The Purpose of History

Should you be mindful of what has been, the better you will plan for what will be. - Isocrates

Here is an excerpt from the paper I delivered at the recent district teachers’ conference, titled, “Classical History: Purpose and Practice” (click the link to read the full paper). The following section of the paper is simply a series of quotes, with brief introductions and explanations, that comment on the point of studying history. Before continuing, pause for a moment and consider the question, “Why do we study history?” Then read on for some excellent answers to that question, both from antiquity and from the time of the Reformation.

Isocrates was a famous Athenian orator who wrote to Nicocles, the young king of Salamis, in the early fourth century BC. Isocrates advised Nicocles what he should do in order to be a good king. Part of Isocrates’ advice was this: “Consider the things that take place and befall both common folk and kings, for should you be mindful of what has been, the better you will plan for what will be” (To Nicocles, 2.35). Or in other words: Pay attention to the outcomes of past deeds. Take them to heart, and do your deeds according to the outcome you desire.

In the early part of the second century AD, Tacitus wrote his Annals of Rome. When commenting on some of the actions of the Senate, he slips in a gem about the purpose of his writing: “I have by no means taken upon myself to relate decisions except those remarkable for honorable conduct or for notorious shame, because I regard as the principal duty of histories that virtues should not be unspoken, and that against crooked words and deeds should stand the fear of posterity and infamy” (Annals, 3.65). And so Tacitus extols virtue and condemns vice in the course of relating events, and thus records the past as a form of moral instruction.

In a similar vein, Martin Luther writes in his treatise To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools:

“But if children were instructed and trained in schools, or wherever learned and well-trained schoolmasters and schoolmistresses were available to teach the languages, the other arts, and history, they would then hear of the doings and sayings of the entire world, and how things went with various cities, kingdoms, princes, men, and women. Thus, they could in a short time set before themselves as in a mirror the character, life, counsels, and purposes—successful and unsuccessful—of the whole world from the beginning; on the basis of which they could then draw the proper inferences and in the fear of God take their own place in the stream of human events. In addition, they could gain from history the knowledge and understanding of what to seek and what to avoid in this outward life, and be able to advise and direct others accordingly” (Luther’s Works American Edition, Vol. 45, pgs. 368-369).

And when Luther comments on what sorts of books a school should have in its library, he says, “Among the foremost would be the chronicles and histories, in whatever languages they are to be had. For they are a wonderful help in understanding and guiding the course of events, and especially for observing the marvelous works of God” (Ibid., pg. 376).

In Christ,
Pastor Richard

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