Do you remember getting up this morning? Where did you go, what did you do? Why?
This morning, I packed a book to loan to my dear friend, the illustrious Don Slee, Esq., because yesterday he told me he needed it. I care about that because we’re friends. We’ve interacted on many different occasions. If you go back a few years, we met. We were at the same college in the same club. I went to that college because it was close to where I live, and because it didn’t cost very much. I got a nice scholarship there, because I got good grades in high school.
If you go back far enough, I was born. That happened because my parents met, and they met for reasons too. They were born because my grandparents met. All those things are part of my personal history. The place where I was born affects me in concrete ways like the distance I have to drive to get to a big city, shallow ways like my accent, and more fundamental ways that will take a lifetime to eradicate. (Just kidding… mostly).
It’s the same for everybody. You are where you are, doing whatever you’re doing, because of (maybe in spite of) your personal history. World history is the same thing writ large. History is everything everyone’s ever done. The practice of history is trying to figure out what those things are and what they mean. You should care about history because history is us.
I don’t want to sound deterministic. People can, do, and should act for many reasons, not limited what’s happened to them previously. At the same time, ignoring the history of a person or a place means you’re operating in the dark.
Here are three more reasons you should care about history:
A) History is awesome. Did you know Nikola Tesla tried to invent a death ray in the 1930s? Did you know Thebes had an elite army in the 4th century BC called the Sacred Band of Thebes, composed of 150 pairs of male lovers? Did you know people used to sleep twice per night, instead of once, and it was glorious?
The world’s oldest face cream, complete with ancient fingermarks. Full story.
B) History is relevant. Like I said, history is everything that’s ever happened. In the present day, on a large scale, that’s relevant in the Middle East or anywhere else ethnic conflicts are happening. That’s relevant in the way South American countries relate to the U.S. and the rest of the world. That’s relevant to why having an African American president is a big deal for so many Americans, whether they have a positive opinion or a negative one. It’s relevant to followers of any religion that makes claims about the past.
It’s even relevant way back in time. These people were really alive, and their lives mattered. This is a quote from the great Pericles, of Athens, on the occasion of the annual public funeral for war dead:
We shall assuredly not be without witnesses; there are mighty monuments of our power which will make us the wonder of this and of succeeding ages; we shall not need the praises of Homer or of any other panegyrist whose poetry may please for the moment, although his representation of the facts will not bear the light of day. For we have compelled every land and every sea to open a path for our valor, and have everywhere planted eternal memorials of our friendship and of our enmity. Such is the city for whose sake these men nobly fought and died; they could not bear the thought that she might be taken from them; and every one of us who survive should gladly toil on her behalf.
(Pericles was a pretty awesome dude. I hope he knew how right he was. The whole speech is great, you can read it here.)
C) History will help you understand movies (and books, and TV shows, and comics…) Gladiator, Titanic, The King’s Speech, Downton Abbey, Mad Men. Don’t forget Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and others who created great works that are now also historical set pieces. If you’re a sci-fi nerd like me, not to worry! There’s Doctor Who, and the entire time travel subgenre. There’s alternate history like Watchmen, or anything steampunk. There’s District 9, Equilibrium, and all the other sci-fi works that make statements about the past and present. You can watch District 9 without ever having heard of Apartheid, but it’ll be a whole different movie once you know.
This post has been all over the place, but that’s what history is. Everything. Earth is a strange and magnificent place. Bizarre, beautiful, tragic things have happened, and without history, we might forget that.
How do you think of history? What are your favorite (and least favorite) historical things?