Learning from History

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Sir John Glubb discusses learning from history:

‘The only thing we learn from history,’ it has been said, ‘is that men never learn from history’, a sweeping generalisation perhaps, but one which the chaos in the world today goes far to confirm. What then can be the reason why, in a society which claims to probe every problem, the bases of history are still so completely unknown?

Several reasons for the futility of our historical studies may be suggested.

First, our historical work is limited to short periods — the history of our own country, or that of some past age which, for some reason, we hold in respect.

Second, even within these short periods, the slant we give to our narrative is governed by our own vanity rather than by objectivity. If we are considering the history of our own country, we write at length of the periods when our ancestors were prosperous and victorious, but we pass quickly over their shortcomings or their defeats. Our people are represented as patriotic heroes, their enemies as grasping imperialists, or subversive rebels. In other words, our national histories are propaganda, not well-balanced investigations.

Third, in the sphere of world history, we study certain short, usually unconnected, periods, which fashion at certain epochs has made popular. Greece 500 years before Christ, and the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire are cases in point. The intervals between the ‘great periods’ are neglected. Recently Greece and Rome have become largely discredited, and history tends to become increasingly the parochial history of our own countries.

To derive any useful instruction from history, it seems to me essential first of all to grasp the principle that history, to be meaningful, must be the history of the human race. For history is a continuous process, gradually developing, changing and turning back, but in general moving forward in a single mighty stream. Any useful lessons to be derived must be learned by the study of the whole flow of human development, not by the selection of short periods here and there in one country or another.

Every age and culture is derived from its predecessors, adds some contribution of its own, and passes it on to its successors. If we boycott various periods of history, the origins of the new cultures which succeeded them cannot be explained.


  1. T. Greer says:

    To be fair to the public, it is much easier to study the late Roman republic than it is the 3rd century Roman empire simply because of the sources we have for each.

    Or, to put it another way, had Thucydides been writing in 270 BC instead of 400 BC, today we would hear comparisons of the modern world with the Wars of the Diadochi instead of with the wars of the Peloponnese.

    That doesn’t account for everything (Sima Qian was a heckuva lot better historian than Herodotus, but we still hear much more about Xerxes than we do Xiang Yu), but it accounts for a lot of it.

  2. Barnabas says:

    Now history is quite consciously looked at only through a distorting lense of ideology. History is only useful to the extent that it can be used to serve the interests of current class power struggles.

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