“Democracy… while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”— John Adams
“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”— Winston Churchill
“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”— George Bernard Shaw
“Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.”— David Hume
“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”— Martin Luther King, Jr.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”— Mark Twain
“History is a set of lies agreed upon.”— Napoleon Bonaparte
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”— Karl Marx
“History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”— George Santayana
“History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.”— Will & Ariel Durant
“History is more or less bunk.”— Henry Ford
You have of course heard the saying that “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. But history, it turns out, doesn’t repeat, or even rhyme. What you learn from the past is applicable mostly to the past, should it ever return. Meanwhile, we desperately need leaders who look forward, not back, to learn. History-makers.
In the quotes above, one mentioned that the study of history actually teaches us about ourselves. About human nature, which doesn’t change. History is about events and interpretations of causes, which depend entirely on historians of various flavors.
Does the past repeat itself? Not really, as Will and Ariel Durant observed in their book The Lessons of History. Unceasing changes in the world ensure that the past never returns. Something, often a big something, changes the world enough to make most past actions invalid if applied as lessons for today.
Unless the past returns, what worked then won’t work today
Nevertheless, many people seem to think that the past provides solid guidance as to what should be done today. But major changes, even over short periods, can make the situation of today substantially different from the past. New times happen every day, many of which require new approaches.
So much today seems to be broken in one way or another. Efforts by “experts” and too-many well-meaning but ineffective folks mostly make things worse. Meanwhile, our plate of serious problems gets bigger and more overflowing by the day. Many of these are new, without historical precedent.
Regardless, many such experts and helpers persist in looking to the past for answers and solutions to today’s problems. Not surprisingly, what they offer will prove largely useless. Or worse. Consider a few examples of what we face today:
Well, inflation has certainly happened in the past. In one major case, very high inflation was summarily dealt with by Fed Chairman Paul Volker in the early 1980’s. From Wikipedia:
“The prime rate rose to 21.5% in 1981 as well, which helped lead to the 1980–1982 recession, in which the national unemployment rate rose to over 10%. Volcker’s Federal Reserve board elicited the strongest political attacks and most widespread protests in the history of the Federal Reserve (unlike any protests experienced since 1922), due to the effects of high interest rates on the construction, farming, and industrial sectors, culminating in indebted farmers driving their tractors onto C Street NW in Washington, D.C. and blockading the Eccles Building. US monetary policy eased in 1982, helping lead to a resumption of economic growth.”
Will such a courageous remedy work again today? No Paul Volcker or Ronald Reagan around today, so probably this approach won’t work today. Lesson from the past: Look for something new, from new people.
Another frequently recurring trouble that has been dealt with in many different ways. Sometimes these worked, or at least appeared to work. Again, from Wikipedia:
“Keynesian economists believe that recessions are caused by inadequate aggregate demand in the economy, and favor the use of expansionary macroeconomic policy during recessions. Strategies favored for moving an economy out of a recession vary depending on which economic school the policymakers follow. Monetarists would favor the use of expansionary monetary policy, while Keynesian economists may advocate increased government spending to spark economic growth. Supply-side economists may suggest tax cuts to promote business capital investment. When interest rates reach the boundary of an interest rate of zero percent (zero interest-rate policy) conventional monetary policy can no longer be used and government must use other measures to stimulate recovery. Keynesians argue that fiscal policy—tax cuts or increased government spending—works when monetary policy fails. Spending is more effective because of its larger multiplier but tax cuts take effect faster.”
As always, we have helpful experts and politicians advocating for almost every possible solution based on their interpretations of the past. What actually worked, if anything, is very hard to see.
Nuclear WW III
While we have certainly had any number of major wars almost forever, we have not yet had a real nuclear war. No guidance is available from the past. Best the experts and politicians can do is counsel taking every possible step to avoid a nuclear confrontation. Sounds to me like a good plan but a bit vague on details. No one has any real idea about how to avoid a nuclear war, especially based on the past.
Supply chain struggles
The world’s supply chain mess came about largely because of intense efforts by businesses to reduce production and distribution costs. This took place beginning roughly just after WW II. Not much history from which to draw helpful lessons. We are yet again obliged to wing-it.
As we all know, climate has been changing forever, but only recently has it become a major political and economic problem. Well, maybe not quite recently. As the chart from Armstrong Economics below illustrates, periods of high and low temperatures have messed with empires over at least the past 5000 years. Lots of history to learn from in this case.
Major lesson seems to be that natural climate change happens. Probably forever. The sun and its earth partner just doing their thing. But what is of more current interest here are the changes that have occurred because of the rapid growth in industrial activity and the rapid growth in global population since around 1900 AD. Again, a big problem without any historical precedent from which to learn.
Ah yes, the Ukraine and Russia. The world has been having major and minor wars since people were invented. It’s just what we do. Reasons vary all over the map. Wars seem inevitable, being a routine product of our human nature. That I guess is a lesson from history, although not one that seems to be of much help.
Here we seem to have a bunch of people pushing for war – the “West” – and another bunch of people trying to move on despite this war and its growing fallout. And leaving the self-diminishing West to its own devices and possible collapse. No lesson from history here either, since this situation is still unfolding and has not come even close to happening before globally.
Like the Ukraine, Taiwan is a placeholder, but for for China and its on-off battles with US domination in the Pacific. The recent Pelosi visit was too obviously staged, but for purposes that are far from obvious. To me, at least. As I write, Taiwan is under Chinese blockade measures or some sort. Chinese missiles and aircraft flying about all over the place.
History has lots of blockade precedents from which to learn. Even concerning Taiwan, which the Chinese blockaded in 1996 apparently to influence a Taiwan presidential election. Big lesson from history is that blockades will occur forever and probably will do nothing much, good or bad. We hope.
History doesn’t repeat itself, and probably never rhymes either
Learning from history – either the repeat or the rhyming version – doesn’t seem to be available to us as a practical matter. Experts and politicians of various flavors will of course find ways to support whatever they plan to do with an appropriate lesson from history. These will probably turn out as badly or ineffectively as ever, but they do distract the folks, at least those few paying any attention, while the important underlying machinations are quietly executed.
This means that we are left with having to devise creative approaches to whatever may be happening in our crazy world today. What’s happening today has not happened before, or even rhymed. We must rely on voices from those few who still observe, think, and act independently. It has always been thus – voices from the courageous, insightful few.
Where are such rare folks today?
Leaders who observe, think, and act independently, creatively
I don’t know about you but my list of these is almost empty. There are many leaders today who speak loudly and act forcefully but these mainly follow paths well-worn by predecessors. While mechanics are new due to technology advances, driving principles are for the most part solidly anchored in the past and its myriad errors. And unchanging human nature.
What can we learn from some of the great leaders in history? The greatest leaders, it appears, did not learn from history but instead they made history. They were unique in many ways.
Here are a few examples via Wikipedia of historical greats (among my favorites):
George Washington (1732–1799). An American military officer, statesman, and Founding Father who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Appointed by the Continental Congress as commander of the Continental Army, Washington led the Patriot forces to victory in the American Revolutionary War and served as the president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which created the Constitution of the United States and the American federal government. Washington played an indispensable role in adopting and ratifying the Constitution of the United States, and was twice elected president by the Electoral College unanimously. As president, he implemented a strong, well-financed national government while remaining impartial in a fierce rivalry between cabinet members Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. During the French Revolution, he proclaimed a policy of neutrality.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948). An Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist, and political ethicist who employed nonviolent resistance to lead the successful campaign for India’s independence from British rule, and to later inspire movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, and, above all, achieving swaraj or self-rule. Gandhi’s vision of an independent India based on religious pluralism was challenged in the early 1940s by a Muslim nationalism which demanded a separate homeland for Muslims within British India.
Winston Churchill (1874–1965). Widely considered one of the 20th century’s most significant figures, Churchill remains popular in the UK and Western world, where he is seen as a victorious wartime leader who played an important role in defending Europe’s liberal democracy against the spread of fascism. He has also been praised for his role in the Liberal welfare reforms. He has, however, been criticized for some wartime events and also for his imperialist views. As a writer, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his historical and biographical work. He was also a prolific painter.
Alexander the Great (356–323 BC). King of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, he succeeded his father Philip II to the throne in 336 BC at the age of 20. He spent most of his ruling years conducting a lengthy military campaign throughout Western Asia and Egypt. By the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires in history, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered to be one of history’s greatest and most successful military commanders. Until the age of 16, Alexander was tutored by Aristotle.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). An American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesman and leader in the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. Son of early civil rights activist and minister Martin Luther King Sr., King advanced civil rights for people of color in the United States through nonviolence and civil disobedience. Inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi, he led targeted, nonviolent resistance against Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination.
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865). An American lawyer and statesman who served as the 16th president of the United States from 1861 until his assassination in 1865. Lincoln led the nation through the American Civil War and succeeded in preserving the Union, abolishing slavery, bolstering the federal government, and modernizing the U.S. economy. Lincoln, a moderate Republican, had to navigate a contentious array of factions with friends and opponents. He managed the factions by exploiting their mutual enmity, carefully distributing political patronage, and by appealing to the American people. His Gettysburg Address came to be seen as one of the greatest and most influential statements of American national purpose. Lincoln closely supervised the strategy and tactics in the war effort, including the selection of generals, and implemented a naval blockade of the South’s trade.
Thomas Paine (1737–1809). English-born American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. He authored Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776–1783), two of the most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, and helped inspire the Patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain. His ideas reflected Enlightenment-era ideals of transnational human rights. Paine lived in France for most of the 1790s, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. While in England, he wrote Rights of Man (1791), in part a defense of the French Revolution against its critics.
What do these great leaders have in common? They wrote history in their times. They led from strongly-held beliefs and principles, not historical precedents.
And then we have our current set of “great leader” contenders
As noted above, my list of these is rather empty. Not that there is any lack of candidates: See “Global 100 Inspirational Leaders – 2022” that contains some very impressive (and some very scary) folks, but most are narrowly-focused. Not the types who are likely to shape the future in any major way.
My mini-list of potential great-leader contenders – history-makers – includes:
Klaus Schwab (1938–). German engineer, economist and founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), who has acted as the WEF’s chairman since founding the organization in 1971. Publisher of the World Economic Forum’s 2010 “Global Redesign” report, which postulates that a globalized world is best managed by a self-selected coalition of multinational corporations, governments (including through the UN system), and select civil society organizations (CSOs). He argues that governments are no longer “the overwhelmingly dominant actors on the world stage” and that “the time has come for a new stakeholder paradigm of international governance”. The WEF’s vision includes a “public-private” UN, in which certain specialized agencies would operate under joint state and non-state governance systems.
Vladimir Putin (1952–). Russian politician and former intelligence officer who has served as president of Russia since 2012, having previously served from 2000 to 2008. He was prime minister of Russia from 1999 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2012. Needless to say, Putin is not held in high regard in the West because of the Ukraine conflict and his amazingly successful countering of Western sanctions. He is presently reorienting the world from West-dominated unipolar leadership to a Eurasian block with multi-polar organization. A work-in-progress.
Elon Musk (1971–). Business magnate and investor. He is the founder, CEO, and Chief Engineer at SpaceX; angel investor, CEO, and Product Architect of Tesla, Inc.; founder of The Boring Company; and co-founder of Neuralink and OpenAI. With an estimated net worth of around US$242 billion as of July 25, 2022, Musk is considered the wealthiest person in the world. Musk has been criticized for making “unscientific” and controversial statements (an understatement). He is often described as a micromanager (calling himself a “nano-manager”) who does not make formal business plans. Musk has stated that artificial intelligence poses the greatest existential threat to humanity, with climate change as the greatest threat to humanity after AI.
Xi Jinping (1953–). Chinese politician who has been serving as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) since 2012, and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 2013. Xi has been the paramount leader of China, the most prominent political leader in the People’s Republic of China, since 2012. Xi has often been described as a dictator or an authoritarian leader by political and academic observers, citing an increase of censorship and mass surveillance, a deterioration in human rights including the internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the cult of personality developing around him, and the removal of term limits for the leadership under his tenure. The CCP has declared Xi’s ideology the “essence of Chinese culture”.
Bill Gates (1955–). American business magnate, software developer, investor, author, and philanthropist. He is a co-founder of Microsoft, along with his late childhood friend Paul Allen. During his career at Microsoft, Gates held the positions of chairman, chief executive officer (CEO), president and chief software architect, while also being the largest individual shareholder until May 2014. He was a major entrepreneur of the microcomputer revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. Gates has given sizable amounts of money to various charitable organizations and scientific research programs through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, reported to be the world’s largest private charity.
Jordan Peterson (1962–). Canadian clinical psychologist, YouTube personality, author, and a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. He began to receive widespread attention as a public intellectual in the late 2010s for his views on cultural and political issues, often described as conservative. Peterson has described himself as a “classic British liberal” and a “traditionalist”. By 2018, he had put his clinical practice and teaching duties on hold, and published his second book: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Promoted with a world tour, it became a bestseller in several countries. That year, the conservative political commentator and columnist David Brooks described Peterson as “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world”.
I might also have included Mattias Desmet, about whom I have written several posts (see here, here, and here). His “mass formation psychosis” diagnosis of recent times (aka post-2020) is causing much consternation among all sorts of folks, not just traditional psychologists.
Kind of a diverse and controversial list of “great leader” contenders, yes?
My choice criterion here was the simple one of these people potentially making, not following, history. They are, for better or worse, among our major thought leaders. Whether their leadership will prove “successful” (whatever that may mean in practice), their influence today is certainly considerable.
Business publisher Forbes has an interesting list of 75 potential world-changers and history-makers: “The World’s Most Powerful People”. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin top the list, which is probably reasonable. Both are occupied today in changing the world hugely. You don’t have to go very far down in the list to find a bunch of questionable names in terms of being potential world-changers. There are simply, unfortunately, very few of these around today.
People mostly live in the present, not the past, nor the future
This applies not just to the majority but also to the few who really do shape both what is happening now and what will happen. Nobody much tries to fiddle with the past, since it is fixed and done with. They may try to present a purposeful picture of a past that didn’t happen, but that doesn’t change what actually took place.
People respond pretty much in real-time to whatever is happening at each moment. They don’t ponder about what George Washington might have done in the present circumstances because George didn’t live and have to deal with our present. His present was very different.
The way we deal with the present flows from our human nature – who we fundamentally are. Human nature probably hasn’t changed much over recorded history. If the past times were to return, we might respond pretty much as those folks who actually lived in that past.
The past stays with us in embedded practices and attitudes
There is huge inertia in the way people behave. Even though the past is, well, past, our responses and underlying behavior will remain largely unchanged for extended periods. People generally don’t like to change and resist changing as much as possible. This makes human behavior respond with a considerable lag to whatever is going on at the moment.
What is changing is our world, big and small. Sometimes with amazing rapidity. What changes slowly, if at all, is us. We become a reflection of the past, of our recent history. We may learn nothing from this behavior in past situations, but it may not matter. Whatever we learned in general may have little value in dealing with what is unfolding in our ever-changing present.
We ourselves may well be the past in terms of behavior. We may never catch up fully with the present, especially since the present may not be apparent for some extended period. This means that our current behavior may be mostly directed at its past, not at what is happening now.
Our current behavior is learned from the past, from personally-experienced recent history, but it may be mostly not applicable to the present. Even if we learned well from our past, what we learned may be increasingly useless.
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is a well-known quote, but history, it turns out, doesn’t repeat or even rhyme. What you learn from the past is applicable mostly to the past, should it ever return. Meanwhile, today we desperately need leaders who look forward, not back, to learn. History-makers.
- Sloww blog publisher Kyle Kowalski has a list of great quotes from “50 Profound Quotes from The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant”:
“The meaning of history is it is man laid bare. You see, there are two ways of arriving at a large perspective, which would be a definition of philosophy, a large perspective. One is by studying the external world through science in all its aspects…The other is to examine how man has behaved for the last six or ten thousand years. Consequently, history becomes the best guide we have to what man is, and we have to presume that one of the lessons of history is it continues to behave basically in each generation as it behaved in the generations before. Its instincts are the same. The basic situations that he faces are the same. Naturally, he makes similar responses…the present is the past rolled up for action. The past is the present unrolled for understanding.”
“To find out how man behaves and how he will probably behave in the future, you have to study history. That is the map of human character.”
“The record of the past can have a great deal of significance, but the events themselves have significance only if you approach them from a philosophical standpoint and ask the right questions. Otherwise it would be just the same thing all over again.”
- George Orwell (1984) had some very pointed views on history and learning from history among many other topics:
“Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines.’”
“I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.”