That question is usually answered by a feeble recitation of some trope learned from a high school history teacher. The more humble mutter about “learning from the past.” Those seeking to impress regurgitate Santayana’s exhortation about how “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The seed of truth is there, but the full harvest is only hinted at in the oversimplification. The study of history, as Victor Davis Hanson explained, makes no sense unless we accept that human nature is immutable. We study history because it informs us of timeless truths.
Consequentially this is one of the most divergent points between the Left and the Right. The political left tends to view mankind either as basically good with misdeeds largely attributable to circumstances, or on an upward trend progressing to an ever more refined civility. The political right does not necessarily view mankind as evil, but accepts man as flawed. To the right, greed, envy, and pride, like courage, justice, and charity are the same now as ever before.
Technology, science, medicine, and more all progress, all improve. But does the nature of man? Emphatically, no. The bravery of the defenders of Masada inspires today, the feats of Shackleton humble us today, the fears of the Viennese as the Mongols rode forward resonate with us today because we are, through our nature, subject to the same fears and inspiration as our forebears.
Shakespeare remains the greatest playwright of all time because his exploration of ambition and loves is immediately identifiable in each of us. Reach back further. The Histories of Herodotus, Homer’s Iliad, Beowolf, all remain relevant because the people in those works are the same as us. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written over 4,000 years ago, still resonates:
“What you seek you shall never find.
For when the Gods made man,
They kept immortality to themselves.”
From Rousseau and the French Revolution to the Orwellian revisionism of the modern age, the left view of history skews differently. Believing that there is an earthly “perfectability” of human nature, the left has repeatedly sought to cure the causes of human failings. Therefore some violent act may be attributed to a troubled upbringing rather than an inherent depravity. For too many on the left, history is studied as either a record of shame or a chain the powerful use to oppress. Very often the most political of the left simply chooses to ignore history.
Unfortunately, the nature of man does not evolve. Man is capable of the greatest heroism and the most ghastly horrors. But man is man as a tiger is a tiger. It is in his nature to be a tiger, that is, to be a predator. A tiger today is no different than a tiger a thousand years ago, and no different in action than some prehistoric saber-toothed ancestor. Nature can be controlled, tendencies can be trained and overcome, but the tiger remains. Just ask Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy.
A man who knows history knows the unchanging nature of mankind. He understands that we celebrate triumphs because of flaws, not in spite of them. He feels shame at the impulses of evil that reverberate across the centuries because he recognizes their shadows in his own heart. The man who knows history is inspired to emulate the finest moments, appropriately drawing upon successful tactics and strategy, of men not unlike himself.
An understanding of the past enables present actions to take oneself to a more perfect hereafter. History demonstrates that our nature can not be perfected because it has yet to evolve at all. Knowledge may advance, but history shows us again and again that man is bound to the sins of all his forebears.