Painful conclusion

‘History teaches us nothing’

Lessons from history do not exist. The notion that we have to learn from the past is dangerous and misleading, according to RUG professor Steve Mason. The UK asked him why.
By Leoni von Ristok / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

History teaches us nothing, says Steve Mason. He is professor by special appointment in ancient history and religions at the RUG.

The idea that history teaches us anything is dangerous and misleading. History only teaches us what we already believe or want to believe. It enables us to justify anything we want.

Philosopher Santayana’s original statement – ‘Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ – had nothing to do with history. He was talking about personal growth.

Public universities are the only place in society where people can safely and objectively search for the answers to explosive issues.

Once we understand what truly motivates people, we might be able to find better solutions to our present-day problems.

Reading time: 7 minutes (1,115 words)

‘To say that history teaches us lessons is a misleading and dangerous statement’, says RUG professor by special appointment Steve Mason. He studies history of the ancient Roman Empire, focusing on the cultures in that empire and the area east of the Mediterranean Sea.

‘History teaches us nothing. History isn’t some cut-and-dried concept just waiting to show us the way. If you look to history to find solutions to the current immigration problem, for example, you won’t find anything.’ We should be loath to accept statements by politicians that cite ‘lessons from history’ as justification for certain decisions, he feels. ‘History only teaches them what they already believe or what they want to believe.’ It enables them to justify just about anything, says Mason.

The best solution

‘Moreover, patterns aren’t solutions’, he says. In 1938, for example, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain reached a peace accord with Adolf Hitler. He proudly flaunted this accord, utterly convinced he was the saviour of world peace. He was proven wrong when Hitler started World War Two after all. Chamberlain’s peace mission went down in history as one of the largest failures ever, says Mason. He should not have tried to reconcile with a power as brutal as Nazi Germany but rather should have confronted them as his successor Winston Churchill did.

According to Mason, this anecdote has since become an oft-used argument to show that one should not try to make peace with these terrible powers, but rather confront them. ‘But that’s nonsense’, he says. ‘That is not what history teaches us. Each situation requires its own tailor-made solution.’

Mason also says that the statement that history teaches us anything has been completely taken out of context. Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once wrote: ‘Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ But Mason explains that Santayana was talking about personal growth and learning from one’s mistakes. He never meant history in a broader sense.


‘But just because history does not teach us lessons does not mean it should not be an academic discipline’, the professor says. ‘Public university is the only place in society where people can safely and objective research explosive issues’, he says. ‘History is part of our communal DNA, but Christians and Jews, for example, each interpret the past differently. Religion is simply part of our history.’ While supporters of different religious convictions only view events through their particular religious lenses, public universities are able to study religions in a scientific framework, as part of history, according to Mason.

He says the past is unknown territory. ‘We don’t know anything about it apart from the research we do. Historians approach history the way detectives approach a dead body in the park. The body doesn’t speak, so they will have to systematically try to find out what happened, who did what, and why.’

Universities ask different questions than religion does, he continues. ‘Public universities search for the truth for truth’s sake, not to defend religious convictions.’

Jews did not want war

In order to understand modern history and present-day problems, you have to first look back, says Mason. ‘How it all started may not explain everything, but it could help.’ You should only go back to the past if you have a question, he says. And the way you ask that question also influences the answer you find.

That is why Mason wrote a book on the question of why the Jews started a war with Rome in the first century. But contrary to popular opinion, he thinks that was never the Jews’ intention. ‘When two countries or parties make war with each other, people assume they have some issue with one another. But if you look back on the history of warfare, that’s hardly ever the case.’ According to Mason, the Jews had absolutely no issue with the Romans, since they were their biggest protectors at the time.

But the citizens of Jerusalem and its surroundings were mad that Rome suddenly decided to make their city into a capital and install a Jewish king to rule over them. Several of their neighbours, such as the Samaritans, Edomites, and the inhabitants of Jerash and Gaza did not want a foreign power to reign over them. ‘They didn’t hate Jews because they were anti-Semites’, according to Mason. ‘It was purely for political reason.’ And Rome purposely let that local discontent fester. After all, the infighting ensured that the various people would not band together to rise up against Rome.

This situation quickly changed when Emperor Nero came to power when he was sixteen. He had no political experience and no love for the Jews. The emperor starting recruiting the hostile population around Jerusalem as reinforcements to fight Rome. This resulted in the Jews having to defend themselves from an armed, local enemy. This may have resulted in violence, but that violence was not necessarily directed at Rome, according to Mason. It was not until these clashes got out of hand that Rome stepped in and destroyed Jerusalem.


But how did the original conflict between Christians and Jews evolve into the current conflict between Jews and Muslims? ‘The great paradox here is that in the time when Christians were driving the Jews out of Europe, the Muslims actually offered the Jews a place to stay’, Mason explains. ‘For centuries, there was no animosity between Muslims and Jews.’ But the Jewish people feeling unsafe in Christian Europe gave rise to Zionism: the Jews wanted their own country. This started a long and complicated process that in 1948 led to the creation of new, Jewish state – Israel – in Muslim territory.

‘Mass immigration of Jews into Palestine, followed by the mass expulsion of Muslims and Christians from their own land led to the conflict that rages to this day’, according to Mason. But the growing hate that Muslims felt towards Jews initially had nothing to do with religious differences, says the professor. ‘It was actually caused by a local conflict.’

Mason concludes that history provides us with no cut-and-dried solutions to conflicts like these. What might help is to reconsider history with a fresh perspective and to think about what happened. But it is up to our imagination to find solutions, and it is up to us to acknowledge the human factor that leads to these conflicts. ‘Every single group of people is scared of annihilation’, says Mason. ‘Including the Israelis. We all have that drive to survive. When we recognise that fear and understand what really drives us, we might be able to find better solutions to our present-day problems.’

Steve Mason will give an oration on 23 May, titled ‘Why does the ancient past matter in the public university? The case of Jews and Christians’.  The oration will be held in the aula of the Academy building and will begin at 16:15. 


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