Discover more from A User's Guide to History
What did Hegel know?
Too much, or not enough?
People and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. ~ Hegel
It is a common refrain: We humans never learn from our history but instead make the same mistakes again and again.
How true is it? To the extent true, why? To the extent not, why not?
In a strict sense, it is false to say we make the same mistakes again and again. We might make similar mistakes, but conditions are never exactly the same, if only because of the passage of time. We are different than we were before; other aspects of any situation have changed too.
This is the heart of the problem about applying the past to the present. Today might be similar to some moment in the past, but it is also different. And it is impossible to know if the similarities or the differences are more important until we see how things play out.
For example, critics of American foreign policy have contended that the United States should have learned from the failure of France in Indochina that counterinsurgency wars in Southeast Asia can’t be won. Yet the British defeated an insurgency in Malaya even while the French were losing in Indochina. Was the American experience in Vietnam going to be more like the former or the latter? No one could know in advance.
The point of this is that history teaches lots of lessons. The hard part is knowing which lessons apply to a given circumstance.
There is another aspect of the question, involving who is doing the learning. It has often been noted that people tend to become more set in their ways as they age. They become less open to trying new things, to challenging the status quo. They become, in a cultural and emotional sense, more conservative.
This is perfectly understandable. The life task of young people is to figure out their place in the world. They experiment with one thing and then another. Eventually most find something that suits them well enough, and for good reason they tend to stick with it.
This can have political overtones. The young are drawn to idealism, to belief systems that paint the world in black and white. As they get older, they discover the grays. Those who are old enough to have observed the process or experienced it themselves take this as the natural course of affairs. A story is told of French premier Georges Clemenceau, who was informed that his son was a communist. Clemenceau replied, “My son is twenty years old. If he were not a communist, I would disown him. If he is still a communist at forty, I will disown him then.”
In other words, people learn from history—their history—as they become older.
But this doesn’t address Hegel’s point directly. He wants people to learn from other people’s history. He thinks they don’t, or not often enough.
Learning from others’ experience is difficult for much the same reason learning from history is difficult. I’m not you, and the challenges I face aren’t exactly yours. How can I know whether your experience is applicable to me?
In fact we do learn from others’ experience all the time. We read movie reviews to help us decide which films to watch. We count the number of stars beside a product we might buy online. We ask for references in hiring people. We watch the weather forecast, which extrapolates the past experience of meteorologists to the future.
But Hegel and his intellectual kin want more. They want humans to avoid the egregious collective mistakes of the past—the wars, the financial panics, the witchhunts. And yet we do avoid them, most of the time. We might even be getting better at it. There hasn’t been a world war in three generations, after two wars in one generation. We don’t hunt witches anymore, and the punishments for offending conventional beliefs in other areas are far less severe.
Financial panics remain a problem. But the problem isn’t that people think a given boom will never bust; it’s that they don’t know when the bust will occur, and they don’t want to cash out too soon.
The problem here is greed. Or a willingness to take risks. Hegel probably never played a lottery. He would have learned from the history of lotteries—if not from simple calculations—that his chances of winning were very small. But people play lotteries by the millions. They know their chances are essentially nil. They’re not surprised or even disappointed when they lose. They simply like the thrill of thinking what if? As thrills go, a lottery ticket comes cheap.
Sure, we could probably learn more and better from history. Hegel isn’t entirely wrong. But if we learned too much from history, life would lose its unpredictable zest.* If people knew the outcome of a lottery ahead of time, they’d never play. Where’s the thrill in that?
* More to come on what would happen if we could accurately predict the future.