Why Study History?
Excerpts from The Classics "Declassified"
(C) 1977 Dan Peel
1. So that we can LEARN from the experience of others WITHOUT PAYING THE PRICE it cost them.
We may profit by their experience without paying the price which it cost them.
John Jay (1745-1829 A.D.) The Federalist, No. 5
2. In order to IMPROVE OURSELVES by following the examples of great men and women of the past.
. . . Select from their actions all that is noblest and worthiest to know. Ah, and what greater pleasure could one have? Or what more effective means to ones moral improvement? Plutarch (c.46-120 A.D.) The Lives of the Noble Grecians. . . ---Timoleon
In the writings of the Ephesians there was this precept, constantly to think of some one of the men of former times who practiced virtue.
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.) Meditations, Book 12
My method, on the contrary, is by the study of History, and by the familiarity acquired in writing, to habituate my memory to receive and retain images of the best and worthiest characters, I thus am enabled to free myself from any ignoble, base, or vicious impressions, contracted from contagion of ill company that I may be unavoidably engaged in, by the remedy of turning my thoughts in a happy and calm temper to view these noble examples.
Plutarch (c. 46-120 A.D.) The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans --- Timoleon
. . . it seems to be likely enough that we shall be all the more zealous and more emulous to read, observe, and imitate the better lives . . . .
Plutarch (c. 46-120 A.D.) The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans --- Demetrius
So that it becomes a mans duty to pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it.
Plutarch (c. 46-120 A.D.) The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans --- Pericles
3. To LEARN the constant and UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES OF
HUMAN NATURE by seeing men reacting in different kinds of situations and circumstances.
(Ex. Humans still love, hate, hope, and need friends.)
Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behavior.
Hume (1711-1776 A.D.) An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding, Section 8 (Of Liberty and Necessity), Part 1
4. In order to UNDERSTAND, LIVE, and EXIST in our present world.
There is, however, no advantage in reflections on the past further than may be of service to the present. For the future we must provide by maintaining what the present gives us and redoubling our efforts . . . .
Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C..) The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 1, Ch. 5
5. In order to LEARN the TRUTHS of the past WHICH STILL APPLY to our present world.
Yet history is of great use. I would not be thought here to lessen the credit and use of history: it is all the light we have in many cases, and we receive from it a great part of the useful truths we have, with a convincing evidence.
John Locke (1632-1704 A.D.) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ch. 16
6. So that OUR NATION CAN LEARN from the experience of nations in the past.
(Ex. Reasons the Roman Empire fell and how to avoid it from happening to our own nation.)
. . . Let us study what sorts of influence preserve and destroy states, and what sorts preserve and destroy the particular kinds of constitution, and to what causes it is due that some are well and others ill administered. When these have been studied we shall perhaps be more likely to see with a comprehensive view, which constitution is best, and how each must be ordered, and what laws and customs it must use, if it is to be at its best.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Micomachean Ethics, Book 10
It is useful, in framing laws, not only to study the past history of ones own country, in order to understand which constitution is desirable for it now, but also to have a knowledge of the constitutions of other nations and so to learn for what kinds of nation the various kinds of constitution are suited.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Rhetoric, Book 1, ch. 4
7. In order to JUDGE OUR OWN CUSTOMS and actions BETTER by examining the customs of different peoples.
It is good to know something of the customs of different peoples in order to judge more sanely our own, and not to think that everything of a fashion not ours is absurd and contrary to reason, as do those who have seen nothing.
Descartes (1596-1650 A.D.) Discourse on the Method of Rightly
Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences, Part 1
8. To INSURE ORDER in Society by having an informed, EDUCATED people. (Voting, etc.)
An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one. . . . in free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favorable judgment which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it.
Adam Smith (1723-1790 A.D.) The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Part 3, Article II
9. It teaches us to PUT THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.
(Ex. There have been numerous doomsdays, and yet life still goes on. Watergate, corruption in government are not new.)
So many humours, so many sects, so many judgments, opinions, laws, and customs, teach us to judge aright of our own, and inform our understanding to discover its imperfections and natural infirmity, which is no trivial speculation. So many mutations of states and kingdoms, and so many turns and revolutions of public fortune, will make us wise enough to make no great wonder of our own.
Montaigne (1533-1592 A.D.) Essays, Book 1
10. In order to PRESERVE DISCOVERIES and INVENTIONS.
(Ex. What if the wheel had to be re-invented every ten years? What about computers?)
It is true indeed that these and many other things have been invented several times over in the course of ages, or rather times without number; for necessity may be supposed to have taught men the inventions which were absolutely required, and when these were provided, it was natural that other things which would adorn and enrich life should grow by degrees. We should therefore make the best use of what has been already discovered, and try to supply defects.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Politics, Book 10
11. In order to DEVELOP NEW INVENTIONS and MAKE NEW DISCOVERIES which are BASED ON A KNOWLEDGE OF OLD ONES. (Ex. The gasoline engine made the car and airplane possible.)
Let us consider that if the ancients had kept to this deference of daring to add nothing to the knowledge transmitted to them and if their contemporaries had been as much opposed to accepting anything new, they would have deprived both themselves and their posterity of the fruit of their discoveries. Just as they used the discoveries handed down to them only as the means of making new ones, and that happy daring had opened the road for them to great achievements, so we should take the discoveries won for us by them in the same spirit, and following their example make these discoveries the means and not the end of our study, and thus imitating the ancients, try to surpass them.
Pascal (1623-1662 A.D.) Scientific Treatises, Preface to the Treatise on Vacuum
12. To help SOLVE OUR PROBLEMS BY defining the problem and SHOWING US WHAT HAS AND HAS NOT WORKED IN THE PAST.
For those who wish to get clear of difficulties it is advantageous to discuss the difficulties well; for the subsequent free play of thought implies the solution of the previous difficulties, and it is not possible to untie a bow of which one does not know.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Metaphysics, Book 2
13. To AVOID THE ERRORS of past people AND to PROFIT FROM THEIR GOOD IDEAS.
. . . it is necessary, while formulating the problems of which in our further advance we are to find the solutions, to call into council the views of those of our predecessors who have declared any opinion on this subject, in order that we may profit by whatever is sound in their suggestions and avoid their errors. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) On the Soul, Book 1
14. In order to REMOVE PREJUDICES and INCREASE UNDERSTANDING.
(Ex. Indians were unintelligent savages. What about the Aztecs, Mayas, Olmecs, etc.? In many ways they were more advanced than the Europeans of that time period. Ex. Hitler killed six million Jews during World War II. If we dont learn from History, we may be condemned to repeat the atrocities of the past.)
The more they (the people) are instructed the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one.
Adam Smith (1723-1790 A.D.) The Wealth of Nations, Book 5
15. To LEARN FROM OUR OWN PAST MISTAKES.
(Ex. Thomas Edison failed over 2,000 times before inventing the electric light. He saw each failure as bringing him closer to something that would work.)
Sometimes a man desires to know the event of an action; and then he thinketh of some like action past, and the events thereof one after another, supposing like events will follow like actions. But this is certain: by so much also he is more prudent, and his expectations seldomer fail him.
Hobbes (1588-1679 A.D.) Leviathan, Part 1 (Of Man), ch. 3
16. To PRAISE THE WORTHY ACTS of the past and KEEP MEN FROM DOING EVIL FOR FEAR OF HOW THEY WILL BE VIEWED BY HISTORY.
This I regard as Historys highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.
Tacitus (c. 55-117 A.D.) The Annals, Book 3
17. In order to TRAVEL TO ANOTHER PLACE AND TIME by listening to people describe their time and country.
(We can talk to the great and heroic men of the past.)
For to converse with those of other centuries is almost the same as to travel.
Descartes (1596-1650 A.D.) Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences, Part 1
. . . in the records of history; he shall, by reading those books, converse with the great and heroic souls of the best ages. Human understanding is marvelously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses.
Montaigne (1533-1592 A.D.) Essays, Book 1
18. In order to SEE WHICH LAWS HELP TO PRESERVE OUR COUNTRY, which ones are useful and good, and which ones are no longer useful. To help us in making laws.
(Ex. Blue Laws -- Sitting on garbage cans in Georgia, kissing for longer than five minutes in Iowa, etc.)
. . . we are able to discern what is well or ill settled, and what laws are the salvation and what are the destruction of cities, and what changes would make a state happy . . . .
Plato (c. 428-348 B.C.) Laws, Book 3
. . .let us study what sorts of influence preserve and destroy states, and what sorts preserve and destroy the particular kinds of constitution, . . . we shall perhaps be more likely to see with a comprehensive view, which constitution is best and how each must be ordered, and what laws and customs it must use, if it is to be at its best.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Nicomachean Ethics, end of book 10
19. In order to KEEP OUR PRINCIPLES ALIVE by keeping those thoughts alive. (Freedom, etc.)
How can our principles become dead, unless the impressions (thoughts) which correspond to them are extinguished? But it is in thy power to continuously fan these thoughts into a flame.
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.) Meditations, Book 7
20. In order to JUDGE WHAT CAN BE DONE by what has been done.
There is a History in all mens lives, figuring the nature of the times deceased; The which observed, a man may prophesy, with a near aim, of the main chance of things as yet not come to life, which in their seeds and weak beginnings lie intreasured.
Shakespeare (1564-1616 A.D.) Second Part of King Henry IV, Act III, Scene 1
Let us judge of what can be done by what has been done. . . . it is good logic to reason from the actual to the possible.
Rousseau (1712-1778 A.D.) The Social Contract, Book 3 (Authority Maintains Itself)
21. To help (to some extent) PREDICT THE FUTURE.
By observing past events we can predict more accurately what the future will be. (Presidential election in 1980 - there will be one! On earth, a ball thrown into the air will come down. The sun will probably come up tomorrow. Death and taxes are certain.) Napoleon said, Impossible is the word of a fool.
Nothing is impossible with time.
. . . exact knowledge of the past is an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it . . . .
Thucydides (c.460-400 B.C.) The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 1, ch. 1
consider the past; such great changes of political supremacies. Thou mayest foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now: accordingly to have contemplated human life for forty years is the same as to have contemplated it for ten thousand years. For what wilt thou see? (Human nature is the same.)
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.) Meditations, Book 7
22. In order to ADVANCE MANS KNOWLEDGE.
It is different for man, made only for infinity. He is ignorant in his lives of first age, but he never ceases to learn as he goes forward, for he has the advantage not only of his own experience but also of his predecessors, because he always keeps in his memory the knowledge he has once acquired, and that of the ancients is always at hand in the books they have left. And since he keeps his knowledge, he can also easily increase it, so that men today are in a certain sense in the same condition in which those ancient philosophers would be if they could have prolonged their old age until now, adding to the knowledge they had what their studies might have won for them by the grace of so many centuries. Hence it is that by a special prerogative not only does each man advance from day to day in the sciences, but all men together make continual progress as the universe grows old, because the same thing happens in the succession of men as in the different ages of an individual man. So that the whole series of men during the course of so many centuries should be considered as one self-same man, always in existence and continually learning.
Pascal (1623-1662 A.D.) Preface to the Treatise on the Vacuum
23. To LEARN CITIZENSHIP.
In order to become good citizens in our city, state, nation, and ever-growing world community (and ever-shrinking world). Peel The Classics Declassified
24. To LEARN PATRIOTISM.
In order to appreciate the vast amount of freedom and opportunity that we have in our country. There is far more that is right with our country than what is wrong. We need to appreciate that fact. (Especially in light of the lack of freedom (both political and economic) that is offered by other countries in the world today and in the past.
We also need to work to bring about the ideals put forth in our Declaration and Constitution.
We gain appreciation and motivation by studying history. Studying History is our responsibility if we are to continue to grow and to enjoy our freedoms. Responsibility is the other side of the coin of freedom! Peel The Classics Declassified
25. ITS FUN! History is the MOTHER OF TRUTH, RIVAL OF TIME, STOREHOUSE OF DEEDS, WITNESS FOR THE PAST, EXAMPLE AND COUNCIL FOR THE PRESENT, AND THE WARNING FOR THE FUTURE.
(History includes sports heroes as well as Presidents, women as well as men, and the humorous as well as the serious. History is the interpreted record of past events. It includes everything! (Math, science, philosophy, literature, and even the Guiness Book of World Records!)
. . . for it is the business and duty of historians to be exact, truthful, and wholly free from passion, and neither interest nor fear, hatred nor love, should make them swerve from the path of truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of deeds, witness for the past, example and counsel for the present, and warning for the future.
Cervantes (1547-1616 A.D.) The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha
26. ITS THE ______. Our government has realized the importance the above reasons for studying history. There are some things in life that we must do. (Work to eat, etc.)