The Lesson of History

“Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.” – a quote from the film Black Hawk Down

“Hence the task of a strategist is less to analyse a particular situation than to determine its relationship to the context in which it occurs. No particular constellation is ever static; any pattern is temporary and in essence evolving.” Henry Kissinger on ancient Chinese military strategy in his new book, On China.

“Conspiracies are an irresistible labour saving device in the face of complexity.” H.L Gates, American Literary Critic.


For any great historical event to occur, a great chain of people must play their corresponding parts. Yet each link in the chain inevitably turns to thinking of itself as the most crucial component, as the central force, as the one to which credit is owed.

Similarly, great historical disasters are the product of many wrongs, gathered together, and multiplied. To hold up one villain, and see in them the summation of the error, is to miss the point – We all did it, in a way.

That would be a more Eastern sort of analysis, one emphasizing the role of the collective, yet this too is deficient.

It is tempting to consider Hitler as a sufficient explanation for the horrors of NAZI Germany. But he was just one domino in a long and falling line. He was as dependent upon his generals, for example, as they were upon him.

Business leaders love to consider themselves as the terminus of explanation of the success of their enterprise, forgetting that their plans are almost entirely reshaped by the time they reach reality, that external forces determine success as much as internal ones, and that luck ultimately is as important as skill in the complex and ever-changing ecosystem of an organization. Hence why a great leader at one business may be impotent upon his next appointment.

We love to think in distinct categories, as if this day can be separated entirely from the last, as if each person is an island, as if reality has concrete and identifiable turning points, as if everything is self-sufficient. This is weak nonsense, oversimplification, arrogance. Reality doesn’t conform to flow charts. You can’t write a narrative for everything. Most things have no beginning, middle or end.

Tolstoy describes it like this, ‘While the sea of history remains calm, the ruler in his frail bark, holding on with a boat-hook to the ship of the people, and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to.’

We tend to think in terms of one mighty explanation for each happening, but  explanations always hunt in packs. They are always with buddies. They are the needy people at parties, awkward without company.

We want explanations to be single, to be self-sufficient, to enjoy the solitary life, but instead they are relentlessly, intrinsically and ambitiously polygamous.

Everything is interrelated, everything is co-dependant, and the infinite horde of causations, co-mingled beyond recognition, rock back and forth, like a swimming pool on a cruise liner, producing what we call the significant events of history, which themselves owe as much to the flap of a butterflies wing, as to the opinions of an ambitious President.

Does anybody study reality like that? Or are we too influenced by Western values. Of course I do not mean to encourage the other extremity, a sort of pantheistic collectivism. Extremities in most things seem generally to be bad. No just as each domino is interdependent, so each domino is integral. But both truths are essential. And the first one is neglected.

Of course such an accurate sort of approach would be decidedly unfruitful in giving many practical insights. A full and proper depiction of reality would be too difficult to understand, too wieldy too deploy, too large to fit in the door of the mind. Simplification is essential to success. Few historians, politicians, or certainly businessmen or stockbrokers were ever successful on the back of deep and holistic truth.

A map has to be more maneuverable than the reality it represents. A model should be smaller than the object. We have to bring our explanations down in size.

But, I guess this is the conclusion. ‘Great men’ will always get esteem that they do not deserve. The cogs in the machine will remain forgotten. Truth is not the brother of
success, they are only cousins. History happens every dull second that passes. Historians will always occupy themselves with the question of which water droplet broke the levee. Control is always an illusion.

Now perhaps this all (to an extent) explains the curious resilience and diversity of quite bizarre conspiracy theories. For a conspiracy theory gives a unified, exact, agency based explanation for what is otherwise a diverse, scattered, chaotic set of observations. Rather than explain events as the unpredictable unintended byproduct of the self interested motions of complex international bureaucracies colliding against each other like colonies of ants fighting for sustenance, they simply say ‘New World Order,’ or ‘Global Zionist Conspiracy.’ A very helpful little motto that I wish was somehow headlined across every youtube video is ‎”Do not explain something as conspiracy when it can be explained by chaos, complexity and incompetence.” A dozen thousand years ago I can quite imagine a fisherman by the sea concluding that waves are driven by some controlling Wave-Deity. No, no, waves are the product of a trillion molecules bouncing against each other in every direction available, and we just see the net effect. So it is frequently in those often bizarre situations when countries fall into wars: there isn’t a single plan, rather there is miscommunication, overreaction, ambition, institutional dysfunction, technical error, plans misunderstood or misapplied, and carnage. So the history of the world is not some single choreographed march towards some sinister Bilderberg conclusion. It is the story of a hundred billion individuals fighting for a hundred billion dreams, stumbling left and right, and creating history as they do so.

Now, if we have recognised the role of complexity, we must face a somewhat unpalatable conclusion. It does seem to us as if we are in control of our silly little lives. Reality stands behind us, like a drummer in a marching band, yelling, ‘choose!’ with every stroke of his hand, ‘choose!’ ‘choose!’ ‘choose!’ and the rythym only gets quicker, as we stumble along the parade.

But our choices are not infinite. We are hemmed in by our circumstances, and those are beyond our control. In the scheme of things, the level of choice we seem to have is small, next to the weight of context. So then this vision we have of ourselves as the great navigators of our fate, is perhaps an overstatement. Your success or failure is not entirely the result of your exertion and capacity. We are not writing our own stories, we have a role, thrust upon us by reality, and just a little bit of choice as to how we live it out.

Now, if the terminus of explanation does not lie in the final domino, in the great heroic Agent of classical history, if it doesn’t lie in us. If it does not even lie in the row of dominos behind us. If all of the explanations in the universe lead back, endlessly, step by step to something prior. Then ultimately we must say that all that happens is the result of the first cause, the uncaused cause, the great I Am. Explanations lead to the explainer, to the one who set the snowball rolling, to the one who set the gears in motion.

History is the story of God, and the rest of us are just then extras in a play, with an illusion of control. We are footnotes, next to the grand explanation. We think of ourselves as great autonomous Beings, Masters of the universe, Lords of Science. We aren’t. We are a drop of water in an ocean of time. We are specks of dust on a tiny planet, orbiting a small sun, in an insignificant galaxy, in a cold, unnoticeable part of the universe.

And yet we are invited into the dance. We will sit at the table. We will sleep in the house. We will walk through the golden gates.

We are glory thieves. ‘We are beggars: this is true.’ We are nothing, we are nowhere, and we float like foam on the ocean of history, tossed around in the maelstrom of infinite causations.

And yet the feast is waiting for us, as we wander back into town, bedraggled, penniless, morally insolvent.

The feast is for us, that angels long to eat.

History then, is not the story of man. It is the story of grace. The rest is just detail.

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3 thoughts on “The Lesson of History

  1. On the point of history I must defend my discipline to some extent, we tell stories about what happened, or why or how or to who, but in our practice we must give you – the popular masses something you can grasp. This doesn’t mean that everything but the main bits are ignored, it does tend to mean however that you’ll find the different bits in different places – most academic history suffers from far too much or far too little depth mind you.

    As for his story and our role – Psalm 35:6 says our lives are like vapour, the same word the writer of Ecclesiasties gets hung up on. Yet I am amazed that while we acknowledge thus, we do it whilst personally talking with the one who made everything too big for us to be any more than breath – beautiful!

  2. I am mainly attacking the ‘Great Man’ theory of history. I understand that I was a bit vague. I do not mean to attack all schools of historical theory.

    But I do feel that great man thinking tends to infiltrate most popular history I read, at the very least. Beyond the historical profession, it seems a given in a very diverse variety of fields (stockbroking and media for example). To me it seems quite distracting and perhaps dangerous.

    I understand that many academic historians are extremely thorough, and that great man theory is thankfully out of favour at the higher levels (correct?).

    In addition, I very much accept the importance of simplification (the map example). It is not simplification per se that I dislike, but rather ‘great man’ simplification, in particular.

    The main thrust was not to attack historians, or simplification, but rather to assert interdependance, the gap between the truth and productivity of ideas, the illusion of control, and notions such as these.

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