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B.H. Liddell Hart and the Study of Truth and History

B.H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970) was many things, but above all, he was a military historian. He wrote tracts on Sherman, Scipio, Rommel, and on military strategy itself. His work influenced Neville Chamberlain and may have even (accidentally) influenced the German army’s blitzkrieg tactic in WWII.

What’s beautiful about Hart’s writing is his insight into human nature as seen through the lens of war. Hart’s experience both studying wars and participating in them — he was a British officer in World War I and present for both World War II and a large portion of the Cold War — gave him wide perspective on the ultimate human folly.

Hart summed up much of his wisdom in a short treatise called Why Don’t we Learn from History?, which he unfortunately left unfinished at his death. In the preface to the book, Hart’s son Adrian sums up his father’s approach to life:

He believed in the importance of the truth that man could, by rational process discover the truth about himself—and about life; that this discovery was without value unless it was expressed and unless its expression resulted in action as well as education. To this end he valued accuracy and lucidity. He valued, perhaps even more, the moral courage to pursue and propagate truths which might be unpopular or detrimental to one’s own or other people’s immediate interests. He recognized that this discovery could best be fostered under certain political and social conditions—which therefore became to him of paramount importance.

Why study history at all? Hart asks us this rhetorically, early on in the book, and replies with a simple answer: Because it teaches us what not to do. How to avoid being stupid:

What is the object of history? I would answer, quite simply—“truth.” It is a word and an idea that has gone out of fashion. But the results of discounting the possibility of reaching the truth are worse than those of cherishing it. The object might be more cautiously expressed thus: to find out what happened while trying to find out why it happened. In other words, to seek the causal relations between events. History has limitations as guiding signpost, however, for although it can show us the right direction, it does not give detailed information about the road conditions.

But its negative value as a warning sign is more definite. History can show us what to avoid, even if it does not teach us what to do—by showing the most common mistakes that mankind is apt to make and to repeat. A second object lies in the practical value of history. “Fools,” said Bismarck, “say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other people’s experience.”

The study of history offers that opportunity in the widest possible measure. It is universal experience—infinitely longer, wider, and more varied than any individual’s experience. How often do people claim superior wisdom on the score of their age and experience. The Chinese especially regard age with veneration, and hold that a man of eighty years or more must be wiser than others. But eighty is nothing for a student of history. There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind.

[…]

History is the record of man’s steps and slips. It shows us that the steps have been slow and slight; the slips, quick and abounding. It provides us with the opportunity to profit by the stumbles and tumbles of our forerunners. Awareness of our limitations should make us chary of condemning those who made mistakes, but we condemn ourselves if we fail to recognize mistakes.

There is a too common tendency to regard history as a specialist subject— that is the primary mistake. For, on the contrary, history is the essential corrective to all specialization. Viewed aright, it is the broadest of studies, embracing every aspect of life. It lays the foundation of education by showing how mankind repeats its errors and what those errors are.

Later, Hart expounds further on the value of truth, the value of finding out what’s actually going on as opposed to what one wishes was the case. Hart agrees with the idea that one should recognize reality especially when it makes one uncomfortable, as Darwin was able to do so effectively. If we forget or mask our mistakes, we are doomed to continue making them.

We learn from history that men have constantly echoed the remark ascribed to Pontius Pilate—“What is truth?” And often in circumstances that make us wonder why. It is repeatedly used as a smoke screen to mask a maneuver, personal or political, and to cover an evasion of the issue. It may be a justifiable question in the deepest sense. Yet the longer I watch current events, the more I have come to see how many of our troubles arise from the habit, on all sides, of suppressing or distorting what we know quite well is the truth, out of devotion to a cause, an ambition, or an institution—at bottom, this devotion being inspired by our own interest.

[…]

We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.

I can conceive of no finer ideal of a man’s life than to face life with clear eyes instead of stumbling through it like a blind man, an imbecile, or a drunkard—which, in a thinking sense, is the common preference. How rarely does one meet anyone whose first reaction to anything is to ask “Is it true?” Yet unless that is a man’s natural reaction it shows that truth is not uppermost in his mind, and, unless it is, true progress is unlikely.

Indeed, in the 125 short pages of the book, Hart demonstrates the above to be true, with his particular historical focus on accuracy, truth, and freedom, explaining the intertwined nature of the three. A society that squashes freedom of thought and opinion is one that typically distorts truth, and for that reason, Hart was a supporter of free democracy, with all of its problems in full force:

We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the “conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.” Thereby, this system of government tends to result in the triumph of mediocrity—and entails the exclusion of first-rate ability, if this is combined with honesty. But the alternative to it, despotism, almost inevitably means the triumph of stupidity. And of the two evils, the former is the less. Hence it is better that ability should consent to its own sacrifice, and subordination to the regime of mediocrity, rather than assist in establishing a regime where, in the light of past experience, brute stupidity will be enthroned and ability may preserve its footing only at the price of dishonesty.

Hart’s clear-eyed view of the world as an examiner of human nature and the repetition of folly led him to conclude that even if authoritarianism and coercion were occasionally drivers of efficiency in the short-run, by the quick and determined decision-making of a dictator, that in the long-term this would always cause stagnation. Calling to mind Karl Popper, Hart recognizes that freedom of thought and the resulting spread of ideas is the real engine of human progress over time, and that should never be squashed:

Only second to the futility of pursuing ends reckless of the means is that of attempting progress by compulsion. History shows how often it leads to reaction. It also shows that the surer way is to generate and diffuse the idea of progress—providing a light to guide men, not a whip to drive them. Influence on thought has been the most influential factor in history, though, being less obvious than the effects of action, it has received less attention— even from the writers of history. There is a general recognition that man’s capacity for thought has been responsible for all human progress, but not yet an adequate appreciation of the historical effect of contributions to thought in comparison with that of spectacular action. Seen with a sense of proportion, the smallest permanent enlargement of men’s thought is a greater achievement, and ambition, than the construction of something material that crumbles, the conquest of a kingdom that collapses, or the leadership of a movement that ends in a rebound.

Once the collective importance of each individual in helping or hindering progress is appreciated, the experience contained in history is seen to have a personal, not merely a political, significance. What can the individual learn from history—as a guide to living? Not what to do but what to strive for. And what to avoid in striving. The importance and intrinsic value of behaving decently. The importance of seeing clearly—not least of seeing himself clearly.

Hart’s final statement there calls to mind Richard Feynman: “The first principle is you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Finally, Hart admits that the path of studying history and studying truth is not an easy one. Truth is frequently cloaked, and it takes work to peel away the layers. But if we are to see things clearly, and we must do so if we’re to have a peaceful world, we must persevere in the hunt:

It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth. It is stranger still that this assumption is often manifest in the very man who talks of the difficulty of determining what is true. We should recognize that for this pursuit anyone requires at least as much care and training as a boxer for a fight or a runner for a marathon. He has to learn how to detach his thinking from every desire and interest, from every sympathy and antipathy—like ridding oneself of superfluous tissue, the “tissue” of untruth which all human beings tend to accumulate for their own comfort and protection. And he must keep fit, to become fitter. In other words, he must be true to the light he has seen.

Still Interested? Check out the short book in its entirety.