. Yes, we should use it to learn our mistakes, but we may make the mistakes for a long time before learning. This is not a formula but a process.

The essential problem of history is about truth. History documents change, but the truth of change is elusive. Have we honestly looked at what we have gained, and what we have lost? After that, we need to look at the price we pay.

In many ways, history is used to punish others. This can change almost overnight, leaving people confused and disoriented. Generally, no one looks to the agenda of those who wish to punish. Is it simple revenge? Is it justice? Or is it just another tool in the quest for power?

To simplify Hesse’s statement to the most simple- “History is an attempt to discover a recipe for better tasting food.”, John Diestler

I gather my utensils, my appliances, raw materials, supplemental ingredients, and then I write down what I did. If it is good then I save it, if it is not good, I save it so that I won’t go down that road again. This is what is so often missed about the quotes of history. The mistakes are many, and yes we need to save them for reference. But the successes are what we can give to others, recipes for the future!

Phoenicians sailed nearly around the world before we even knew the extent. Scholars asked “How did they do that?” You don’t have to invent help from “ancient aliens”. You just have to invent an alphabet to write the truth! They sailed near the coast and wrote down the days, and the descriptions of the shoreline. Then they doubled checked on the way back, gave their “book” to another captain, and he went a little further and added to the book. And he checked the accuracy on his way back. Later on the Portuguese called the books of “sailing directions”- rutters. Eventually the word described the rudder that determined the direction the boat would go.

So maybe, “History is the Rutter for movement in the world.”

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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