Remembering the past – Has Mankind Learned Anything From History?

In this article, we step back and take a broad-based look at history. We particularly like this article as it covers part of the reason we originally started up the site.


History is the study of mankind and its development through the ages. An awareness of the past is essential in order to provide a perspective on the problems of the present, and to understand people and societies which have been built on the foundations of our history. However, man does not always apply this knowledge to situations, condemning himself to repeat the mistakes of previous generations. George Bernard Shaw said ‘We learn from history that we learn nothing from history’; there is much truth to be found in this statement. History is saturated with bloody wars and struggles for power, many of which could have been avoided had the instigators considered the past.

Remembering the past - Has Mankind Learned Anything From History?

Cartoon from 1878 on the Great Game in Afghanistan. Have recent Western governments learned from that war?

In contrast to that view, Lord Macaulay declared that ‘The history of England is emphatically the history of progress’: our country has evolved and grown, advancing in all areas of civilization, and such developments could not have been made without considering mistakes made along the way.  There are countless instances where people have reflected on past errors and resolved that they will not occur again. For example, shipbuilders will never again assume that a boat is unsinkable after the infamous disaster of the Titanic in 1912, where 1514 people died due to a lack of lifeboats.


War – what is it good for?

Perhaps the most frequently-repeated occurrence throughout history is war. Despite the devastating consequences, man’s greed for power and inability to live harmoniously with his fellows has led to countless conflicts. Ironically, World War I was known as ‘the war to end all wars’, as it was one of the most shattering conflicts ever recorded, triggering the collapse of three major empires. However, World War II broke out just twenty-one years later. This was the deadliest and most widespread conflict in history, with around 60 million fatalities and the only use of nuclear weapons in a war. Nuclear warfare was threatened in the Cold War between America and Russia, and there are many lessons to be gained from these periods, which should be studied carefully to prevent future generations from making the same errors.  One hopes that the implications of deploying nuclear weapons, and the devastation wreaked by the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will leave a long-lasting legacy, deterring countries from considering nuclear warfare as an acceptable weapon. North Korea and Iran in particular should pay heed to this.

Religious genocides have occurred since antiquity, and are a common theme throughout history. Overall, more than 6 million Jews were believed to have died in the Holocaust, of which approximately 1.5 million were children. Despite the atrocities committed against the Jews during this time, after they had endured centuries of persecution from people such as the Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, and French, it did not end mass killings under the pretext of religion. For example, there is the ongoing violence in Sudan and Tibet, and the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans of the late 20th century. It could be said that being human is the potential to do good and evil, and therefore, although most look back and vow never to repeat the brutalities of the past, there will always be those who disregard this with a warped view on the moral way in which to treat others.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, religious violence escalated between the Shi’a and Sunni branches of Islam to the point of a civil war that continues to this day. Iraq comprises 65% Shi’as, although dispute first arose when the Sunnis disagreed over their status as a minority. The Shi’as have suffered direct persecution at the hands of a Sunni government since 1932, especially under the reign of Saddam Hussein. The two sects have now fallen into a cycle of revenge killings, with the Sunni’s preferred methods being car bombs and suicide bombers in contrast to the Shi’as’ death squads. There is a colorful historical backdrop to the relations between Sunnis and Shi’as: since Mohammed’s death there have been many clashes between the two, often influenced by the political landscape of the time. Instead of accepting that such conflict between branches of religions ends only in bloodshed, these dissidents create renewed terror and violence, and do not embrace their theological differences, but inflict terrorism on the rest of the population. They are so blind to the error of their prejudices that they do not see the mistakes of past generations and try to make amends; instead they pursue their desire for superiority.



The French were beaten in the first Indochina conflict, ending in 1954, but this did not prevent the US Army from being defeated by North Vietnamese troops and their Communist allies in the following years. America did not recognize that attempting to beat the enemy on its home soil was futile, and again, this crucial factor has been overlooked in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his latest book, ‘Playing the Great Game: Britain, War and Politics in Afghanistan since 1839’, Dr. Edmund Yorke explores the tension between the political and military forces. Yorke argues that unnecessary political interference or negligence of military operations has consistently contributed to serious failures in Britain’s policy towards Afghanistan over the past 170 years. He highlights the same political and military errors that have occurred throughout the four major Anglo-Afghan wars of 1839-42, 1878-80, 1919 and the continuing conflict today. Brigadier Ed Butler, Commander of the British Forces wrote, ‘If only his book had been available in 2001 and was required reading for all government ministers, officials and senior officers’. This is a reflection of how invading armies are often doomed to repeat the same mistakes, due to the incompetence and ignorance of their leaders. There are many parallels to be found in today’s conflict in Afghanistan and previous wars, and it may be time to find a political solution to avoid any more fatalities.

Proposing that all men should share the same opinions and live peacefully together is an unrealistic demand. Wars have shaped the world in which we live, and will continue to do so: by nature, man is a belligerent species. Seeing bloodshed may teach people that fighting each other is wrong, but it will not stop them from going to war to fight for their beliefs.  It is therefore unrealistic to expect mankind always to learn from its mistakes, as conflict between people is inevitable. It is the evolution of warfare that demonstrates whether man has actually learned from his past.


Church and monarch

Conflict between the Church and monarchy is also a recurrent theme. In 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was brutally murdered by the knights of his former friend, King Henry II, in a culmination to a bitter quarrel that had been raging for several years. To pay penance for Becket’s murder, Henry dropped his plans for greater control over the Church and in 1174 walked barefoot through Canterbury and was whipped for his sins. Unfortunately, Henry’s son John did not learn from his father’s experience, and argued with the Pope, causing him to be excommunicated. It is not surprising that the Magna Carta of 1215 contained a clause stating that the Church should be free to obey the Pope above the monarch.

The Church was certainly one of the most powerful and influential forces in Medieval England. When the Pope forbade Henry VIII from divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer held divine authority in England, and founded his own church, the Church of England. This led to the dissolution of the monasteries, which had significant social impacts. Although the consequences are not as severe, the Church and the state still clash, most recently with the Anglican and Roman Christian Churches in Britain rejecting the government’s plans to legalese same sex marriage.

King John was a notoriously bad king. One monk wrote of him, ‘Hell is defiled by the fouler presence of John’. He plotted the downfall of his own brother, Richard I, betrayed his father, and quarreled so bitterly with the Pope over the next Archbishop of Canterbury that he was excommunicated, and an interdict was passed over England and Wales. During his 17-year reign, he lost most of the land his country held in France. Determined to regain this, he taxed and fined his subjects heavily, imprisoning them when they could not pay their debts. When he invaded France in 1214, his army was crushed by Phillip II at the Battle of Bouvines, meaning that all his taxes had been wasted in an unsuccessful war effort. This angered his barons so greatly that they forced him to agree to a set of rules, the Magna Carta, decreeing how the country should be governed. This was a cornerstone of democracy, and the start of a monarch’s power being limited. His subjects had seen the consequences of power corrupting a king, and to this day, there are checks and balances in place to ensure no power becomes too great in Britain.

King John of England signing the Magna Carta in 1215.


Democracy has evolved from the Ancient Greeks, coming from two Greek words: ‘demos’, meaning people, and ‘kratia’, meaning rule. Many modern democracies have come into being after the population of a country rose up against its leaders with a common aim of altering the way in which its country is governed. After the English Revolution, Parliament became gradually more important, although this power still changed over the years, allowing middle-class, then working-class men to vote, and eventually permitting women to vote on equal terms with men in 1928. After the American Revolution, when thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent of Britain, a constitution ensured that no part of their new federal and state system could become too powerful. Although in the short term the French Revolution did not work, the French managed to establish a democratic republic in 1871. These revolutions demonstrate to mankind that ultimately the population of a country must be content, as they are the foundations of the nation. The Arab Spring is a recent series of uprisings in the Arab world. These have led to the deposing of the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, with civil uprisings in Syria and Bahrain. The subsequent violence these rebellions and protests have triggered could have been avoided if a more tolerable regime had been used in the countries.

Countries could learn from Britain’s mistakes in the 20th Century: many democratic systems were set up in ex-colonies, with Parliaments responsible to the Queen. These systems have not always fared so well, and many British Commonwealth countries have become dictatorships. The governing of a country is a precarious task, as people will always have conflicting views. By taking into account the successes and failings of past methods, disquiet can be limited to a minimum. For example, ex-British leader Margaret Thatcher would have done well to pay heed to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. There was excessive taxation to pay for the Hundred Years’ War, which was not of common concern, and a poll tax was introduced. This was one of the main factors that contributed to the rebelling of up to 100,000 people who marched on London and demanded audiences with Richard II. Although the revolt was a failure in the short term, in the long term many of its aims were achieved. This included the abolition of poll taxes. If Mrs. Thatcher had paid more attention to this period in history, she might not have faced riots after introducing the controversial Community Charge in 1990.


Perspectives on the past

The hypothesis of eternal recurrence, developed by Friedrich Nietzsche, theorizes history as being beyond our control.  It says that since the probability of our existence occurring is finite, and time and space are infinite, then our existence will repeat an endless amount of times. If this is the case, it suggests that all patterns and similar events through history will recur repeatedly, despite attempts to prevent this.  If this theory were true, then even if mankind were to learn from every error that has happened, any improvements would be in vain as all events will inevitably happen again.

I believe that the statement ‘Mankind has learned nothing from history’ is too indistinct a generalization of mankind to represent the billions of individual opinions and wills of people: there will be those who strive to extract all the lessons they can from history and there will also be those who follow their own beliefs, irrespective of those before them.  People’s perspective on life is also constantly changing, molded by their environment, and it is therefore unrealistic to apply the standards of the present to events in the past.  History cannot predict what will happen in the future. Historians can try to find patterns that correspond with historical evidence, but, unlike the certainty and precision of scientific laws, these can be used only as guidelines.

Isaiah Berlin’s August Compte Lecture, later published under the title ‘Historical Inevitability’, argues that human beings’ capacity to make moral decisions makes them unique. However, the historian, E.H. Carr, believed that impersonal forces such as greed defined human behavior. To assert the inevitability of past events, as Carr did, was to forsake moral obligation for our own present actions. However, the two were united in the fact that historians always look for meaning and pattern in the past: they investigate causes in order to explain what happened. Carr argued that ‘what distinguishes the historian is the proposition that one thing led to another. Secondly, while historical events were of course set in motion by the individual wills, whether of ‘great men’ or ordinary people, the historian must go behind the individual wills and inquire into the reasons which made the individuals will and act as they did, and study the ‘factors’ or ‘forces’ which explain individual behavior.’ This compelling case suggests that if we perhaps paid more attention to the work of historians, devastating historic recurrence could be avoided.  As the German scholar and philosopher, Friedrich von Schlegel observed, ‘The historian is a prophet looking backwards.’

What are your views on humans and history? Have we adequately learned the lessons of history? Comments welcome below…


By Julia Routledge

For more entertaining thoughts, Julia’s blog is here. This post originally appeared on Julia’s blog last year.

Want to hear more from Julia and others? Well, become a site member for FREE by clicking here!