Learn From History
History is experience with theory and practice. It cuts to the chase. Looking back on our own individual history gives us better savvy to face what lies ahead. Experience brings us to know in a very personal and definitive way what works and what does not. No one would say that if they could take their history with them and live life over that they would not be able to do a better job of it.
We cant do that but we could listen to those who have lived more life than us and take their life wisdom to guide our own. But no. We think we know better, dont listen, prefer to talk and insist on making our own mistakes and suffering our own bruises.
Society as a whole does the same thing. The history of the world is experience in storybook form. We can read it for entertainment or we can learn from it and save ourselves from repeating the same mistakes over and over.
One of the reasons we do not pay attention to history as we should is because we think we are different from people of the past. Our heady time of technological pyrotechnics creates a smugness that leads us to presume that pre-modern era humans were unsophisticated or stone-age brutes. But a closer look tells us that is not so.
As far back as written records go, clear back to the Phaistos disk printed by a printing press using a syllabary of 45 signs (one sign for each syllable) 3,700 years ago, there is clear evidence that humans were as innately intelligent, or more so, than we are today. As archeologists dig deeper and deeper into the strata of our history there is every reason to be humbled. The abandonment of the hunter-gatherer nomadic life for iron-based statehood may not be intellectual progress at all.
Look at the great structures of incredible size, engineering and intricate detail that were created by humans without one power tool or machine. The Taj Mahal, ancient Rome and the Pyramids are examples of such marvelous tectonics. Around the world there are also unbelievably immense megaliths. Some stones are so gigantic that it would have taken 30,000 men to move one a single inch. Yet they were moved hundreds of miles over land and then elevated dozens of feet in the air. Some structures in Mesoamerica and the South Pacific are made of thousands of stones weighing tons each, and were somehow hewn to fit so tightly that a playing card cannot even be inserted anywhere in the joints. We, with all of our smarts and technology, cannot replicate these feats to this day.
People in the past were intelligent with respect to their technology, but they were not so clever that they could not destroy themselves through environmental devastation, or by senseless warring. It is a mistake to assume that their demise was due to a lack of sophistication. We do well to respect their intelligence and learn from reflecting on their mistakes or history will be a prologue for our future. Just as our own experience shapes who we are, the present circumstances of society are the legacy of the past. If we want to know the future we must therefore look to the past. There is nowhere else to look, that is our crystal ball.
Here’s an interesting piece of history demonstrating how closely we are tied with the past. Notice that the space shuttle has two solid fuel booster rockets on the sides of the gigantic main fuel tank. Why are these the size they are? Surely this was determined by sophisticated science or was it?
As it turns out, Thiokol, a company in Utah that must ship them to the launch pads, makes the tanks. The mode of shipment is by rail. The tunnels the trains must pass through and the width of the rail cars dictate the thickness of the tanks. Well, what decides the width of the rail cars? It’s based on the track. The track is exactly a standard gauge of 4 feet, 8 inches.
What a weird dimension. Why is this the distance between rails? Because the first American and Canadian rails were built by expatriated Englishmen and that’s how they did it in England. But why did they do that in England? Because the first railroads were built by those who built tramways and that’s how they did it.
So why did the tramway builders do it that way? Because they had the jigs, templates and tools used to build wagons and that was the wheel spacing for the wagons. Why this wheel spacing for wagons? Because the wheels needed to fit into the ruts on roads so they wouldn’t break.
So where did the ruts come from? Imperial Rome etched those ruts with their war chariots, the wheels of which carved roads all over Europe, including England.
Why 4 feet, 8 inches? Because that’s the width of the rear-ends of two Roman war horses.
So, the dimensions of the space shuttle, a crowning achievement of human technological advance, are based on a horses derriere.
History indeed casts long shadows and our link to it is inextricable. But that does not mean we are doomed to repeat it. We can break our obstinate habits and pay special attention to the experience of our own lives and that of others. That will give us wisdom beyond our years. We can also pay attention to the bigger picture of societys experience and create a new history for our children, one of reason, fiduciary responsibility, compassion and hope. Nothing is stopping us from changing the course of our lives and the downward spiral of civilization other than doing what is right, doing it now and going about it as if thinking matters.
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