What Can We Learn From the Past?
“Nothing is more important for historians than to chart cause and effect.”—GERALD SCHLABACH, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF HISTORY.
HISTORIANS often ask, How and why did certain events happen? For example, history tells us that the Roman Empire fell. But why did it fall? Was it because of corruption or pleasure-seeking? Had the empire become too unwieldy and its armies too costly? Were Rome’s enemies simply becoming too many and too powerful?
More recently, Eastern European Communism, once seen as a threat to the West, collapsed seemingly overnight in one country after another. But why? And what lessons are there to be learned? These are the kinds of questions historians try to answer. But in providing answers, to what extent does personal bias affect their judgment?
Can History Be Trusted?
Historians are more like detectives than scientists. They investigate, question, and challenge records from the past. They aim for truth, but their target is often indistinct. Part of the reason is that their work is largely about people, and historians cannot read minds—especially the minds of the dead. Historians may also have preconceived ideas and prejudices. Hence, sometimes the best work is really an interpretation—from the writer’s own perspective.
Of course, a historian’s having his own point of view does not necessarily mean his work is inaccurate. The Biblical narratives of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles include parallel accounts that were written by five different individuals, yet it can be shown that they contain no significant contradictions or inaccuracies. The same is true of the four Gospels. Many Bible writers even recorded their own faults and foolish mistakes—something rarely seen in secular works.—Numbers 20:9-12; Deuteronomy 32:48-52.
Besides possible prejudices, another important factor to consider when reading history is the motive of the writer. “Any history told by the wielders of power, or by seekers after power or by their friends, must be regarded with the utmost suspicion,” says Michael Stanford in A Companion to the Study of History. Questionable motive is also evident when works of history betray a subtle or even a bold plea to nationalism and patriotism. Sadly, this is sometimes found in school textbooks. A government decree in one country stated quite openly that the purpose of teaching history is “to strengthen the nationalist and patriotic sentiments in the hearts of the people . . . because the knowledge of the nation’s past is one of the most important incentives to patriotic behaviour.”
Sometimes history is not just biased but doctored. The former Soviet Union, for instance, “expunged the name Trotsky from the record, so that the fact of the commissar’s existence disappeared,” says the book Truth in History. Who was Trotsky? He was a leader in the Russian Bolshevik Revolution and was second only to Lenin. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky clashed with Stalin, was expelled from the Communist Party, and was later murdered. His name was even purged from Soviet encyclopedias. Similar distortions of history, even to the point of burning nonconforming books, have been a regular practice of many dictatorial regimes.
Doctoring history, however, is an ancient practice, dating back at least as far as Egypt and Assyria. Proud and vain, pharaohs, kings, and emperors ensured that their historical legacy was flattering. So achievements were routinely exaggerated, while anything embarrassing or dishonorable, such as defeat in warfare, was played down, erased, or sometimes not even reported. In sharp contrast, the history of Israel recorded in the Bible includes both the failures and the glories of kings and subjects alike.
How do historians check the accuracy of older writings? They compare these with such things as old tax records, law codes, advertisements for slave auctions, business and private letters and records, inscriptions on pottery shards, ships’ logs, and items found in tombs and graves. This miscellany often sheds additional or different light on official writings. Where gaps or uncertainties remain, good historians will usually say so, even though they might offer their own theories to fill the gaps. In any case, wise readers consult more than one reference if they seek a balanced interpretation.
In spite of all the challenges that the historian faces, his work can have much to offer. One history book explains: “Hard as it is to write, . . . world history is important, even essential, to us.” Besides providing a window on the past, history can broaden our understanding of the present human condition. We soon discover, for instance, that the ancients displayed the same human traits that people display today. These recurring traits have had a major impact on history, perhaps leading to the saying that history repeats itself. But is that a sound generalization?
Does History Repeat Itself?
Can we accurately predict the future on the basis of the past? Certain types of events do recur. For example, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said: “Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed.” He added: “History is a tale of efforts that failed, of aspirations that weren’t realized. . . . So, as a historian, one has to live with a sense of the inevitability of tragedy.”
No two empires fell the same way. Babylon fell overnight before the Medes and the Persians in 539 B.C.E. Greece broke up into a number of kingdoms after the death of Alexander the Great, eventually giving way to Rome. Rome’s demise, however, remains controversial. Historian Gerald Schlabach asks: “When did Rome fall? Did it ever really fall? Something changed in Western Europe between 400 CE and 600 CE. But much continued.”* Clearly, some aspects of history recur, while others do not.
One consistently recurring lesson of history is the failure of human rulership. In all ages good government has constantly been foiled by self-interest, shortsightedness, greed, corruption, nepotism, and especially the lust to obtain and retain power. Hence, the past is littered with arms races, failed treaties, wars, social unrest and violence, the unfair distribution of wealth, and collapsed economies.
For example, note what The Columbia History of the World says of the influence of Western civilization on the rest of the world: “After Columbus and Cortes had awakened the people of Western Europe to the possibilities, their appetite for converts, profits, and fame was thoroughly aroused and Western civilization was introduced, mainly by force, over nearly all the globe. Equipped with an unappeasable urge to expand and with superior weapons, conquerors made the rest of the world into an unwilling appendage of the great European powers . . . The peoples of these continents [Africa, Asia, and the Americas] were, in short, the victims of a ruthless, unrelenting exploitation.” How true are the words found in the Bible at Ecclesiastes 8:9: “Man has dominated man to his injury”!
Perhaps this lamentable record is what moved one German philosopher to comment that the only thing to be learned from history is that men learn nothing from history. Jeremiah 10:23 states: “The course of man is not in his control, nor is it in man’s power as he goes his way to guide his steps.” (The Jerusalem Bible) This inability to guide our steps should especially concern us today. Why? Because we are afflicted by problems that in both number and scale are without precedent. So how will we cope?
Problems Without Precedent
In the entire history of mankind, never before has the whole earth been threatened by the combined forces of deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, massive extinction of plant and animal species, atmospheric ozone depletion, pollution, global warming, dying oceans, and an exploding human population.
“Another challenge facing modern societies is the sheer speed of change,” says the book A Green History of the World. Ed Ayres, editor of World Watch magazine, writes: “We are being confronted by something so completely outside our collective experience that we don’t really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming. For us, that ‘something’ is a blitz of enormous biological and physical alterations in the world that has been sustaining us.”
In view of these and related problems, historian Pardon E. Tillinghast states: “The directions in which society is moving have become infinitely more complex, and for many of us the dilemmas are terrifying. What guidance can professional historians offer to confused people today? Not very much, it seems.”
Professional historians may be at a loss as to what to do or what to advise, but surely that would not be true of our Creator. In fact, he foretold in the Bible that in the last days, the world would experience “critical times hard to deal with.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5) But God has gone even further and done something historians are powerless to do—he has shown the way out, as we will see in the following article.
Schlabach’s observations harmonize with the prophet Daniel’s prediction that the Roman Empire would be succeeded by an outgrowth from within itself. See chapters 4 and 9 of Pay Attention to Daniel’s Prophecy!, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Blurb on page 5]
“Any history told by the wielders of power . . . must be regarded with the utmost suspicion.”—MICHAEL STANFORD, HISTORIAN
[Picture on page 4]
Roma, Musei Capitolini
[Pictures on page 7]
In all ages “man has dominated man to his injury”
“The Conquerors,” by Pierre Fritel. Includes (left to right): Ramses II, Attila, Hannibal, Tamerlane, Julius Caesar (center), Napoléon I, Alexander the Great, Nebuchadnezzar, and Charlemagne. From the book The Library of Historic Characters and Famous Events, Vol. III, 1895; planes: USAF photo