History Never Repeats, I Tell Myself Before I Go To Sleep


In the Sunday New York Times, Laura Miller has a nice piece on the ways moderns try to stretch classical history to fit contemporary parallels.

A sample:

As [Donald] Kagan explains in his introduction to The Peloponnesian War, the war's history was once taught as analogous to World War I, then later as a parallel to the cold war. He demurs from continuing that tradition, though, writing, "I have avoided making comparisons between events in it and those in later history, although many leap to mind." [Victor Davis] Hanson is far less circumspect in his most recent book, Ripples of Battle, an account of three battles: Shiloh, Okinawa and the relatively obscure clash between the Athenians and the Boeotians at Delium in 424 B.C. The book concludes with a passionate and vainglorious diatribe about the pre-eminence of military history and the need to apply the insights he has ostensibly just offered us to the post-Sept. 11 situation. "After the fall of the twin towers," he proclaims, "Americans were more likely to believe a dead Greek than the most sophisticated lawyers and social scientists of the modern Western world."

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  1. Of course, dead Greeks haven’t brought us excessive class-action litigation enriching lawyers and bringing consumers the price of a cup of coffee each, alleged health-scares and consumer-watches that rely on merely anecdotal evidence and tearful testimony before government officials, a mindlessly bureacratized and monopolistic public education system, or a legion of paternally moralizing laws masquerading as public health or environmental initiatives.

    I’ll take the dead Greeks, thank you.


  2. Wow, making the case for ahistoricism, with the folks Hayek thought should learn from history.

    Oh well, I guess I’m just more likely to believe a dead Austrian economist, than a live Los Angelino author.

  3. Nice Split Enz reference 🙂

  4. No Stephen, you just don’t get it. VDH works for NATIONAL REVIEW, which sells more copies than REASON, so it is just good marketing to bash VDH to try get the 1% cross-readership of NATION instead of the 80% cross-readership of NR.

  5. Stephen: The whole point of Hayek’s critique of historicism was that history is not a “science” with predictable laws. One implication is that it’s a mistake to make predictions based on very tenuous historical parallels.

    Also — small point — I haven’t lived in Los Angeles for more than two years.

  6. So those who reference the “The Peloponnesian War” are now historists? Jeebus. Where to begin. First of all learn what historisim is. Secondly, that isn’t Hayeks critique of historicism was at all. Third, the value of studying classical history is that you can examine thousand of years of commentary.

  7. Geez, Tigger. Neither Miller nor I said that people who reference the Peloponnesian War are historicists, and neither Miller nor I said that there’s no value to studying classical history. Where the hell did you get the idea that we did?

    And Hayek’s critique of historicism (a word with about a dozen meanings) was that history is not a science. I agree that it’s a stretch to connect that critique to the people in the post, but that was Stephen’s doing, with his bizarre suggestion that Miller was arguing for “ahistoricism” and thus would have earned Hayek’s ire. I was just pointing out that if anyone here is leaning in that direction, it’s the people who make a lot of hay about tenuous historical parallels, not the people who call them on it.

  8. People are people. We haven’t changed in a few hundred thousand years. We make the same stupid mistakes
    over and over again.
    Learning from the past: GOOD
    Ignoring the past: BAD
    Splitting hairs over definitions: POINTLESS

  9. ….nobody knows what he’s talking about:)

  10. “Toby/Tigger (the two tigers share an IP address)”

    So libertarians are now monitoring peoples views and matching their IP addresses ? This would never have happened under Previous Editor.

  11. Kevin Carson,

    Isn’t there another recently published monograph that praises the Spartans as a model for current day America? To which I note that the Spartans kept an entire people in thralldom in order to fight its wars of expansion; and that this effort eventually weakened them so that they were defeated in a rather humiliating fashion eventually.

  12. “Finally, if he’d read the whole piece I linked to he’d realize that it isn’t Hanson in particular that I’m criticizing; it’s our ability to keep reinterpreting ancient events as ‘analogous’ (Kagan’s term) to whatever we happen to be experiencing in the present. . .”

    Besides previous experience, what data shall we use to help us interpret contemporary events? Even “common sense” is only “common” and “sensible” in so far as it draws on the past.

    Now, I’m not suggesting we revert to a study of history with a nomothetic goal. But seeking analogues from the past to cast illumination on the present need hardly be that demanding.

    One can still claim history tends to rhyme while acknowledging it is an ideographic inquiry.


    PS: I’m not sure “historicism” has a single, well-crafted meaning. I’ve encountered “historicism” as a criticism akin to relativism, but I’ve also encountered “historicism” as the refreshing antidote to history put to work to approve or support a current situation or point of view (ie. “presentist history”).

  13. 1. Learning from the past is good, but stretching the past til it looks like the present is not learning.

    2. As both Jean and I have commented, “historicism” is a word with several meanings. This is one of the things that academics like to joke about.

  14. Hanson is a neocon. So we must bash him without reason.

  15. What crap! Historicism is the theory that History is moving toward some type of goal, the End of History i.e. the tradition that began with Hegal. THAT is what Hayek (and Popper) are arguing against.

    Secondly, classists are not making “tenuous historical parallels” about a an event but are applying CONCEPTS discovered by Thucydides et al about a particular event, and it is possible the same CONCEPTS discovered by Thucydides about a particular event may now apply to a contemperory event.

    So tell me, why are obscure pissant 19th century anarhcists like Tucker and Spooner to be held sacred in mental masturbation around here, but not dead Greeks?

  16. Tigger,

    Well, that’s one definition of the term; and the tradition didn’t begin with Hegel, BTW. And they are tenuous.

  17. Jean Bart,

    I never heard of it. Was it recommending *both* the helotry and the eventual collapse as a course of action for America?


    I believe the dominant understanding of “historicism” is a denial of objective standards of truth or value that transcend history. Every standard of value is a product of its time. The historicism of Hegel and Marx was a mild version of this. The radical version of historicism was founded by Nietzsche and Heidegger and is carried on by the postmodernists.

  18. Toby/Tigger (the two tigers share an IP address) needs to reread the discussion of historicism in The Counter-Revolution of Science. He also needs to get it through his head that the target here is not the dead Greeks, but the people who put their work to dubious use. No one here is anti-classicist, OK?

    Finally, if he’d read the whole piece I linked to he’d realize that it isn’t Hanson in particular that I’m criticizing; it’s our ability to keep reinterpreting ancient events as “analogous” (Kagan’s term) to whatever we happen to be experiencing in the present: World War I, the Cold War, the War on Terror, you name it. Not that I have anything against dissing Hanson — in his pundit mode I think he’s an unreadable windbag. But that’s not the point here.

  19. Kevin Carson,

    Well, its argument was along these lines – Sparta was strong for five hundred years exclusively through military force and its use against any entity that challenged its authority (no matter how it was used, gotten, etc.); therefore, America must follow Sparta’s example.

  20. The central theme of Thucydides was the degradation of language and traditional standards of truth and morality in a total war. The fact that classicists like Hanson idealize the amorality of the Athenian empire (the Melian dialogue, the claimed right of superior might, etc.) should tell us something about the kind of “democracy” they want to bring to the world today.

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