Lessons of history

I’ve started reading The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant. This excerpt near the opening about the personal and cultural value of history struck me:

Other studies might tell us how man might behave or how he should behave; history tells us how he has behaved for six thousand years. One who knows that record is in large measure protected in advance against the illusions and disillusionments of his time. He has learned the limitations of human nature, and bears with equanimity the fault of his neighbors and the imperfections of States. He shares hopefully in the reforming enterprises of his age and people, but his heart does not break, nor his faith in life fade out when he perceives how modest are the results and how persistently man remains what he has been for sixty centuries, perhaps for a thousand generations.

It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment. The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time. You too are your past; often your face is your autobiography. You are what you are because of what you have been: because of your heredity stretching back to forgotten generations; because of every element of environment that has affected you; every man or woman that has met you; every book that you have read; every experience that you have had. All these are accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul.

So with a city, a country, a race. It is its past and cannot be understood without it. It is the present, not the past, that dies. This present moment to which we give so much attention is forever flitting from our eyes and fingers into that pedestal and matrix of our lives which we call the past. It is only the past that lives.

The Lessons of History audiobook features interviews with both Will and Ariel, and Will says at one point: “I discovered that to understand how man behaved and how he will probably behave in the future, you have to study history.”

I think fields like sociology (while valuable) represent something closer to tinkering on the fringes than providing the sort of immense value that historical encounter provides. History provides perspective by providing a sense of simultaneous wonder and modesty in surprising balance.

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