John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Learning from History)

This gets us close to what historians do – or at least, to echo Machiavelli, should have the odor of doing: it is to interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future, but to do so without suspending the capacity to assess the particular circumstances in which one might have to act, or the relevance of past actions to them. To accumulate experience is not to endorse its automatic application, for part of historical consciousness is the ability to see differences as well as similarities, to understand that generalizations do not always hold in particular circumstances.

That sounds pretty daunting – until you consider another arena of human activity in which this distinction between the general and the particular is so ubiquitous that we hardly even think about it : it’s the wide world of sports. To achieve proficiency in basketball, baseball, or even bridge, you have to know the rules of the game, and you have to practice. But these rules, together with what your coach can teach you about applying them, are nothing more than a distillation of accumulated experience: they serve the same function that Machiavelli intended The Prince to serve for Lorenzo d’Medici. They’re generalizations, compressions and distillations of the past in order to make it usable in the future.

Each game you play, however, will have its own characteristics: the skill of your opponent, the adequacy of your own preparation, the circumstances in which the competition takes place. No competent coach would lay out a plan to be mechanically followed throughout the game: you have to leave a lot to the discretion – and the good judgment – of the individual players. The fascination of sports resides in the intersection of the general with the particular. The practice of life is much the same.

Studying the past is no sure guide to predicting the future. What it does do, though, is to prepare you for the future by expanding experience, so that you can increase your skills, your stamina – and, if all goes well, your wisdom. For while it may be true, as Machiavelli estimated, “that fortune is the arbiter of half our actions,” it’s also the case that “she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern.” Or, as he also put it, “God does not want to do everything.”


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