Thoughts on humanity’s habit of condemning the past based on the ideas and morals of the present.
I’ve run into this a lot over the past week or so and have found myself stopping often to ponder why this habit exists. When I went to University to get my Bachelor’s in History, one of the first lessons I was taught was that as a student of history one could not judge the past based on the ideas of the present. This was constantly quoted and stated by my various professors throughout my college experience and was something I learned specifically for myself. The point of studying history is to learn so we can gain understanding, it is not there to point fingers at or to dismiss. Yet, I consistently run into people who see the study of history as a thing focused just on judgement and condemnation.
Have the people of the past done terrible things? ABSOLUTELY, 100% PERCENT! I’ve felt sick to my stomach from some of the things I’ve read and studied over the years regarding war horrors, social injustices, moral tragedies, and power hungry journey’s to name a few. It’s awful to see how various people throughout time have used their own wishes and desires to hurt those around them, many such cases leading to the misery and death of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people. But if I were to look at a person, see the horrors their actions led to, and judge them for it, what would that accomplish? If I look at them as evil, as monsters, as villains, all I’m doing is creating a break in truth. These men and women were not all some inhuman demons sent out into the world to create chaos- they were human.
That is the most daunting and horrifying truth of all- every one of them, more or less, started out like us. They were little babies, raised in families, who grew into adults. They had wishes, dreams, worries, and hopes just like all of us do. They all aspired to be someone or something in the future and were determined to reach that goal- and in the process of this, they made decisions that led to the suffering of many, many people. No doubt, they sat there and justified their actions- that they were doing this for the greater good of the majority, that this would help the world, help their families, or just plainly help them. Power is a seductive thing; even the kindest people can snap when faced with too much power. It’s a gradual slope for most, littered with little allowance after little allowance until, by the end, they are unrecognizable from who they were when they were born or first started down their path towards power and control.
Like psychologists, we can ponder if it all was a case of their environment- how they were raised and brought up -or if it was in their DNA- a part of their psyche from the very beginning that grew and grew over time. Honestly, that is a main role that historians must take: they must treat history as a psychologist would. They need to study the people of the past and see what makes them tick; see what drove them to do what they did in the end. In psychology, one cannot sit there and judge their patient; cannot be their judge, jury, and executioner. Same with lawyers- they are there to represent their client and no matter if that person is guilty or innocent, they have a duty to treat them fairly.
As historians, we must act as the lawyer. We have to gather the facts and study the events and ideas of the person and situations; we must work them out in our mind, try to understand the situation as best we can. We can not join with the mob of people who cry out in anger towards this individual, who call for his metaphorical death. We have to ignore what other people claim and decide and first decide for ourselves the interpretation based on the facts and documents we can gather so that we can build as complete and fullproof a case as we can.
But, unlike the practice of law or psychology, very rarely can we execute, judge, or prescribe treatment for the people we study. They are dead, long gone from this earth, and what we say does not matter or accomplish anything in that regard. If you were to do such a thing, you would just look foolish- yet that is what I consistently see in life. People learn about a historical figure and, upon learning the bad they did(often one of the first things they hear, especially about prominent figures), they judge them and write them off as monsters. And in that moment, they lose an opportunity to understand- to learn about the paths an imperfect human can take when faced with different decisions.
That is the study of history: it is not a concrete science. You can take a person and plop them down in a random century and they will make various decisions based on their nature/nurture. You can then take that same person in that very same timeline and place them in a different living situation and they can make radically different decisions. That is human nature. That is what historians seek to understand- what villainization and judgement completely ruin. Many may cry out that these men or women do not deserve our regard and should just be forgotten due to their sins, but that is not the point of studying history or our roles as historians. That will not create anything good, it will only lead to a blissfully ignorant lifestyle and future. At the risk of sounding cliche, “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
We need to understand why these men and women made the decisions they did so that we can then make sure that future cases do not happen. We cannot write them off prematurely or we risk missing out on important information. They are human, just like us; not demons without souls or emotions. And that is a terrifying thought- to imagine that someone like us can be capable of such horrors, but it is what it is. Slightly of topic but along the same vein- a by-product of this situation that I sigh at every time is that the more people of our time look back and judge the people of the past, the more they are filled with pride.
Now, pride in moderation is a good and necessary thing, but too often I see people look to the past, condemn it, and then state directly or indirectly how they are so much better then them and that ‘if they were in that time, they would not make those same decisions’: that is simply not true and is just arrogance talking. I cannot remember who said this, but the quote goes something like, ‘You are not better than your grandparents, you were just born after them’. For all that civilization has evolved, humanity is basically at the same level it was centuries and even millennia ago. Psychologists have done hundreds of studies on this topic of human nature- the Milgram Experiment(1961) and the Stanford Prison Experiment(1971) are the first that come to mind -and consistently people are shown to make terrible decisions when given power or when ordered to by someone of authority.
It’s a sad thing to realize, but it is the truth. This may seem like a nihilistic post, but it is in no way discounting the incredible good that people have done throughout history. I have been similarly awed and amazed by the actions of others to save and help mankind- but those are not the acts I’ve seen under attack(for obvious reasons) and so I saw no need to comment on them. They 100% exist and are equal and many argue more prevalent than the bad acts and situations in history, but they are not the focus on this paper. Like that old Cherokee story, humans have two wolves within them: one good and one evil. They both fight and claw for power and control, hoping to defeat the other one day. But, the one that will win in the end is the one you feed the most.