Thought of the Day: Past is Prologue


I should probably state the distinction between “Thought of the Day” and a regular post. A “Thought of the Day” is a more or less me taking a shot in the dark: it’s either going to make sense or be complete bullshit. In other words, I couldn’t figure out a way to coherently construct a thought, so I just started typing about a general subject and hoped for the best.

Keep that in mind.

Now I’m a nerd for history. But not because I see it as a window into our future. It appeals to me because the same way, say STAR TREK appeals to me…it just fucking does, okay?

Of course, I have frequently compared modern US to Ancient Rome but that’s only because it’s fun for me to do so. Not because I literally believe Rome and America are identical in their historical trajectories.

But the only way many can find the utility in history is if they see it as, again, a “window into the future”. “Those that don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” as the logic goes. Which is pretty idiotic when thought through. A historian must have thought of that one. But contrary to what your history teacher taught you, history doesn’t repeat itself. It doesn’t “echo” either. I mean, sure, events might be similar, but just because they’re similar doesn’t mean that they have the same cause. So what is history good for? Fuck if I know, I just like to study it.

But I suppose history as a discipline is useful for a means of (for a lack of a better term) rememberance. Shit happens. BAD shit happens. Some good shit too, but mostly bad. I mentioned something previously about empathy and its necessity for maintaining freedoms, which in turn helps bind our society. In a way, reflecting upon, investigating past events and peoples helps us engage this empathy…we are able to empathize with characters of the past and the conditions of their actions (in many ways they are “victims” of their age) because their decisions are what brought us to today. In a more negative sense, it might tap into our fear of what happens after death…notably what happens on Earth. Nothing could be worse than being forgotten. So we empathize with persons of the past for the sake of rememberance, lest we ourselves be forgotten. Look, I’m just spitballing here. But if there is to be a utility for history, it’s to remember. (To honor is another popular explanation, but “honor” seems insufficient to me)

How we recall events is also problematic. We tend to classify events based, in part, on future events. I suppose an example of this would be Gavrilo Princip, the man who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and kickstarted World War I…and in effect, World War II. We don’t need to know shit about the carnage of WWI to understand the motivations and life of Princip….nevertheless he’s lumped into the pantheon of the Great War. Upon closer examination, we realize such eras in history really weren’t eras….those titles are usually bestowed by future historians. Did the people living in the “dark ages” know they were living in the “dark ages”?

I’m not going to take this conclusion to its extreme where we can’t know anything about history (or a postmodern interpretation as an asshole might say). Obviously things DO happen. But can historical analysis transcend mere information? And is information alone enough to understand a particular timeframe? An example I have used before is my rant against SPOILER ALERTS! I argued that SPOILER ALERTS are useless and if you rely upon them to not ruin your movie-going experience, clearly you don’t know anything about how movies work. You can know everything there is to know about a movie before going to see it: it’s director, the script, it’s plot, etc…but none of that information will tell you if it’s a good movie. To learn that, you have to experience it. The study of history, at least commonly understood, is like studying a movie without watching it. We CAN know every detail about an event, about a particular era, but it won’t tell us what we want to know: what was it like?

In this sad sense, all of our memories and experiences will become, as Roy Batty eloquently stated, “lost in time, like tears in rain.”

So what is history good for? I suppose that it depends upon the era of history that you’re living in! Recently, the study has taken a more anthropological and/or sociological form with people like Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. But the study of it, and our interpretations, are based on the questions we want answered for our own time. 

But I can say, almost without doubt, history is not moving in a definite Hegelian-like direction where the meaning of it all will be revealed to some “final Spirit” or some shit (unless living consciousness can last until the end of the universe. In that case, my apologies to Hegel) We know this to not be true, YET to some degree we allow this to inform our opinion on the study of history itself. “Past IS prologue”, but is not a determinate to our future.

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