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Philosophy of History

How should we view history?

This seems like a vague question at first, but the answer to it touches on a huge variety of perspectives on the past. Some would say that it simply contains a collection of mistakes to be avoided. In this view, those ancestors of ours were barbaric, and their actions have no bearing on us and serve at most as signposts on a path we should avoid at all costs. Others would ignore it entirely, wanting to focus on the progression of humanity into the future without being bound by the restraints of our past. In this view, humanity has already evolved past the barbarism of previous ages, and actions from this past era are best left there, in the “dustbin” of history. A third view is more conservative, which is that history serves as a record of experience of the human race, and serves as a window to our souls and as a series of lessons for us to learn from that we could easily repeat.

My personal view is that this third view is most accurate, and that it is arrogant to assume that we have somehow evolved from the nature of our ancestors. We are inherently the same species, capable of the same levels of conflict, violence, greed, and lust for power that have plagued us since prehistory. We are merely restrained from this by cultural practices and institutions that have developed over time and experience, with the knowledge that we must at times restrain our nature for the greater good.

This vision is what Thomas Sowell referred to as the “constrained” vision of humanity. When applied to history, it creates a narrative of slow, halting steps from our barbaric nature to a more civilized order with the help of systems devised by the human intellect, which vastly exceeds anything nature has produced up to this point. It is this “constrained” view that drives the editorial stance of this page. I believe that the modern audience ignores history at its own peril and has suffered from a lack of traditional education on this subject. History in this view may be understood as the collective experience of humanity across time back to the beginning of the historical record. It is vital that we have a baseline understanding of history to avoid the same pitfalls that have plagued us in the past.

If you want to reduce war, learn the conditions that have led to war in the past, and avoid them. If you want to alleviate poverty, learn what conditions have produced it in the past, and avoid those. If you want a thriving economy, then learn about economic history, and promote policies that have tended to produce economic prosperity. And since we currently live in what is by any objective standard the most prosperous, safest, and most peaceful era in human history by far, it is vital that we learn the conditions that led to our current era.

On this page, you will see posts that focus on significant events in the broader brush strokes of history. You will see a more objective take on historical events, not one that seeks to judge the actors on the stage of history, but simply describes their actions and their impact on our historical development. This is because the question of “is it moral?” is fundamentally distinct from “is it significant?”.

The standpoint that will be taken is that we currently live in a stable, prosperous world, and we should understand the larger trends that produced this world, regardless of the motivations or intentions of those who helped produce it.

Reposted from The Footnotes of History

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