Lessons from History


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.

Machiavelli wrote,

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.

Technology continually changes and remakes society, culture, civilization, and public discourse. Today we are especially flummoxed by the impact of social media on our elections and democracies, and still wrestling with the effect outsiders have in shaping public opinions (and not just the Russians: look at the influence of social media anti-science trolls and influencers on our collective views on science and medicine: the egregious dumbing down of the populace is evident to even a cursory exploration).

Even Machiavelli warned about drawing too-simple conclusions from history. But the granular stuff is there — like racism, power, force, violence, greed — and we need to pay attention when we find them. As George Santayana wrote,

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana, The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress (1905-1906)

More recently, the regime of Donald Trump has been compared with those of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, and his administration compared with those in Italy, Germany and the USSR in the 1930s. And in those comparisons, there is a large element of truth: Trump and his enablers are clearly driving the United States towards a totalitarian dictatorship that has many parallels in the fascism and even military communism of the pre-WWII era.

But he has also be compared with the emperors Caligula and Nero, in the troubled post-Augustan period of the Roman Empire; again there is some merit in these — Trump golfing at one of his clubs at taxpayers’ expense ($140 million to date) during a pandemic fits the image of  Nero fiddling while Rome burns (as inaccurate as the Nero legend may be).

As dictatorial as Trump may be, you have to be careful of drawing too close an an analogy from history or historical persona. Parallels, yes, because of the continuity of human nature, but not identical twins. As Stalinesque or Hitleresque as Trump’s behaviour may be, he is neither Stalin nor Hitler. In identifying him as such there is a danger of simplistic categorization and thus underestimating the present conditions. yes, dictators share many common attributes, but as far as I know, Trump is not skilled enough to play any musical instrument, let alone a fiddle.

Neither Hitler nor Mussolini had the technology to tweet their policies, insults, or attacks on adversaries on an every-day basis, nor did they engage in the public shaming of their own cabinets or staff, nor did they use national enemies to ensure their elections (as Trump has with Russia; can you imagine Hitler using Churchill to ensure his election victory? Or Stalin using him to ensure his purges were successful?). 

Trump is far, far from a master of the arts of rhetoric, while both Hitler and Mussolini excelled in oratory. Although Stalin was a pedantic, turgid, wooden speaker, he at least had an adult’s vocabulary. Trump can barely craft a complete sentence extemporaneously and mispronounces even simple words. While the European dictators  were charismatic speakers, Trump, with the vocabulary of a grade-four student, uses a choppy sound-bite approach rather than lengthy, coherent speeches.  But he uses technology in a weaponized way that would have made Goebbels gape with envy. And, of course, his perpetually angry, low-level communications replete with  innuendo, insult, and lies (and spelling and grammar mistakes) match well the education and literacy levels of the majority of his supporters, so he is in little danger of appearing condescending to them. Where  Hitler and Mussolini went out of their way to win over industrialists, bankers, and the intelligentsia, Trump cheerfully alienates and insults them if they displease him or fail to tug their metaphoric forelocks in his direction.

Not that I am suggesting Trump is pursuing Gobbels’s methods. I doubt Trump is even aware of who Joseph Goebbels was (his knowledge of history is abysmal for anyone with higher than a grade four education). Trump is about as likely to have read anything about Goebbels as a fish is to own a bicycle (Trump notoriously doesn’t read anything longer than a tweet, and has the comprehension skills of a goldfish and the literacy skills to match).

Nor do I suggest Trump is another Hitler or Stalin, although his actions and his words often seem like theirs, and his administration may look remarkably like that of either dictator at times. The USA today is neither Germany nor the Soviet Union of the 1930s, and regardless of ominous parallels, there are many more differences, not least of all in media and forms of communication by which our leaders reach us. Human nature being what it is, we will always find parallels in others to match our ideological views.

But this post isn’t about the “very stable genius” as he calls himself without any sense of irony, rather about drawing too close any analogy between current events and personalities and those from the past. Events, personalities, and issues echo throughout recorded history, and they prove magnetic in drawing conclusions from them in order to evaluate the present. And some of these are, of course, well-founded: the warning signs of incipient fascism are there, for example. But that doesn’t mean there is a Hitler or Mussolini at the helm. It may be far subtler than that: more than one enabler may be working to bring about the totalitarian ideal, and focusing on the leader may mean we overlook the others. 

By all means do as Machiavelli recommended: study history: learn about it, try to understand how events came about, how personalities rose and fell along with governments and empires. Read deeply and widely about the past, as well as the literature, legends, and myths that shaped it. Just don’t assume a simplistic view of the past to answer the vexing problems of today.

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