Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Why Study the Great War? Well, Why Study History? — A Roads Classic

This is the best argument yet that I've read for studying history including the "horrors and monstrosities" of the Great War. It's from the acceptance speech by the recipient of the first Kluge Prize of the Library of Congress,  (1927–2009).

We must defend and support traditional research methods, elaborated over centuries, to establish the factual course of history and separate it from fantasies, however nourishing those fantasies might be. . . And we must preserve our traditional belief that the history of mankind, the history of things that really happened, woven of innumerable unique accidents, is the history of each of us, human subjects; whereas the belief in historical laws is a figment of the imagination. Historical knowledge is crucial to each of us: to schoolchildren and students, to young and old. We must absorb history as our own, with all its horrors and monstrosities, as well as its beauty and splendor, its cruelties and persecutions as well as all the magnificent works of the human mind and hand; we must do this if we are to know our proper place in the universe, to know who we are and how we should act. . . It is important to keep on repeating [these points] again and again, because. . . if we forget them, and they fall into oblivion, we will be condemning our culture, that is to say ourselves, to ultimate and irrevocable ruin.

Professor Leszek Kolakowski

Some Background from a contemporary news account:

Leszek Kolakowski, an anti-communist Polish philosopher at Oxford University in England, will receive the first $1 million John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities. Kolakowski, a former professor at the University of Chicago and adviser to Poland's Solidarity movement, was awarded the prize for making clear "the intellectual bankruptcy of the Marxist ideology and the necessity of freedom, tolerance, and diversity," said James Billington, the librarian of Congress, in announcing the award.

The prize was established by Kluge, founding chairman of the library's private sector advisory body, the James Madison Council, to reward achievement in anthropology, history, philosophy, and religion for which no Nobel prizes are given.

Source: Chicago Tribune, 5 November 2003

1 comment:

  1. Mike and Roads team: Thank you for this post. I was unfamiliar with Kolakowski, but your post encouraged me to look for further information about him, for which I am grateful. Kolakowski's thinking and writing is as important today as it was during the decline of USSR and development of the Solidarity movement in Poland. I found a rough transcript online of his comments at the Kluge award presentation, and relished this quote in addition to the statement in the original post: "The history of prior generations is our history and we need to know it in order to be aware of our identity in the same sense in which my own memory builds my personal identity. Makes me a human subject. So, we learn history in order to know who we are."