The Three Lessons of History

There are three primary lessons that History can teach us. They are:

1) This is where we came from.

No society began by its people sitting down and forming a culture by making up stuff that sounded cool to them. Everything, from our behaviour and social mores, our manner of dress, and our outlook on the world around us, were reactions and elaborations on things that came before. Men’s shirt button left over right because you didn’t want your sword to get snagged on your shirt when you drew it from your left hip. Ever wondered how humans figured out which plants/substances were edible and which were poisonous, an undertaking that would have taken countless generations of trial and error? We figured that stuff out when we were still apes. History has the ability to say to you ‘Hey, you know that thing you do? Well, it comes from this. Neat, huh?’

2) Things have not always been as they are now.

We have an unfortunate tendency to see History as the linear progression from primitivism to sophistication and ‘civilization’. But when we hear about the Egyptians having rudimentary knowledge of steam power and batteries, and the Romans re-inventing things like gridded street layouts and running hot and cold water after the traces of their earlier appearance in the Indus Valley thousands of years previously had all but vanished, that view starts to make less and less sense. Instead, we must look at previous civilizations as different ways of addressing the common challenges of life. Some were more ‘high-tech’ than others, but ultimately what they came up with worked for them, else they would not have lasted very long. What we can learn from this is that, contrary to the commonly-held viewpoint that, when it comes to civilizations, it’s either what we have now or ‘Mad Max’, our ancestors lived well and worked wonders with systems and outlooks that often barely resemble our own. Take comfort in that. It means that there are always other options.

3) Things will not always be as they are now.

Everything changes. The greatest cultures and movements of our species have emerged, risen, and then gradually declined and faded. Nothing could be more natural. To think that our civilization is immune from this process is delusional. Look around you. One day all the people and places that you know and love will be gone. Dust. Ruins. It is for us to decide what we leave behind for future historians. What stories will they tell about us?

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