The innate curiosity of the human toddler is a part of our personality we unfortunately seem to lose over time. Although we rely on interpretation and orientation continuously throughout our lives, we become less attached to critical thinking, and more prone to trust our own instincts. This isn’t necessarily bad; habitual thinking and routine can be advantageous for a whole host of reasons, from familial stability to mental health. But creativity, and a thirst for knowledge is what redeems our species most. If you want to understand where we’ve been, and where we’re heading, History can set you free.
An icon of Chinese literature, Lu Xun witnessed his country undergo spectacular changes following the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Overturning societal order itself, the Revolution encapsulated a century-long debate over the vitality of Confucianism itself: the system of hierarchy, culture, and belief anchoring China for centuries. From the rejection of dynastic rule arose a new world. Unclear whether China’s new predicament would bring strength or further chaos, Lu considered the worst possibilities available. In a world where order, conventional wisdom, and authority had vanished, Lu considered the situation facing the Chinese people. The text is worth copying in full:
“Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?”.
The iron house Lu Xun depicts is, it seems, a decaying society: hostile to new ideas, unable or unwilling to adapt, and positively deadly to those trapped within it. To hold any chance of escape is to engage in critical, even existential thinking, but without such, we might as well suffocate.
The human condition seems fundamentally predicated upon our continual attempts to discern truth and certainty from within the smoke and illusion of contemporary life. We make decisions based upon what we know, or think to know, to be true. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Most people, if asked whether they were living their life authentically, truthfully, or indeed, meaningfully, would likely respond with the affirmative.
But how do we know for certain that we are enlightened? This question has spawned a whole universe of responses, from religions to spiritual theology. Indeed, the central premise of all educational institutions is that knowledge can be taught, measured, and assessed. Society normalises and advances the idea that people can become wise, skilled, or virtuous. But we need certainty, right? For for both internal certainty and peace, I believe it is imperative upon the individual to learn how to ascertain truth. To do such, requires skills of interpretation, and an ability to transcend time. Only by removing oneself from the confines of the present, can we begin to understand the cornucopia of responsibilities and duties within our own lives. Only then can we truly anchor our lives and beliefs, and engage with them critically. This is where History begins.
The former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, correctly envisaged the past as a malleable object, capable of revision if such hid away uncomfortable truths. Douglass knew potently the dangers of historical manipulation. Speaking on the thirtieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the legislation which elevated African-Americans from bondage, Douglass declared, ‘[T]o [man] alone is given the prophetic vision, enabling him to discern the outline of his future through the mists of the past.’ The use of historical manipulation was not imagined to Douglass; he was speaking at a time when the Lost Cause, a Southern civic religion borne out of military defeat, was redefining the American Civil War as a holy crusade made sacrosanct by the righteous cause of the former slave-owners.
In a similar vein of expression to Lu Xun, Douglass rallied his fellow citizens to not let truth and progress fall victim to the ambiguities of historical memory. As we know, memory is subjective, crafted in the eye of the beholder. White Southerners, who did not wish for their late fathers, sons, brothers, and neighbours, to have given their lives in a wrongful cause, spoke word into truth, and re-imagined the past itself. Thus, the Lost Cause was born – (you’ll have to take my America course for further details, my apologies). Within a decade, this revivalist ideology had supplanted itself into the national psyche, becoming yet another smokescreen for those travelers who search for objective fact. Many of the statues toppled in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, were visual icons of the Lost Cause, and their contentious place within American society only speaks truth to my point. Life is difficult, ever-changing, and always unexpected – yet it is only human to seek to orientate oneself within a universe that vastly outpaces our limited capabilities for understand. Even if one person’s anchoring of themselves sits in polar opposition to others. Instead of fearing the uncertainty of life, we should take example from History, and learn from the figures who have already fought our battles.
Yes, I am aware that if your laptop goes bust, then consulting the Papers of the Founding Fathers is hardly a useful endeavour. Career advice is unlikely to be found within the pronunciations made within Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, but it is not the job of History to give us advice on life decisions. As I’ve heard countless times as a History student, and believe me, it wasn’t funny the first time, History is in the past – there’s no future there. The future indeed cannot be found there, but our own ability to adapt to it can be. Whether it be for perseverance during times of personal strife; for humility when considering the sheer materiality of modern life; or for evidence that one person can indeed change the world, History awaits our eager eyes.
We should propel ourselves into the world with a keen inquisitive mind, confident that we can reach an enlightened state, and determined to push until we do so. We must break the iron house, and put our capacities for prophetic vision into good use. As the living generation, presiding over centuries of human genius, error, catastrophe, creation, and destruction, we have a significant advantage than our late ancestors. So what’s your excuse?