“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”

— Aldous Huxley

“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

— Napoleon Bonaparte

“History is more or less bunk.”

— Henry Ford

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

— Karl Marx

“The history of mankind is a history of war.”

— Mike Love

“In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.”

— Leo Tolstoy

“The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

— Friedrich Hegel

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

— Mark Twain

“History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.”

— Will & Ariel Durant

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

— George Santayana

“Fools say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other people’s experience.”

— Prince Otto von Bismarck

We don’t learn from history, but we should, according to various wise folks. But is this really true? My head learns from the study of history, but my heart and will learn from direct personal experience. Also known as the hard way. The leaders who are making history today probably act primarily on the basis of personal experience and consequent hard-way learning. Why?

Today, some of the most important and far-reaching history is being made by individuals of great power but uncertain wisdom. How many of these learned much of anything from studying history? My guess is that most if not all are too busy making their own history.

It seems certain that there are many vital lessons to be learned from the study of history, or such history as has been conjured up from limited and broken pieces of actual record. Why then don’t they learn from history, such as it may be?

Perhaps because history is dead, and buried in dry history books. Resurrected only by academic historians and Hollywood of the 1950’s. Leaders and leader-wannabe’s are beings of action, immediacy. They are creating history – dynamically. Driven by enormous egos and personal blindness. Those types who don’t have time to be bothered with history in books while they are joyfully creating new history for the future books.

Learning from history is relevant only if history repeats

As the quotes in the introduction indicate, there is some sense that history does in fact repeat. But maybe not in specifics, as Will and Ariel Durant observe: “…only in outline and in the large”. Mark Twain may well have got it closer to reality in his “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” quip.

History – the past – can’t possibly repeat in any real way. There may be parallels – “rhymes” as Twain described – but so much changes over time that the past in detail remains solidly past. Today is not the past, except possibly in some academic, general sense.

Lessons from history are fully applicable only if the past ever decides to return.

Given that such is rather unlikely, to say the least, our leaders are dealing in practice with a continuously emerging and significantly different present. Which lessons from history, if any, might be relevant for them?

Probably almost none. Today is filled with new things like nuclear war, artificial intelligence, gene modification technology, instant global communications, and much else. This daily-emerging history is fundamentally different from the thankfully-dead historical past.

So, is there anything for our leaders and wannabe’s to learn from the past?

Making history is a wonderfully creative exercise

When your raw materials about the current situation are evolving and changing hugely and rapidly, the past quickly becomes irrelevant except to historians. What you do at each moment is to respond creatively based on … what?

What do each of us have to work with in dealing creatively with whatever the world is throwing at us each day? Lessons from history? Not a chance.

Our primary resource is personal experience.

We get “personal experience” as an unavoidable consequence of living. Different for each one of us. A post from a while back looked at this process of learning from experience – aka the hard way.

Personal experience drives whatever creative abilities we possess in dealing with the world day-by-day.

Experience and creative abilities are different for every individual. How we respond to the world’s challenges within our limited realms is very individual. This combination does not repeat among people in any practical sense. It is dynamic, personal, and emergent.

This may be the bad news

It is pretty scary, to me at least, to think about our world be led by a small number of transiently-powerful people who are acting on the basis of their own personal experience and abilities. History has no lessons for such people.

Lessons from history, such as these may be, are visible only in hindsight. They can be seen only after the battles have ceased and somebody has the ability and interest to try to figure out what happened and why.

Learning from history is therefore a reflective process possible only after the dust has settled. Action in real time is what determines the content of such history.

A recent post had a look at the value, or not, of learning from history. It offered an argument that those who don’t learn from history – who respond creatively and in real-time – are extremely valuable. Especially when the world is changing so greatly and rapidly.

That said, history does seem to have some kind of repetitive nature. Again, useful in retrospect and theory but hard to integrate into battlefield dynamics. What sort of history might be available for learning purposes today?

William Strauss and Neil Howe (S&H) in 1996 presented a quite amazing perspective on history as a cyclical process. This post summarized their view. Briefly, they saw a roughly 80-year cycle in history – a saeculum – that rolled out in sets of four recurring phases, or turnings. History in this framework is indeed repetitive in big-picture aspects but differing only in period-specific detail.

We are, according to this theory, late in the Fourth Turning Crisis phase. Wars typically help conclude this phase.

Unfortunately, the lesson from this historical perspective seems to be that the underlying process is inevitable. It happens no matter what the-powers-that-be-and-wannabe do. The only lesson available may be that recognizing the current situation may help guide whatever limited responses might be possible.

Meanwhile, our leaders and wannabe-leaders are busy doing their own thing. As always. Gigantic ego- and fantasy-driven in most respects.

William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of The Fourth Turning [1996].
William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of The Fourth Turning [1996].

The Fourth Turning Crisis period is upon us. What to learn?

Like it or not, and despite the lack of clearly repetitive period-specific detail from prior Fourth Turnings (like the Great Depression and WW II), we seem nevertheless, today, to be in a vaguely similar S&H Fourth Turning period. Unfortunately, lessons from the S&H history available to us today are largely along the inconvenient lines of “..this is roughly what is going to happen, and there is nothing much you can do about it”.

Not at all a helpful lesson. Of what value is a lesson from which you are largely unable to act. Just history without possible application? Great. From S&H:

“The Crisis climax is human history’s equivalent to nature’s raging typhoon, the kind that sucks all surrounding matter into a single swirl of ferocious energy. Anything not lashed down goes flying; anything standing in the way gets flattened. Normally occurring late in the Fourth Turning, the climax gathers energy from an accumulation of unmet needs, unpaid bills, and unresolved problems. It then spends that energy on an upheaval whose direction and dimension were beyond comprehension during the prior Unraveling era. The climax shakes a society to its roots, transforms its institutions, redirects its purposes, and marks its people (and its generations) for life. The climax can end in triumph, or tragedy, or some combination of both. Whatever the event and whatever the outcome, a society passes through a great gate of history, fundamentally altering the course of civilization. Soon thereafter, this great gate is sealed by the Crisis resolution, when victors are rewarded and enemies punished; when empires or nations are forged or destroyed; when treaties are signed and boundaries redrawn; and when peace is accepted, troops repatriated, and life begun anew. One large chapter of history ends, and another starts. In a very real sense, one society dies – and another is born.”

You can of course see clearly what the lesson is from such a turning period. It is … umm … maybe that we can’t do much of anything to prevent or mitigate what is going to happen regardless. Just sit back and enjoy the inevitable “raging typhoon” of history. Assuming of course that it does happen as S&H prescribe.

We probably won’t know for sure, or mostly for sure, until the current Fourth Turning is done with, and historians have sufficient time to record and analyze what happened and why, S&H-wise. In practice, this means that we won’t have any lessons to use from S&H-based history for at best a couple of decades. And by that time, we will be in desperate need of lessons for the new First Turning phase that will be well underway. There seems to be a serious timing problem here in this learning-from-history exercise.

What we will have from this current Fourth Turning is firsthand experience that might provide a good basis for learning – assuming that we are among its survivors. In fact, what we really need to learn by any means available is how to be among the survivors. Failing this crucial prerequisite, we won’t have to learn much of anything thereafter.

How to go about being among the survivors from the current Fourth Turning seems paramount. S&H, in their recently-written cyclical history (or theory about history, in reality), doesn’t so far as I can see have a lot to say about this rather important and immediate need. So, we are left to learn – on the fly – whatever we can from our direct personal experience.

And our leaders (and wannabe’s)? Leaders are generally too busy making history to have time for such learning – even from a newly-minted, fairly-persuasive, theory based on history.

A not-very-good image of America’s Fourth Turning history from 1594 to 2027.
A not-very-good image of America’s Fourth Turning history from 1594 to 2027.

What about “This time it’s different”?

Or so a lot of people believe. As Sir John Templeton, the investing pioneer famously said, “‘This time it’s different’ statement is very dangerous.” He was referring to the often-made mistake of not learning from maybe-not-different history, but without any credible evidence that history will repeat closely enough to be currently relevant. The trick here is finding out whether in fact history is truly repeating. Probably have to wait until the events of interest have taken place and have been, at leisure, assessed by historians. A bit too late for guiding what we do today, yes?

Strauss & Howe even offered this caution about learning from history based on their theory about history:

“History offers no guarantees. Obviously, things could go horribly wrong – the possibilities ranging from a nuclear exchange to incurable plagues, from terrorist anarchy to high-tech dictatorship. We should not assume that Providence will always exempt our nation from the irreversible tragedies that have overtaken so many others: not just temporary hardship, but debasement and total ruin. Losing in the next Fourth Turning could mean something incomparably worse. It could mean a lasting defeat from which our national innocence – perhaps even our nation – might never recover.” – Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning

“The risk of catastrophe will be very high. The nation could erupt into insurrection or civil violence, crack up geographically, or succumb to authoritarian rule. If there is a war, it is likely to be one of maximum risk and effort – in other words, a total war. Every Fourth Turning has registered an upward ratchet in the technology of destruction, and in mankind’s willingness to use it.” – Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning

This is inconvenient. Here we have a maybe-great theory of history to learn from, and the guys who invented it worry that it might not apply this time. A broken theory in its very first application, yet?

As noted above, we won’t know whether the S&H theory is valid for today or not until some decades hence. Not too helpful for us folks dealing as best we can with Crisis-phase history as it rolls out – today. And even then, a saeculum of years ahead, the credibility of this theory of history from which leaders might learn may still not be fully proven.

My guess is that the S&H lessons will apply long-term only in the most general sense – via turnings characteristics. Future leaders will be left to rely once again mostly on their personal experience.

Learning from experience can be a bit tricky as well

Since we can’t really learn much from history until it happens and after historians do their thing, what to do for us current-situation folks? Well, we could pretend that the past somewhere and sometime offers guidance appropriate to the high-tech, complex, global civilization of today that is changing so rapidly and unpredictably.

Many of our current leaders, rulers, and associated wannabe’s seem in fact to be pretending they know what is going on and what is ahead. They accomplish this feat by stating that they are making the history according to their own visions and abilities. Kind of like what has happened since humans were invented a while back.

My sense also is that most if not all are engaged in the time-tested leadership practice of winging it. Luck plays a huge part in whether this practice succeeds, as you already know. Worse yet, the leader’s definition of success and our (aka you and I) definition of success may be greatly different. We may view a leader’s abysmal failure as a major win for us. Frequently.

This seems to mean that it really doesn’t matter whether our leaders and wannabe’s learn from anything – history or their personal experience. In general and in reality, they are mostly winging it. History of what happens will be written by historians long after whatever happens has finished happening.

If we pretty much give up on leaders and their kin as doing much of anything helpful except by accident, what remains is figuring out what we can do – individually and collectively (mini-version) – to generate a good outcome for us. Despite leaders.

Has not this challenge been the history of non-leader humanity?

Us learning from our own experience (that includes always-toxic leadership)

Since leaders throughout history have such a dismal, or worse, track record of learning much from anything including history, we seem to be on our own. Is it possible for us to learn productively from either history or our own experience?

What about starting by viewing our present times from the cautious perspective of Will and Ariel Durant and the S&H Fourth Turning theory of American history?

Will and Ariel Durant in their Lessons of History may have the right sense of history’s place in our struggle for survival and success: “History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.”:

“History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large. We may reasonably expect that in the future, as in the past, some new states will rise, some old states will subside; that new civilizations will begin with pasture and agriculture, expand into commerce and industry, and luxuriate with finance; that thought…will pass, by and large, from supernatural to legendary to naturalistic explanations; that new theories, inventions, discoveries, and errors will agitate the intellectual currents; that new generations will rebel against the old and pass from rebellion to conformity and reaction; that experiments in morals will loosen tradition and frighten its beneficiaries; and that the excitement of innovation will be forgotten in the unconcern of time.”

To me, this means that we can use the S&H framework as a reference background and look for where current details seem to be deviating appreciably.

History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.
History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.

Read again the three S&H quotes above. These include almost everything awful that could possibly happen, including plagues and nuclear war. Stepping back a bit from such annoying details, we can probably look forward to an especially nasty history rolling out over the next few years. The S&H Crisis phase is a climax phase where a whole bunch of bad stuff gets flushed and humanity can begin its 80-year journey to a whole new set of bad stuff.

What we need to do at this moment is to apply what we have learned from our personal non-leader experience that might help us come out successfully from the current Crisis-phase unpleasantness.

Of course, each of us has a mostly different experience base from which to draw useful lessons. There are about 8 billion of us with our mostly different personal experiences. This seems far too complex and confusing to get a handle on, so we need a way of simplifying such things, hugely. Leaders and wannabe’s just ignore these and are left with only their own particular experience base for learning, assuming they might at some point care to (learn). Winging it is easier and more fun (for them).

My suggestions for learning from (my) experience

What follows is at best an example. It may not be of much help to you but it is all that I could think of as a way to illustrate how someone, like myself, might go about such a task. I hope that you find it to be of some use.

The learning background to use here is some version of the S&H Fourth Turning Crisis phase for our time (2022-2027). Their description includes almost everything and anything of an especially nasty nature. Fast-changing, unpredictable in any detail, major in impact.

The action lessons that I see against this background are drawn from my experience. You may look at the same S&H (or other) background picture and have your experience tell you something entirely different. Experience and lessons are personal, individual – inherently different in detail except by accident.

Lessons from my personal experience:

  1. Don’t rely on big-group leaders
    Our leaders, in and out of government, have an almost unblemished record of getting it wrong. Their prognostications, actions, and outcomes are pretty much examples of what not to do. Maybe this in itself is an important lesson: Don’t believe what they say; don’t do what they do; don’t do what they tell you to do if at all possible.

  2. Take small steps
    When things are changing quickly and unpredictably, anything major can be a serious, and potentially fatal, gamble. Actions should be limited in scope and duration, and should have a clear exit and backtrack plan.

  3. Get tribal
    If you are working on this as part of a group, try to avoid existing groups. Rely instead on a relatively peer collaboration of proven, trusted, sound people. A kind of social family or tribe in effect. Let the leader emerge from group activities as a person gains trust and demonstrates an ability to perform as you would like.

  4. Adapt constantly
    Fast-changing situations require the ability to adapt your plans and actions, and possibly even your tribe makeup. As Charles Darwin observed, “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Not the strongest, fastest, or largest. The most adaptable.

  5. Experiment
    Because the future, aka tomorrow, is mostly unpredictable, you won’t know what might work ahead of time. This means that you will have to become very good at devising small-step experiments to test your ideas and approaches. Each should be as low cost and low risk as possible. Outcomes will help you learn a great deal about your current environment and its behavior – but only if you are looking for this.

  6. Broaden your base of data sources
    The number of data sources out there can be overwhelming but, in practice, relatively few are both helpful and reliable. Many of us tend to focus our attention on even fewer, which is a mistake. You vitally need a range of inputs that cover a wide range of serious thought and sources. This takes time to discover and test but the time spent is so worthwhile.

  7. Independently confirm what anybody tells you
    Even the most well-meaning people can believe strongly in things that simply aren’t true. As Mark Twain observed: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.“ This applies particularly to what folks tell you. If it’s important, be sure to get a couple of confirmations, especially from people who have largely independent views.

Etcetera. Obviously, there is much more that could be added here to build a personal-experience-based plan for dealing with a Fourth Turning Crisis world situation.

Bottom line:

We don’t learn from history, but we should, according to various wise folks. Turns out that only historians learn much from history. The vast majority – leaders and wannabe’s as well as us normal folks – learn mostly from direct personal experience, which is known as the hard way. Worse yet, the leaders who are making history today probably act primarily on the basis of their personal experience and consequent hard-way learning. They are too busy to learn much of anything from history. History teaches them, if at all, only in retrospect, post-action.

Related Reading

“The German philosopher Georg Hegel famously said, ‘The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’ This is a worrying thought because there is so much that went wrong when we look at world history. As we are often told, history repeats itself. Is there a way that we can break that pattern?”

“Just think about the ten greatest challenges facing humanity today and you will realize that those challenges have been sources of tremendous conflict and upheaval too.”

“So the question we must ask ourselves today is this: can we afford to learn nothing from history? That particular choice becomes very clear when we remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr who said, ‘We are not makers of history. We are made by history.’ Today we must decide how history will make and remake us, how history will shape and reshape our world, and how history will see and remember us.”

  • Nayeli Riano offered some helpful history on learning from history in VoegelinView, the online interdisciplinary and international arts and humanities journal of the Eric Voegelin Society: “Do We Learn From History?”:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“This line will most likely sound familiar to every reader. It has been paraphrased countless times and is visible most notably in my mind as the quotation on the wall of one of the ghetto buildings in Auschwitz. Few know that the phrase was written by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana; even fewer people know the context of the quotation and what Santayana actually means by his reflection.”

“Winston Churchill relayed a similar sentiment in a speech before the House of Commons in 1935 regarding the Stresa Front, in which Britain, Italy, and France agreed to maintain Austria’s independence—without success. It is considered an important, albeit failed, agreement that could have prevented World War II, but Churchill’s remarks are in agreement with Kipling about our inability to ‘retain’ lessons from our past experiences, as Santayana advocates. The illustrious statesman remarked:”

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

“An unprecedented crisis? Not entirely. Like me, you probably couldn’t count the number of times you’ve read or heard the word ‘unprecedented’ in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. But generally, commentators have used it about the scale of the pandemic response, not the pandemic itself.”

“After all, the Spanish flu pandemic infected 500m and killed 20m–50m worldwide, compared with almost 250m infections and 5m deaths so far for COVID-19. And the US economy shrank by a third between 1929 (the Wall Street Crash) and 1933, compared with an estimated 3.5% in 2020.”

“That’s not to downplay the challenges governments face today. In 2020, the average global debt stood at 97% of GDP, and an estimated 95m more people fell into extreme poverty than had been predicted before the pandemic. Demand for many goods is also outstripping supply, causing the rate of inflation to rise and asset bubbles to grow.”

“My point is that the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis aren’t necessarily new; in fact, neither are the solutions. Many have been tried and tested before, either in response to past crises or at other pivotal moments in political history. Take these examples:

  • Using deficit spending to fund rescue packages, while mobilizing the private sector to create jobs and stimulate growth: the 1933 New Deal and the 1948 Marshall Plan
  • Collecting, sharing and analyzing data and granting loans to businesses: the European Coal and Steel Community, established in the 1951 Treaty of Paris
  • Allocating a set amount of multilateral stimulus spending to ‘green’ measures: the 2007–08 global financial crisis

What have we learned from the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 20-50 million people worldwide?
What have we learned from the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 20-50 million people worldwide?