Engaging With History

In 1963, LIFE Magazine asked author James Baldwin where he gets his inspiration. Baldwin responded:

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was reading books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. An artist is a sort of emotional historian.

There’s a related quote I love from writer Kelly Hayes who says, “Everything feels unprecedented when you haven’t engaged with history.”

It’s so true. History’s cast of characters changes but it’s the same movie over and over again.

To me, the point of paying attention to history is not the specific details of certain events, which are always random and never repeat; it’s the big-picture behaviors that reoccur in different eras, generations, and societies. People were dealing with greed and fear 100 years ago the same way they’re dealing with now and will be 100 years in the future. The more you see a behavior throughout history, the more you realize how ingrained it is in human behavior, which makes you more confident that it’ll be part of our future. It’s the only way to forecast with accuracy.

I thought about this after recently reading a paper by philosopher Hanno Sauer.

He criticizes philosophy’s obsession with ancient thinkers – Plato, Aristotle, etc. – because they lived in a world of relative ignorance.

Not only were the ancient philosophers blind to most of science, which hadn’t yet been discovered; they knew little about other civilizations, which were often closed off from the rest of the world. Aristotle knew nothing about Chinese culture or biological evolution; Socrates never saw a modern democracy or had heard of social media.

Sauer writes:

We have good reasons for thinking that historical authors were deeply wrong about almost everything, we have statistical reasons for thinking that the best philosophers live now rather than in the past, and we judge historical authors by much too lenient standards …

Given that we could be studying contemporary philosophers who are much less likely to be wrong about much fewer things, that we must rationally assume that more of these philosophers live today than in the past, and that we judge currently working philosophers much more harshly than historical authors, I suggest that, when it comes to satisfying the epistemic aims of philosophy, we ought to spend much less time studying the history of philosophy.

I can appreciate part of this. There are topics an average person today knows more about than an expert did 100 years ago.

But this gets back to what you can learn from history.

What’s great about reading old writers is not necessarily the wisdom of what they said, but comparing what people believed then vs. what they believe today and seeing what overlaps.

Marcus Aurelius said, “We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own,” which to be honest sounds like something you’ll find written on an $11 IKEA poster today. Part of the value of reading an Aurelius quote like that is that he said it almost 2,000 years ago. Its age is the important part. If it was true then, and it’s true today, then it’s a fundamental part of how humans work and of course it’s going to be true for the rest of my life. So I should pay close attention to it.

A dull observation can become important when you realize it’s an enduring trait of human behavior. On the other hand a current thinker might say something complex and brilliant about, say, the midterm elections, but even if it’s true it has the shelf-life of a banana.

A lot of things work like that. Podcast David Senra recently said:

I don’t read a story and say, “That person’s dead now, I have nothing to worry about.” No, that personality type was alive then, they’re alive today, and they will be alive in the future. Human nature is constant.

During the depths of the Great Depression in 1932 an Ohio lawyer named Benjamin Roth wrote in his diary:

People think if more money were printed business would be better. This is a false and vicious theory … I am personally very much concerned with the question of inflation and it seems to me there is a grave possibility it will come unless the government at once balances its budget. With an election coming this seems out of the question.

A few months later, he wrote:

There is also considerable discussion about the new science of “technography” which holds that new machinery has replaced many men in industry who will never find a job again.

It’s stunning how similar those observations are to what people said during modern recessions. You can copy and paste those paragraphs into any 2008 or 2020 newspaper and they’d fit right in.

Roth felt similarly.

When writing his Great Depression diary he was struck by how similar the 1930s were to previous big recessions. “I have done considerable reading about the depressions of 1837 and 1873,” he wrote, “and I am amazed at the similarity to conditions today.”

A year later he researched the Depression of 1893 and wrote, “I am again struck by the similarity.” The way people responded to decline and how politicians behaved and how greed and fear controlled investment decisions seemed identical.

This is some of the most valuable economic information you can get your hands on. Of course Roth knew nothing about today’s technology or the war in Ukraine or where the S&P 500 will trade in 2023. But he knew economies have a long history of panic and sudden collapse, driven by a similar pattern of optimism leading to debt and debt leading to crash. And the fact that he recognized it 90 years ago and it’s still relevant today makes it critical information to learn from, because you know it foretells our future.

The important thing is that someone like Roth – who died in 1978 – may teach you more about our future than a living analyst who deeply understands the technical details of today’s economy.

Game designer Jane McGonigal once said, “I’ve learned an important trick: to develop foresight, you need to practice hindsight.” You only get that deep appreciation of what never changes when you engage with history.

Schopenhauer – one of the long-dead philosophers Sauer might ignore – realized this when he said, “The wise have always said the same things, and fools have always done just the opposite.”