Why Study History?

In the first book of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, the first real historian in the western tradition, defended his use of facts, his lack of embellishment, and his creation of a new genre of writing based on painstaking research: “Perhaps it will be joyless,” he says, “to hear this history recited, because there is nothing legendary inserted in it. But someone who desires to look into the truth of things done and, as is the condition of humanity, which may be done again, or at least things like them, will find this to be abundantly serviceable. It is compiled more as an everlasting possession than something to be recited once in a competition.”* 

Thucydides is not the only historian to open his works with a justification of his craft. History is a self conscious discipline, written by those who step back from the oars of their society and try to see the whole river, its tributaries and its eddies, not from anywhere on the boat but from above it.  There is something a little self indulgent, though, in giving up the oars, and anyone claiming that’s because of the relative labor involved has never spent time in an archive. Rather, there’s a sense of abdicating responsibility for the future by submerging oneself in the past. 

So here I am, justifying to myself as much as to others why I—someone who has dabbled in politics and pulled back, thought about business but shrunk away, who feels compelled to fight for justice and a better world but just can’t quite commit—have decided to become a historian.

The easiest answer is that I like history; one of my first memories is of driving with my family through the Italian countryside, my father behind the wheel regaling me with stories of American heroism in the Second World War. We talked about Midway, and then the Italian campaign, and finally the thought that maybe at that moment fifty years before some GIs had been catching a little sleep in the village through which we were driving. 

But enjoyment is not a sufficient reason to pursue a discipline. There must be some higher redeeming factor making it a worthwhile way to spend a life. This thought has driven me to interrogate my discipline, to think through the benefits of a study of history, and to justify why I—who could be dedicating my resources and privilege to fighting climate change or unjust labor practices—have instead, like Thucydides, taken up the pen to recover the past.

Thucydides wrote that the reason to study history was because of the cyclical nature of human society; things happen, and happen again, and to understand the past is to be prepared for when similar situations will inevitable arise.  ‘Those who don’t know history,’ as the old adage goes…

I disagree with the notion that history is supposed to show us the unchanging nature of humanity and merely serve as a guiding principle for future action. That is view limits what history does and can do, and it limits the important parts of history to those fields (like politics, diplomacy, and military history) where we might see patterns and learn from prior mistakes.  There is a place for that—one of my favorite history books, Archer Jones’ The Art of War in the Western World, is filled with sentences that compare the efficacy of flanking maneuvers by Alexander’s companion cavalry to those by Patton’s tanks or analyze the comparative force:space ratios in Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia and Henry V’s failed Agincourt campaign.  But that is not what the contemporary study of history should be about. 

History today should be less about cycles than about change, less about modes of combat than modes of thought.** One of the main projects of global capitalism is to eradicate from our minds the idea that any other type of society could exist.  It is not enough to proclaim the triumph of capitalism over other systems; that there are other possible systems is dangerous and must be denied. This is done both intentionally and accidentally, and it goes back to Adam Smith, who could not comprehend a human nature free from an inborn propensity to truck, barter, and trade. Today, the arguments are more insidious and less erudite, and they attack us from billboards that commoditize every space in our world and apps that commoditize every aspect of our time.

This is not helped by the overall ignorance of the most people, Americans certainly not excepted. We have, as a people, an incredibly limited historical consciousness. This is inexcusable. The human race has reached a point in its self-awareness where it has ample evidence of 1) the fact that the organization of makeup of human societies can radically differ across time periods and places and 2) the actual specific ways in which those societies differ from each other. I would posit that this is a combination that no other time period has seen, and it gives us an opportunity and a responsibility. Part of the radical freedom inherent in a post-Enlightenment world is to realize that as a society and a species we determine our own meaning. This is part and parcel with the radical freedom that makes it so hard to us to find purpose as individuals, but where it can lead to individual helplessness it can lead to societal innovation.

The great insight of Marx was not anything about the nature of Capitalism or the labor theory of value; both of those, in fact, he probably got wrong. But his great insight was that humans are uniquely positioned to change our relationships with each other, with production, and with the world. We choose our own form of life.  But we can only do that with a full historical consciousness of what other options are out there and what other options have been tried.

Without an understanding of how people in the past lived, we cannot understand the fully non-determinist nature of human nature. If we ignore history and fail to recognize that the way we live now is not the way we have to live, we not only give up all hope of changing the world but we give up the ability to even recognize that the world can be changed. 

So to return to Thucydides, I am not studying history because I want to teach the future citizens of our Republic how to deal with a rebellious colony on the Athenian model, or how to poorly manage your empire, or how (not) to attack Sicily. While those are all valid lessons we can take from histories, the lesson of History is far more basic, but far more profound: it is that the world changes, and we can change it, and the way that we look at the world now will not be the way that people in the future look at it. 

We must become historically conscious so that we can transcend our present.  And as a historian, it will be my job to rouse that historical spirit and that, I think, is a goal worth pursuing.


*Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 1.22.4. “καὶ ἐς μὲν ἀκρόασιν ἴσως τὸ μὴ μυθῶδες αὐτῶν ἀτερπέστερον φανεῖται: ὅσοι δὲ βουλήσονται τῶν τε γενομένων τὸ σαφὲς σκοπεῖν καὶ τῶν μελλόντων ποτὲ αὖθις κατὰ τὸ ἀνθρώπινον τοιούτων καὶ παραπλησίων ἔσεσθαι, ὠφέλιμα κρίνειν αὐτὰ ἀρκούντως ἕξει. κτῆμά τε ἐς αἰεὶ μᾶλλον ἀγώνισμα ἐς τὸ παραχρῆμα ἀκούειν ξύγκειται.”

**I bet you thought I was going to say modes of production.

© Henry Gruber 2013