The Lessons of History

  • R. A. Buchanan


It has frequently been said, both cynically and sadly, that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. In the sense that a knowledge of history cannot necessarily avert an impending disaster, and may even help to precipitate it, there is undoubtedly some substance in the dictum. Thus, Adolf Hitler was unable to defy the climatic logistics which had defeated Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, even though he was well aware of them. And western politicians in the mid-1950s, imbued with a strong historical sense, identified President Nasser of Egypt with the career of Hitler and undertook a catastrophic military operation on the strength of this misjudgement of history. Yet in these as in all similar cases, disaster should only be attributed to a failure to learn from history if the careers of innumerable successful constitution-makers and empire-builders are set in the opposite balance as examples of people who did manage to read aright the signs of their times. History, after all, represents a vast fund of available knowledge, from which either wisdom or misconception may be distilled. What is certain is that anybody who refuses to try to learn from history is risking fatuity of mind and intellectual sterility. Knowledge of our past is the single greatest resource available to man, and whether we use this asset well or badly, we neglect it at our peril. It has been the purpose of this book to argue that our modern Industrial Civilisation is the product of the cumulative experience of many centuries of social evolution, and that the proper understanding of the present world and of its future prospects depends heavily upon an appreciation of this process of historical development. As an exercise in applied history, therefore, it is important to derive both general and particular lessons from the past in order to illuminate our understanding of contemporary society. That is the object of the present chapter, and in the next and final chapter we will attempt to project this understanding into a discussion of possible future developments.


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  1. 1.
    For further details on Marx, see Chapter 6, note 6, and on Toynbee see Chapter 2, note 3. The other reference is Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West the first part of which was originally published in German in 1918. It was translated into English in the 1920s and there is a useful one-volume edition translated by C. F. Atkinson and published by Allen & Unwin Ltd, which has passed through several impressions.Google Scholar

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© R. A. Buchanan 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. A. Buchanan
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BathUK

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