The bulk of human activity is driven by an individual and collective interpretation of events both past and present. Indeed, our perception of current events is shaped by our interpretation of past events. Yet our ability to accurately interpret the basics of “what” happened in the past is challenging, the “why” incredibly difficult, and forecasting what “will” happen is virtually impossible.
What’s known as the “Rashomon effect” holds that our point of view of any particular event dictates both our interpretation of such event and informs our subsequent response. We know that our innate prejudices shape how we view things; not only geometric points of views (as depicted in the film “Rashomon” by Akira Kurosawa) but cognitive points of views. When people use the cliché “history tends to repeat itself” it seems to have an element of truth. But given the linear nature of human events, that statement cannot be true (literally or metaphorically) and the cliché itself is an oversimplification. My contention is that while change is a constant, human nature remains essentially the same over the course of human history. Therefore, our interpretations of history (as shaped by cultural, ethnic, religious, economic, regional, ideological, philosophical, intellectual biases) drive collective behavior which gives the appearance of repetition. History isn’t something to be learned from so much as something to break free from and escape.
Given the limits of human knowledge and its disastrous tendency to superstition, herd behavior, and groupthink; we have nonetheless achieved significant advancements through scientific exploration. The power of freedom of thought and skepticism fight against prejudgment and resists the tendency of the human mind to believe what it has inherited from the past without examination, without skeptical critical thinking to shape and forge the future.
The purpose of studying history is not to memorize arcane facts and dates of brutal wars and the reign of incompetent rulers, but to understand the implications of a philosophical and inquisitive human spirit ever seeking to improve the conditions of mankind. This is evidenced through the advancement of learning and knowledge and the mastery of trades, artistic expression and the development of culture. In spite of such progress there’s the ever present specter of fanaticism, superstition, and intolerance which again and again threatens to wipe away the gains of civilization and plunge nations and peoples into chaos, dissension, civil war, despair, and poverty. This is a constant struggle throughout the course of human events and why a clear grasp and understanding of history is so vital to mankind’s future peace and happiness.
If there is a God, it exists within the human mind’s ability to think critically about itself, its past, its current environment, and its future in order to break free of the shackles of the past and shape the future of human civilization in a positive direction.