Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.
Those immortal words of the historian George Santayana subdue me every time I hear one utter an historical fallacy. The words are so entrenched in my mind that they cannot be forgotten. In this short post I will explore the difference between being ignorant of the past and historical evidence, the difference between ignorance and simulations and the great search for truth in history (as well as its importance in any field of study). There will also be a short digression on how our beliefs shape all of our actions.
I want to first deal with ignorance of the past. We live in a great age (one that Benjamin Franklin would envy greatly) with tools and technology that increases every day to reveal more and more of the past ( the study of history will always have the bias of the present projected on the past but we can try our best to search for the objective facts and interpret them appropriately. One of the most important and famous examples of historical ignorance is with holocaust deniers. A famous example in recent times is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who has publicly denied the horrific events of the Second World War that resulted in the deaths 6 million Jews and 4 to 5 million non-Jews (mentally ill, physically sick, minorities, etc.). This evil contempt for history by the leader of a country shows how powerful ignorance can be. Another example is people who deny evolution. Granted, many are not provided the appropriate facts, but many are also ignorant because it collides with a religious view. Denying evolution is not only denying science but denying history – the history of every species that exists and has existed on this planet. In the cases of historical ignorance, it is often times resulting from a lack of education on a topic but, as is the case with many holocaust deniers, it is more often than not a result of personal beliefs that conflict with the evidence. Historians must learn what the evidence has to show, not what we want to be true.
Here, I will digress shortly on beliefs. It is important to keep in mind that our beliefs shape everything we say, do, and “believe” to be true. Modern neuroscience, neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, etc. shows us how fundamental our beliefs are in affecting every aspect and dynamic of our lives. It is in this sense important for a historian to be aware of other fields such as the ones above, evolutionary biology (for the biology example), and so on. A historian needs to become a person of the Renaissance. Hey! You can never stop learning.
One may say that simulations are ignorant of the past because of their limited abilities and oft misrepresentation of the past and are thus useless. I disagree with the conclusion but I accept the premises. They are “ignorant”, in the literal sense of the word (and extent to which a simulation can take on human attributes), but they are far from useless. I recently made a sketch of a simulation on the black plague in the 14th century, plugging in appropriate numbers to try and make it as real as possible (the numbers had a range and could change with the simulation). Now this simulation will never show me the terror of the black plague or the religious and cultural response – it will only shoot out numbers and cool diagrams. But that does not deem it useless – I can change the variable, play and experiment with history to observe different outcomes. With my knowledge of the black plague plus this simulation, I come out ahead in a sense. It is important to remember that Science is a self correcting method that is not only confined to physics, biology, and chemistry – the rigorous method can be used appropriately in history too. Evidence is our greatest means to utilizing this tool and without evidence, we have nothing.
It was true when Thomas Gray said “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” There is utter happiness to one who can not be aware of the world around them – all the messiness of history and attaining the truth – but there is something to be said of knowledge and the pursuit of what is true and not remaining ignorant to what makes us feel good. There may be bliss in ignorance but there is utter sublimity and beauty in the truth. For the truth is the greatest adventure of all. The Astronomer Carl Sagan once noted that “knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.” One can believe certain facts on the basis of no good evidence but the truth will set you free. I believe that when Epictetus said “Only the educated are free,” he meant those who use their education to search for the truth… but hey? What evidence do I have for that?