Understanding History and Other Essays
How to Read and Understand History
10: Most children wish to know things until they go to school; in many cases it
is bad teaching that makes them stupid and uninquiring.
14: Individuals can achieve great things, and the teacher of history ought to
make this clear to his pupils. For without hope nothing of importance is
16: Like the early Christians, Marx expected the millennium very soon; like
their successors, his have been disappointed--once more, the world has shown
itself recalcitrant to a tidy formula embodying the hopes of some section of
17: The Preacher said there is no new thing under the sun, but he would not
have said so if he could have seen a large power station or a battle in the
stratosphere. These things, it must be confessed, might not have prevented him
from saying "all is vanity," but that is a different question.
19: Sometimes he (Herodotus) is merely repeating travelers' tales, but very
often he is confirmed by modern research.
20: The theme is one that appealed to the Greek mind. A great impersonal Power,
called indifferently Fate or Justice or Necessity, ruled the world, and was
superior to the gods. Whatever person or country or thing overstepped the
ordained boundaries suffered the punishment of pride. This was the real
religion of the Greeks, and Thucydides in his history magnificently illustrated
21: His (Plutarch's) heroes are not statuesque figures of perfection; they are
concrete men, who could have existed even if they never in fact did.
21: (Gibbons) His wit and irony - particularly when he uses them to condemn
superstition - are inimitable.
22: The professors must not prevent us from realizing that history is fun, and
that the most bizarre things really happen.
22: Some great men become greater the more they are studied; I should mention
Spinoza and Lincoln as instances. Napoleon, on the other hand, becomes, at
close quarters, a ridiculous figure. Perhaps it was not his fault that on the
night of his wedding to Josephine her pug-dog bit him in the calf as he was
getting into bed . . .
23: If (the Germans) could have laughed at him, they could have had their
revenge at less cost to mankind.
27: Wars had been an affair of kings or small aristocracies; the armies were
composed of mercenaries, and the general population looked on with indifference
. . . every peasant who had been freed from feudal burdens and had acquired
some portion of his seigneur's land felt that he had something to fight for . .
. governments have increasingly realized the necessity of making wars popular
and have used the potent weapon of popular education to that end.
36: Men of supreme ability are just as definitely congenitally different from
the average as are the feebleminded.
38: The Duke of Wellington remarked about the battle of Waterloo: "it was
a damned nice thing. I do believe if I had not been there we should not have
won." Probably he was right. Such instances show that the main course of
great events may sometimes depend upon the actions of an individual.
39: ...the solemnity and humbug in which it has been steeped . . . is that
certain famous men were great and good, and must on no account be criticized
while certain others were clever but wrong-headed, and committed foolish
mistakes . . . Yet others . . . are to be not even mentioned, because their
ideas were shocking . . . Above all, no idea must be admitted which could cause
even a moment's discomfort to complacent middle age. Not so are great men to be
conceived, and not such is the monument to be raised to them in our thoughts.
40: No, the greatest men have not been "serene." They have had, it is
true, an ultimate courage, a power of creating beauty where nature has put only
horror, which may, to a petty mind, appear like serenity. But their courage has
had to surpass that of common men, because they have seen deeper into the
indifference of nature and the cruelty of man. To cover up these things with
comfortable lies is the business of cowards; the business of great men is to
see them with inflexible clarity, and yet to think and feel nobly. And in the
degree in which we can all be great, this is the business of each one of us.
42: There was a serpent in the philosophic paradise, and his name was
Pythagoras. From Pythagoras this outlook descended to Plato, from Plato to
Christian theologians, from them, in a new form, to Rousseau and the romantics
and the myriad purveyors of nonsense who flourish wherever men and women are
tired of the truth.
42-3: There is, however, in our day, a powerful antidote to nonsense, which
hardly existed in earlier times - I mean science. Science cannot be ignored or
rejected, because it is bound up with modern technique; it is essential alike
to prosperity in peace and to victory in war. That is, perhaps from an
intellectual point of view, the most hopeful feature of our age, and the one
which makes it most likely that we shall escape complete submersion in some new
or old superstition.
47: If none of the existing Churches satisfies you, your neighbors view you
with suspicion as an eccentric, their wives fight shy of your wife, and your
business career suffers.
48: The State, when it educates you, has the public object of supplying you
with useful knowledge, and the private object of making you willing to pay
taxes for the benefit of corrupt politicians....As for the Churches - but hush!
at this point we must draw the line; no church dignitary, I am sure, ever
considers for a moment anything but the eternal welfare of his flock.
49: There is nothing surprising in this development; if the Saint had had more
worldly wisdom he would have foreseen it...but I am not content to draw a moral
of lazy cynicism.
50: Consequently an organization which can only do good if its leaders are
saints is sure to begin to do harm before long. This is an important truth,
which saints are slow to realize.
53: If you have been taught that it is as wicked to swear is it is to steal,
you may, when you decide that swearing is permissible, conclude that there is
no harm in stealing, but if so that only shows that you are not intelligent and
that you were taught a foolish morality.
54: No nation can long flourish unless it tolerates exceptional individuals,
whose behavior is not exactly like that of their neighbors. Everyone knows that
men who achieve great things in art or literature or science are apt, in youth,
to be eccentric; ...Our bodily life is confined to a small portion of time and
space, but our mental life need not be thus limited....Our private lives are
often exasperating, and sometimes almost intolerably painful...
56: Men are born and die; some leave hardly a trace, others transmit something
of good or evil to future ages. The man whose thoughts and feelings are
enlarged by history will wish to be a transmitter, and to transmit, so far as
may be, what his successors will judge to have been good.
The Value of Free Thought
57: To be worthy of the name, he must be free of two things: the force of
tradition and tyranny of his own passions.
58: If he holds them because his elders told him . . or because if he did not
he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because,
after careful thought, he finds a balance of evidence in their favor, then his
thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.
65: Not only have believers been prone to sin, but unbelievers have often been
exceptionally virtuous; it would be difficult to point to any set of men more
impeccable than the earnest free thinkers of the 19th Century. ...they are the
fanatical adherents of absurd creeds...
67: Kindliness and intelligence are the chief sources of useful behavior and
neither is promoted by causing people to believe, against all reason, in a
capricious and vindictive deity who practices a degree of cruelty which, in the
mathematic sense, surpasses infinitely that of the worst human beings that have
ever existed. Modern liberal Christians may protest that this is not the sort
of god in whom they believe, but they should realize that only the teachings of
persecuted freethinkers have caused this moral advance in their beliefs.
70: There is to my mind something pusillanimous and sniveling about this point
of view, which makes me scarcely able to consider it with patience.
79: In regard to mundane affairs, the capacity to assimilate what is unpleasant
is a condition of success, and for this reason, if for no other, it is a
mistake to wrap oneself around with comfortable fairytales.
79: Fear of hell, fear of extinction, fear lest the universe be purposeless,
are regarded as noble emotions, and men who allow themselves to be dominated by
such fears are thought superior to men who face what is painful without
80: In the best character there is an element of pride - not the sort of pride
that despises others, but the sort that will not be deflected from what is
thinks good by outside pressure.
83: This is a pretty fable, and I will not deny that it is logically possible,
but that is the utmost that I will concede.
87: Furious at his own misery, he sought the cause in the misdeeds of other
men, and turned upon them in savage battle, thus magnifying a thousand times
the ills that Nature has provided.
90: Whether artificial man will be better or worse than the natural sort I do
not venture to predict.
94: Practically all philosophers of any intellectual eminence are openly or
secretly freethinkers; the insistence on orthodoxy therefore necessitated the
appointment of a nonentity or a humbug.
95: Christian orthodoxy, however, is no longer the chief danger to free
thought. The greatest danger in our day comes from new religions, Communism and
Nazism...They advocate a way of life on the basis of irrational dogma; they
have a sacred history, a Messiah, and a priesthood.
97: No such tissue of nonsense could have been believed by any population
trained to examine evidence scientifically, and to base its opinions on
rational grounds...Nowhere, therefore, except among the esoteric elite of a few
universities, is anything done to promote an honest attempt to decide questions
according to the evidence. And so credulous populations are left defenseless
against the wiles of clever politicians, who lead them through inflated
self-esteem to hatred, from hatred to war, from war to universal misery. The
modern advances in the art of propaganda have been met with no corresponding
advances in training to resist propaganda. And so the populations of the world,
one by one as "civilization" reaches them, go down into a dark pit of
madness where all that is worth preserving perished in aimless slaughter.
102: But the pursuit of truth, when it is profound and genuine, requires also a
kind of humility which has some affinity to submission to the will of God. The
universe is what it is, not what I choose that it should be. If it is
indifferent to human desires, as it seems to be; if human life is a passing
episode, hardly noticeable in the vastness of cosmic processes; if there is no
superhuman purpose, and no hope of ultimate salvation, it is better to know and
acknowledge this truth than to endeavor, in futile self-assertion, to order the
universe to be what we find comfortable.
Towards facts, submission is the only rational attitude, but in the realm of
ideals there is nothing to which to submit. The universe is neither hostile nor
friendly; it neither favors our ideals nor refutes them. Our individual life is
brief, and perhaps the whole life of mankind will be brief if measured in
astronomical scale. But that is no reason for not living it as seems best to
us. The things that seem to us good are none the less good for not being
eternal, and we should not ask of the universe an external approval of our own