History, we are often told, controls the future. One common refrain is that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But which history? Do “actions speak louder than words?” Or is “the pen mightier than the sword?” What are the lessons of history? Do such lessons even exist?
Control the Past, Control the Future
Many modern historians yearn to do more than just chronicle the past. They wish to be prophets of a sort, using the past to tell us how we should live. This involves compiling historical facts and then using those facts to generate “lessons of history.” And since history is viewed as an overwhelming force with predetermined outcomes, politicians are encouraged to use the giant size of government to combat those outcomes. All in all, since politicians often make decisions based lessons of history, historians are able to wield tremendous power by, in effect, “controlling the past.”
One example of this scenario is historian Michael Bellesiles. Bellesiles’s incredible downfall is recorded by Lew Rockwell in his piece, “Bellesiles: the Larger Context.”
“That is why Michael Bellesiles’s book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture seemed so notable. The thesis…was that gun ownership was not widespread before Lincoln’s war. Individual gun ownership is really a modern obsession; indeed it is an invention. The thesis seemed counterintuitive, but what scholars call the apparatus was there: immense footnotes and citations suggesting massive research. What really mattered was the subtext. It implied that the gun control advocates had history of their side, that personal ownership of firearms is no more necessary now than in frontier times…Once the original sources were checked out, it turned out that at all crucial junctures, the book was a hoax. His research…didn’t check out. His quotations of first-hand accounts were altered. He trimmed and cut the evidence to match his thesis.”
In other words, Bellesiles constructed false lessons of history in order to influence the present gun control debate. So, how are we supposed to learn from the past? How do we weed through the competing idioms and falsified research to come up with the true lessons of history?
Do Lessons of History Exist?
I would argue that the question is moot since history has absolutely no predictive power. In other words, there are no lessons of history.
“The notion of a law of historical change is self-contradictory. History is a sequence of phenomena that are characterized by their singularity. Those features which an event has in common with other events are not historical.” ~ Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History
Events in history are dependent on an exact sequence of very specific events involving very specific people with very specific emotions and ideas. Thus, Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 appeasement, which failed to stop Hitler’s advance, tells us nothing about how such a strategy would work elsewhere in time. Heck, we can’t even be sure that appeasement was the worst possible strategy.
“The favorite “alternate history” of the interventionists involves World War II and what “would” have happened had Chamberlain not “appeased” Hitler at Munich. “History teaches us,” so the common refrain runs, “that appeasing tyrants only leads to more killing and suffering later. If Hitler had been stopped in 1938, millions of deaths would have been averted.” History teaches us nothing of the sort. It teaches us that an agreement was reached with Hitler in 1938, which Chamberlain famously boasted would guarantee “peace in our time.” The next year, Germany attacked Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and a long and bloody conflict ensued. History says nothing about what would have occurred had Britain and France gone to war in 1938. Nor does it teach us what might have happened had they not gone to war over Poland.” ~Gene Callahan
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
History is not a natural science. It doesn’t allow for the creation of lessons and rules that serve to govern the future. Thus, the only time history can truly control our lives if when we let it do so. However, just because the past can’t inform the future doesn’t make it useless. Gene Callahan says it best:
“To learn what really occurred in the past is to understand how we came to be where we are today. The knowledge gained through historical inquiry enables us to see how the myriad decisions and actions of our predecessors, the ideas they held, the ideals to which they aspired, the gods they worshipped, and the demons they feared, all combined to create the world in which we find ourselves today.” ~ Gene Callahan