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Historical Controversies and Perspectives (by Rick J. Brix)

Can we learn from history? Can we apply the "lessons of history" to the issues of today? How does an event that happened 300 years in the past have relevance to the decisions we have to make today? These are some of the themes that I want to explore on this site. If an individual can learn from her or his past mistakes and accomplishments, why can't a person, or a nation, or indeed the whole human species learn from history? We need not look at only the great events that made revolutionary changes to gain beneficial historical perspectives. We can learn from the history of slow evolutionary change that often takes place under the surface of great historical events (social history has been gaining momentum in academia since the 1960s probably for this very reason). It is not just the "great minds" or the great political leaders that create history, but the great mass of individuals that constitute societies and nations that are the driving force of historical change. This is not to detract from the role of specific individuals but to emphasize that without the support of "the people" - the vast majorities - evolutionary change is not possible.


History in the Living Present

History is the long chronology of events leading from some distant point in the past to the present. This chronology constitutes the evidential proofs for explaining the present. The study of history is the examination and reconstruction of this chronology and the analysis and interpretation of the evidence that results from such an examination. Societies and historians frequently reinterpret historical events in ways which reflect changing values and interests. When matters of great national significance come up we are often reminded of the lessons of history. The lessons of the 1930s are often appealed to in situations where there is a percieved aggression or breach of international law....etc. revise

Anniversaries of historical events often lead to renewed public interest in certain aspects of history. Memorial days are often days of reflection as well as remembrance. The thirtieth anniversary of the assasination of President John F.Kennedy stirred up an emotional re-examination of that historical event, spurred on by Oliver Stone's film "JFK",which implicated high governmental and military officials in Kennedy's assasination. The significance and legacy of the Watergate affair which led to President Nixon's resignation continues to be debated twenty-five years after the fact; and the widely percieved need for campaign reform has brought a renewed vigor to the debate.


Psychoanalysis and History

The study of history can have practical applications in many areas of human endeavor. If one wishes to understand the nature of politics in society then one should look at the history of politics. In the same manner, an understanding of human behavior and psychology requires a knowledge of history. The theories of pyschoanalysis may be applied to the understanding of historical processes in an interesting and perhaps useful manner. Psychoanalysis is a method of understanding and treating mental illnesses developed by the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud, reputed as the father of modern pyschology, around the turn of the 19th and into the 20th century. Freud's methods of uncovering the causes of mental disorders and overcoming the disorders through probing the patient's unconscious led to important breakthroughs in the understanding of human behavior that underlie some of the basic propositions of modern psychology. Although some of Freud's theories have been discredited or disregarded, his basic theories on the structure of the mind, especially the unconscious, continue to have monumental implications and contributions to the study and understanding of human psychology. Early on in Freud's career as a clinical psychologist he discovered that many of the patients he treated had mental neuroses which were rooted in sexual causes, especially originating in the patient's childhood. Freud would use this experience as the basis for many of his later theories on human behavior in general. In "Civilization and Its Discontents" Freud developed the idea of sublimation. Sublimation is a process whereby the Ego, pursuing the "reality principle", converts the Id's unrealistic desires for sexual fulfillment (the "pleasure principle"), to more realistic, attainable goals. According to Freud, culture is the result of the sublimation of sexual urges and the transference of libidinal energy to things like art, music, and other creative endeavors. Perhaps a more interesting theory, at least for historical analysis, which Freud developed later, is that of Eros and Thanatos. Eros (named after the Greek mythological figure of love, who was the son of Aphrodite, and known mainly by his Roman name, Cupid) is the representation of all the instincts of life and the promotion of life; including love, sexual reproduction and behaviors and endeavors which lead to the continuation of life and the survival of the species. Thantos, after the Greek god of death, represents all of the human instincts which drive for the destruction of life, exhibited in such behaviors as war, aggression, the urge to kill, the desire to harm, and all behaviors which lead to the extinction of life. Humanity not only yearns for life and immortality but, according to the wishes of Thanatos, desires to return to the inanimate, inorganic, state of nature from whence it sprung. Eros craves the Fountain of Youth and Life Everlasting; Thanatos craves rest and eternal sleep. Perhaps the anxiety of life is being torn between these conflicting desires. Psychohistory, which is what I am referring to, could be an insightful approach of historical analysis to the understanding of mass movements or major shifts in historical development. The rise of the National Socialist movement in Germany in the 1930s, the American Revolution, the French Revolution,the rise of nationalism as a historical phenomenon, liberalism and democratic revolutions, reactionary movements, wars of conquest, wars of revenge, extended periods of peace, advances in culture and technology, and periods of cultural decadence; all these historical phenomena lend themselves to pyschological investigation. To understand the past is to better grasp the present and to grasp the present is to advance and guide the future.


History and Mortality

All life forms are mortal. Humans are life forms. Therefore, humans are mortal. This sad, somber and sobering syllogism is a reality that we all must face, at least at some point in our lives. The psychical impact of this reality must be very real and very deep. I believe that there is an intimate connection between this reality of human mortality and the human interest and fascination with history. What explains the human fascination with the past? When we look into the past, and see people just like us, living in places that may be familiar, in situations that may be similar to our own, or at least with which we can relate - we may come to the realization that these same people who lived, breathed, struggled, loved, hated, feared, perhaps warred and killed, and felt everything we are capable of feeling - these same people have passed from this earth, possibly never to be seen or heard from among the living again. These images of the past may give one the sensation that life is somehow illusory, or, at the very least, passing. This evanescent quality of life which looking into the past may remind us of, is often a very disturbing reality. Some shirk from dealing with this aspect of mortality at a conscious level, perhaps repressing the anxiety-provoking thoughts deep into the realms of the unconscious. Some try to understand it, perhaps with the hope of lessening the pain and anguish which thoughts of their own mortality and of temporality often provoke. We often try to avoid the things that are most painful in our lives by turning our thoughts and directing our energies to things or activities that tend to alleviate our fears and give us pleasure, comfort, and hope. Our fears may be suppressed or even surpassed through the realization or discovery of something transcending our own lives. History may give us a perspective that is almost essential to this transcendence of self. History is the sum of universal experience. The more we know and understand history, the more we know and understand our own place in the universe and the possiblities for our future. History can give direction toward helping us find meaning or purpose for our own lives. Through history our lives may become part of something greater than ourselves, part of a common human destiny. Though we may not know where this will all end up, we each can do a part toward making it reality. The shaping of this destiny is what making history is all about. Religion need not be excluded; it may be part of our common goal. Where we end up, however, is largely, if not completely, of our own making that confront us may be somewhat imbalanced. The European Renaissance of the late 15th and 16th centuries, which ushered in the modern era, and the Scientific Revolution which followed gave popularity to the sentiment that there is no limit to human progress, and science was the method to get from the dark gloom of the present to the bright promise of the future. Religion and the "Age of Faith" gave way to the Enlightenment and the "Age of Reason". Science, not religion, now held the answers to the questions which puzzled the mind and became the bright beacon of hope for improving the human condition. Perhaps the illuminating perspective of time will compel us to realize that science alone comes too short toward giving us a proper understanding of the human condition. Science gives us a method for understanding our physical world and systematizing our thoughts and ideas, allowing us to make great strides toward improving our well-being. Science allows us to quantify things. History allows us to qualify things. Perhaps a rigourous examination of history which makes use of scientific principles and the scientific method can provide a more balanced and systematic understanding of our place in the universe.