Atlas F1

Rory's Rambling

An Occasional Column from the Antipodesby Rory Gordon, Australia

"History teaches us nothing except that history teaches us nothing."

"History is bunk."

Two simple but also deep and meaningful quotes from people famous in history. The implication in both quotes is that... well... history teaches us nothing.

To me, this is almost a heresy. When I was at school - back in those far, dim, dark, distant days now of mere memory - history lessons were nothing more meaningful than learning a series of dates by rote. Not terribly exciting and, really, quite boring. To this day, I'm not at all sure what use knowing some of those dates has been for the rest of my life.

Some of the dates were fairly significant. The Battle of Hastings (1066); the Magna Carta (1215); Agincourt (1415?); Trafalgar (1805); Waterloo (1815); World War I (1914-1918); World War II (1939-1945); and so on.

But what, can someone please tell me, was/is the real use in knowing when the Synod of Whitby was... whatever it was?

What history at school did not teach me, and which may have been of some minor use later in life, would have been the various reigns of the various monarchs of England and Britain. To me, there is a whole mass of years, centuries, which are just one homogenous blob, running from the Battle of Hastings through to Trafalgar, and maybe further.

Anyway, for many years, history as an academic subject became not so much forbidden as forgotten as far as I was concerned. And then I went to university.

Although I went to university to study politics, I found myself also doing history, albeit with initial great misgivings. But history (or I) had changed in the ten - or more - years between the two stages of my academic "career" and I ended up doing history all the way through my degree.

So, to say to me that "History teaches us nothing" or that "History is bunk" is likely to get quite a reaction.

However, these "quotes" are not quotes, they're misquotes. The former is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, the Irish writer of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it isn't what he actually said at all, and he was overtly paraphrasing someone else. Shaw is attributed with saying, "We learn from history that man can never learn anything from history."

The actual quote, from Georg Wilhelm Hegel, the German philosopher of the 18th and 19th centuries, is, "what experience and history teach is this - that peoples and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it."

Hegel's actual saying is quite, almost totally, different in words and in meaning to the common phrase.

Similarly, "History is bunk" is attributed to the American industrialist Henry Ford. Searching to find the accurate quote, I came across, "History is more or less bunk." Again, change the words just a little, and the meaning changes significantly. However, even that is a paraphrase. The full quote is significantly longer ("History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today.")

So, perhaps history can teach us something after all. Maybe. (Apart from teaching us that we shouldn't misquote, because some pedant will catch up with you eventually.)

My main interest in both politics and history is warfare. In addition to those, regular readers will know of my love of TV. Combine all three so that you get a TV series on the history of warfare, and you can be pretty sure that it will grab my attention. There was and it did.

One of the early programmes was about the Romans and their conquests of parts of Africa and much of Europe. The Roman Empire was quite a phenomenon, even by today's standards.

I've never studied the Roman Empire and its politics and tactics, so what follows may be grossly inaccurate - but I'm not going to let that spoil a good theory.

The Romans spread out from Rome, winning their battles and territories by a combination of military tactics, many of which they had adapted from their opposition's tactics.

Their basic, overall tactic seems to have been to thrash any - and every - one who got in their way, and then to try and impose the Roman culture and society on the conquered peoples and lands.

And so the Romans created an empire, had a few civil wars and eventually got beaten by the marauding hordes coming from the east, led by Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan.

An empire closer to my heart is, of course, the British Empire. They used to say that "the sun never sets on the British Empire" as a way of showing just how widespread that empire was. From North America in the west, through Africa, the Indian sub-continent, and then onto Australia and New Zealand.

The British in their way, like the Romans, tried to export their culture and way of life to the lands they conquered. Tea, roastbeef and cricket.

Like the Roman Empire, the British Empire suffered and declined, mainly I suppose to their equivalent of the marauding hordes from the east, led by the Kaiser and Adolf Hitler (okay, that's an argument to be taken with quite a large pinch of salt, but it does have a certain truth to it).

Can we learn anything from this? After all, it is history. But I think that history can teach us something. I think we can learn from the Roman and British empires which were, basically, European empires.

Got my drift yet? Can you think of a modern empire, European-based, that smashes anything and anyone who gets in its way, and imposes its culture and society on the conquered territories?

The famous and the famous-in-their-own-minds get treated to free grandstand seats of all the action - not that they really are there for the action, but just to be seen - while the plebs, who are really interested in he action, suffer in the stands, barely aware of what is going on.

I am, of course, talking about F1.

Bernie Ecclestone, for all the plaudits he gets, hasn't done anything new with F1. He's just looked back into history, learnt some lessons and then applied them - with some modern techniques - to his chosen empire.

But that's just me.

Rory Gordon© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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