Modern “scientific” (i.e. rational, fact-based, and critically-assessed) history seeks to ensure that the precedents cited are, in fact, accurate and contextualized. If we are going to invoke the past as a basis for thinking about the present and the future, at least we should get it right, after all. Still, I can’t help but wonder how useful all this reliance on the past really is. Just because something happened doesn’t necessarily make it meaningful today.
My favorite examples of this comes from the practice of sportscasters and political commentators. Citing the all-time record of the Harvard-Yale game (Yale leads 68-61-8) is a nice factual filler, but so what? None of the players on the field has been there for more than 3 prior games, few of the coaches more than 10. How, then, does the past have any effect on the present? Teams wrap themselves in “tradition” (or, at least, the construct/extract any possible positive angle or statistic). The same is true for countries, of course, as well. Political analysts talk about historical electoral patterns and here they have a little more to go on, since many voters in a particular election have voted for some extended period in the same place. But this is easily overblown and recalling how thus-and-such district voted thirty years ago or more doesn’t tell us squat. Even without the malleability of parties (the Democrats opposed civil rights for Blacks in the 19C), the shifting of district boundaries, the changing values of the electorate, and the changing nature and meaning of the issues, most of this historical precedentalizing is pretty worthless. (and, don’t get me started on investment advisors who talk about how the Dow has moved since the Great Depression….)
As you might expect, the precedential value of historical analogizing gets weaker as time goes on. There are many interesting stories of ancient Greece/Rome/Persia/China, and it may be enlightening to see how things have evolved since their glory days, but there is little beyond the lifetime of the living that is actually useful by way of guidance as to how to proceed.
In other words, we have to take great care to see if really old stuff is sufficiently like their contemporary counterparts to make the connective effort worthwhile. In other words, such stories—by fixating on similarities which are superficial or nominal—also risk creating the impression of a meaningful continuity when none exists. Casual comparisons of Vladimir Putin to Hitler, Kaiser Wilhelm, or Louis XIV disguise and distract more than they enlighten.
We also need to be wary of valuing venerability for its own sake and avoid another form of arid antiquarianism which is fine for Wikipedia listings or the Guinness Book of World Records, but which doesn’t actually tell us much about how to live today. (To adapt Hegel’s famous aphorism, the only other thing that we can learn from history is that everyone likes to wrap themselves in their own (preferably lengthy) history.)
Another relevant legal concept (dating from ancient Athens!) called the “statute of limitations” which basically says that legal cases (whether for breach of contract or the commission of a crime) have to be filed within a specified period (affectionately known as the “you snooze, you lose” principle). These laws express an underlying societal view that we shouldn’t get caught up in history too much. Even if a wrong was done, our society needs to move on. Implicitly, this means that there is something more important than the “facts” or the “truth” of a particular case. It might be good to have a similar rule for citing precedents when trying to assess current events.
Many uses of history, especially in geopolitical or nationalist contexts, run afoul of this principle. Creative scholarship to demonstrate or rebut the claims of, e.g., China to most of the South China Sea, or both Israel/Jews and Arabs/Palestinians/Nabateans to various chunks of the Mideast, or Russia to Ukraine, all seem to be based on the idea that history matters, even if it’s thousands of years old. In fact, such “historical” claims are more a reflection of the modern (human?) tendency to seek validation from the past (instead of dealing with the current “facts on the ground” and the current people involved).
Similarly, invoking concepts, e.g., “democracy,” and pretending that the word meant the same thing in Athens in 403bc as it did in Philadelphia in 1787 or Tiananmen Square in 1989 or Tahir Square in 2011 risks watering down the importance of time-and-place; the context and culture that are crucially different.
There are multiple reasons to be wary of old history; but we shouldn’t dismiss it entirely. First, while ancient history has limited relevance to the present, there are a lot of good stories which engage students and any number of myths to be exploded. Olmecs, Mongols, and pre-Roman Franks are all legitimate subjects of historical research and study. Second, when done carefully, finding conceptual similarities between the ancient and the modern can be fruitful in exploring the high-level contextualization of human experience. Indeed, there is no other way to demonstrate that in terms of “human nature,” we humans haven’t made much “progress” in the last 10k years.
Finally, I’m well aware that many of the problems of historical analogy noted above apply equally well to events of the modern era. Actually, that’s one key benefit of all historical study: to show how the past, however recent, is still a quite different place than the present