I’ve always viewed myself as classically educated, a proponent of the “Great Ideas” and the “Great Books.” In fact I spent three summers as the Mortimer Adler Fellow at the Aspen Institute, working side by side with the great man himself.
As a college professor for 15 years, I avoided textbooks where possible and taught from original sources, my regular conversation partners being Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Dante; along with moderns such as Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Maritian, C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, Gilson, Adler, and Pieper.
My own education had been in philosophy and classics at the University of Texas-Austin; Christian Doctrine at Princeton Theological Seminary; and theology and literature at Emory University. Outside the classroom, I pursued the history of the novel and classical music and eventually everything I could learn about the movies.
But it wasn’t until my 60s that I started to study history seriously. For the past five years, I’ve found myself intrigued by both World Wars; the Russian Revolution; the Spanish Civil War; the history of the Czars; the War of 1812; Fin de siècle Europe; English history since Richard II; the history of China; the Middle East since the British-French Mandate; U.S. expansion westward; the American Revolution and Civil War; Peloponnesian War; the Greco-Persian Wars; Rome after Julius Caesar; the French Revolution and the Terror; Louis XIV, XV, and XVI; Europe after WWII; 20th century dictators; Napoleon; Queen Victoria; and the history of Byzantium.
I wouldn’t say that I was ignorant of history, but I was ignorant of its essential importance in my education. I’m guessing that I was not alone in thinking history was a narrative to be memorized, a series of epochs, each with a dominant culture; important leaders and events; ideas; forms of government; institutions; works of art, all encompassed in a timeline starting with its rise, continuing through its flourishing, and ending with its decline and demise.
One lesson most of us have taken away from even a cursory knowledge of history is that kingdoms, no matter how dominant, are impermanent. They may bear the same name, such as Britain, but they went through a fundamental change in order to survive their decline. Think of what countries like the Netherlands, Spain, France, Portugal, Japan, Greece, and Russia once were. Remember the heyday of the Vikings and the Norman conquest.
However, the fatal flaw in my education was not noticing that history taught human nature, the centrality of character in human events, both public and private. I’m not using character in the philosophical sense of a person possessing virtue but in the descriptive sense: Henry V had a character, largely admirable but far from perfect, while Richard III had character, mostly despicable but not devoid of compassion. What was the debacle known as the Treaty of Versailles other than the product of men with flawed characters clashing over claims of idealism, vengeance, ownership, and guilt?
What I take away from my recent reading of history is simple — I’ve been much too willing to put my trust in people. I’ve been naive in assuming people will generally do the “right thing.” Fallen human nature makes people more complicated than that. The probabilities of character are darker than I had assumed from a lifetime of reading philosophy.
I could have learned this much earlier from Shakespeare. Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear teach the same lessons, but my mind at the time was too deeply etched with the theory of the virtues to be distracted by the dissonance of these counter-examples.
As a good friend of mine said, one who helped to guide me through some tough times in my own life: “Everyone has a little larceny.” He was probably putting it nicely. It’s truer to say everyone has a little larceny, but more than a few people are capable of, given the circumstances, a lot of larceny.
Some might ask here, what about your Christian faith? The life and death of Jesus Christ, the constant quarrel with the Pharisees, the abandonment by all but one of his disciples, the denial of Peter, the murderous intent of the Sanhedrin, the people’s choice of Barabbas over Christ? What about the history of the Church itself, which contains all the plot twists of the War of the Roses during its periods of decadence?
Finally, someone might say, have you looked at yourself? Yes. Though I’d like to think I’m exempt from all the character flaws and destructive inclinations described above, I know I am not. But my late encounter with history has overcome what must have been an inner resistance to recognizing human nature in the raw, so to speak. That’s why I call it a near-fatal flaw, because I’m still here but better armed and ready for what may come.