It is common practice to look back and conflate the events of the past with those of the present, seeking parallels, resonance, and answers from previous events that help explain today’s. We learn from others, from their experiences, and we like to find commonalities in our shared experiences, even from our or other’s historic past. We see ourselves reflected in our past and we sometimes mistake that reflection for the reality.
Machiavelli did it in both The Prince and The Discourses, didactically using examples from classical Greek and Roman texts to explore the events, politics, and governance in his contemporary Italian states, and drawing conclusions on his modern events from parallels in the past. That was one of his great achievements: to explore how people behave similarly in similar situations across the ages, and thus extrapolate how we will behave under similar conditions in the future. This is why his books remain relevant today. In The Discourses, he warned in what could be seen as prescient to the current US administration:
Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.
Discourses on Livy Book I, Ch. 3
It’s a losing battle to argue that the US administration isn’t filled with evil, vicious, self-serving people, because all the evidence points otherwise. But I digress.
Legend, mythology, poetry, and literature in every culture has always provided examples from which to learn. From the earliest stories of Gilgamesh and the Bible to modern novels, we learn that human behaviour has not changed in any dramatic manner, and we can always discover our modern selves in reading about our past. And we may find new ways of seeing events and issues from another perspective. An article in The Atlantic noted,
…beyond providing an introduction to troubling issues, historical fiction can offer the chance, if taught conscientiously, to engage students with multiple perspectives, which are essential to understanding history; to help students comprehend historical patterns and political analogies; and to introduce students to historiography—how history is written and studied…
Humanizing history not only means it’s easier for students to connect the historical dots, research shows that it also encourages empathy. Being told a story via historical fiction helps students identify with the characters’ points of view, and that ability to recognize different outlooks… is an essential historical skill…
If anything, history and literature have show us that humans today remain as greedy, parsimonious, warlike, loving, compassionate, lustful, treacherous, loyal, curious, wise, affectionate, and pigheaded as we were at the dawn of recorded history. This also is why classical philosophy and — some non-supernatural parts of — religion still have relevance today, too: human behaviour has not changed in the millennia since we started writing about it.
To exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have conducted themselves in war, and discover the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former.
The Prince, Ch. 14
Of course, all such comparisons are at least partially epigonic, because despite parallels, changes in cultures and technologies over time have created situations and events that cannot be duplicated nor simply overlaid on the past by mere ideological association. Looking back can offer many lessons, but one must be wary of aligning the past too closely with the present, and confusing allegory and metaphor with current reality. It’s far too easy to make false equivalences or grand generalizations from a cursory knowledge of the past.
Continue reading “Lessons from History”