Monday, June 11, 2018

exordium to some excerpts.

And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. 
——Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE), trans. R. Warner 

"Any single historical event is too complex to be adequately known by anyone. It transcends all the intellectual capacities of men. Our practice is to wait until a sufficient number of details have been forgotten. Of course things seem simpler then!" 
..."But we're getting away from the point," he went on. "I don't care how well historical facts can be known from afar. Is it important to know them at all? I submit that history never comes close to repeating itself. Even if we had reliable information about the past, we couldn't find a case similar enough to justify inferences about the present or immediate future. We can make no real use of history as a current guide." 
——B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948)

When I'm reading a book authored prior to the twentieth century, I habitually scribble notes in the margins when a remark or passage seems like it could apply to contemporary events if a few historical names were swapped out with modern ones. (I'd aspire to be a gentleman scholar, but let's face it, the best I'll ever be is a degenerate scholar.) My old copy of Thucydides, for instance, is full of references to Vietnam, Iraq, and the neoconservative milieu of the second Bush Administration, especially in the pages treating Athens's doomed Sicilian expedition.

Tonight I was thinking I would share a couple of passages from Montesquieu and Burkhardt and elaborate on some of my off-the-cuff annotations, but then I wondered if the exercise might amount to just a lot of pointless pseudo-intellectual paddleball.

Well, "pointless" goes without saying. If the longform personal blog ever served a useful purpose, that time is already past. I'm talking about the lay practice of trying to clarify the present through the lens of the narrative past. The method, such as it is, has lately seemed to me to stand on dubious ground, so I'd like to spend a few minutes probing it. Even if someone only seeks out knowledge for his own pleasure, and not for some utilitarian purpose, he shouldn't want to settle for a facile understanding.

Knowing the past is necessary to navigate the present, because history tends to repeat itself. This is the central dogma of historical studies, and common sense bears it out. If you get food poisoning at a restaurant, you don't go back. One shouldn't get back together with an ex because if it didn't work out the first time, the second won't be any different. We accept the truism's validity whenever we nod at and retweet the commentariat's reminders that the global order today is much like it was on the eve of World War I, or their exhortations to remember 1930s Germany here in year two of the MAGA epoch. An air of prophecy often emanates from the eloquent argument from history. The parallels seem to obvious to gainsay. But the line between "obvious" and "specious" is ever drawn with a fine-tip pen.