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Reflections On History

June 3, 2013

Over the weekend I had some free time and decided to read Bertrand Russell’s book  How To Read And Understand History.  I thought this passage is worth sharing.

bertrand russell

“I have spoken so far of various ways in which history can be interesting and instructive, but in addition to these it has a more general function, perhaps more important than any of them.  Our bodily life is confined to a small portion of time and space, but our mental life need not be thus limited.  What astronomy does to enlarge the spatial habitat of the mind, history does to increase its temporal domain.  Our private lives are often exasperating, and sometimes almost intolerably painful.  To see them in perspective, as an infinitesimal fragment in the life of mankind, makes it less difficult to endure personal evils which cannot be evaded.  Although history is full of ups and downs, there is a general trend in which it is possible to feel some satisfaction; we know more than our ancestors knew, we have more command over the forces of nature, we suffer less from disease and from natural cataclysms.  It is true that we have not yet learnt to protect ourselves from each other: man is as dangerous to man as he ever was.  But even in this respect there are at least the preliminaries of improvement.  Violence now is mainly organized and governmental, and it is easier to imagine ways of ending this than of ending the sporadic unplanned violence of more primitive times.”

– Bertrand Russell, How To Read And Understand History

We do have reasons to be hopeful.  Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker recently came out with a book titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature, which is a treatise on human violence, its causes, and ways to circumvent it and bring out our better angels.  According to his research, violence has been on the decline, though he’s not sure that this trend will continue indefinitely.  Either way, I really enjoyed the book.

Unfortunately, I’m not totally optimistic about the future.  Our story is not a happy one, and progress was generally the exception, not the rule.

History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in.  I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.

– Jane Austen

I too oftentimes find myself reading it less for enjoyment, and moreso as a duty.  We have to understand how nasty people can be and what drove them to do what they did.  That’s the only way to improve the world and learn from our mistakes.

I had a lot more I wanted to say but I need to go into the lab and work!  Maybe I’ll append to this post once I get home if I’m not too tired.

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