Roman politician and Stoic philosopher Cicero warned, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” The Greeks also recognized the importance of history, inspired by Clio, its muse. She, whose name means to make famous, was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. The open roll of parchment she carries shows how memory of important events and people can be kept alive.

Life’s purpose includes learning and part of that comes from observing what not only is but also was. History shows how what was informs what is. It lets us perceive how the past links with the present, becomes part of it, and survives into the future profoundly influencing it, and how the future looks back upon the present, as it becomes the past. Time, as history’s companion, discloses itself in an infinite chain of changes, interdependent and rationally understandable. At the foundational level is a unity linked to wisdom.

In this sense, one should consider history of all cultures, for much can be learned from people outside one’s own and all are worthy of respect. Indeed, Herodotus, called the father of history, writes about both Greeks and foreigners. However, history of a particular civilization, such as Western Civilization, has a more personal role for those living there. It’s fundamental to their consciousness, helping to create a unified sense of identity and pride.  The need for that sense reaches deep into the human soul, particularly in times of strife.

The longing for unity and identity sometimes creates history. After the divisive Revolutionary War, the thirteen separate colonies became the United States of America, forming a unique identity. And the Great Seal of the new nation proclaimed the philosophical truth (probably ultimately derived from Pythagoras) of “E pluribus Unum” – out of many, One.

There’s the rub. The concept of a unified identity combines with a postmodern distaste of Western Civilization to spark an assault on history today, particularly in the humanities faculties of universities, although not all.

If you want to attack a civilization, or a period in it, you should attack its history, for it’s a record of how identity-forming values are created and played out in the illuminating struggles of the human drama. The Egyptians did it; the reactionary successors of the revolutionary pharaoh, Akhenaten, tried their best to erase all memory of him and his unique religion. The past is full of such attempts.

When the Chinese staggered through the dark tunnel of Maoism all memory inconsistent with Mao’s thoughts in the Little Red Book was proscribed. The present killed the past and purified its corpse with ignorance.


Nevertheless, in a quiet triumph of the human spirit, the sense of history stayed alive during the assault, albeit furtive and naked. I saw this each time I visited China shortly after Deng Xiaoping’s granting of greater freedom. It was usually on business, but not always. Because I was interested in the subject, I swotted up a little on Chinese history before each trip. My knowledge was wantonly superficial, but surprisingly often my Chinese interlocutors knew even less than I. However what impressed me was the awareness and the reverence they had for the fact of their history, its existence – that they had an important one, that it contained glory, tragedy, politics, philosophy, art, science, religion, an amalgam of human atoms that made them what they are, unified them in a Chinese identity, even though virtually no details could be brought to mind. Arguably the consciousness of that helped kept them from existential despair in the life-sapping desert which took twenty-seven years to cross.

Chinese history study has shucked off its chains but, sadly, the forced forgetfulness engendered in the Mao period has not been completely purged in the older generation.

Today’s assault in the West stems, to a large extent, from a sensitizing recognition of manifest injustices that occurred in the past, some of which are seen as staining society now. Our unprecedented affluence in the presence of these flaws stimulates a sense of guilt among those who feel over-privileged, a guilt that needs assuaging by deconstructing and reconstructing our past. It’s also fed by a Marxist orientation that has essentially morphed from identifying and promoting the economically oppressed to the socially oppressed.

In a flagrant breach of the generally accepted rubric that events of the past should not be interpreted in the light of moral standards of the present, a political imperative has emerged aimed at perceiving Western history not as traditionally written but basically through narrow, politically correct perspectives – of indigenous people, race, gender, and class. This orientation springs from a desire to change radically contemporary society. Its project begins by making negative assertions about so-called white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism and other supposed oppressive systems, and continues by applying those attitudes to a revision of our history.

In the attempt, the scope of identity is shrunk. Instead of operating as a broad unifying force at the spiritual level it becomes fragmented, in danger of declining into a state as confusing as a pub brawl. In the melee the antagonists of Western history lose sight of their supra collective nature, emphasizing separate entities. In the shape-shift, they may not succeed in cutting the roots of our society but they do tend to obscure them.

Ironically something like this malaise has occurred before, but in a different way. European colonialists, so disparaged by history revisionists, attempted to snap the links connecting indigenous peoples they conquered to their history and the cultural roots it nourished. The justification was similar – existing culture must be remolded radically; and revising the way its past is perceived helps the process. The vector then was religious zeal; today it’s a secular equivalent. Both tap into the same instinct for orthodoxy, comforted with the same sense of self-righteousness. In the assault, history is distorted; cultural detriment follows.

After a sobering re-direction of conscience we are now able to recognize and empathize with the searing sadness that burns the souls of First Peoples around the world at the obliteration of so much of their remembrance and the richness it once bestowed.

We repent the error today and to some extent are encouraging a rediscovery, especially through indigenous language revival. But the revisionists are setting about a repetition of the mistake by applying a version of it to ourselves, presumably in a perverse hope of redemption. Self-awareness not self- loathing surely is a better pathway to that solace.

Clearly there should be room for debate in the study of history, for re-evaluation and reappraisal of facts in light of new evidence and fresh perspectives. Also, it’s instructive to view the mistakes and horrors of the past as historical facts to be learned from. But twisting history to support an objective of re-ordering society is a bridge too far. In addition, too much study time is taken away from what has produced the most influential effects on life. The most becomes the slave of the less. I have had this view confirmed in discussions with several history professors who are frustrated with the trend but are unable to counter it.

To make matters worse, history amnesia is rolling through society like a rising fog obscuring the ground we stand on. It’s starting in the very place where politically correct revisionism is taking place, in the universities. The eminent historian Niall Ferguson laments, “History at U.S. colleges is suffering a decline and fall faster than Gibbon’s Roman Empire.” According to him, undergraduate enrollment in history courses has fallen twenty percent in the last decade. “The Harvard history department of 1966 offered twenty-seven courses on twenty important historical subjects, five times more than their counterparts today.” Regrettably the same indifference threatens to catch Australian students, like a rip current carrying swimmers out to sea.

The eclipse of history, either through political tampering or neglect, has an inherent cost, one that goes to the heart of what it is to be human. It causes a terrible loss of perspective.

Facts of the past can be ignored, either through design or neglect, but the omission limits perception and distorts reality. Imagine a building with a hundred balconies on top of each other, each holding a person. If viewed from a drone above only one person is visible and that’s all the observer thinks there is. However, if looked at from the side, the full complement of the balconies is disclosed. The study of history does this; it makes visible not just the one person in the present but the many in the past and how they relate to each other to form a whole.

Our word for history comes from the Greek ‘historia’ which means enquiry or investigation. According to Herodotus, enquiry into the events of the past is necessary so “that the great achievements of people may not be forgotten”. They form a root system essential for shaping and sustaining identity.

Identity in a particular period mutates along the chain of later ones. But always, as time works in alliance with change, salient features survive, at least for a while, sometimes a long while, as we see in Western Civilization.

This is most marked in our relationship to the ancient Greeks, whose famous identity has resonated down the ages to form the foundational motif of the Western Canon. It expresses the first action to separate the discipline of philosophy (which at the time included science) from religion. And the first to fragment political power through oligarchy and then democracy. Its literary and artistic achievements are heralded in every era down to ours. And so are its science and wisdom. Pythagoras and Socrates belong to us.

History is vulnerable because it’s such a political discipline, victim of the changing winds of whim, both in the sense of what it covers and how it’s viewed. Cynics claim the winners write it and because of that it lies in the shallows of subjectivity. But others assert its very political nature can instruct. Polybius said the study of history is “a training for political life” and Churchill opined, “In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.”

It ranges beyond politics though, into economics, religion, ideas, science, art, society generally, indeed everything in the past. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the 1stcentury Greek historian, said, “History is philosophy teaching by example.”

Abraham Lincoln elaborates on this idea when he says, after the end of the War Between the States,

“Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong as silly and as wise as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.”

We live in a multicultural society today, one that affords us diverse cultural riches to be cherished. However, its benefits carry challenges to social cohesion. Over -concentration on separate identities tends to segment society and once the process starts it has a tendency to degrade into ever- smaller fragments.

Most people have a desire to belong, to be part of some group or another and in that sense be drawn into the comfort and strength of unity, but also they want to flourish as individuals. Wisdom lies in effectively dealing with the tension, not only in small groups but also on a larger scale. The prospect of resolution is aided when people are persuaded to concentrate on aspects of identity common to all in the larger community and the connectedness it encourages.

The past can be instructive here, albeit in some ways not acceptable today. Conflicts fomented by clash of identities and eventual melding of the parties into a form of unity have often occurred in history. Empires, as they rolled up different cities and states, were built on them. Sometimes they occurred over centuries through invasions, as in Britain, whose eventual unity was forged out of native Celts, Romans, Germanic peoples, Scandinavians, and Normans. A tendency towards unity from separate linguistic groups has been achieved in Switzerland, Belgium and Canada. And the United States healed fragmentation after its civil war, despite some grumbles to the contrary today. On the other hand, disunity has led to disaster; witness Russia in the First World War. We should not forget the Biblical admonition in Matthew XII, “a city or house divided against itself will not stand.”

Like a piece of sculpture, history can be looked upon from different angles, each one revealing a separate understanding. Herodotus collected oral traditions, putting them into an account of past events that preserved memory of what he called, “the great achievements”. Thucydides enquired from a more impartial, evidence-based and scientifically oriented perspective in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars. Modern research digs up more evidence for the discipline and extends it to the entire world, enriched by the help of archaeology and access to more documents.

Whatever the method used for discovering the facts, they can be viewed as an overall system of dramatic stories, a long exciting narrative of creativity, conflict and contrast that touches us personally. It’s how it most readily enters our sense of identity, for we can see ourselves playing different roles, understanding them, being affected by them. It’s no wonder that Shakespeare based so many of his plays on historical events and characters.

The grand narrative of history reaches far back into the days of myths, which in many, if not most, cases originally had some basis in fact. Over time the specific facts were forgotten, were embellished as they merged into imaginative stories, like Homer’s epics about the Trojan War (which actually happened), or the Gilgamesh tale of the Sumerians. The salient effect of the myths is that they forged a collective identity in the people, giving them self-esteem, useful pride, and a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, not to mention a moral road map. History does this but performs it with facts.

We all love a good story and are most willing to absorb truths told in it. In the grand narrative of history there are many, sometimes uplifting, chapters of human achievement, sometimes cautionary tales, sometimes just fascinating aspects of human nature. Often the themes recur again and again, always in different form but nevertheless instructive through their commonality at the fundamental level.

As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but often it rhymes.” Through the rhyme, the past integrates with the present and touches the future. In the process we of the present can learn. It’s like a laboratory experiment that’s not reproducible but whose data can be used in another one anyway.

Stories of the “great achievements” trumpeted by Herodotus were to have their counterparts in the centuries to come, well beyond the marvelous period of the ancient Greeks. They encompass the military, engineering and law-giving feats of the Romans, the establishment of the Christian Church, which, drawing on Judaic tradition, laid the foundation of universal human rights, and later, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which gave us representative democracy.

They tell of the Renaissance, where Petrarch fathered humanism, the worldview still informing thought today, and of the other marvels of the period – modern banking, which enabled vast developments of commerce, Gutenberg’s printing press, which disseminated information to all classes, the discovery of the New World, and some of the finest art ever produced.

They explain the Age of Reason, where Francis Bacon’s insistence on empirically testing theories gave birth to modern science, and the Galileo controversy, which set the world on a course that shook science free from religious restrictions on thought. On the political front they inform us of the Treaty of Westphalia after the Thirty Years War, which places the inviolability of sovereignty at the centre of the international system.

The stories feature the intellectual and political advances of the Enlightenment, where the ideal of reason wrested primacy from emotion in the conduct of human affairs and classical liberalism founded by John Locke became the way of the future. They uplift us to the moral mountaintops where the battle for rights shook the world in the American and French revolutions, and bring us down to earth by detailing the inventions that kicked off the Industrial Revolution through radically improving manufacturing processes.

One of the most important stories is about the creation of the welfare state by Bismarck in the mid 19thcentury and its extension in the West after the next century’s horrific wars, among other purposes as an antidote to Communism.

Throughout the yeasty narrative, its illumination of creativity in science, philosophy, the arts and literature has given inspiration to all, as has its speaking of how moral idealism spread into public discourse, making an unchallengeable case for freedom and the worth of the individual.

All along the line of time the narrative tells us not only of the great achievements but also the depths of evil to which some of the dramatis personaehave descended, horrors that we must ever be on our guard to avoid repeating. Its alloy of good and bad creates an image of ourselves today; its voice is our own.

The anthology of the stories works to craft our identity, tell us who we are, with all our greatness and baseness. They inspire us; they sadden us. But whatever they do, at the deepest level they speak to our spiritual core, which is after all where identity lies. If we live in the Western World, this is our epic, whether we were born here or have arrived from a place with different traditions, and whatever our station in life. An awareness of what we have inherited can have a tendency to bring us together, give us a sense of belonging to a house that includes all. We should know it and defend it. Western history, despite its portrayal of faults, is something to be proud of not cringe from.