Benefit of Hindsight
“. . . I’ve always liked studying history, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to develop actual historical perspective.
“An example: I can’t remember who exactly said it, but one of the high ranking admirals in Japan said, after pearl harbor, ‘I fear we have awoken a sleeping giant.’”
“Of course it was true, but my historical study (too much of an emphasis on facts I believe) left out the really important part of that statement, that it was a perceptive analysis, and not at all obvious at the time. Only by mentally putting myself into that time frame, while simultaneously suppressing my knowledge of the future, can I really gain some insight into the past. . . .
“ . . . [L]ack of historical study really hinders us as a society. I think it’s especially detrimental to youth, as I felt as I was growing up that all the news and situations in the world at large were bad, and that the reality of any given time was that things are bad now, and they are probably as bad as they have ever been.
“I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the past doesn’t easily resonate in me, and that’s kind of scary. I can spend lots of time learning about ancient Rome, or the Aztecs, but I don’t instinctively feel that I am the inheritor of this vast tract of human experience—really, I feel that all that has come before me seems to barely influence me at all. And I feel that this is common in my generation, and perhaps in others. Rather than enjoying our new paths in art and science as additions to the vastness of human experience, I get the feeling that I’m subsisting just on the new as its own, rather than the newest chapter in an epic tale. The feeling that new is good, not because it’s better, but because it’s all we have.
“And I see this extending into avenues besides history and literature appreciation. Particularly in technology this disdain for the past is rampant. What’s heralded today as groundbreaking is mocked tomorrow as archaic.
“This is really scary now that I consider it—if we don’t appreciate and understand where we have come from, and what is good in that, how can we say that we have gone anywhere? If its all just a set of discrete points not connected, how can any one point be said to be anything other than that, a random point?
“What I’m really going for, I think, is that without the past, my future is pretty much dead. If I don’t have Plato and Shakespeare to learn from and build off of, how will I ever better myself in my humanity? To hope that I am some incredibly lucky person who just manages to fit all the pieces of life and meaning together in one lifetime?
“Hmmm, maybe that’s the really scary thing about my generation, this undercurrent of individuality, that all accomplishments and discoveries must be made yourself, and that study of the past or learning from past masters is useless without the discovery on your own. It’s that vibe I seem to feel from this age that worries me—that humanity is just one large rat chasing its own tail for all eternity, refusing to learn from the past out of pride.
“Then again, I’m guessing life has always been like this. And rather than worry that my peers aren’t reading Plato, I should get to reading myself!”
What you have very truly written can hardly be bettered. The essential thing to add is that your worry about this renunciation of the past is itself a sign that not all is lost. It shows that you don’t believe humanity is only a rat. One need only renounce that vibe and try to discern what we are that is not the rat, and behold!: the tail-chasing is revealed as a disguise behind which the inquiring mind may catch a glimpse of the unclear but inescapably meaningful story of man.
You are quite right about your generation’s apparent divorce from history—real divorce being impossible. Every generation feels something like this. Every age of serious intellectual activity strives to improve on the past, one among many examples being the turning of attention from heaven to earth in the Renaissance: from halos and gold backgrounds to linear perspective and blue sky, from pointed to rounded arches, from Everyman to Hamlet.
However, not everyone has shared our modern idea of entirely divorcing the present from the past, which is far more extreme. That idea (ironically) is inherited from the age of the American and French revolutions, when the worship of human progress as an inevitable natural phenomenon rose to preeminence in the writings of Enlightenment philosophes like Condorcet and of the Romantic Rousseau. In the 19th Century it took firm hold in the ideas of Darwin, Marx, and many others. Thus it is from the past that we inherit our contempt for the past, though the historically untutored don’t know it.
In some ways, of course, we are indeed superior to our forbears. The progress of scientific and technological knowledge (not considering social effects) is irrefutable. Computers get smaller and more powerful, and we can go to the moon and back. We abandon older machines for new ones as the fifth-century Greeks melted down archaic bronze statues for material to make what hindsight now calls “developed” sculptures, some of the greatest ever made by human beings. Progress seems to be the way of the world.
Seems. Because technology is so forceful a piece of evidence—every new machine more amazing than the last—people think that (to paraphrase Emile Coué) every day, in every way, we are getting better and better (my italics). (Coué’s method of autosuggestion shows him to be a true heir of Condorcet, who believed that by the power of reason and science man would soon conquer all obstacles to happiness, including death.)
The rub is that though we can spend a lifetime auto-suggesting our own improvement, we can’t feel that we are getting better in every way. There’s a bit too much contrary evidence. Some of those Greek bronzes of the highest period were themselves no doubt melted down to make way for inferior later works in which we can see the signs of cultural decay. In recent decades we have tossed away representational drawing and painting for abstract expressionism, unflagging Dada, and museum pieces involving urine and feces. At my last school taking roll by computer made life easier for the attendance secretary, but it diverted my attention during three of the five daily homeroom minutes from my students to the screen. Newer is better for a while, and then it is worse. The trick is to be able to see the difference in one’s own time.
American democratic government and the rule of law are certainly advances over any political forms known in the past. But the last century also saw by far the worst depravities that human beings have ever enacted. In terms of individual human happiness, it’s probably a toss-up: we are certainly more physically comfortable (though inhabitants of Darfur and North Korea are not), but we suffer from a severe shortage of ultimate meaning (though there are always some who can find meaning in any here-and-now moment).
The truth is that in some things we progress and in others we don’t, and that, as Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it’s more than that. It is almost impossible for those who do not live responsibly with the past and the future to have a meaningful present. As you wrote so insightfully, “if we don’t appreciate and understand where we have come from, and what is good in that, how can we say that we have gone anywhere? If it’s all just a set of discrete points not connected, how can any one point be said to be anything other than that, a random point?”
Philip Thompson observed, analogously, that if the work week is a hell whose only solace is anticipation of the weekend, then the weekend is equally a hell whose torture is the anticipation of Monday morning. Only some concept of Sabbath, that is, of a relation between time and spirit, redeems the weekend from mere escapism and the work week from mere drudgery. Likewise, if the past is nothing but what needs to be got out of the way so that we can enjoy the present, then the present is nothing but one more bit to be got out of the way. In fact, from such a perspective there really is no way at all.
Without learning what has been excellent in the past and the ways in which we are both the fruition and the disappointment of past hopes, nothing of the “better” that we hope for our own future can be more significant than a deluding fancy. Only our participation in the human story, which is more than the mere succession of meaningless pasts giving way to new but equally meaningless futures, weaves our lives into a larger fabric of significance.
But such participation is extremely difficult in our supposedly post-historical time. All cultures live upon the lore of the past as conveyed in ritual and story. But most of our rituals and stories promote the value of unexamined technical or natural progress with no spiritual meaning in sight. Notice the TV commercial, our society’s most pervasive medium for communicating what is important to it, in which what sells (besides sex) is newness. And the institutions charged with preserving knowledge of the past—academy, library, museum—are now largely in the hands of those whose only use for the past is as a trash can. Few and far between are the teachers and curators for whom the past is the repository of those “monuments of unaging intellect” that teach our souls to sing (see W.B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”).
To complicate things, there is no single objective past to which anyone has access. Every history is a version of reality as perceived by a limited mind or group of minds. Believers understand that the whole story of the world, past, present, and future, and therefore of ourselves and our place in that story, can be known entirely only to God. Hence studying the past is always a matter of approaching the truth without ever totally comprehending it. As Wendell Berry has said, “we cannot comprehend what comprehends us.”
Given the predispositions of our time, rightly reclaiming our inheritance of the past is not easy. It requires the same precious gifts that any good work requires: insight and imagination, talent and skill, conviction and humility, wisdom and love of truth—above all, vision.
Nonetheless, as Socrates said and exemplified, we must never give up pursuing the truth. In that pursuit, even if we fail, we shall become better human beings than those who, daunted by the impossibility of complete success, never even try.
Finally, a little lesson in the importance of facts in your study of history: Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the quotation that got you thinking on this subject:
“Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is portrayed in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!, as saying after his attack on Pearl Harbor, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.’ The supposed quotation was abbreviated in the film Pearl Harbor (2001), where it merely read, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.’
“Neither At Dawn We Slept, written by Gordon Prange, nor The Reluctant Admiral, the definitive biography of Yamamoto in English by Agawa Hiroyu, contains the line.
“Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of Pearl Harbor, readily admitted that he copied the line from Tora! Tora! Tora!. The director of the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, Richard Fleischer, stated that while Yamamoto may never have said those words, the film’s producer, Elmo Williams, had found the line written in Yamamoto’s diary. Williams, in turn, has stated that Larry Forrester, the screenwriter, found a 1943 letter from Yamamoto to the Admiralty in Tokyo containing the quotation. However, Forrester cannot produce the letter, nor can anyone else, American or Japanese, recall or find it.
“In The Reluctant Admiral, Hiroyuki Agawa, without a citation, does give a quotation from a reply by Admiral Yamamoto to Ogata Taketora on January 9, 1942, which is strikingly similar to the famous version: ‘A military man can scarcely pride himself on having “smitten a sleeping enemy”; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.’
“Yamamoto believed that Japan could not win a protracted war with the United States, and moreover seems to have believed that the Pearl Harbor attack had become a blunder — even though he was the person who came up with the idea of a surprise attack. The Reluctant Admiral relates that ‘Yamamoto alone’ (while all his staff members were celebrating) spent the day after Pearl Harbor ‘sunk in apparent depression.’ He is also known to have been upset by the bungling of the Foreign Ministry which led to the attack happening while the countries were technically at peace, thus making the incident an unprovoked sneak attack that would certainly enrage the enemy.
“The line serves as a dramatic ending to the attack, and may well have encapsulated some of his real feelings about it, but it has yet to be verified.”
There is no doubt more to the story, but I quote the passage to suggest how studying the past may deepen understanding. The phrase you remembered may be based on historical evidence of Yamamoto’s prescience; it is certainly historical evidence of the movie-maker’s justifiable pride in America.
Nonetheless, your insight stands: To study history well requires getting imaginatively into the minds and situations of past thinkers, who had, as we have now, to think and act without benefit of hindsight.
One more thing: You confess to a lack of an instinct for inheriting the past. This makes sense. Interest in the past is a function not of instinct but of intellect in the service of values. Most people have little enough impulse to enter even into the perspective of their nearest neighbor. But why should instinct be our only, or even our main, guide? When you do get back to reading Plato, you’ll find that in The Republic he helps to place instinct in right relation to reason: Let the mind’s wisdom temper the body’s impulses through the courageous discipline of the heart. Only then will justice—including our justice to the past and the future—appear.