I fell in love with History while in college. She was a goddess most enticing, and she remains so. She has proved more faithful and constant than most of my lovers and all of my wives. In the first flush of passion I thought her the key to Wisdom, that if every man and every nation would submit to her, then all would be well. I was dreadfully wrong, but did not know this for some time.
It took me years to finally stumble upon the same thing that Hegel stumbled upon.
What experience and history teach is this—that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.
To believe that men learn from the reading of ancient texts is to believe that men are no longer mad, corrupt and prone to surrender to wicked passions. To spend a lifetime rummaging around in History’s attic is really to become a mere antiquarian. A man interested in the past studies History much as another man studies Byzantine coins or Costa Rican butterflies. The only lessons to be learned are that there are no lessons to be learned. Perhaps a man who at last arrives there can take a small bit of consolation from that dismal fact.
A man who begins his study of History with Gilgamesh and ends with the modern world—and what a crazily misnamed era that is!—cannot escape the feeling that men are as brilliant as mice on treadmills. Get on, go fast, go faster, become exhausted, drop dead—and then another mouse attempts the same thing and achieves the same thing. One sees a line of mice extending to forever, the number of them as numerous as the stars. Over and over, from here to Eternity, each makes his attempt, every effort amounting to precisely nothing. And all around are corpses.
Perhaps the Hindus and Buddhists are right after all. The life of a man is as a wheel. He lives it and dies, and with a bit of luck his next life will be spent on a wheel spinning on a higher plane.
The wheel of life moves on…It is overwhelmed by decrepitude and grief, and it has diseases and calamities for its progeny. That wheel relates in time and place. It has toil and exercise for its noise. Day and night are the rotations of that wheel. It is encircled by heat and cold. Pleasure and pain are its joints, and hunger and thirst are the nails fixed into it… It is enveloped in the terrible waters of delusion. It is ever revolving and void of consciousness.
Eventually he might reach Nirvana, “the state of being free from both suffering and the cycle of rebirth,” and at long last be free. History has no record of those few, those happy few, who have reached Nirvana. Perhaps no man and no nation have ever reached that plane. Or perhaps those who have reached it have no way of speaking to those trapped in space and time. Or perhaps they do, and simply look at us mice and laugh.
I would advise any man who seeks to study History so that he might avoid Santayana’s curse—“He who does not study History is doomed to repeat it.”—to find another reason to dabble in the actions of men long dead. You cannot become any sort of a Nostradamus, for few will ever listen to you. You might with luck become a Cassandra. You will at least be heard—a small consolation—but will not be believed.
If the Christians are correct then they must be the most happy of men. For their God promises that one day—though quite annoyingly, He never reveals when—He will end History. He will bring the entire dismal affair to an end. His children will become saints and will go to live in their Father’s house. The others will remain forever what they were on earth, devils. And they as well will go to live in their father’s house.
So by all means study History. Much of it is at least entertaining—the observation of stupidity and wickedness always is—but do not expect that any grand revelations you discover will be passed on. Mostly you be will a recorder of 6000 years of folly and toil, of waste and cruelty. You will learn that for every Michelangelo there are 1000 Stalins. Prepare to be frustrated as you observe your own nation merrily trotting along the well-worn paths of Nineveh and Babylon. Scream all you want—you might at least feel better—but the only response you will get will be laughter. That, or hatred. Laughter is better.
But I cannot avoid the wretched feeling that perhaps I have been reading History upside down. That my belief that men and nations can actually learn from it was right all along—but for the wrong reasons. I thought the study of History must lead to a greater happiness and a greater liberty for all men. Perhaps men do in fact learn from History, but their desire is not for any sort of happiness and liberty, but for their opposites. They study and learn what creates liberty, and then do the opposite. Their wish is not for Declarations of Independence but for gulags. Their guides are not Socrates and Jefferson but Nebuchadrezzar and Napoleon.
Now at last—at long last—I get it. At long last I understand the Agamemnon of Aeschylus.
In visions of the night, like dropping rain,
Descend the many memories of pain
Before the spirit’s sight: through tears and sorrow
Comes wisdom over the unwilling soul.
Men and nations do learn from History. They learn how to build tyrannies, how to enslave their brothers, how to impoverish nations, how to destroy wealth, how to crush humanity into paste, how to spread ruin and waste and blood and cruelty. History, then, becomes their perfect guide not to conjure up Nirvana but to conjure up Hell—at first on earth but then beyond all time and space.
It is not Herodotus who is the ‘Father of History,’ but Lucifer. Wonder no more why every experiment of man sooner or later ends up the same, no matter its beginnings, no matter its laws, no matter the quality of its machines or the number of its people—they all end in vast, apocalyptic orgies of violence, despair, ignorance and poverty. All of History can thus be conveniently simplified into the recording of a jackboot stomping upon a human face—forever.
That is the point. That is the only point.