There is an old German saying, “age doesn’t protect from folly” (Alter schützt vor Torheit nicht), but as it turns out, knowledge doesn’t protect from folly either. Hegel anecdotally said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”. It does make you think, regarding the lack of awareness of historical context in society, whether we are keeping ourselves in the dark. I have to agree with Joe Murray, the coordinator with Afri-Action, who said “More and more, I tend to read history. I often find it more up to date than the daily newspapers.” Knowledge of the past seems to be continually covered over by the triviality of the news that is regularly used to attract our attention. The similarities in current developments to problematic developments of the past is virtually ignored.
As Kurt Vonnegut observed, history is a list of surprises that can prepare us to be surprised yet again, and Thucydides states “History is philosophy teaching by examples.” It is a shame that the large numbers of people in the west accumulating knowledge aren’t making a better world, despite the assumption by many in the west, that we are so knowledgeable. The fact is, that we are not using knowledge as a tool for improvement, and probably never have, but instead it is our feelings that guide us, and we know how insignificant they can be. We have also built tools, called social media, in which we can let these feelings out into the world, and if one doesn’t see the insignificance of feelings there, then nowhere. By insignificance I mean that they don’t help us construct anything but are very destructive in most cases.
History is significant because it is deserving of attention and can show the consequences of a particular behaviour. We can glean meaning from experience by studying what was good and what was bad in the past, a sign that guides us to a better future. The problem is, as we have observed above, we fail to learn from history, or even from bad experiences. We allow ourselves to follow the rut on the path we are travelling, which leads us down the same erroneous paths we have followed over and over again. The fact that we fail to follow examples is something that we must begrudgingly own up to, and overcome our prejudices, our misled confidence in our knowledge, and look for wisdom. As was quoted above, wisdom isn’t equivalent to age, and age also has its share of folly, but wisdom is the ability to discern the right judgement from the insights we have won by past experience.
One wisdom of the East that has impressed me was an age-old advice to look at things as if for the first time, called “beginner’s mind”. This isn’t a voluntary ignorance, but a deferring of what we assume to know for a moment, in order to perceive a situation anew. A knowledge of history shows us the ruts of time in which mankind has been stuck, and a new assessment could help us avoid the mistakes of the past. Rushing into important decisions has always brought us into the ruts of the past. We need to carefully consider our intentions at an opportune moment, so as to be prepared for situations in which quick decisions must be made. What we observe in history is the opposite. In fact, the most important decisions in current politics seem to be rushed, for fear of having to think them through. In such cases, all knowledge and experience are thrown out, there is no time to rethink, and we fall into the same ruts as before.
I can’t help thinking that it is because we are being ideologically influenced. Ideologies have a rigid agenda, and there is no time to contemplate the consequences of its policies, rather the dogma must be quickly implemented. Ideologies are also resistant to criticism and doubt is seen as a sign of betrayal. Ideologies have maintained a course of action with the most atrocious consequences, and people addicted to ideologies have become firm to the point of being cold and callous. There is another danger, that Iain McGilchrist picked up from John Stuart Mill in his book:
“As John Stuart Mill so wisely said (speaking about social science, but it applies more widely):
All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”
McGilchrist, Iain. The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (S.620-621). Perspectiva Press. Kindle-Version.
We put our trust of people who are educated, who aspire to release us from dogmatic ideas, but as McGilchrist points out “…some evidence shows that people with more education are more likely to cling to ideological beliefs in the teeth of evidence…” (S.1098). This is evident in the ideological warfare that seems to be going on in university campuses in the western world, which doesn’t increase our confidence in our younger generation to avoid the mistakes of the past. In fact, it is truly worrying that those who should know about history are still prone to repeat it.
The question then is, what can we do?
The problems of the world are of course compounded by the fact that time is unrelenting, and we must do things of importance when the opportunity arises. With enough time, perhaps many of the blunders of the past could have been avoided, but I believe that it has more to do with our mindset. The more dogmatic we are, the less alternatives we have and the less imagination of what else could be perceived as a solution. We need to understand that we are being driven, not just by time, but by the ideology of commercial growth, expansion of markets, and global competition. This ideology tells us that consumerism is the calling of mankind, and that without it, there is no point in living. It is at times as merciless as a tsunami and takes everything in its path with it. Most important, it drives us into the channels of the past and prevents us from finding other avenues, other directions in which to travel.
If we are stuck in that rut, we know where it is leading, just like in the past. If we can get out of the rut, we have a chance.