Why is it that as people we have to deal with the same problems and issues over and over again. It does appear that as human beings we are slow learners. Sometimes, in the face of historical record, for example, we do things hoping that we will be different this time even when there is a long track record of that decision not going very well. Among these issues can be the “Let’s invade Egypt from the Delta” as was done twice in the Crusades, or the even more common “solving the problem of the Russian winter” that was tried from the age of Alexander Nevsky in the 1200’s to Hitler’s panzers in World War II, with everyone from Swedish rulers to Napoleon trying in between. It does appear as human beings that we want to believe that things are different this time and that we can do things that were done before to spectacular failure that will go differently this time because we are somehow different and better than those who have come before us. And, predictably, hubris has its proper reward.
There appears to be something offensive to many people that humanity has certain commonalities in our nature and makeup over time. One of the few ways that human beings can learn lessons is from history, but to learn lessons from history it is required to understand the past and to recognize ourselves as kindred beings to those who have lived before and whose ages in certain superficial ways do not resemble our own. When we believe that these superficial and technological matters prevent the past from being a useful place to draw insight from, we are only left with our own models and our own speculations and delusions about how things are going to go, and inevitably that ends up creating more history for future generations to learn from, if we are lucky enough to leave a historical record at all for others to follow. And those people will have the same choice that we have to either learn from the bad examples that we have so graciously provided them or to behave as we do and blow off history as being worthless to contemporary times.
In a world where the value of the past to the present and the importance of thinking of and caring about the future are both extremely denigrated, it is little surprise that people do not understand why they need to care about history in the first place. One can only care about history to the extent that one believes that better understanding the past has value to one’s life in the present in creating a better future. To the extent that we can look at the past not as a collection of names and dates and unfamiliar faces and places but rather as stories that demonstrate the persistence of worldviews and mentalities and approaches to life that are lasting and relevant, we can see the past and see ourselves with clear enough eyes to recognize that the past lives on in us and so in understanding the past we better understand ourselves and our own times. Admittedly, such a study can be deeply frustrating when one realizes that humanity continues to bang their head against the same walls over and over again, but such futility is a marked aspect of human behavior throughout history and it is worth knowing about and learning about.
After all, if you find yourself giving concussions against a wall, it is of use to you to know that this wall has concussed many people before you and likely will do the same to many people after you. You can become someone who can dispense practical wisdom to others to urge them not to do what you did and to point out all the people who have injured themselves trying to break through the same barrier that you did. To know historical perspective is to recognize that we and the people of the past, even the distant past, are not so alien as we might be tempted to believe. For all of our differences, many of the same longings and frustrations exist in us and them, and however strange their thought processes and reasoning may appear to us, we can rest assured that future generations will look at us with the same sense of puzzlement at our primitive reasoning and obviously self-serving attempts at justification that we do when we look at those in the past. We are not immune to the follies and errors of the past, and our rejection of historical understanding only makes it more likely that we will be viewed less sympathetically than even we view past generations.