The Proper Reason Why Political Thinkers ought to study History

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Far too prevalent in political and journalistic discourse in the early 21st Century is the Next-Hitler Fallacy: the improper characterization of the relative rise of a despotic power as an iteration of that rise of Nazi Germany which prompted the Second World War. This crude historical parallel usually asserts that, should assertive action not be taken against whichever state is rising (nowadays be that Saddam’s Iraq, Ahmedinejad’s Iran, Hu’s China, Putin’s Russia, Ergodan’s Turkey, you name it) then the future consequences will be tantamount to nothing less than a fully negative shift in the balance of power, and the ethical qualities of the statesmen who may otherwise have prevented this development are in line with those of Neville Chamberlain, the Great Appeaser.

In every case these parallels have been wrong. This is not due to simple slight miscalculations of power by dedicated defenders of liberty. It is the result of an entirely wrong and thoroughly contemptible method of looking at history- that there is so much commonality between any two situations, that similar policies might be justifiable and recommendable when the unfolding situation smells suspiciously of a historically infamous one. Many are guilty of this, myself included.

Perhaps I must first concede the accuracies of this approach. It is indeed true, in my opinion, that human nature is a constant across time and space; that the varied combinations of events do, in fact, tend to resemble each other so perfectly that certain broad assumptions about the nature of human society and behavior can be established; that the trick to accurate analysis is determining which correlations between phenomena are true, and which correlations are false; that this, indeed, is the very foundation of political theory, the only comprehensive lens by which any thinker or leader might view the vicissitudes of the political world; and that, if we chose not to attempt to understand the nature of politics, we could not wring order from the chaos, and would simply be the barbarous beasts our kindred have proven themselves to be so in so many historic instances. Said Qoholeth, “Nothing is new under the sun.” I do not doubt for an instant that the ways of Man are any different than the ancients understood, nor that the appeal of literature lies in the timelessness of all human dramas, of which politics is the highest. Such a view informs the mystic nature of my political understanding.

Yet to take this approach too far is an imbalance worthy only of condemnation. Rationalization, a gift presented to the human intellect by forces we know not of, eventually believes itself the highest accumulator of knowledge, the highest being; and when it sees itself as such a god, its reasonableness expires as its arrogance sets in. The basic problem of inaccuracy lies here- so many factors influence the affairs of men, so much from his environment, that it would already be a near-impossible task to forecast similarly for beasts of nature. But herein is the difference in forecasting such affairs for men- in looking at them, we look upon ourselves, and are prejudiced with the image of Narcissus. Our hopes and dreams, our stories and legends, we paint upon our subject matter, so that no matter how vainly we might hope for an objectivity in the social science, we shall always hope in vain, wallowing in our own subjective illusions. Compound with this the fact that we observe not a single man, who, possessing a heart and a mind beyond his body, would already be impossible to predict with accuracy, but we observe the masses of men in relation to their environment and to each other- a thoroughly imperceptible mass of ambitions and desires, passions and reasons, lives and deaths! Whatever facts may be culled must be few, and whatever correlations derived must be fewer. From this portrayal it ought to be easy to determine why mathematical understandings and research methods tend to be, if not totally and basely wrong, then thoroughly unhelpful in explaining the true dynamics of the movements of societies. And moreover it ought to be clear why no non-mathematical portrayal of human affairs can ever show forth the truth in full and as it is- for no one can escape the confines of his own mind, and even if he could, his boundless spirit would lack the faculties to comprehend, in real time, the shifting tides and undulating rhythms of human political life.

I believe it is possible to advance ever so slightly down this road. Two the primary shapers of my political intellect, the forecasting firm Stratfor and the magazine The American Interest, manage to do so, anyway. Stratfor penetratingly analyzes the constraints upon political actors and through this, narrows down their viable options; in so doing it has developed a model which can predict, with a modest degree of accuracy, near-term political developments, almost always flying in the face of common sense. The American Interest is about as balanced a publication as any I’ve ever seen, its writing sifted through the most empirically correct schools of thought several times before it is ever published. But even these analytical methods, however useful, can only barely scrape the surface of the complexity of human life, and are in any case chiefly useful for discerning broad outlines and foreseeing a few of their consequences.

Accepting the reality that little can be done to predict with accuracy human political affairs, what is the aspiring policymaker or political theorist to do? I say: study history. Francis Bacon, when discussing the nutritious qualities of various sorts of books for an inquiring mind, counseled “Histories make men wise.” So far as I can perceive, he meant not that reading the affairs of men will unlock to a mind the subtlest secrets of the Universe, though unlock those it might; nor that understanding the events of the past will allow one to understand the events surrounding one’s present, though in some ways explain those it may; but that, in growing deeper in one’s appreciation for the grand tapestry of human life which has been the story of our race, one might begin to comprehend the true complexity and perplexitude of the vicissitudes of Mankind, seeing connections across time and space where they are and only in their proper place, appreciating the fleeting nature of all things and the enduring nature of principles, and ultimately growing into what might be termed a wiser, more prudent individual. Such an individual would be immeasurably more fit to steer the helm of state or write the leaves of policy than a bombastic and frivolous ideologue, dedicated to a teleological or otherwise ideological understanding of human affairs, or a self-content rationalist believing their perfect explanations of the past to be sufficient guides to the uncertainties of the future. Never was greater bunk uttered than Santayana’s unfortunately immortal quip, “Those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it.” Rubbish. We are flesh; we will live the experiences of our ancestors from now to the end of posterity. We live in history. By understanding it, we do not draw closer to a heaven on earth, where none will bear the sword and none will drag the chain. The humility that lies in accepting the world as it is, and in accepting one’s mind as capable of perceiving that world only in part, and in accepting the very human surrender to history, are prerequisites to the prudence necessary should one take a life of public service. And only through studying the affairs of men can one discover- and thence, find in themselves the potential to accept for themselves- this understanding.

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