In my working life, I regularly encounter people in public affairs with a total lack of interest in history. Even officials with PhDs who swear by democracy and the rule of law, and who claim to promote them, will tell me that a man like Alexis de Tocqueville is too ancient to be of any relevance today.
This sort of thing leaves me stunned but is not particularly surprising in our age when Western “elites” look upon their own civilization’s past with a mixture of total incomprehension and righteous indignation.
It is obviously extremely dangerous when a society’s leadership is ignorant and contemptuous of its past. I’ll go much further back than Tocqueville and cite Cicero as an authority: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” We are governed by the human equivalent of self-loathing goldfish.
I well understand the frustration that people feel in studying history, “one damn thing after another.” Almost every child’s memory is scarred by their high-school history classes presenting an inchoate series of dates, personalities, and events to be memorized. Paul Valéry felt the same way, so if you’ve a distaste for history, you are not in bad company. In fact, there is some sense in drilling a few common references into young people’s heads, but on the whole this misses the point. The fault here is with our systems of secondary education, apparently uniformly odious forms of mental circus training, not with history as such.
The point is: How did we get here? What can we learn from past experience? What have we inherited so we don’t start from scratch? I advise every thoughtful young person to discover the pleasures of browsing a good historical atlas to understand how his society, his moment of time, fits in the big picture of the wider human journey. This can inspire right action. Again Cicero: “For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
Personally, I have always strongly felt the intrinsic kinship between history and politics. I later discovered that ancient historians long before me had felt the same way. But the ancients went further, in always emphasizing that the study of past lives and societies should also improve our personal moral character.
Take Polybius, that Greek historian of a Roman Republic which triumphantly unified the lands of the Mediterranean: “not only is there no more authentic way to prepare and train oneself for political life than by studying history, but also there is no more comprehensible and comprehensive teacher of the ability to endure with courage the vicissitudes of Fortune than a record of others’ catastrophes.”
I would go further and claim that the ancient historians’ approach and interests directly resonate with our experiences today. Peruse the introductions of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, or Livy. What do they discuss? The great deeds of the Greeks, Romans, and other nations, the rise and fall of republics and empires, the diversity and conflict among tribes and civilizations, and even globalization. Consider Livy, who says he will document “the history of the greatest nation on earth . . . [so] that each reader will pay the closest attention to the following: how men lived, what their moral principles were, under what leaders and by what measures at home and abroad our empire was won and extended.” Who could be uninterested in the roots of the power and glory of Rome?
Nota bene: You don’t need to read the whole damn things. Chronicles may be necessary but often make for dreary reading. Though a good guide helps, e.g. the excellent Oxford Classics and Landmark series. Walls of text should also be complemented with illustrated encyclopedias featuring all the beautiful non-literary evidence and heritage left behind by our predecessors: architecture, statuary, paintings, artifacts, etc. The past was as alive as we are today, if anything, more so.
History itself also shows that its study is not limited to that of humble bookwyrms like myself. The fact is that the most serious and consequential modern leaders were also men of historical culture: the American Founding Fathers, Bonaparte, Hitler, De Gaulle, Gandhi, even that supposed knucklehead Patton . . . all were great and voracious bibliophiles with wide-ranging interests, in particular historical.
And why do great men study history? Because they seek to put their life’s work in the perspective of the ages, of all past human accomplishment. That is the challenge they put before themselves. That is how they incite their manly pride to accomplish something truly worthy and as great as can be.
But I well understand that such a mindset is incomprehensible in our times, where not just mediocrity but outright defectiveness are celebrated as sacred rights. Why would anyone study the great deeds of past men if this would only remind them of the humdrum nature of their own existence?
In truth, I would not recommend studying history at university randomly, like the Anglo-Saxons and increasingly Continental Europeans do, without a view towards a specific career. Do so, if that is your calling, that is, with the specific goal of becoming a history teacher, a professor, a researcher, a museum curator, an independent historian, etc.
You may be put off by such humble careers. I will say, in France, high-school teaching used to be a fairly respected and prestigious profession, one compatible with higher political activities. Hervé Ryssen had a stint as a history-geography teacher (his pedagogic skills indeed transpire in all his work) and, in a very different genre, the charming leader of the French conservatives in the European Parliament is the 30-something philosophy teacher François-Xavier Bellamy.
More generally, I discover every day more and more content creators who are forging their own career path, most commonly through the steady production of YouTube videos. It seems most young boys these days dream of becoming video game streamers, and no doubt there is a large market for that. (Streamers provide viewers with the characteristically male pleasures of competitiveness, creativity, comradeship, humor, and . . . victory, made shameful only by their virtuality.) But I also encounter more and more surprisingly popular history channels such as those of Survive the Jive, Simon Roper, History Debunked, or the weekly reliving of World War Two series.
There are real openings today for bold, young entrepreneurs. Do not hesitate to call and talk to the best people working in your field of interest. Don’t worry about making money right away, as long as you are actually accomplishing something noteworthy. Live in your mom’s basement if you have to free yourself from the tyranny of rent.
There is a real craft to history, tools and techniques whose use must be learned from the masters: the arts of interpreting ancient documents (see Yale’s New Testament course or maverick historian Richard Carrier’s work), archaeology, archival research, the tracking down of oral sources and private documents (David Irving surely must rank as a master here), etc.
Do not however fall in the trap of studying humanities and then trying to be some kind of generalist. That is particularly dangerous in these times of victim quotas and tickbox careers. We want our young men prosperous and independent. By studying the humanities, you will be largely indistinguishable from the hordes of semi-literate riffraff that are being plowed through the mass ed system in a half-drunken haze.
And anyway, study is best done on your own time, though of course professors and peers can help. There’s no guarantee academia will provide you a proper education. I’m still embarrassed the university system let me graduate with high honors in history and politics without ever reading Tocqueville or Aristotle. In a good state, familiarity and understanding of both would naturally be among the minimum qualifications for suffrage.
If you are interested in public service, be smart and get some identifiable skills or qualifications that separate you from the interchangeable office plankton. If interested in foreign service or intelligence, perhaps learn a relevant language (Chinese, Russian, Arabic . . . sometimes more obscure ones for niche roles). Among European officialdom, economics and law are the surest paths to rising above the rabble of poli-sci graduates.
Basic numeracy, much rarer than you’d think, goes a long way in upgrading your market value from that of disposable intern to a “consultant” charging €750 a day.
But really, you should find and stick to whatever you do with gusto!
And regarding poli-sci: I advise against it. No field is less capable of lifting your mind out of the fashions and ignorance of our time. This is the journalism of the humanities. Much of this field only exists insofar as it caters to and flatters the idiotic assumptions and insincere policies of our current governments. You may as well be undertaking Marxian economic studies in the late Soviet Union.
I.R. theory is dubious. EU studies are a bore and, in the Continent, largely involve enculer des mouches (much ado about very little, pardon my French).
There is little you will learn in poli-sci which cannot be gleaned by reading the newspaper or, better still, an internship in some dismal office. I suppose a two-year course at a community college is justifiable, for slow folks who need help learning the buzzwords for an easy job with an NGO or some quasi-governmental shop. I cannot fault anyone for wishing to get aboard a gravy train.
Nota bene: I am sure there are good political scientists at the margins. Stephen Walt and Amy Chua have said interesting things over the years. I’ve just never met a person who was intellectually or morally improved by the process.
So, as I say, if you aspire to be a man of worth, study history. Be you soldier, scientist, artist, entrepreneur, bureaucrat, bum, or bordello manager, learn from your illustrious predecessors! There’s a warm kinship among peers that extends across generations and boundless aeons. Indulge in the exquisite pleasures of the mind which are also the path to man’s self-knowledge. Listen to Machiavelli, at the end of a long day’s work:
I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable court of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them . . . and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains [it], I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus.