Should we learn from history?

By Fred Smith@Fred_E_Smith

“…all cities and all peoples are and ever have been animated by the same desires and the same passions; so that it is easy, by diligent study of the past, to forsee what is likely to happen in the future” – Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, c. 1517.[1]

The idea that we can ‘learn from history’ or that ‘the future is in the past’ has a long and distinguished pedigree. Nearly three hundred years after the Italian historian Niccolò Machiavelli advocated the lessons of history, English historian Edmund Burke similarly envisaged history as ‘a great volume…unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.’[2] Both in their own eyes, and those of their contemporaries, historians such as Machiavelli and Burke were political diviners, valued by princes and rulers for the insights they could share.

Today, the idea of using the past to predict the future is still explored by journalists and political commentators – one need only look at the comparisons between the ongoing probe into Donald Trump’s possible ties with Russia and the 1970s Watergate Scandal.[3] And yet, historians themselves seem to have become increasingly sceptical as to the ability of their craft to shed light on the future or even inform the present. The few scholars who attempt to draw such parallels are often regarded with suspicion, or accused of ‘dumbing down’. For example, in a recent review of David Loewenstein’s Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Oxford, 2013), Dr Sarah Mortimer criticised Loewenstein’s tendency to compare early modern ‘heresy-hunters’ with spreaders of contemporary demonizing polemic in the press. In a rather scathing assessment, she suggests that ‘perhaps academics are not Loewenstein’s primary intended audience’.[4]

Such wariness is, of course, understandable. The more one studies a particular event in the past, the more apparent the contingency of history becomes. Attempts to compare past and present can seem facile and simplistic. However, the utter refusal of many historians to draw temporal comparisons may not only alienate the wider public, but also limit our understanding of history. Indeed, when conducted with due awareness of the need to avoid anachronism and over-simplification, such a comparative approach can enhance our understanding of both the past and the present. A brilliant example of this in action can be seen in a recent collection of essays edited by Eliane Glaser, Religious Tolerance in the Atlantic World: Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives (Basingstoke, 2014). As Glaser explains, the book is governed by the belief that parallels between past and present can not only help undermine teleological notions of progress which have often plagued explorations of toleration in the early modern period, but they can help us plan for the future. In fact, she even envisages the volume as ‘a step towards ameliorating contemporary religious tensions’.[5]

Perhaps it is time that we learn from historians such as Machiavelli and become more willing to share and explore the lessons of the past.

[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (c. 1517), I, p. 38 – quoted in Maurizio Viroli (ed.), The Quotable Machiavelli (Princeton, NJ, 2017), p. 97.

[2] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (5th ed., London, 1790), p. 269.

[3] Jim Rutenberg, ‘In Watergate, One Set of Facts. In Trump Era, Take Your Pick.’, The New York Times (11 June 2017) – accessed online at

[4] Sarah Mortimer, ‘Review of Treacherous faith. The specter of heresy in early modern English literature and culture. By David Loewenstein’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History (October, 2014), p. 920.

[5] Eliane Glaser (ed.), Religious Tolerance in the Atlantic World: Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives (Basingstoke, 2014), p. 5.

Images: ‘Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli’, Santi di Tito [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons –


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