We live in a complex, complicated, and constantly changing world. The study of this world around us reveals much about its nature: insights about our societies, our governments, our ways of life, the environments we live in, the conditions we face. Studying these things in their present shape and form may help us better understand why and how they are now, but betrays a key question: how did they get that way? Indeed, a complete and accurate understanding of anything relies upon an understanding of its formation, its evolution, and its development. Without this knowledge, our understanding of the world is quite blinded: we may understand how things operate now, but not why they operate as they do now. We may learn the structure and function of the world around us, but clueless as we are to how this structure and function came to be, it is impossible to draw on precedents to guide us and impossible to chart the evolution of the future. The entirety of our current world, of our present day and place, is a result of the collective choices, decisions, and events of the past. The study of history, thus, is perhaps one of the most powerful sources of insight and knowledge an individual can gain about the world around them, their place in that world, and why that world operates as it does.
Consider, for example, meeting a new person. You may learn that they are socially awkward, that they like cows, and that they’re overweight. This is all important information, it all reveals the character and traits of this new person, and it is all discernible at the present. But when you search into this persons’ past, you learn that they were bullied in their childhood, that they grew up on a farm, and that they once had a health problem that caused weight gain. Suddenly, the character of that person has taken a new depth, and their traits’ true natures are revealed. The bullying in their childhood prevented the person from developing social skills, growing up around animals meant that the person developed a fondness for them, and that the persons’ weight is a result of their old health problem. Without a knowledge of the person’s past, you could understand how they are like they are now. With a knowledge of their past, you gain insight as to why they are like they are now, a much deeper, much more complete, and much more revealing insight than otherwise. You can now draw from precedents set in their past, learning lessons such as ‘bullying can disrupt social development’, and make predictions for the future, such as ‘having grown up on a farm, this person will also like horses’. Finally, you can discern the reasons behind the person’s qualities from a knowledge of their past and therefore disregard incorrect assumptions. For example, ‘this person is overweight because they had a health issue, not because they don’t exercise’.
This example is an easy visualization of the strength of insight provided by a knowledge of the past, but this sort of insight is applicable to the entirety of the human experience. Everything has a history, and that history can be studied. The development of everything can be understood. The insight gained into the world can be enormous. Political institutions, economic theories, scientific insights, country borders and militaries, they all have a process of development and evolution. Understanding this process explains why they now exist in their present state. The lessons learned from the past, the bad ideas and broken concepts that were tossed aside, altered, or fixed, can help us contribute to the future evolution of what we study. Precedents set in the past can be studied, so that our knowledge of them may help us deal with similar issues or events in our future. Predictions for the future, based on a knowledge of and the precedent set by the happenings and developments of the past, can help us prepare and plan for what lays ahead. Discerning why the world is as it is now through the past can help us disregard ideas, concepts, or arguments which fail to explain the true nature of the world or which aren’t rooted in past example. A knowledge of the past is a incredibly indispensable tool for understanding the future.
A knowledge of history provides more than just explanations for the present and examples for the future, however. History is beautiful, expansive, and exciting. More than just names and dates, history tells us the stories of great heroes and terrible tyrants, of periods of great turmoil and conflict and times of great peace and stability, of empires that rose and fell, of triumph and glory and failure and defeat. History is like good literature, complete with developed characters, rife with plots and subplots, full of build-ups, climaxes, and draw-downs. Most amazing, however, is that this history is the real story of real events in the past, and these stories are the reasons why our world is like it is. Everything that influences you, the country you live in, the technologies you use, the society you operate in, is a result of the choices and events of the past. As you move around, the places passing directly underneath and around you have had a long, varied, and complex history. Some cities, for example, have histories spanning thousands of years. You can walk the cobbled streets of Rome, the same streets used by legions of an empire’s finest troops two thousand years before. The idea of this is beautiful, and is astonishingly real.
Perhaps what I find most amazing and beautiful about history is that it is being made, all the time. Even our own present is the future’s past. As evident as that may seem thinking about it, the true implications of it, to me, are breathtaking. I wonder if, just as I can today follow the footsteps of a two thousand year old Roman citizen living in ancient Rome, two thousand years from now someone can follow in mine. No doubt hundreds of years from now we will be a chapter in a history book, just as how we now read in our books about the times of the past. Like the artifacts of a museum or old works in a gallery, what we now possess, worship, and enjoy will one day be a source of wonder, intrigue, and perhaps amusement for future historians and knowledge seekers. What will the future think of us? How will our decisions now impact the future? As we make our future’s history, will we have learned from our own?