Swords clash on the fields of battle, burning cities cast a sickly orange glow in the sky, a civilization rises and falls. Suddenly, inspiration strikes and a new invention or idea is unleashed upon society. People always rebuild, things can change, but in many ways they also stay the same. George Satayana said that “Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” History not only acts as a guide to the past, but can also be a map to what the future might bring. There are patterns of historical change, history can sometimes be seen move in cycles.
The annals of history are filled with many stories and places. The dazzlingly white city of Rome and its eventual takeover of the known world. The Declaration of Independence and the eventual ascendancy of the United States. The whirr of the Wright brothers’ first airplane. The battlefields of the 20th century. History is a thing that encompasses all idea and concepts. Ostensibly it is about the passage of time and things that have happened in the past, but it is really so much more. History covers all topics and exerts its influence on all things. When a new idea or invention is created, it is looked at in relation to the ideas of the past. How is this thing different? Is it better? Does it improve on something? Even the concept of “new” itself relates to something’s placement within history. As Hegel said, history “unites the objective with the subjective side…It comprehends not less what has happened than the narration of what has happened.” He is saying that history is concerned with telling us the story of the world. Like all stories, history has overriding themes, through the course of time these themes can repeat themselves.
History cannot help but to repeat itself, man looks into the past and tries to emulate what they admire. Machiavelli even told his aspiring princes “the wise man should always follow the roads that have been trodden by the great, and imitate those who have most excelled.” This can lead to great things, like the evolution of ideas and technology. It helps us to move from the clip clop of horses hooves to the whine of a jet engine. It helps us evolve from the early republics of Ancient Greece, to the ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, to the modern democracies of today. This emulation can also be a curse upon the world, like Hitler using a false idea of an Aryan race to somehow justify the slaughter of millions, or the misappropriation of the Koran by radical Muslims.
The story of history is filled with many tales that might sound the same, the rise and fall of a great civilization, or the evolution of societies and ideas. It is like a great cycle of death and rebirth, of growth and decay that flows through time. The only difference is the dates and the players involved. It is through the study of these tales that we are brought enlightenment, so we can study the progression of ideas and see where we are headed. And especially so we can learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid them when they come up again.
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