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The Meaning of History

The Meaning of History

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Excerpt from The Meaning of History: Two Lectures

It is very amusing to hear what curious things they did in by-gone times. It is highly entertaining to know about forefathers of our own who were nearly as funny as Chinese. Then, again, it is very instructive as a study of character; we see in history the working of the human mind and will. Besides, it is necessary to avoid the blunders they committed in past days: there we collect a store of moral examples, and of political maxims; we learn to watch the signs of the times, and to be prepared for situations whenever they return. And it cannot be doubted, they add, that it is a branch of knowledge, and all knowledge is good. To know history, they conclude, is to be well-informed, is to be familiar with some of the finest examples of elegant and brilliant writing.

Now, between the two, those who tell us plainly that history is of no use, and those who tell us vaguely that history is of fifty uses, I do not see much to choose. I thoroughly disagree with them both, and of the two I would rather deal with the former. Their opposition, at any rate, is concentrated into a single point, and may be met by a single and a direct answer. To them I would say, Are you consistent? Do you not in practice follow another course? In rejecting all connection with the facts and ideas of the past, are you not cutting the ground from under your own feet? You are an active politician and a staunch friend of the principles of the liberal party. What are the traditional principles of a party but a fraction, small, no doubt, but a sensible fraction of history? You are a warm friend of free trade. Well, but free trade has a history of its own; its strength lies in the traditions of a great victory achieved by right over might. You believe in the cause of progress. But what is the cause of progress but the extension of that civilization, of that change for the better which we have all witnessed or have learned to recognize as an established fact?

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