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The Consolations of Catastrophe

Squatting at the centre of our societies is an immensely powerful force that operates with two distinctive ideas: it tells us that very new things are happening all the time and, moreover, that the new and the important are wholly synonymous. That’s why the media – or ‘the news’ as it tellingly calls itself – constantly and breathlessly barges into our lives, shouting about some event or other that, it insists, is radically different from anything else that has ever unfolded in the last 300,000 or so years of human existence and that we must drop everything to learn more about right now. 

Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Asdod, c. 1630

However, when it is done properly, that is, with an eye on increasing our wisdom and bolstering our sense of peace, history directs us towards a very different, far more calming and far more useful notion: that, contrary to what we are being pestered into believing, most of what happens in the present is, in fact, only a repetition of something very similar that once happened in the past. The story of the ruler who lets power go to their head, of the government that forgets its responsibilities, of the young who are intolerant and self-righteous, of the beautiful person overcome by vanity… these stories are as cyclical as the seasons and as enduring as the stars. 

There are far fewer human types than there are people, far fewer principles than there are phenomena and far fewer ideas than there are commotions. 

The American invasion of Iraq (2003) was a rerun of the Athenian invasion of Sicily (415–413 BCE). The mixture of naivety and pride of the last president of the Republic of South Vietnam, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (1923–2001) was that of the last Ming Emperor of China, Zhu Youjian (1611–1644). Our grandmother may in key ways be a double of Chaucer’s (d. 1400) fictional Wife of Bath. The antics of a current celebrity are those of a 3rd-century Roman aristocrat. A complaint levelled against a government today was prefigured in a book by the German historian and social theorist, Max Weber, in 1914. The delusions of a contemporary political group were acutely captured in a pamphlet by Edmund Burke in 1789.

Wise history teaches us to look out for patterns; it directs us to laws of human nature, and principles of psychology that apply across time and space. With our minds well stocked with analogies, there will be so much less to surprise and shock us. We will know that we have seen this before – maybe in a provincial capital in China in 782 or on the coast of Central America around the time of the Spanish invasion. With history in mind, we can cease to be bewildered by shadows – and concentrate instead on the lights from which they originate.

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