(Editor's note: This is the second segment in a three part series on why we bother to study history. The first segment introduced readers to Harry Truman, the self-educated president, who came to concentrate on the workings, the continuity and the consistency of human nature.)
Despite his lack of formal education, Truman was one of our nation’s smartest leaders, self taught in the mold of Abraham Lincoln. Truman had gained his considerable knowledge from a passion to study history. Even during his presidency, he could be found reading, his library filled only with biography and history.
Like most intelligent people, he criticized lawyers, in that they knew the law but not much of anything else. “Gotta read your history,” Harry was known to say, for a viewpoint of whatever the present issue happened to be within the context of the bigger picture. Above all, Truman encouraged the study of the nature of man and the culture and heritage of Western Civilization in general.
This presented another set of clues about human nature. Truman was proficient in his reading of an old, classic series, entitled Plutarch’s Lives, a bound set of which he possessed from his childhood days. It is a work of considerable historical importance, arranged to illuminate the common moral virtues or failings of the subjects of the biographies.
The work was written in the late 1st century, and consisted of a series of biographies of famous men. The surviving work, more commonly known as the Parallel Lives, consists of 23 pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman.
From his reading of history, Truman concluded that what were most striking were its elements of continuity, including, above all, human nature, which had changed little if any through time.
When I was in politics, there would be times when I tried to figure somebody out, and I could always turn to Plutarch, and 9 times out of 10 I’d be able to find a parallel in there. In 1940, when I was running for re-election in the Senate, there was this big apple grower named Stark trying to beat me. I’d started him out in politics, but in 1940 he was out to lick me, and I couldn’t figure it out.
But the more I thought about him, the more he reminded me of what Plutarch said about Nero. I’d done a lot of thinking about Nero. What I was interested in was how having started as well as he did, he ended up in ruin. And Plutarch said the start of his troubles was when he began to take his friends for granted and started to buy his enemies.
And I noticed some of those same traits in old Starks. That’s how I decided I could lick him, and I did, of course. Nobody thought I could, but I did.
But about Plutarch. It was the same with those old birds in
and as it
is now. I told you. The only thing new in the world is the
history you don’t know. Rome
Harry Truman was then deftly suited to apply the lessons learned to the problems of his time - which were in abundance. One of his favorite lines, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know,” was of invaluable assistance to him in dealing with the ominous strongmen of the era. These were people like
Germany’s Adolph Hitler, the Soviet Union’s Joseph
Stalin and ’s
Mao Tse-tung, finding similar connections with other despots and historical
figures that had come before. China
(The formula was really not very complicated. Next week's third and final segment in our three part series will offer the details...)