Skip to content

With No Study of History, There Is No Future

historia, estudio,

Esta entrada también está disponible en: Español

I have always found that Aldous Huxley summarizes in a magnificent way the core problem that surrounds us in two famous passages. Firstly, he wrote that “Men do not learn much from the lessons of history and that is the most important of all the lessons of history.” And what is that lesso?According to Huxley, it is that “To a greater or less degree all the civilized communities of the modern world are made up of a small class of rulers, corrupted by too much power, and of large class of subjects, corrupted by too much passive and irresponsible obedience.” What an extraordinary description!

But the point is to try to dissect such a conclusion by delving into the reasons. I am afraid that we must arrive at an unheard explanation, which is nothing more and nothing less than the stubborn surrender of the human condition, of one’s own dignity, as to the mania of abdicating the rights of each one to endorse them to the megalomaniac of the moment without stopping to consider, on the one hand, the monstrous degradation that implies losing one’s liberty, the attribute that distinguishes humans from all known species and, on the other hand, without realizing that it is the most effective way to sink into misery, not only moral but material.

Earlier I have elucidated facets of the history that I now look at again. There are many classifications that historians have carried out on their subject, but the one that I have found most original is that of my favorite storyteller, Giovanni Papini, who divides it into four great stages according to the use of a fruit: the apple.

Thus, Papini concludes that there were four decisive blocks in the history of humanity. The first was Adam’s, which opened the way to the notion of evil. The second, that of discord, was the golden one to reward the most beautiful woman in Homer’s story. The third was that of William Tell, made by Schiller and performed by Rossini, who challenged the political power, and the fourth was Isaac Newton’s, which led to the formulation of the law of gravity.

As Robin Collingwood has outlined, a precise and very relevant way of dividing history is according to the degrees of statism, which has caused an emergence in our time, as has been said, marked by a rampant and overwhelming Leviathan. The flip side of this not only refers to the shrinking of the individual’s radius of action and the strangulation of his liberties but the story itself deviates from the multiple, varied and rich events of people to focus attention on those who confiscate rights since they encompass and cover almost everything.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the powers of the absolute monarchies were somewhat diminished (although, as an example, the names of the monarchs were impregnated in the furniture styles and, almost always without mentioning the woodworkers who made the furniture), a situation that gave rise to the possibility of delving into the events of human life in order to leave the corridors of political power, but for a while this part has returned to the ways of life and has given rise to the excesses of the boots that always accompany the political spheres.

The five volumes of History of Private Life written by many authors but coordinated by Philippe Ariés and Georges Duby constitute a piece of superlative historiography in which what we could call true history is exhibited, the history of people and not the simple record of the misdeeds of the rulers of all times.

Duby points out in the prologue of the aforementioned work that this history “must resist outwardly the assaults of public power” despite the fact that “with the strengthening of the state, its intrusions have become more aggressive and penetrating” and if “we do not guard against them, they will soon reduce the individual to no more than a number supplied in an immense and terrifying data bank”.

The fact is that the state apparatuses, in theory, are to protect the rights of the people they govern. That is to say, they serve as an institutional framework so that everyone can follow the life projects they consider pertinent without harming the rights of others. It is thus that the multitude of procedures in the most diverse fields is forging the juicy and fertile part of history.

However, just as in the remote times of savagery. Now, it turns out that the center of the scene is occupied by the monopoly of violence, but not even to watch over the rights of all, but to violate them through growing outrages and addressing the governed as if they own them, generally subsidizing groups that provide logistical support to the abuse of power with the fruit of the work of others.

In Introduction to the Study of Historical Knowledge, Enrique de Gandia tells us that his book “will show young people to love history, not as an exaltation of energy or cardboard statues, but as an understanding of life, with the unexpected in every corner, and the love of freedom.” In this work, he emphasizes the importance of cosmopolitanism and the destructive nature of nationalism, ideas often contradicted in centers of study in which not only it is taught to memorize the war materials of each side but also xenophobia is praised and weighed.

Croce had already highlighted history as a feat of freedom and Popper had refuted the existence of “inexorable laws of history” a point that Paul Johnson summed up well when he wrote that “one of the lessons of history that one must learn, even though it is unpleasant, is that no civilization can be taken for granted. Its permanence can never be assumed; there is always a dark age lurking around every corner. That falsified vision of the inexorable “life cycles” of history had Spengler as one of its greatest exponents.

When one studies private history, one studies the history of human life, but when one tells the history of the expanding state apparatus, one studies the anti-life, the destruction of what is properly human, one looks at the monster that suffocates the individual. When one studies private history, one notes the marvellous results of the mind, in art, in law, in philosophy, in the economy, and in all manifestations of human behavior. We learn about customs, dances, gastronomy, architecture, music, painting, sculpture, fashion, institutions, the sense of conversation and communication in general.

In that look, one perceives the evolution of civilization or involution since, as Collingwood teaches, civilization means “as a condition that man acquires what he needs for his sustenance and comfort not by taking from others what belongs to them but by earning his own” otherwise society is one “of plunder”, which implies “the revolt against civilization.”

Ultimately, the history of man is the history of thought, it is the history of the spirit as Collingwood also points out, while noting that “the natural sciences… do not include the idea of purpose.” In stones and roses there is no action but mere reaction. The historian in the social sciences interprets the thinking of others, unlike pseudo-historians who, to quote Collingwood again, fabricate “the history of scissors and paste … where they repeats what their authorities tells the.”

Governments have become so big that, apart from the crimes, the news, with a few honourable exceptions, hardly contains the facts and sayings of the private sector, because the newspapers, television and radio are taken over by the prince’s movements. And the matter has its explanation because precisely the Leviathan swallows everything, so its figure cannot go unnoticed. Here is what has to be changed drastically. In any case, now, with the progress in social networks and equivalents, the individual emerges more frequently, but, as we say, the bulk of the news preserves the wanderings of the bureaucrats.

Even when reference is made to citizens, it refers to those who are “ordinary” by admitting that officials – who are actually the people’s employees – are “on top” when the situation should be the other way around. Those who should be in the plain waiting for orders from their constituents are the rulers, but the matter has been turned upside down and the state apparatus is increasingly adipose.

A semantic digression is in order at this point. I do not know if it is appropriate to refer to the history of private life to distinguish it from the history of government, but it should be clear that the focus is not on the private sphere, which is exclusive to each individual, but rather on what people manifest externally, outside of what they reserve for themselves and which they exclude from the gaze of others.

Again we must refer to education in order to glimpse a way out of such reference to princes. The fact is that if, from the time we are children, we are crushed with the reverence to state authorities, it is unlikely that there will be room for independent thought and, therefore, for the history of private life in the stated sense, since everything is swallowed up by political power. And many parents do not help in this task because on the birthdays of their small children they give them little soldiers and machine guns that do not serve to consolidate peace.

When there is an opportunity to dig not into the customs and habits of a human group but into the biography of a thinker, one discovers nooks and crannies that amaze everyone. But many times, with the idea of simplification, it is preferable to take the history of immense groups and it seems easier to personify them in the rulers and their dynasties, instead of taking the trouble to take advantage of everything that underlies.

In reality, there is no justified complaint about the crushing of personal life when simultaneously in fact they support the ideas and principles that strengthen and deify the state structures and their corresponding radius of action to administer other people’s lives and estates.

I begin the closing of this journalistic note with the danger of the degradation of democracy to turn it into a kind of Russian roulette, not only formulated by the Giovanni Sartori of our time but by authors like Joseph Schumpeter who in “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” he asks and answers himself when opening the second part “Can capitalism survive? No; I don’t think it can.” And this in spite of the extraordinary success that, as the author says, capitalism has produced for the masses.

Among several factors pointed out in the book, the author stresses that this is because “capitalism poses its litigation before judges who have the death sentence in their pockets” on the basis that “the masses of people never elaborate opinions determined by their own initiative.”

It is even less able to articulate them and turn them into coherent actions. The only thing it can do is follow or refuse to follow the leader of a group that offers to lead it,” which leads us to the “particular concept of the will of the people […] that concept presupposes the existence of a common good clearly determined and discernible by all.”

Yet, in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Gustave Le Bon reminds us that “human behavior under the influence of agglomeration, especially the sudden disappearance – in a state of excitement – of moral restraints and civilized ways of thinking and feeling; …and] the sudden eruption of primitive impulses, of childishness and criminal tendencies” and in a similar way to Schumpeter, Benjamin Roggie defends the position in “Can Capitalism Survive?”

history, Hayek,

These last reflections lead us to seriously and urgently meditate on new limits to political power in order to safeguard democracy, as important thinkers such as Hayek, Leoni and, before them, Montesquieu have done in little-explored passages of their seminal work that should be carefully reviewed to which I have referred in other texts and will continue to do so ad nauseam until the objective is achieved given the gravity of the matter.

At this point, it is commonplace to quote George Santayana saying that “people who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it” in the sense of chewing and properly digesting what has happened in order to learn the lessons of history – contrary to the warning stamped by Huxley with which we open this note – so as to progress and not be condemned to pounding on the same errors.

Alberto Benegas Lynch (h) is the President of the Economic Sciences Section of the National Academy of Sciences of Buenos Aires

Alberto Benegas Lynch (h)