Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The lessons of history

One of the most treasured books in my library is a 100-page tome entitled the "Lessons of History", written in 1968 by Will and Ariel Durant. I have read and reread it and referenced it in many sermons, columns and essays. It is a profound book which should be read by anyone who wishes to understand the great lessons of history by the century rather than by the year. History really makes more sense that way.

In the introduction which is entitled, "Hesitations", the Durants engage is some self-deprecation. "It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed."

Not everyone holds history in such high regard as the Durants, and even those who do express deep concern that nations and governments do not seem to learn from it. Both Edward Gibbon and Voltaire regarded history as little more than a record of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of humankind. Samuel T. Coleridge regarded history as important, but decried our failure to learn from it. He said, " Passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us". The German philosopher, G.W.F Hegel opines that "What experience and history teach us is this - that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on any lessons they might have drawn from it". In his book, "Man's Unconquerable Mind", historian Gilbert Highet wrote, "People who know no history always learn wrong history, and can never understand the passing moment as it changes into history". Norman Cousins succintly reminded us that "History is a vast early warning system".

The great historian, Charles A. Beard, (1874-1948), was once asked if he could summarize the lessons of history in a short book. He said he could do it in four sentences. This is what he wrote.

  1. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad with power.
    2, The mills of the gods grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.
  2. The bee fertilizes the flower it robs.
  3. When it is dark enough you can see all the stars.

Only a fool would dare to offer a commentary on those four profound statements. I proceed.

  1. WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY THEY FIRST MAKE MAD WITH POWER. There is no temptation more attractive or dangerous than the temptation to exert power. In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, English historian Lord Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The workshop floor of history is strewn with the broken remnants of tyrants for whom the thirst for power was an obsession: the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Emperors of Rome, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler and Tojo - to name a few. And, there are a significant number of contemporary candidates for that appellation. Disastrous wars are often waged for weak, uninformed and/or egocentric reasons by powerful people who chose to proceed without the wise counsel of history. When England and Argentina were in a war over the Falkland Islands, Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, borrowed a proverbial phrase to describe his view of the situation. He said, "The Falkland thing is like a fight between two bald men over a comb". However, the obsession for power is not confined to the infamous or larger than life arenas. You can see the same dynamic in much smaller kingdoms such as state, county, and local political persons. Most insidious of all, this love affair with power and its bedfellow, the need to control, is found in many families where one member tries to dominate all other members. The axiom that he who loves the least has the most power is perhaps more universally true than most people imagine. History teach us to restrain our thirst for power.

  2. THE MILLS OF THE GODS GRIND SLOWLY, YET THEY GRIND EXCEEDINGLY SMALL. Perhaps the Apostle Paul offers the most salient commentary on the justice of God. "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap." (Galatians 6:7) God does not settle accounts at the end of every day, but in time God settles all accounts, down to the smallest detail. Let tyrants take notice.

  3. THE BEE FERTILIZES THE FLOWER IT ROBS. There is a delicate, and sometimes, mysterious ecological balance in nature which we should not only see but respect. There is a connectedness in the structure of the universe that is not always visible to the natural eye or factored into decisions made in the name of progress. Poet, Francis Thompson wrote, "Thou canst not stir a flower without troubling a star".

  4. WHEN IT IS DARK ENOUGH YOU CAN SEE ALL THE STARS. We lament the losses which darken our lives. In the book, "Life Lessons" by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, Dr. Kubler-Ross writes, "In many ways, if life is a school, loss is a major part of the curriculum". She points our that, "we eventually lose everything we have, yet what ultimately matters can never be lost". It has been suggested that there are no accidents in life. Everything has its meaning in the larger scheme of things, though this is often hard to see except in retrospect. Many people never see the meaning of life until their world is in total eclipse. We never see all the stars until it is dark. The darkness we so much dread may save us from an even greater tragedy - blind meaninglessness. When we get beyond the paralyzing sadness and grief of a loss we often find that the darkness is not an enemy but a friend. We do not see that quickly, and we do not see it every day, but that understanding of reality begs to be seen.

Class is in session. Look, listen and learn.