“The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
I sometimes envision History as a teacher standing before a classroom filled with squalling teenagers. The kids are entirely uninterested in what Miss History has to say. Who cares about all that old crap? This is today! We know better now. Yet she stands up there, chalk in hand, facing a sea of eight billion desks, while the spitballs fly, the gigglings and gropings continue, and the din of voices raised in senseless defiance of her wisdom swells unbounded. Undaunted, she goes on mercilessly telling her class – that’s us, Gentle Reader – stuff that we all really ought to know…but which the majority of us refuse to acknowledge.
If anyone should have an absolute and unabridged right to say I told you so to Mankind, it’s Miss History.
Foremost of all History’s lessons is that we should pay attention to History. But when we do, we quickly become aggrieved, for it tells us things we don’t want to hear…things that would make us question our own wisdom. So we prefer to ignore it.
History tells us innumerable things about the perniciousness of government. Brilliant men have written extensive chronicles of what follows when men turn to the State: for protection from others…for the elimination of conditions they dislike…for things they ought to provide to themselves, by their own intelligence and sweat. A record six thousand years long of oppressions, predations, and slaughters, conducted by and through governments, is available to anyone who takes an interest. Yet we go on as if what men do when awarded power over others is an unexampled, utterly mysterious thing.
So the parade of horrors continues.
Why? Why are we so resistant to the lesson? Can we really be that vain of our own wisdom? After so many failures, can we sincerely believe that “we’re smarter than they were; we can do it better” — ? And when we fail yet again, how can we exculpate ourselves in the face of so much accumulated knowledge – knowledge sufficient to convince anyone with eyes to see that what we’ve attempted is by its very nature impossible?
There are many who “think” with their desires instead of their reason. He who lusts after power will appeal to these with a promise of riches for submission: Give me power over you and I will fulfill your dreams of avarice. The lie must be properly packaged, of course. It must include at least one devil-figure. That figure must somehow be connected to the ills and unfulfilled desires of the Great Unwashed. But The People’s Champion will do battle against the devil and cast him down…and thereafter riches will flow forth from the cornucopia the devil had seized for himself.
There are others who are consumed by envy of others of greater ability or effort. The power-luster will promise to reave them of their “ill-gotten gains” and distribute them among his beloved People. Thus will he relieve all misery and want, while simultaneously assuaging The People’s desire for “justice.” For it is unjust that some should have more than others, is it not? After all, we didn’t ask to be born stupid, or shiftless, or careless! We deserve redress!
There are others who are filled with fear. The power-seeker will promise them protection. It is a need most urgent, for The Enemy is everywhere. He’s poised to strike and could do so at any moment. We may not know his name or face, but his ubiquity is certain. What’s that you say? Let the commoners possess the arms required for the job? Unthinkable! They might harm one another, or themselves. Look how much damage they do to themselves with paper cuts alone!
The lies are many. All of them have been used before. The would-be tyrant’s chief skill is in the packaging.
Yes, I’m in a mood. I’ve been an aficionado of history all my life. Hegel was essentially correct: we learn, if not nothing, then very little from history. The power-mongers fool even the best of us more often than not. All it takes is a more colorful, more glittery wrapping for the Lie of the Moment.
But what is the Lie of the Moment? What deception has been used to fasten today’s yoke upon our necks? Systemic Racism? COVID-19? Fear of Russia? Mean Tweets?
The lies have broken down among our neighbors to the north. Canadians have decided that they’ve had enough. They’ve gotten up on their hind legs and roared a mighty roar, and the powers-that-be are cowering in terror.
What of us? Are we still prisoners of the Lie? For there is really only one Lie, you know. It changes costumes frequently enough, but the body underneath remains constant:
We know better than you.
We’re here to help.
It hasn’t been believable since Solon of Athens. But to learn that, we’d have to pay attention to History…and we won’t.
Time to wise up, Gentle Readers.
Put not your trust in princes. – Psalm 146
Another great one!
Another good one. Might I suggest that the lies are cleverly disguised siren songs to the seven deadly sins present in all of us?
Yes, indeed, Grumpy. We used to call them the seven capital sins because, like capital of other kinds, they’re used to produce other things: in this case, even worse sins. It’s a lesson lost on far too many people. Not enough of us attend to our inner lives as well as our outer ones.
You’re preaching to the choir, Francis. The recent light shedding concerning Karl Jung’s theory of mass psychosis, outlined here and elsewhere, explains much of the problem.
I know, I know. But I keep hoping against the odds. Anyway, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is likely to get his eye poked out, and all that.
I am not the originator of this; someone far smarter than me coined it: IIRC it is called the “Great Relearning.” Summed up, it means that, every 60 years, or so, we must reeducate our elites about the world they inhabit.
They become so ensconced in their tawny wards, and their brains so enamored with their insular delusions, that they have to be dragged out of their dormitories kicking and screaming to attend Miss History’s extra-curricular seminar every 60- or 75-years or so…the timeline appears fixed at about one human generation.
You’d think that, given the documented regularity of the need, that higher-ed’d have internalized the lesson and propagated it in the daily curricula of Harvard/Yale/Princeton, et al, if only to prevent the tragedies that historical ignorance foists on the populations they profess to ‘better’ through education…
And also, to prevent their Matriculateds from looking as stupid as they do right now.
One of the great Tom Wolfe essays.
Those who escape the teen syndrome known as “Hyper-I-know-everything-ism” are few and far between. The reason “we” don’t learn from history is that, in the hearts of most, the conclusion is “I know better”. Learning humility means willfully (and with full acceptance) fact-checking your own ass and admitting it when your strident proclamations are proven wrong.
After beating themselves on the head with their wrongness for long enough, a very few folk manage to become wise and objective thinkers. But we are few, and they are legion, and we don’t have them surrounded!