Monday, March 12, 2018

History Is a Mystery

For more years than I care to count, I have been fascinated by George Santayana’s comment that those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This is often paraphrased to suggest that those who can’t learn from history or do not read it are equally doomed. As I am overly fond of repeating, I agree with all of those statements.

But here’s the problem. History rarely repeats itself precisely. Napoleon and Hitler may have chosen to invade in time to enjoy the Russian winter, but that is one of the unusual instances of such blatant historical stupidity. Applying history to modern circumstances is like dropping a pebble in water and trying to see your face clearly in the ripples. How it is useful in understanding our various catastrophes, which we invariably get ourselves into, demands a long book.

This is a blog. I will indulge in simplistic brevity.

The first roadblock to such an application is that primary source survival is accidental. Think of what has been lost during the many accidental fires, deliberate destructions by revolutions and tyrants, as well as modern era bombings, not to mention bad storage techniques or simple rot. Oral tradition stories, unless written down, die with the last storyteller. Volume and popularity also improve survival rates and thus skew our understanding of an era. Just imagine this: 20th century life seen only through the lens of such popular writers as Barbara Cartland or Danielle Steel. This is not a comment on their literary quality. I’m just pointing to the volume of those books printed and the author’s chosen portrayal of human behavior.

The other problem is the loss of period detail, how that affected those who lived then, and problematic modern assumptions made because of that loss. Take the frequency of women dying in childbirth in the past after too many pregnancies and the attendant blow to the general health of women who survived. My mother was born before antibiotics and readily available birth control. As a six-year-old, she witnessed the death of her mother from a childbirth gone wrong, from a pregnancy she should not have had at the age of 47, and after previously giving birth to a minimum of eight other children in 20 years, not counting natural miscarriages. In what is commonly called the civilized world, we rarely see the damage done to a child when a mother dies. We have forgotten that maternal death, in particular, made step-parent relationships the most common family pattern in the past. Without question, modern divorce can create problems with children, but that is often far kinder to them than parental death.

So we must consider the limitations of surviving documents and understand that much has been lost. Historical patterns will tell us, for instance, that democracies die. To grasp why, we must study the details of everyone’s life in an era, not just the powerful. Diversity of viewpoint and experience gives a far more complete picture of an era and offers the chance to find better answers to our own dilemmas.