What is the meaning- and value- of history?
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The above quote by Harvard-trained philosopher George Santayana has been mentioned numerous times over the last fifty years by statesmen, writers, scholars and yes- historians- in an attempt to stress the importance of knowing something about the heritage of one's own country and how it fits into the long flow of history. Yet is is much more than that. Understanding the history of our nation is but a starting point for a long and potentially fascinating journey around the world, a trip that can provide us a connection with other cultures and a glimpse of their importance in the story of us all.
The first question all historians are faced with is a daunting one: what does history actually mean? The old saying that "History is written by the victors" is only partially true. Each new generation of historians- whether they hail from a large, powerful nation or a smaller player in the world- gets a chance to evaluate the ebb and flow of human history, actions by politicians, kings, tyrants and warlords, along with those of unsung heroes- to determine the importance each played in bringing us all to where we are today. It is a certainty that every President, Prime Minister, scientist, philosopher, artist and inventor will be viewed differently 20... 50... 100 or more years after their own passing from the world stage than they were during their lifetime. Proof of this lies in the fact that Presidents including Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower are now ranked far more favorably than they were when they left office. It is this necessary period of reflection that allows historians- and all people- to gain a greater understanding of the importance and long term ramifications of actions and events. With a longer period for comparison, we get insights we never had before. Those insights themselves will change over time- and that is precisely the meaning of history.
The second question is much less challenging: what is the value of history? By fully assessing a long series of events, how each one caused certain repercussions while others had minimal impact- we can all make more accurate projections about what is likely to occur in the future. Great historians like James McPherson, author of the classic Civil War narrative Battle Cry of Freedom tell us this story in a unique and effective way so as to bring new insights and new perspectives to us all. Clearly having the benefit of decades, even centuries of human activities to review rather than just a few over a short period of time provides a platform for predictions for the years ahead. Santayana appreciated that, saying: "We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past and... respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible."
So let's celebrate our heritage- along with that of other nations- as we gain a richer understanding of the global narrative of emperors and kings, wars, natural disasters, great inventions and the minds which created them...as we appreciate our past... and look forward to our future...