Why Study History? Part IIIc: History Teaches Universal Principles

Note: This is the Sixth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous two posts I argued that history provides the early content of thought and the only means by which the student may understand themselves in their current society.

The third function of History in education is that History functions to discover and teach the universal principles of human nature that enables the student to plan for the future. “Consider the past,” says Marcus Aurelius, “[that] thou mayest foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now” (Meditations, 267). Similarly argues Gibbon, “History…undertakes to record the transactions of the past, for the instruction of future ages”(Decline and Fall, 211). That is, because human nature is everywhere and always the same, the student of history may learn from the achievements and failures of previous generations. Machiavelli, in giving advice for the preservation of the state, makes continual reference to historical precedents to justify his claims. Granted, Machiavelli sees the lesson of history that the prince ought to be willing to do evil in order to preserve the state. Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s principle is sound: to plan for the future, learn from the past.

220px-James_MadisonLikewise, in considering the nature and form that the U.S. Constitution should take, Madison and others made a thorough study of constitutions of the past, noting what worked, what did not work, and why. In defending the Constitution during the debate over ratification, the Federalist essays of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay (like Machiavelli), make continual reference to historical precedent to justify why the Constitution took the shape it did, and why it was superior to all previous forms. These historical considerations were made because, says John Jay, “We may profit by their experience without paying the price which it cost them” (Federalist No. 5, 37). Planning for the future without consulting the past is foolish at best and disastrous at worst. Thus Santayana’s oft quoted maxim: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge
Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs and Disciplines

On Getting Out of Bed in the Morning

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

—But it’s nicer here…

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

—But we have to sleep sometime…

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.
You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.

Is helping other less valuable to you? Nor worth your effort?

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.1