The past remains our most rigorous source of knowledge


Anniversaries of major events live the 75th anniversary of D-Day enable us to draw important lessons. Moreover, learning from the past can assist us in our understanding of who we are. This is done through shared joys, defeats and memories.

The late Professor of medieval history F.J.C. Hearnshaw once wrote that ‘ordinarily it is sufficient merely for the conservative to sit and think, or perhaps merely to sit’. Fortunately, some Conservatives realised that it will not suffice to merely sit, we must engage in the battle of ideas and some have picked up the pen and have been writing whilst sitting.

For instance, recently for my birthday, I was bought some books including Jesse Norman’s book on Adam Smith the ‘Father of Economics’, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s book The Victorians, which is about 12 eminent Victorians, including the constitutional thinker A.V. Dicey. Both books are excellent and have a common approach, which is to look back at the greats of our past and draw knowledge, understanding and inspiration from them.

Rees-Mogg’s book has been reviewed by many people and the Left seem to have one dominant criticism. It is that Rees-Mogg argues that we can learn and draw lessons from the Victorians. This criticism is most odd indeed. It got me thinking. Can we and should we learn from the past? And can the past as Disraeli put it assist us in achieving ‘the good life’?

The simple answer is: absolutely! This is because conservatives know that we were not born yesterday, our societies are built incrementally over time, and the present-day society is not a utopia.

A conservative has no such illusions that there has ever been a ‘golden age’ or a perfect society and nor will there ever be one in the future. As Lady Thatcher said in 1978: ‘as a Christian, I am bound to shun utopias on this earth and to recognise that there is no change in Man’s social arrangements which will make him perfectly good and perfectly happy’.

This does not mean that all ages are the same or equal or that current proven grievances cannot be addressed. The contrary is true. As Burke put it in his An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, the reformer must understand the reason behind an abuse before trying to remedy it. The underlying principle may be sound, and the abuse merely a perversion; hence the necessity of caution and wisdom in reform.

A spirit of reformation is never more consistent with itself than when it refuses to be rendered the means of destruction’. We can learn the forgotten lessons of the past that are still valid for today, or perhaps have become relevant again. These lessons can assist us with addressing those proven grievances or to use the outgoing British Prime Minister’s parlance ‘burning injustices’.

Afterall, even though some like to pontificate what the future will be like, in reality, the future is blank or completely dark for us. Like Vigil in Dante’s Divine Comedy, our lantern is behind us, illuminating on the past events and societies, but we must keep moving forward into this darkness, we cannot go backwards, therefore we must use this light to assist us to draw knowledge from the past.

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We can improve our society and our country through prudent and humane use of the knowledge we glean through driving headlong into our past. This does not mean becoming Victorian or Georgian or Roman again. We can pick and choose. We can pick and choose the best bits and not use the bad bits based on the principles of order, justice and others. If we do this successfully as a country, we may considerably improve our own society.

Though we will never succeed in making our society perfect, or create a utopia on Earth, we can improve our society by learning from the past regarding what to do and what not to do.
On that note, we also have a moral obligation to learn from the past.

The American historian Henry Adams wrote that ‘all experience is an arch to build upon’. We can use this arch to assist us to not make the same mistakes again, such as learning from the bloody years of the 20th century.

Anniversaries of major events live the 75th anniversary of D-Day enable us to draw important lessons. Moreover, learning from the past can assist us in our understanding of who we are. This is done through shared joys, defeats and memories. For example, who doesn’t on a birth of a child, a great achievement or during other rites of passage say: ‘what would granny or grandad think of this or say about that?’, thereby incorporating them into our lives, even though they have passed away.

Our complex web of obligations are spread across generations including those who have passed. It is these obligations – current and past – that provide us with a sense of belonging.

Therefore, studying our ancestors and our past brings us into contact with their beliefs and values and shows us how we might use these to solve the proven grievances of our time.

We can also derive comfort from old and familiar beliefs. Conservatives understand this.

Of course, we should and can learn from the past, including the Victorians and Adam Smith. I find it odd that some people believe that we cannot or should not do so. As Balfour said, ‘no community in this world has ever flourished, or could ever flourish, if it was faithless to its own past’. Finally, it is just ruddy good fun to study our history!

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