H I S T O R Y
For me, the importance of history lies in what it has to say about the future.
Rather than being interested in history as a collection of stories about interesting people, or as a means of criticizing humanity by cataloging its evils, I see history as a source of practical knowledge of what works and what doesn't. Yes, biographies can be interesting, and yes, the human condition deserves scrutiny. But I think historical data offers something more than just entertainment from yesterday or understanding of today. History also offers us clues--both warnings and encouragement--describing what tomorrow may be like.
As a repository of patterns and how they change over time when acted on by external forces, the historical record provides source data for the development of theories of structural transformation.
There are two questions of history in particular that interest me. The first asks, what works and what doesn't?
What Works and What Doesn't?
In purely human terms, this concerns social action. Our solitary actions as presumably free-willed individuals add up to large-scale mass behaviors that have significant and long-lasting effects on future generations. How important is any one person? If there is a "need" for a certain kind of person at a key moment in time, is history primarily a record of failures to find such persons, with a few isolated instances of the right person appearing on stage at the right time? Or is there a kind of "historical necessity" in which only the right kind of person is required, who is transformed into or represented as the specific person needed and who is simply interpreted later by historians to have been inevitable? Are there currents in human events, as inexorable as the tides, which sweep up individuals and carry them off despite their wills? And if so, are those persons immortalized by the historians merely the ones who, by skill or luck or both, managed to ride the waves without sinking into obscurity?
In other words, how do particular individuals come to have profound impacts on human patterns, and how does humanity as a whole survive such manipulations... or the lack of them? What works, and what doesn't?
But of course "history" is not restricted to human existence. It would be vain to think so, not to mention that it would create an artificial limit to what we can learn from the natural world of which we are a part. (That, despite the attempts of "environmentalists" to describe human beings as a kind of unnatural cancer on reality.)
The story of existence is a history of patterns. Pattern is the organization of reality according to laws governing the forms of existence and interaction of individual elements; this is as true for geology as it is for sociology. The trick is to be able to pick out the governing elements and correctly analyze the changes in their relationships with one another--that is, to discern real patterns and to generate acceptable explanations for the ways in which those patterns change over time.
Non-human history offers useful lessons to someone trying to decide what works and what doesn't. "Forgive and forget" may be a desirable rule for human conduct, but the rest of the natural world recognizes no such form of preserving inefficiency and rewarding failure. Patterns self-organize and survive because they work. Patterns which do not work--that is, elements whose self-organization does not confer an adequate survival advantage for their environment--are discarded in favor of new patterns which are better adapted to reality. This transformation of patterns may take tens of thousands of years for biological elements, or billions of years for planets, stars and galaxies... but it will always happen, subject to the inflexible law that, as environments change, so must their elements.
Adapt or die. In system terms, the element that has the greatest number of potential responses to its environment will control that environment (see Systemantics). And the lesson for self-aware beings like humans is this: Deal with reality. You may not like some aspect of reality; you may even be able to change some minor part of reality; but what is real exists as such no matter what you might prefer it to be.
Being a self-aware human means you have a choice. You can choose to remain ignorant of some aspect of reality. You can be aware of some aspect of reality but choose to pretend that you are unaware of it or otherwise deny its existence as real. Or you can act to make yourself aware of reality and, having done so, accept what is real as real no matter how unpleasant it may seem.
The study of history tells us which of these options is most likely to benefit its practitioner. Patterns which do not adapt to reality as it changes, either because they do not, cannot, or will not perceive those changes or because they do not, cannot or will not change themselves, have no survival advantage. They may last a while until some pattern better adapted to reality comes along, but in the end, that which does not work is replaced by that which does.
If this doesn't motivate a person to study history, I don't know what will.
Is History Cyclical?
There is an old joke that history doesn't repeat itself; historians merely repeat each other.
But of course, I'm merely repeating that joke.
The thing is, it masks what is actually an interesting question: Are there certain patterns of human history which occur and re-occur over time? We are talking here about fallible humans studying the actions of equally fallible humans. Humans, in whom pattern-detection is bred as a survival instinct, are capable of seeing patterns where none exist; we may perceive patterns where there is in fact only random activity that is unconnected by cause and effect.
But doesn't our awareness of pattern in the world around us suggest that, if cycles of action can exist in the natural world, and we are part of the natural world, there can be cyclical patterns in human history as well? And what, indeed, of cause and effect? If we are correct to insist that actions have consequences, that some effects can accurately be determined to be the results of specific prior actions, then isn't it possible that similar actions in similar environments can have similar results, perhaps producing a repeating sequence of events?
It may not be so. There are a lot of "ifs" here. Perhaps human self-awareness allows us to avoid what in the rest of the natural world is the inevitability of particular consequences following from particular actions; maybe free will can be defined as the ability to break patterns. Or perhaps too much "similarity" of environments and actions is required to be able to assert that the "same" sequence of events ever happens more than once (the definition of a "cycle").
The question of similarity is the key. Time appears to be an arrow; it moves in one direction only and actual events are never repeated. But if this specification of actual events is removed--if we are permitted to classify events into categories so that we can say a particular kind of event has occurred--then repetition becomes possible. The odds may be slim, depending on how narrowly one defines one's classes of historical events, but they are not zero. If an event of type A is followed by an event of type B, and both types A and B are classifications which allow multiple different events to be considered to be meaningfully similar to one another, then it may be possible for "A followed closely by B" to be a repeating pattern of behavior.
In other words, history itself does not repeat, but certain sequences of similar kinds of historical events may be perceived to repeat.
So much for the theory. What about the practice? Whether they can exist or not, who thinks that historical patterns actually do occur?
It turns out that this has been a popular notion for quite a long time. Plato suggests that history is cyclical in his Timaeus dialogue, and Vergil comes as close to stating the same thing as can be done in poetry (his Fourth Eclogue). (Popularity, of course, is no guarantor of correctness, but where does one find "history" if not in the words of historians? One has to start somewhere.)
Three historians in particular addressed this question in the twentieth century. They were Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Carroll Quigley.
In his work, The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler concluded that civilizations, made of living things, have patterns of change like living things. In particular, Spengler held that civilizations are "born," they "mature," they "decline," and then they "die."
Spengler's work was (and remains) somewhat controversial because he was persuaded that, just as humans and other living things have fixed lifespans, the same is true of civilizations... which means that our own Western civilization is as doomed to decline and death as all those that came before us. Thus he concluded that, yes, history is cyclical; in fact, it is fated to be so.
Arnold Toynbee, in his extensive work A Study of History, rejected Spengler's conclusion that Western civilization was doomed to extinction. In Toynbee's view, civilizations, like human beings, are free to chart their own courses.
This more optimistic assessment of Western civilization's chances for survival was (not surprisingly) well-received in the West. Its more individualistic view of history--that is, that an individual civilization has the capacity to "consciously" choose its destiny--retained Spengler's biological metaphor, but changed the focus from the group to the individual. In so doing, Toynbee realized that similar low-level parts can be connected to form many different whole things, a clue that at some deep level, civilizations (as Spengler thought) do indeed behave like groups of things. But Toynbee did not follow this reasoning to its conclusion, and so was left believing that history was not cyclical, that despite obvious similarities among them, all civilizations are free to change as they will.
Carroll Quigley, a scientist by training, could not accept either of these views. To him, they seemed too anthropomorphic, too willing to descibe the world in purely human terms. Better, he thought, to accept what the facts of history actually say whether they seem humanistic or not. In what he would call the typical Western tradition of the dialectic, Quigley created a synthesis of Spengler and Toynbee.
According to Quigley in his work The Evolution of Civilizations, civilizations--including Western civilization--are neither groups nor individuals, but share some traits with each because each is a system, and all systems have certain features in common. As he penetrated deepest into what a civilization actually is, he came closest, I think, to being able to explain how and why civilizations change as they do. In Quigley's model, the only cyclical thing about history is that systems come into being adapted to their environment; the environment always changes; and those systems which cannot adapt to the new environment will perish.
Historians themselves are divided on the question of whether or not civilizations actually follow a set path, or blaze their own unique path each time they emerge. For some historians, history does repeat; for others, repetition is merely a perception, a failure to recognize that unique individuals can be created out of identical basic elements.
And yet they all offer scripts which they claim all civilizations follow unless interrupted. For Spengler, this script is a play in four acts, proceeding from overture to the ultimate and inevitable ringing down of the curtain. Toynbee spoke strongest against the "inevitability of history," but still offered a script of his own. Even Quigley offerred a seven-stage outline of historical evolution (although his is flexible).
So it appears that, while there continues to be debate over the theory, in practice there is agreement: civilizations do change in similar ways. Perhaps the only interesting question remaining is why this would surprise anyone, given the blunt facts that civilizations do emerge, do mature, and do perish.
My view is that Quigley's analysis of civilizations as systems comes closest to the truth. But as he himself noted, it's difficult to study one's own civilization objectively or completely (considering that we're steeped in it, and it's not finished yet). So it remains to be seen which historian's analysis of history was most correct in describing the actual fate of our own civilization.
Will our own history repeat that of other civilizations?
Will any of us be around to find out?
Bloch, Marc -- Feudal Society, Vols. 1 & 2, University of Chicago Press, 1961. The classic study of the feudal system in western Europe.
Cantor, Norman F. -- The Civilization of the Middle Ages, HarperPerennial, 1993. Though seen through modern sociopolitical lenses (the work is praised by The New Yorker, which makes it suspect in its grasp on reality), this is nevertheless a good reference work on medieval life in its various major aspects.
Cottrell, Leonard -- The Anvil of Civilization, Mentor, 1957. A fine introduction to the Mediterranean cultures and civilizations whose mixture led eventually to Western civilization.
Douglas, David C. -- William the Conqueror, University of California Press, 1964. A closer look at the Norman occupation of and integration into Anglo-Saxon England.
Eichler, Lillian -- The Customs of Mankind, Doubleday, 1924. Written as a compendium of cultural customs from around the world and through history, today this book is most interesting as a proof of the astonishing fertility (and eventual hardening) of human social arrangements.
Flexner, Stuart, with Flexner, Doris -- The Pessimist's Guide to History, Avon, 1992. Definitely a walk on the dark side of human existence.
Fukuyama, Francis -- The End of History and the Last Man, Avon, 1993. The triumph of Western ways has long been apparent to those who have refused to willingly blind themselves to reality. This book offers a serious thesis to explain that triumph, even to the point of its controversial conclusion that liberal democracy is the "end of history": the final form of balance between the state and the individual.
Gies, Frances & Joseph -- Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, HarperPerennial, 1994. Dropkicks the old notion that invention and creativity lay dormant until the Renaissance period.
Quigley, Carroll -- The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historial Analysis, Liberty Fund, 1979. Quigley's theory of history as science, as applied to his contenders for those cultures deserving of the name "civilizations."
Spengler, Oswald -- The Decline of the West, as abridged by Helmut Werner, Oxford University Press, 1991. This work is the consolidated and analyzed evidence for Spengler's gloomy prediction of the unstoppable doom of Western civilization. Worth reading as both patterning and prophecy.
Stein, Werner, with Grun, Bernard -- The Timetables of History, Simon and Shuster, 1982. Subtitled "A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events," this book plots history as though on a graph with two axes: one of the year, and the other of the main aspects of human life, such as science, philosophy, and daily life. It's a fascinating way to see what happened when.
Stenton, Sir Frank -- Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press, 1971. One of the best accounts of the occupation of England by the Angles and Saxons, and their own cultural assimilation by the Danes and Normans.
Taylor, Rev. Isaac, and Palmer, A. Smythe -- Words and Places, E.P. Dutton & Co., abt. 1906. First published in 1864, this book is a treasure-trove of British place-names. Some of its etymologies have no doubt been proven mistaken over the course of a century, but the soundness of most of them leads one down all sorts of historical and geographical tracks.
Toynbee, Arnold J. -- A Study of History, Vols. I-X, as abridged by D.C. Somervell, Oxford University Press, 1987. Toynbee's great achievement of modern historical scholarship, these books provide the empirical basis for Quigley's later morphological analysis.
White, Lynn, Jr. -- Medieval Technology and Social Change, Oxford University Press, 1964. Technology and sociopolitical power have always been dance partners. This book offers a good description of how this was so in the Middle Ages.
The Western Canon a starting page for following the Great Conversation: the ideas of Western civilization that have changed the world.
The Gateway to the Ancient Source essays and tests on Greek and Roman cultures.
Exploring Ancient World Cultures a good basic look at significant world cultures.
Ancient Northwest Europe studies of the Anglo-Saxon, Celts and Norse (the northwesterly inheritors of the energetic Indo-European culture).
Gilgamesh Summary a summary of the Sumerian legend of the hero-king Gilgamesh.