Why Study History?

I used to ask that question to every incoming class, and always got the same answer: “To avoid making the mistakes of the past.”  But that’s not true, and everyone knows it.  You don’t need to know how Napoleon turned out to know starting a land war in Asia’s a bad idea, because you’ll never be in a position to start a land war in Asia in the first place.  Similarly, you don’t need Napoleon to tell you to stand up straight and clean up your room — it’s good advice, no doubt, but following it isn’t going to make you Napoleon.

It’s not about outcome, then. Studying history is about process.

That’s what that “creating an informed citizenry” stuff was supposed to be about, back when college was supposed to do that.  Consider any one of the Big Questions — say, “why did the Roman Empire fall?”  No matter which way you answer it, the process of coming up with an answer — evaluating evidence, considering alternatives — teaches you something important that you can apply to your adult life:

If you agree with Gibbon that it’s basically Christianity’s fault, then you learn about the importance of ideology to social order and national identity (funny, isn’t it, that they stopped teaching Gibbon just as Socialism really got going?  Turns out a love-the-world utopian fantasy really does rot your society from the inside out).

Maybe you hold that monetary policy was largely responsible.  Tax farmers, routinely debased coinage, the constant drain of “donatives” to pay off the army, bread and circuses for the masses… seems plausible, which is why they don’t teach that one much anymore, either.  Other than clippable edges, the difference between a mostly copper denarius and a fiat dollar is… what. exactly?  They both rest on the full faith and credit of the government, and we all know what that’s worth.

Speaking of tax farmers, you could subscribe to the thesis that the Empire was grossly understaffed.  You need a certain amount of bureaucracy to make any large enterprise go, but it has to be the right amount, and especially the right kind.  Without a real “civil service,” the Empire relied too much on local elites, any one of whom could suborn a legion commander or two and cause all kinds of problems (if the local elite in question wasn’t himself the legion commander already).  Here again, it’s obvious why you won’t hear that one in a college classroom — these days we call them “Hawaiian judges,” but the effect is the same.

Heck, you won’t even hear an old-school Marxist “class conflict” explanation anymore, though it’s certainly plausible.  Not because the Romans didn’t have brutal class divisions, of course, but because academics, despite being Marxists, aren’t entirely stupid — “bread and circuses” only works until you run out of other people’s money, which is not a lesson the Education-Industrial Complex wants anyone learning.

Nor do you hear much about the latifundia, the Multinational Corporations of their day, hollowing out the Empire’s military manpower base while simultaneously destroying the currency.  Which is funny, what with every professor in America being a drooling “anti-capitalist,” but there you have it…. ha ha, of course I’m kidding.  It’s obvious why they don’t teach that one — latifundia were staffed entirely by slaves.  Non-Roman slaves, and immigration is great, ergo it can’t have been those hardworking Gauls and Celts and Picts, who were just trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.  Plus, latifundia also caused massive overproduction of elites, and free college is a Constitutional right, so.,…

Finally, maybe the collapse of the Roman Empire was just bad luck.  These things happen.  The crisis of the third century was only partly of human manufacture.  Plagues and natural disasters played a significant role, and since inertia is the default state of all human organizations, only exceptionally skillful leadership could’ve mitigated some of the damage… and the potential for an exceptionally skillful leader to arise varies inversely with the amount of social inertia.  We’ve had a good innings, as our cousins across the pond say, but maybe it’s time to hang up our jocks and hit the showers.  But here again, that thesis has some obvious consequences that nobody in academia wants to talk about, starting with the fact that the stuff after the Empire is called the Dark Ages.  That’s a little too on the nose — while eggheads are always trying to outdo each other in displays of anti-White piety, normal folks have other ideas.

See what I mean?  So what’s left, other than saying that the Roman Empire fell because they were too mean to gays, girls, blacks, and trannies… and that only after an entire semester proclaiming, Mary Beard-style, that gays, girls, blacks, and trannies were the only thing keeping the Empire running in the first place?

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11 thoughts on “Why Study History?

  1. contrariandutchman

    One obvious answer to the starting question is “because its there” and if that doesnt satisfy, “because its damn interesting and has better stories then the craziest novelist could make up”.

    Why fall in the utilitarian trap?

    1. Severian Post author

      I agree, but you’ll never get an American college kid to say that. Orwell said there was a joke going around Britain in the 1930s, about all the pretentious wannabe novelists out there. “One doesn’t write about anything; one just writes.” Same thing with college these days. One doesn’t go to college to learn anything; one just goes to college.

      This is the material a professor has to work with, which is why I am no longer a professor.

    2. Rod1963

      That’s what got me interested in it as a kid. My mom brought home a couple of Latin study texts that detailed Caesar’s war in Gaul. After that I was hooked. Like you say, history has far better stories than what any novelist can concoct.

  2. Pickle Rick

    Empires fall because, crudely, eventually, nobody gives a shit about propping up the hollow shell of empire- not with blood, treasures, or effort. Indifference, not the barbarian Huns, Vandals, or Goths, destroyed the empire. And so it will be with this empire of ours.

    1. Severian Post author

      Yep. That’s what I mean about inertia being the default. Soon enough, nobody in the Roman Empire remembered why they had an empire in the first place, so they felt no real need to defend it… and by the time they remembered, the barbarians were through the gates.

      For those interested (and feeling suicidal), I recommend Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. It wasn’t until the 1600s that Europe regained the kind of stability and prosperity it enjoyed in 100 AD. The collapse of a worldwide empire is horrible beyond imagining; when our great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren decide to give things like “indoor plumbing” and “living past 35” another go, we will appear to them as the Romans did to the Middle Ages — all but gods, a race of giants who did impossible things.

      1. Pickle Rick

        The irony of it is the Goths and others didn’t want to destroy the Roman civilization- they wanted to be part of it, but their presence ultimately killed the civilization they wanted to take advantage of. Same with our southern hordes- every one of them contributes into turning this country into exactly what they claim to be escaping from.

        1. Severian Post author

          Why, it’s almost as if there’s a biological component to it!! But I’m told by all the best people that can’t be right….

          [Seriously, though, this is a huge flaw in the “all-HBD all the time” position, should its opponents choose to see it. If Northern European stock is so naturally superior, why did it take centuries of ass-kickings by the Romans to finally beat civilization into their heads? Bare-assed, blue-painted savages like Boudicca eventually became Queen Victoria… but it took 2000 years. I am likewise confident that the civilizational level of any human subgroup can be raised to First World standards… if you’ve got half a geologic era to work with].

          1. Joseph Moore

            I’ve often quipped that the French have every right to be proud of their civilization, considering they started as the Franks. A mere 2,000 years later, while they may not have quite as high a civilization as they want to believe, they may well have come the greatest net distance.

            Until recently, that is. They could do with a dose of Chuck the Hammer.

          2. Pickle Rick

            But, a lot of Northern Europe was never subjected to centuries of Roman ass kickings, -not the Irish, nor the Norse, or the Germans east of the Rhine. The Angles, Jutes, and Saxons never were under the Roman yoke. What did unite the Europeans that became the powerhouse of the world was not being part of the old Imperium Romana, but being part of Christendom. The Egyptians and the Syrians as well as the Gauls and Britons had the benefits of Roman civilization at the point of a sword, but they haven’t punched above their weight culturally since the last centurion laid down his shield.

  3. RRW

    The crisis of the third century, according to wikipedia:

    “The Crisis of the Third Century, also known as Military Anarchy or the Imperial Crisis (AD 235–284), was a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression. The crisis began with the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander by his own troops in 235, initiating a 50-year period during which there were at least 26 claimants to the title of emperor, mostly prominent Roman army generals, who assumed imperial power over all or part of the Empire.”

    Boom boom. You can’t make this shit up. Whomever wrote this was talking about events either 1,700 years ago or last week. Severian, I don’t know how you get up up each morning, drink your coffee, fry your eggs, and ruminate about how fucked we are. But thanks; I’m not a historian, not even an informed citizen, but I read these posts and shake my head with attendant rue.

  4. oldscratch

    What is left to say? Historians over 200 years ago understood – or at least were willing to admit – why societies decays and degradate. All of the anxiety about “degeneracy” that plagued 19th century intellectuals and we still ended up with tranny children and gay pride parades.

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