Monday, 20 April 2009

Is the past useful?

I find history fairly interesting, at least insofar as I'm curious about most things, though I confess I don't know a huge amount about it. But maybe I should make an effort to find out more. I bought A History of Histories by John Burrow last week, mainly because I liked the cover and it has black-edged pages... but having begun to read I'm finding it pretty fascinating.

Did you know anything about Thucydides? Thucydides was a 5th century BC Greek historian, but more importantly he was 'the first author to proclaim that history should be useful... But Thucydides is too much a realist - even a pessimist - for there to be any glib suggestion that, armed with historical examples, we will be able simply to avoid the errors of the past. Human nature, the narrative tells us, is too powerful and too perverse for this, and rational calculation is only one element in any situation.'

This is illustrated by the response of people to a plague in Athens during 430 BC. One (unexpected?) outcome was an unprecendented scale of lawlessness. Why? 'No one expected to live long enough to be subject to human justice.' What does this say to contemporary views of the innate goodness of humanity? By contrast, how accurately does it illustrate the biblical view of fallen humanity? Other examples are still found regularly - do you remember when I ship ran aground off the coast and shed its cargo? Numerous 'respectable' ordinary people were found on the beach looting whatever they could lay their hands on (which included some pretty snazzy motorbikes as I remember) without the slightest regard to who might legitimately own them... As Burrow says, 'The subject [of Thucydides' history] is indeed human nature, and at times the distance of almost two and a half thousand years can be made to seem to contract almost vertiginously [which means something like 'very quickly, without a moment's notice'!].' Maybe I should read more history - with my eyes biblically informed who knows what lessons I might learn...

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