Column: History does not teach lessons, and does not repeat

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
February 18th, 2020

“History’s so strong…”    Red Hot Chili Peppers

“The human race just kept rollin’ on…”   Neil Young

You can’t outrun the history train.”    Paul Simon

“History doesn’t repeat itself. People do.”    Voltaire

“You and your history, won’t rule me.”    The Who

History is made to seem unfair.”    R. E. M.

Returning to an old familiar argument

I have once again encountered, while messaging on Facebook with an old high-school friend, the common belief that comparing one leader to another gives students of history exact parallels. His comment: “Trump is Hitler.” I heard George H. W. Bush say this in 1991: “Saddam is Hitler.” Journalists have said Trump is Mussolini-like. Trump prefers a comparison to President Andrew Jackson. And everywhere I turn, people are saying “America is becoming fascistic”, as did Germany and Italy in the 1930’s … and blaming Trump and the Republicans.

Odds are that sometime this year you will say, or hear, or read a sentence beginning, “History teaches us that …  ”  or perhaps, “History proves it.” Just in a single February 8th  “Opinion” section of The Globe and Mail, I read these phrases: “History has taught us …” , and “the lessons of the second world war” , and  “surely history will condemn …”

We seem unable to do without this trope, this turn of phrase become cliche. Our academic historians have encouraged the habit of mind that supports the idea.

Arnold Toynbee’s magisterial “A Study of History” in ten volumes enjoyed a brief burst of fame for this line of thinking, persuading the reading public (around the time I was an infant) that he had discovered the grand pattern of all civilizations’ histories. Toynbee’s teaching has not stood the test of time. Neither did the slim volume by Will and Ariel Durant entitled The Lessons of History; their opinions had no power to persuade after a few years in vogue. But still we revert to this notion that History is a book of lessons we can read and apply to present politics.

I am quite sure no one thinks there is an actual incarnate being named “History” who teaches humans deliberately. No one would attempt to prove its existence. Its meaning in the sentence, “History teaches us lessons,” is metaphorical — quite like when we say “The weather refused to co-operate.”

But the metaphor — that the study of the past is a teacher — has a strong hold on our minds. It has pernicious effects when we are unconscious of the figure of speech. We can be persuaded to agree with a weak argument by hearing those weighty words, “the proof is in our history.” We surrender our critical faculty too easily to the expertise of historians, when what they say is a “lesson” is no more than an opinion, argument, and interpretation from their selection of facts.

I am not denying that sound historical scholarship can show us patterns of political  behaviour from the past, and that intelligent writers in the present, like Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges, can derive broad guidelines about why political events now have a resonance; but Chomsky and Hedges and the best voices in journalism do not press their analysis so far that they say “history is repeating.”  Their concern is for this present time and the politics of now, not an attempt to prescribe, to “apply a lesson from history” to resolve present issues.

Yes, one can see echoes and broad similarities in politics now and in a past era, and derive some guidance to better democratic practice — or if one is not living in democracy, then in autocratic, authoritarian, fascist, totalitarian, societies. All such information and deep background in a political context can be helpful to a leader. Still one must not mistake that education for taking a lesson from History that is without ambiguity; one person’s lesson is not another’s. No two situations repeat, so no leader can know with certainty that the right (or wrong) choice is the one made before by a leader in the past.

The best writers on current events know to stop short of claiming that history proves their predictions are correct. They know not to predict the future of political events beyond a few days just because of similarity to an event of the past. Too many lesser minds are inclined to think they know the future because they studied history.

Deep Origin: the God of History in the Old Testament

We need to stop saying “History” does anything. Historians teach; people take what historians say and derive lessons, but there is no History God who provides humans with useful, indisputable lessons about how society must organize political power or how families will create harmony or how the individual should live a good life.

Religion is the deep taproot of the West’s idea that there are lessons to learn from History. The ancient Israelite /Hebrew /Judaic culture of western Asia evolved the peculiar notion of a God who made contracts with his chosen people, the twelve tribes of Jacob: this supreme almighty being was a divine historian who never forgot the deeds of the People and used the events of History to punish or reward them for breaking, or keeping, to the Covenant. When Israel failed to respect the contract, Yahweh sent plague, famine, invasion, natural disasters, and/or ultimately conquerors to rule over them, as punishment. When Israel was obedient, none of these ills occurred and the chosen people were prosperous, healthy, secure — and conquered their neighbours.

Ten tribes of Israel were wiped off the map, erased from history, in the year 720  BCE by the Assyrians, scattered to remote parts of the conquerors’ empire, never to return; the heterodox / heretical Jews of Samaria were remnants of this event.  In 70 CE, Rome razed the Jerusalem Temple in Judah, and finally forbade Jews to live in or near their holy site after another rebellion, in 138 CE. Divine retribution indeed. The Shoah, or Holocaust, in our recent past, is still a matter for rabbis and scholars of Torah and Talmud to debate. Where was God when his people were murdered?

Thus the idea that one can learn from events of history to know the mind of God and can take the lesson into action, was founded in the bedrock of the West. The West is the civilization rooted in the soil of the Semitic and Hellenic traditions. Greeks gave us the fundamental method for the study of historia – rational inquiry into human activity – with the first historians, Herodotus and Thucydides. Greeks tended to the view that history is cyclic, but humanity had declined since a golden age; the return of that age was hoped for.

Roman historians built on the Hellenic foundation, and medieval European-Christian historians merged Israelite theology with Greco-Roman methodology to understand the past as a source of lessons. For Christians, there was a Design in history, and a direction in which it proceeds. God provides the design; hence we derive the word Providence. God is forever working in mysterious ways, driving human history to the divine end, The Day of the Lord. History ends when God judges humans and the souls of the forgiven join him in eternity.

Any event in history has God behind it, in this view. The persistent idea in the West that history is moving in a direction, comes to us directly from deep religious bedrock. It might be said to be the fountain of the idea that Progress is real.

After the biblical authors entrenched the idea of telos or purposeful destination in our collective Western mind, Christian historians saw the hand of God at work; one can see this in writers such as the Venerable Bede, St. Augustine or the first historian of the Church, Eusebius. A medieval monk named Joachim of Fiore in the 13th century derived a master plan of history in three grand phases, one each for the three beings in the Holy Trinity, leading to the end of time as depicted in the final book (Revelation, or the Apocalypse, of John) in the Christian bible. History became an indispensable tool for prophecy under the influence of Joachimism.

When the Western intelligentsia lost faith in Christianity, secular prophets of the political future claimed that history revealed humanity’s progression: Hegel and Marx are the best known; Lenin claimed that Marxian philosophy was “the science of revolution” informing his leadership of the Russian Bolsheviks. Marx and Engels believed they had uncovered “laws of History” that were as scientific as the laws of Newtonian physics.

August Comte, Gustav Klemm, and Carl Carus are other 19th century writers in this vein, believing they comprehended a system to reveal the forward march of history. Racialist historians such as Gobineau also claimed a systematic method to uncover the direction of history and the engine moving the process forward. Hitler believed that race war, not class struggle, was driving “progress.”

The basic premise of all these men was that History revealed repetitions and pattern, and thus the wise could foresee the movement of humankind and our destination. A communist (or Aryan, or heavenly) utopia – some end – was at hand.

Why it isn’t true

In the most important ways, history is never capable of providing lessons applicable to the choices leaders must make for entire societies, nations, states, peoples.

I think this ought to be plain by one simple meditation on one’s individual life: has any event in your life ever repeated itself so exactly that you knew the repetition as it happened, and knew precisely what your action must be because you know how to do again what you did before? You are in full command of the present, because you can apply what the clear lessons of your past have taught you to do.

It is not so. There are too many possibilities of change, chances you do not foresee.

Think about repetitious events like the daily drive in your car to the same place on the same route. Any day, some new factor might present itself. A pedestrian, black ice, a dog, a reckless driver… your past of repeated commutes to work has not prepared you for sudden unique situations thrust on you. You might have an accident, or you might avoid it, but in either case it is not because history has “taught you lessons.”

Now think about much larger scenarios involving politics, society, economy, culture.

I mean events that involve a multitude of factors, people, actions. The many ingredients of the event are, each of them,  independent, unpredictable, freed from known regulation — as far as the leader’s control is concerned. This is what leaders of whole societies, the power at the top of any political organization, face in every circumstance where their choice of act matters. The example I take, of leaders with power of decision over war and peace, can suffice to make the more-general point.

A US president faces the choice to start a war: will it be a triumphant victory as in 1945 or 1991, calamitous both for the invaded state and for Americans (in quite different ways) as in the Viet Nam war, or a horror for the invaded people but not too significant in American society as in the Iraq or Afghanistan invasions?

So often, a leader thinks the past is his guide and tells her people “history shows we must stand up for freedom/ God/ the rule of law/ the U.N. resolution, etc.” — people even expect this rhetorical flourish — but leaders can have no certainty how the consequences which it must create, will affect the millions of people whose lives are implicated when a nation goes to war. Death for some is inevitable. Leaders put on grave faces to tell their people how deeply they regret that “war was the unavoidable path under the circumstances… ”

There will be no scarcity of academics, journalists, and speechwriters in the chattering class ready to say the leader is supported, condemned, or taught by “History.” Critics will say a choice puts the nation “on the wrong side of History” and supporters will say the opposite; President Obama likes that phrase about “sides.”

Why “History” is useful to politicians

I do not expect that leaders will stop claiming that their acts are justified “by History” since this excuse is so convenient and public opinion is so primed by popular, journalistic, and academic culture to believe in this shallow notion. Personally, I am sure the past is no infallible guide for any leader,  I am certain each moment for decision is always unique.

At a moment of clear decision, any leader is always in a situation impossible of exact replication; therefore “the decider” (to use the unusual noun of George W. Bush) is in a situation where a choice cannot be meaningfully explained as “applying a lesson learned from history.” At the moment of decision, the leader who is acting in exact copy of what another did in the past, will have no better chance of achieving the optimal result than the leader who rationalizes a different explanation for her action. Historical education will not be a guarantee of success, however defined, because no two circumstances are identical, ever.

The finest observation about history by a respected professional historian, in my opinion, is this: “The chief practical use of history, is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.” So said Sir J. M. Roberts, a British academic. He is right. It is so easy, and for me entertaining, when one has a broad knowledge base of historical facts, to hypothesize that one situation is an analogy of another in the past. It is quite possible that the features of the two situations seem tantalizingly alike. Again, think only of your own life, when two situations years apart involving different people can seem oh-so-comparable. Yet you know the differences and you know why the past is not now.

That was then, this is now, and you yourself are not quite identical to the person you were in the past; the differences must always outnumber the similarities. Humanity is simply not simple. We create unique situations and circumstances moment by moment. History is an education, but not a blueprint for action; think of it more as a deep well for one’s philosophy, and possibly for wisdom about human being. You can also study psychology, or biology, or neuroscience, for example, to learn about humans. History is not the only path to knowing our species, obviously.

I personally feel that my many, many hours spent in my adult lifetime with books of history has been time well spent in pursuit of my passion to understand humans. I also have few illusions that my way to this understanding is the best way. I was born or bred to this passion, and for people who do not share it, it would not give satisfaction. I like the shape that studying history has given to my mind, and I enjoy the disciplines of academic history applied to journalism or politics. But again, I have no intention of suggesting everyone should study more history than they do. It is entirely a matter of taste, temperament, opportunity, and character, that determines who pursues history professionally and who does not. I have fond hopes that there are many non-professionals who enjoy healthy curiosity about the past.

As the Bard wrote, “the past is prologue.” It’s good to know historical context but not as essential to life as knowing what is happening now. Real-estate agents like to say there are three things that matter for selling property – Location, location, location. Historians will say that the news of the day need three accompaniments – Context, context, context.


I am content in my passion to constantly expand my knowledge of the past, but I am also certain that history is not The Past, but only what is said, written, or otherwise communicated to us in the present, by deceased individuals who have cared to leave some trace of their times and conditions, and by living historians.  Because there is so much we can never know, I make this point distinguishing all that was from the partial knowledge of it that we call ‘History.’

I grasp that professional historians are not studying physics or chemistry in a laboratory. In the lab, one can control experiments. In the past, all human experience is in play, the variables are not in control of the person studying a human event: this fact is of colossal significance. Past experience does not deliver facts in the ways a laboratory experiment delivers it. The past, to use an analogy, is a lab where a bomb went off.

One piece of advice I always give to students of history: find out the important facts about the historian whose history you are reading or hearing. Know enough of who that person is, of their education, culture, society, age, gender, religion, and whatever else is of value that will tip you off to subtle prejudice, intellectual bias, philosophy of life, that can and will exert an impact on the mind of the historian.

Find out about the reputation of the historian you consult, in the global community of scholars; it is more possible now than at any previous era to access information about an historian and their repute among their peers. As you would ask around in your town for a “good” masseur or dentist, counsellor or lawyer, veterinarian or business consultant, find out about the historian whose work you’re taking time to read. You’re not likely to read a lot of history in any given week, or year, so be sure your time spent doing this study is well spent with a writer of value, reputation, and depth. For me, historians with a philosophic bent are preferable to ones without.

I hope that the next time you hear or read those words, “History teaches us …” or “the lesson of History”, you are more conscious of the illusory security the speaker or writer desires to convey by falling back on such a phrase. Whoever it is who’s using this cliche is likely innocent of dark purposes, but still, you might want to wonder (aloud or not) why they resort to the phrase.

This stereotypical figure of speech really doesn’t make any argument more persuasive, I hope you may now agree. Using the phrase, I’d say, indicates someone who has not thought deeply on this subject … and I, in all humility, have been applying myself to do exactly that.


Historians, it is said, fall into one of three categories:
Those who lie.
Those who are mistaken.
Those who do not know.


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