Does History Matter?

06/09/2013 13:22 BST | Updated 05/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Politicians love to invoke history. It's fodder for Syria, tax policy, welfare reform and what to do about the environment.

The late historian Tony Judt once argued that we suffer from a dangerous illusion, namely "'that we live in a time without precedent . . . and that the past has nothing to teach us''. Sure enough. There are good reasons, for example, to diminish the Assad regime's ability to do evil. But I'm not sure it's history that tells us what to do; or when, or how to strike.

What good is history?

I'm fond of Cornell Professor David Silbey's blog "The Edge of the American West -- History Can Save Your Ass." Silbey chides us for cherry picking and is good at rooting out this or that fact or figure to set a record straight. I also like the essay penned by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1874 titled "On the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life." Nietzsche argues for the importance of history -- as well as for the importance of forgetting history (he is a German philosopher after all). Nietzsche saw what he called the threat of "the large and ever-increasing burden of the past, which pushes (us) down." He continues: "Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all ... Such a person no longer believes in his own being, no longer believes in himself ... He will, like the true pupil of Heraclitus, finally hardly dare any more to lift his finger."

This may be at the heart of the debate over Howard Zinn's controversial "A People's History of the United States.", When he was Republican Governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels -- currently President of Purdue University -- sought to have Zinn's book excluded from school curricula in his state. To his detractors, Zinn's book is inaccurate, distorted and anti-American. Zinn's supporters claim the author was merely seeking a balanced account of history -- including proper reporting on the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans. History is not merely an academic exercise, about cold, isolated facts. People argue about history because it is central to identity.

This seems to be the case no matter where you go. When John Howard became Australian Prime Minister in 1996 he attacked Labour for insinuating, in his words, that Australia history was "little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination." Howard countered: "I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed." Right and Left are often at odds over emphasis and narrative.

Then there's Francis Gavin of the University of Texas at Austin who argues that to properly grasp history's relevance for today it is vital to consider simultaneously a) vertical history (deep causes); b) horizontal history (complex linkages); c) chronological proportionality (frequently seemingly big events don't stay big for very long); and d) unintended consequences. As for the last-- what if America had won the Vietnam War? A significant commitment of resources to Southeast Asia would likely have ensued; China and the USSR might well have forged an alliance. Then what? So starts Gavin's thought experiment. I'll add this: joining forces with the Soviet Union in World War II was a good thing. It allowed us to defeat Nazi Germany. Less good: victory also led to the division of Europe and 40 years of Cold War.

Gavin's multi-dimensional approach reminds me of a lovely little book called "Einstein's Dreams". In this 1992 novel, author and MIT physicist Alan Lightman writes: "In a world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely. ... (yet) human behaviour at the very same time seems to be infinitely complex."

In "Einstein's Dreams" there's also this:

"In this world, time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical, and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real. At every point of decision, the world splits into three worlds, each with the same people, but different fates for those people. In time, there are an infinity of worlds."

There will be a spate of conferences and publications soon linked to the 100-year commemoration of the outbreak of World War I. The Legatum Institute will dip its oar into the water with a series of lectures curated by my colleague, writer-historian Hywel Williams. This August, in a symposium jointly sponsored with the University of Southern California, we looked to another period for clues on how to approach today. I think the study of history is intrinsically interesting. As for its relevance, it can help us come to the right questions. It seldom produces hard evidence of exactly what to do.

Which means using history for today is about understanding the difference between patterns and simplistic formulas; being mindful of the past, but not burdened by it; remaining aware that human behaviour is never predictable. And that none of this, once due diligence is complete, should ever be used as an excuse for temporising and inaction.