Tuesday, February 20, 2018

History Teaches

Incredibly creepy book cover courtesy of Omer Durmaz.
In an effort to find out what history teaches us, or more specifically what history teaches us about what history teaches us, I did a quick search in the New York Times archive for the phrase “history teaches.”

Not surprisingly, history teaches that whatever comes after this phrase is almost certainly going to be a cliche:

“History teaches us that what was unnatural yesterday becomes natural today.”

“History teaches that wars between great nations are generally obstinate and protracted.”

“If there be one lesson which history teaches it is that no nation ever yet profited in the end by injustice.”

“And history teaches that a restless and revolutionary nation must work out its own redemption” (particularly a “spirited and warlike” nation like Mexico).

Among these, of course, are some eloquent and accurate cliches, as well as some more meaningless, dubious or misapplied ones. At various points history taught that the French would win a speedy victory in WWI, and that the Germans would inevitably triumph. In 1914, one pundit wrote of the problems that would follow a German defeat “history teaches that a proud nation rarely submits long to a blow at its prestige.” Which seems prophetic as far as these things go, except that instead of anticipating the rise of Hitler he was predicting an impending German invasion of South America.

Other things that history teaches I’m inclined to agree with. In 1923, for example, a correspondent in Cairo made the case for why America should support an imperfect Egyptian experiment in democracy over British imperial role: “history teaches every schoolboy — who reads it — that the benevolent despot is a creature hardly less a product of the imagination than the unicorn.” Indeed.

I’m also inclined to be jealous of the fact that 19th century authors were allowed to invoke the lessons of history with such authority that they didn’t even have to really talk about history. I dream of finding an editor today who would sign off on the following, written at the height of the Civil War: “All human history teaches, in numerous records, that a patched-up peace proves greatly more disastrous than a badly conducted war had been. It is unnecessary to give examples of such a general and notorious truth.”

The best lessons, however, are those that prize specificity and relevance over, well, accuracy. Amidst a heated debate over agricultural subsidies in 1859, one Baron Von Liebig wrote, “ History teaches that not one of all those countries which have produced corn for other lands have remained corn markets….”

Several years later, a Dr Storrs explained that “the entire history of our planet conclusively establishes the fact that where mountain chains run from East to West, the manners, habits and languages of the people, living on opposite sides of the mountain chain, widely differ.” But, due to “the laws of gravitation and of cohesion,” not to mention various “solar, lunar and stellar influences,” “when mountain chains run from North to South, the customs and languages of the people on opposite sides coalesce and mingle intimately….”

Perhaps the most profound lesson, though, comes from a 1922 letter by an outspoken critic of prohibition: “History teaches us that the non-alcoholic nations are the decadent ones — as shown by China and Turkey.” As if to prove that the lessons of any discipline are always most apparent when they reinforce our own instincts, he concluded “Physiology teaches us that good qualities of alcohol, real wines, spirits and beers help to promote a healthy metabolism.”