Written by Michael Brennan

History is civilization’s memory.  It has the same function within a culture that the recollection of past experiences has for the individual.  It memorializes our finest hours, and serves as a warning against danger for those who are wise enough to take its counsel.  Within the sphere of human activity, there is truly “nothing new under the sun”.  In one way or another, it has all been done before.

History is civilization’s memory.  It has the same function within a culture that the recollection of past experiences has for the individual.  It memorializes our finest hours, and serves as a warning against danger for those who are wise enough to take its counsel.  Within the sphere of human activity, there is truly “nothing new under the sun”.  In one way or another, it has all been done before.

It is easy to fall into the habit of thinking that the way things are now are the way they have always been, and by inference, will continue to be.  For those blessed by a lifetime beginning after the Second World War, and especially those born since the Reagan years, it is difficult to appreciate how fragile is the barrier separating modern human existence from poverty, epidemic disease, and chaos.

Possibly the greatest obstacle to personal achievement is disbelief in our own frail, human capabilities.  The knowledge of the great feats of those who passed before us, all too human like ourselves, can make daunting goals seem within reach, and help us vault that psychological barrier to success.

We as people are diminished when we are divorced from the past.  Without history we would have no knowledge of the philosophers– no wisdom from Plato or Aristotle; no inspiration from the martyrs, no horror of the Inquisition, the Holocaust or the Stalinist purges; no admiration of the valor at Thermopylae, the Massada, or the Alamo; no cautions against dictatorship, slavery and brutality; no context in which to appreciate the music of Mozart, Stravinsky, Elvis or Dylan, or the meaning of a canvas by Giotto, daVinci, or Miro.

There is no sense of self without history.  History is not just some stuff that happened to dimly- remembered and unimportant people.   It is a part of who we are, and we a part of it.  It is natural and all too human to feel that nothing important happened before the day of one’s birth.  But the fact is, that we are but a link in the chain of human events, and the study of history gives us not only some idea of whence we come, but also allows us to gain a perspective on the trajectory of the future.  Arthur Conan Doyle advanced the idea that a man’s intellectual and moral make-up were just as much a sum of his family tree as his physiology.  In a similar manner, any culture is nothing more or less than the totality of its morals and ideas put into action across decades or centuries.

For those of us who believe that the history of the world is the history of the struggle between good and evil, knowing that the present is only the sum of all of our yesterdays should serve to make us take more care about what we do today, for tomorrow it will go into that vast flux of cultural memory.  And who can say what effectwhether great or small, for good or ill–that it may have?