Crossing the History-Lessons Threshold

post by lionhearted · 2014-10-17T00:17:42.822Z · score: 34 (42 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 65 comments

(1)

Around 2009, I embarked on being a serious amateur historian. I wouldn't have called it that at the time, but since then, I've basically nonstop studied various histories.

The payoffs of history come slow at first, and then fast. History is often written as a series of isolated events, and events are rarely put in total context. You can easily draw a straight line from Napoleon's invasions of the fragmented German principalities to how Bismarck and Moltke were able to unify a German Confederation under Prussian rule a few decades later; from there, it's a straight line to World War I due to great power rivalry; the Treaty of Versailles is easily understood in retrospect by historical French/German enmity; this gives rise to World War II.

That series of events is hard enough to truly get one's mind around, not just in abstract academic terms, but in actually getting a feel of how and why the actors did what they did, which shaped the outcomes that built the world.

And that's only the start of it: once you can flesh out the rest of the map, history starts coming brilliantly alive.

Without Prime Minister Stolypin's assassination in 1911, likely the Bolsheviks don't succeed in Russia; without that, Stalin is not at the helm when the Nazis invade. 

On the other side of the Black Sea, in 1918, the Ottoman Empire is having terms worse than the Treaty of Versailles imposed on it -- until Mustafa Kemal leads the Turkish War of Independence, building one of the most stable states in the Middle East. Turkey, following Kemal's skill at governance and diplomacy, is able to (with great difficulty) stay neutral in World War II, not be absorbed by the Soviets, and not have its government taken over by hard-line Muslims.

This was not-at-all an obvious course of events. Without Kemal, Turkey almost certainly becomes crippled under the Treaty of Sevres, and eventually likely winds up as a member of the Axis during World War II, or gets absorbed as another Soviet/Warsaw Pact satellite state.

The chain of events goes on and on. There is an eminently clear chain of events from Martin Luther at Worms in 1521 to the American Revolution. Meanwhile, the non-success the Lord Protectorate and Commonwealth of England turned out less promising than was hoped -- ironically, arguably predisposing England to being less sympathetic to greater democracy. But the colonies were shielded from this, and their original constitutions and charters were never amended in the now-becoming-more-disenchanted-with-democracy England. Following a lack of consistent colonial policy and a lot of vacillating by various British governments, the American Revolution happens, and Britain loses control of the land and people would come to supplant it as the dominant world power one and a half centuries later.

(2)

Until you can start seeing the threads and chains of history across nations, interactions, and long stretches of time, history is a set of often-interesting stories -- but the larger picture remains blurry and out-of-focus. The lessons come once you can synthesize it all.

Hideyoshi Toyotomi's 1588 sword hunt was designed to take away weapons and chances of rebellious factions overthrowing his unified government of Japan. The policy was continued by his successor after the Toyotomi/Tokugawa Civil War, which leads to the Tokugawa forces losing to the Imperial Restoration in 1868 as their skill at warfare had atrophied; common soldiers with Western artillery were able to out-combat samurai with obsolete weapons.

Nurhaci founded the Qing Dynasty around the time Japan was being unified, with a mix of better command structures and tactics. But the dynasty hardened into traditionalism and was backwards-looking when Western technology and imperialists came with greater frequency in the late 1800's. The Japanese foreign minister Ito Hirobumi offered to help the Qing modernize along the lines Imperial Japan had modernized while looking for a greater alliance with the Chinese. But, Empress Dowager Cixi arrests and executes the reform-minded ministers of Emperor Guangxu and later, most likely, poisoned the reform-minded Emperor Guangxu. (He died of arsenic poisoning when Cixi was on her deathbed; someone poisoned him; Cixi or someone acting under her orders is the most likely culprit.)

The weak Qing Dynasty starts dealing with ever-more-frequent invasions, diplomatic extortions, and rebellions and revolutions. The Japanese invade China a generation after Hirobumi was rebuffed, and the Qing Dynasty entirely falls apart. After the Japanese unconditional surrender, the Chinese Civil War starts; the Communists win. 

(3)

From this, we can start drawing lessons and tracing histories, seeing patterns. We start to see how things could have broken differently. Perhaps Germany and France were doomed to constant warfare due to geopolitics; maybe this is true.

But certainly, it's not at all obvious that Mustafa Kemal would lead the ruins of the Ottoman Empire into modern Turkey, and (seemingly against overwhelming odds) keep neutrality during World War II, rebuff Stalin and stay removed from Soviet conquest, and maintain a country with secular and modern laws that honors Muslim culture without giving way to warlordism as happened to much of the rest of the Middle East.

Likewise, we can clearly see how the policies of Empress Dowager Cixi ended the chance for a pan-East-Asian alliance, trade bloc, or federation; it's not inconceivable to imagine a world today were China and Japan are incredibly close allies, and much of the world's centers of commerce, finance, and power are consolidated in a Tokyo-Beijing-Seoul alliance. Sure, it's inconceivable with hindsight, but Japan in 1910 and Japan in 1930 are very different countries; and the struggling late Qing Dynasty is different than the fledgling competing factions in China after the fall of the Qing.

We can see, observing historical events from broad strokes, the huge differences individuals can make at leveraged points, the eventual outcomes in Turkey and East Asia were not-at-all foreordained by geography, demographics, or trends.

(4)

Originally, I was sketching out some of these trends of history to make a larger point about how modern minds have a hard time understanding older governments -- in a world where "personal rule" is entirely rebuffed in the more developed countries, it is hard to imagine how the Qing Dynasty or Ottoman Empire actually functioned. The world after the Treaty of Westphalia is incredibly different than the world before it, and the world before strict border controls pre-WWI is largely unrecognizable to us.

That was the piece I was going to write, about how we project modern institutions and understandings backwards, and how that means we can't understand what actually happened. The Ottomans and Qing were founded before modern nationalism had emerged, and the way their subjects related to them is so alien to us that it's almost impossible to conceive of how their culture and governance actually ran.

(5)

I might still pen that piece, if there's interest in it -- my attempt at a brief introduction came to result in this very different one, focused on a different particular point: the threshold effect in learning history.

I would say there's broadly three thresholds:

The first looks at a series of isolated events. You wind up with some witty quips, like: Astor saying, "Sir, if you were my husband, I would poison your drink." Churchill: "If I were married to you, I'd drink it." 

Or moments of great drama: "And so the die is cast." "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes." "There is nothing to fear except fear itself."

These aren't so bad to learn; they're an okay jumping-off place. Certainly, Caesar's decision to march on Rome, Nobunaga's speech before the Battle of Okehazama, or understanding why Washington made the desperate gamble to cross the Delaware all offerlessons.

But seeing how the Marian military reforms, Sulla's purges, and the Gracchi brothers created the immediate situation before Julius Caesar's fateful crossing is more interesting, and tracing the lines backwards, seeing how Rome's generations-long combat with Hannibal's Carthage turned the city-state into a fully militarized conquest machine, and then following the lines onwards to see how the Romans relied on unit cohesion which, once learned by German adversaries, led to the fall of Rome -- this is much more interesting. 

That's the second threshold of history to me: when isolated events start becoming regional chains; that's tracing Napoleon's invasion of Germany to Bismarck to the to World War I to the Treaty of Versailles to WWII.

Some people get to this level of history, and it makes you quickly an expert in a particular country.

But I think that's a poor place to stop learning: if you can truly get your mind around a long stretch of time in a nation, it's time to start coloring the map. When you can broadly know how Korea is developing simultaneous with Japan; how the Portugese/Spanish rivalry and Vatican compromises are affecting Asia's interactions with the Age of Sail Westerners; how Protestantism is creating rivals to Catholic power, two of which later equip the Japanese's Imperial Faction, which kicks off the Asian side of World War II -- this is when history starts really paying dividends and teaching worthwhile lessons.

The more you get into it, the more there is to learn. Regions that don't get much historical interest from Americans like Tito's Yugoslavia become fascinating to look at how they stayed out of Soviet Control and played the Western and Eastern blocs against each other; the chain of events takes a sad turn when Tito's successors can't keep the country together, the Yugoslav Wars follow, and its successor states still don't have the levels of relative prosperity and influence that Yugoslavia had in its heyday. 

Yugoslavia is hard to get one's mind around by itself, but it's easy to color the map in with a decent understanding of Turkey, Germany, and Russia. Suddenly, figures and policies and conflicts and economics and culture start coming alive; lessons and patterns are everywhere.

I don't read much fiction any more, because most fiction can't compete with the sheer weight, drama, and insightfulness of history. Apparently some Kuomintang soldiers held out against the Chinese Communists and fought irregular warfare while funding their conflicts with heroin production in the regions of Burma and Thailand -- I just got a book on it, further coloring in the map of the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War, and that aspect of it upon the backdrop of the Cold War and containment, and how the Sino/Soviet split led to America normalizing relations with China, and...

...it never ends, and it's been one of the most insightful areas of study across my life.

History in that first threshold -- isolated battles, quotes, the occasional drama -- frankly, it offers only a slight glimmer of what's possible to learn.

Likewise, the second level of knowing a particular country's rise and fall over time can be insightful, but I would encourage anyone that has delved into history that much to not stop there: you're not far from the gates unlocking to large wellsprings of knowledge, a nearly infinite source of ideas, inspiration, case studies, and all manner of other sources of new and old ideas and very practical guidance.

65 comments

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comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T13:53:19.603Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

That's the second threshold of history to me: when isolated events start becoming regional chains; that's tracing Napoleon's invasion of Germany to Bismarck to the to World War I to the Treaty of Versailles to WWII.

Some people get to this level of history, and it makes you quickly an expert in a particular country.

It's very easy to think that you understand causality on that level. However given how hard it is to determine causality you are very likely just telling yourself a story.

comment by lionhearted · 2014-10-17T14:55:44.220Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Generally a good thing to be wary of, but I don't think it applies in this case.

In this case, I don't think so. Since the Charlemagne, Germans divided estates between their children (instead of primogeniture, eldest child inheriting) which is why Germany would keep fragmenting even when they had good rulers. [1] [2]

Napoleon showed the need for greater security in confederation and sparked modern nationalism. That's all largely uncontroversial. [3]

I think the best explanation of World War I's causes -- more than the alliance structure -- is Great Power Rivalty; [4] see the Realist scholars in general [5] for what I think is the most convincing description of how international relations usually plays out (specifically, defensive realism). [6]

There's also possible explanations, though in terms of looking at causality, the other major cause that's most often advanced is the alliance structure; but that, too, was developed by Prince Metternich in response to Napoleon. [7] [8]

Then of course the Treaty of Versailles, I think everyone agrees about that being a major cause of World War II.

In any event, it took me longer to get links together than I expected, so I'll leave on this note: you're right be wary of just-so stories, but I'd recommend equal vigilance against whimsically throwing out a line like "just telling yourself a story" -- certainly, popular media has lots of examples of that and it's a good thing to generally be wary of, but there's a night-and-day difference between detailed free-ranging non-biased analysis and coming up with a just-so story. Any analysis might be wrong, of course, but if so, it deserves critique rather than just a caution that it might be incorrect, no?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francia#Divided_empire.2C_after_840 [2] http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/206280?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104947106503 [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Empire#Background [4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-German_naval_arms_race [5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realism_(international_relations) [6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defensive_realism [7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klemens_von_Metternich [8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_of_Europe

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T15:54:20.547Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Everyone agrees doesn't imply that something is true. Just take a look at any decent science to see how hard it is to detect causality.

It's quite easy to tell a story of how Giuliani implemented the broken windows doctrine and then crime rates fall. Then it might be that it's all just effects of lead on children brain development. It might be some other random reason. Freakonomics did suggest that it was abortions.

Your history analysis that focuses on governments as actors completely ignores effects such as the environmental effects of lead. There quite a lot that happened in the 19th century as far as the industrial revolution goes.

You are ignoring the meta-level. In the 19th century we got schools with compulsory education and children where taught that nation states are really important. History was told as a bunch of actions of state actors. Things happened because of ministers, princes and kings. If your goal is getting people to believe in nation states that's useful. But that goal is different from the goal of truth.

Niall Ferguson for example manages to tell a quite different history. There's money. The importing of good math notation, allows calculation of new forms of debt. The French Revolution happened because the French state sunk in debt. Bankers amassed a lot of money and picked winners and losers in wars. Many times corruption wasn't even illegal in the early 19th century. Some politicians didn't get a salary because they made more than enough money via bribes.

it risks being one of those serious-sounding cautions that doesn't actually throw much light on situations.

Sometimes the keys just don't lie under the street light.

comment by lionhearted · 2014-10-17T19:05:13.336Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

You're falling into a trap -- you're saying things that are technically true, but are out of context. Just your opening sentence --

Everyone agrees doesn't imply that something is true.

Of course not. But "just about everyone who has looked at it from every angle agrees the Treaty of Versailles was a major contributor to World War II" is... true.

You know? If you don't think the Treaty of Versailles -- the reparations, Germany's poverty levels, the fact that the Nazi party had armed militia/thugs that were larger than the official German army due to the troop limitation clauses it, etc -- if you don't think that was a major contributing factor to WWII, then I don't know what else to say to you.

Your history analysis that focuses on governments as actors completely ignores effects such as the environmental effects of lead. ... You are ignoring the meta-level.

Assumption on your part which are false. Actually, nutrition levels and environmental effects are huge. It's also worth studying.

Making points like the fact that universal education (modeled on the Prussian Education System -- I'd find you links but you don't appear to have made any effort to read the last set of links) -- this is, like, History 201 level stuff here. You're saying things that are true but not applicable; you're also assuming a lower level of rigor (why?) without just asking if I've looked into environmental effects. Come on man, this is bad form.

Sometimes the keys just don't lie under the street light.

The witty quips are lame. Come on, dude, pseudo-wisdom slogans aren't the way. Also picking pop narratives in the vein of Freakonomics or Gladwell type stuff to beat down is strawmanning.

The sad thing is, you actually have some valuable points and a lot of smart things to say -- but witty quipping and making blind assumptions is an easy way to derail discussions.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T19:38:55.745Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In the field of medicine we have a lot of experience that suggests finding out causation is really hard. Anecdotal evidence frequently leads people astray. For some reason people think that just because good quality evidence isn't available, they can get by with lower quality evidence when it comes to a domain such as history and still find out about causality.

Assumption on your part which are false. Actually, nutrition levels and environmental effects are huge. It's also worth studying.

If nutrition levels are the main reason for nation for Bismarck's actions, then Napoleon isn't.

The witty quips are lame.

You assumed my intention is "shredding" light when it's much better described as wanting to show that there's darkness.

My concern is not so much about individual points but about the method being wrong.

comment by spatiality · 2014-10-17T16:53:40.801Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes i wanted to especially bring Ferguson up. But I wonder how he tests his hypotheses. (I haven't read anything yet, just had the luck to stumble upon his oeuvre on youtube - and that was that for my workplace concentration..)

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T15:22:58.838Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Any analysis might be wrong, of course, but if so, it deserves critique rather than just a caution that it might be incorrect, no?

The thing is, the analysis you're speaking of is not testable. There is no way to establish whether it's true or not (and the meaning of the word "true" in this context is a complicated debate of its own).

Besides, you're at the mercy of the authors of your sources. If an author was biased, or wanted to push a particular agenda, or was mistaken, or just deliberately lied -- and you cannot reliably cross-check him -- your conclusions will be bunk and you won't know it.

comment by spatiality · 2014-10-17T16:58:28.419Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But are there testable hypotheses in history? I just really want to know, because I have seen this argumentation pattern that I'd love to call 'instant historicising' whereas an argumenter says ' Oh this was a totally different situation and has so nothing to do with this other situation so we shouldn't even ever compare' whereas my mind goes bing - .

comment by lalaithion · 2014-10-17T17:32:59.579Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It would be easy to construct situations where historians could have opportunities to make and test hypotheses. Just find a section of history they don't know anything about, and give them a summary of 99 years, and ask them to predict what happens in the 100th. Or give them a summary of a couple years and ask them to fill in more complex details. Or give them descriptions of what happened on either side of a year, and ask them to figure out what happens during that year. Then see if they predict accurate things.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T17:40:58.784Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It would be easy to construct

I can't see how could that possibly work in practice. At best you'll be constructing exams for individual historians, but not tests for theories.

find a section of history they don't know anything about ... and ask them to predict

I see, um, some tension between the bolded parts... X-)

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T17:37:11.641Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think there are testable hypotheses in history, though there are certainly falsifiable ones in the sense that they could be shown wrong (which does NOT mean they could be proven right).

A simple example is the hypothesis that Columbus was the first European to discover the New World. It was successfully falsified by finding a Viking settlement in Newfoundland.

However if you say that, for example, the main cause of WW1 was the Great Power rivalry, well, I don't know how that could (realistically) be falsified.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-10-17T17:25:35.121Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

At first it did look like he suggested cause-and-effect. But he didn't use the term "cause" once, but always things like "chains of events" or "led to". And these are sufficiently ambiguous to allow could-have-gone-differently views. And the more details he paints in the more compelling the results become (and have to, Bayesian-wise).

History is information. There are patterns to be learned, art-of-war like and other. And the fuller your picture the more to infer. Presuming you don't fall into the trap of drawing picture details that aren't there but make for nicer patterns.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T18:23:35.194Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

History is information. There are patterns to be learned, art-of-war like and other.

You can basically decide on the patterns that you want to teach and then go back and construct your history to teach them. That's how national identities are build. The EU currently tries to do this to create an European identity.

History get's taught to make people patriotic gives them a structure about how the world is supposed to work.

And the more details he paints in the more compelling the results become (and have to, Bayesian-wise).

Actually more details should make the results less compelling Bayesian-wise. It's unlikely to get many details right. On the other hand human biases does make a detailed explanation seem more compelling.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-10-17T19:16:38.781Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You can basically decide on the patterns that you want to teach and then go back and construct your history to teach them.

Sure you can do propaganda. And maybe a lot of history books are misinformation. But as long as you can get enough diverse information I should think that one should be able to filter this out (lots of years after the fact).

Actually more details should make the results less compelling Bayesian-wise.

No. I mean it is possible to udate on the same evidence into opposite directions, but that requires assumptions I don't think are met be the diverse range of historical records. And if you have got more information the actual outcome should become more likely.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T19:40:16.525Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sure you can do propaganda. And maybe a lot of history books are misinformation. But as long as you can get enough diverse information I should think that one should be able to filter this out (lots of years after the fact).

You don't have good quality information of the kind that double controlled trials provide. You are left with information that allows telling multiple different stories. In German "story" and "history" both is the same word "Geschichte".

You don't need people who want to lie. People write about topics instead of other topic because of motivation. That motivation effects what they write. Certain ideas build together the major-consensus narrative. You will find those ideas in much of the Western literature and there not that much diversity on a fundamental level.

It's quite possible that the information about some of the most important actors in the 19st century just isn't in your data. Especially causations like the one between changes in lead and crime rates require a great deal of effort and data. We can't expect to find those for most of what happened in the 19th century.

comment by Jiro · 2014-10-17T19:55:06.800Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In German "story" and "history" both is the same word "Geschichte".

If this was evidence for anything, then the existence of other languages which distinguish between them would be evidence against it. Do you believe that the existence of other languages that distinguish between the two is evidence against it?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T20:09:35.573Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't believe that it's strong evidence. It's more like a pointer to illustrate an idea. Furthermore the version of history that says that other countries copied the prussian school system is quite popular. Hegel also sometimes get cited for inventing history.

comment by AnthonyC · 2014-10-18T12:53:23.393Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Hegel also sometimes get cited for inventing history.

I'm pretty sure you need to go back to at least Herodotus to get that title.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-18T13:02:15.359Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Herodotus wrote down a list of things that happened in the past. On the other hand he didn't have a sense of history that's about society progressing.

The Roman did value accounts of the ancients and the value of the knowledge of the ancients. They feared that their society declined. That's very different from the modern idea of history where societies progress. That notion is often attributed to Hegel.

comment by hairyfigment · 2014-10-18T19:23:45.427Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, but the Romans also had a guy talking about 'a new order of the ages,' bringing back the Golden Age. Christianity had the idea of Christ returning once the Gospel had reached everywhere. Both Descartes and Bacon made sweeping claims about the benefits of secular investigation.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-18T23:32:54.911Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Bringing back the Golden Age, assumes that you could just go back. That's very different from the modern notion of history as something that progresses.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-10-17T20:23:08.264Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The OP did give lots and lots of examples and I'd guess that those were only examples for many more he could give. Of course I can't exclude that lionhearted just made up his own grande story but it doesn't look that way. Even if you could disprove some of the relations he drew that doesn't mean that there are no connections and lessons to be had.

The interesting question is whether he could do actual predictions (and be it at a low probability level) about future events (or events he don't already know about) from what he learned.

But even if that fails drawing connections still probably enabled him to memorize all this data.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T20:40:43.020Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Even if you could disprove some of the relations he drew that doesn't mean that there are no connections and lessons to be had.

My point isn't about disproving individual relations. Plenty of time the true cause will be an unknown unknown. I point is that I distrust the field on a more fundamental level.

The interesting question is whether he could do actual predictions (and be it at a low probability level) about future events (or events he don't already know about) from what he learned.

Research suggests that making good predictions about the future needs training on making prediction and then exposing yourself to feedback.

If we want to actually do predictions, prediction book is always available.

But even if that fails drawing connections still probably enabled him to memorize all this data.

That's true. Narratives are quite good for remembering data. While I was in school and still believed in history I had no trouble to get the data from a text I read once and integrate it into an essay.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-10-17T21:15:54.651Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
  1. Maybe.

  2. Good idea.

  3. So we agree.

comment by satt · 2014-10-18T17:11:24.550Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm picking up two messages here.

The first is that there's positive feedback in learning history; the more history you know, the more easily & enjoyably you can learn even more. I think that's most likely true.

The second is that history, of the sort history departments teach, is a rich source of broad, powerful, practical insights that demands study. I'm a bit sceptical. While learning history is salutary, I reckon the marginal gain per unit effort is low compared to other things one could begin to learn, like statistics, programming, psychology, economics, and probably anthropology. I suspect historians overrate the quantity & generalizability of the lessons we can learn from history of the sort history departments teach, and this post doesn't make much of an opposing case.

Some history pretty obviously is useful to know, and I've cited it here myself over the years. The curious thing is that it's rarely history of the monarchs-&-diplomats-&-battles sort the post touches on, but things like economic history or the history of public opinion or the history of science, engineering & medicine. I don't know how much that reflects my own idiosyncratic interests and how much reflects non-stereotypical history being more useful than stereotypical monarchs-&-diplomats-&-battles history. I'd guess a bit of both. (Maybe I should make a post about non-stereotypical history being potentially more informative?)

(Incidentally, taking up the example of Yugoslavia because I've read a bit about it lately, the most interesting inference I've seen derived from it came to me from the political scientist John Mueller rather than a historian. Mueller argues that the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were not ethnic wars in the sense of being explosions of pre-existing, widely felt, militant ethnic hatreds. Ethnicity served primarily as an organizational device and rallying point for bands of criminals, mercenaries, and paramilitary gangs.)

comment by Capla · 2014-10-18T16:46:46.591Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Given that you've read a lot of history, what are the top 15-25, books you'd recommend? Which one's best push you closer to level 2 and level 3 insight?

In general, do you have advice for how to best work towards that higher level understanding?

Perhaps more importantly, which books have you read that you would recommend that I skip?

comment by lionhearted · 2014-10-19T01:01:28.860Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

There's plenty of good places to start. Far more important than having a sort of "best" book on history would be having one that highly engages you. In that regard, biographies of particular leaders tend to be more engaging, since there's a protagonist and we can generally understand their story. Ron Chernow is an excellent biographer, and both "Titan" (about John Rockefeller) and "Washington: A Life" are both pretty good starting places, since if you're American, you already know at least a basic understanding of the major cities of the time, the economy, the laws, etc.

Again, when starting, I think being engaging is key. Eiji Yoshikawa wrote two excellent period accurate historical fictions, "Musashi" about the famous samurai and "Taiko" about the second greater unifier of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Both are very engaging and great jumping-off points into Japan's Sengoku Warring States era.

I generally recommend against broad historical overviews of a time period of large nation as a starting place, because it's too easy to get lost. One possible exception might be Jan Morris's "Heaven's Command" about the British Empire. Morris takes an approach that makes history much more understandable and relatable by telling the story of the British Empire through the lens of individual characters. Morris will, for instance, take a British lieutenant who is being sent to India and follow his journey by steamship in getting to India, the ports he stopped at, discussions of the sights he saw, discussions of the treatment he received for malaria, etc. Morris uses all real figures and reals from letters, newspapers, telegraphs, archived records, war plans, etc. It makes the history really come alive even if you don't necessarily have the whole regional context. Morris's followup "Pax Britannica" is also excellent, though you'd want to read Heaven's Command first. Morris is very pro-British and says so in the introduction to the book, but I think is also very fair about British mishandlings of Ireland, the Sepoy Mutiny, the Kabul Retreat, etc.

I think there's a lot of value in reading histories written 100 to 200 years ago, because you learn about two eras: the era that is written about, and the recent past. Count Egon Corti's 1927 "Rise of House Rothschild" is a masterpiece for understanding both the establishment of the international banking system and for (indirectly) understanding Monarchical Europe at its final apex.

Again, the work being engaging and meaningful to you is really important. H.W. Brands's "The First American" about Benjamin Franklin is excellent but I wouldn't recommend it; too long and boring. (I'm listening to it on audiobook and it's 95% complete, yet taking a lot of discipline to finish it; Brands is thorough and rigorous, arguably too rigorous). Getting pleasure out of the book and engaging well with it builds momentum, which is key.

Audiobooks can be great for a couple reasons: first, a compelling narrator can really make a story come alive. Second, if there's (for instance) some confusing troop movements between cities that have since been renamed, if it's written it'll throw you off (at least, that throws me off), but if it's audio, you'll just keep moving. Early on when studying history, names and places you don't recognize come at you frequently -- in my experience, the work to dig into relatively minor characters early on isn't worth it. Like, when learning about the end of the Roman Republic and its transition to Roman Empire, the names Marius, Sulla, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Mithradates, and a whole lot more come up -- but on your first goings-through, I'd say don't dig too deeply. Eventually you'll want to follow up with all of these characters and understand them, but it's nearly impossible to fully get one's mind simultaneously around Caesar/Pompey/Crassus/Cicero (and all the other supporting characters) and likewise Marius/Sulla and their supporting characters, and the intervening years after Sulla's dictatorship and before the next wave of civil wars and threats.

So -- audio can help. On that score, the narrator is key -- I'll often choose audiobooks based on narrator instead of author. Adequate-writing-great-narration tends to be more engaging than great-writing-adequate-narration. I really, really like Charlton Griffin as a narrator; "Charlemagne: From the Hammer to the Cross" is nearly mesmerizing at times and is almost perfectly produced. His audio version of Julius Caesar's autobiographical Commentaries about the Gallic Wars is also terrific.

Whilst on the audio kick, the "Hardcore History" podcast by Dan Carlin is exceptional. "Death Throes of the Roman Republic" would be a terrific series to start with from that podcast. "Ghosts of the Ostfront" is horrific and will likely put you in a bad mood for a few weeks (so be careful), but it was the first time I fully started to grasp the savagery and desperation of the Eastern Front in World War II.

What else? Autobiographies are usually worthwhile, as are technical books or histories, especially ones written by leading figures. Machiavelli's "The Prince" should be read sooner or later. If you wind up deciding to read about the early German Empire, "Moltke on War" translates and curates orders, military texts, and doctrine documents from Helmuth von Moltke, who is perhaps the single most underrated military figure in history. (He was the Chief of the military when Bismarck was Chancellor; Bismarck, being a genius at multiple disciplines and immensely quotable, gets more attention from as a symbolic figure of the era, but in terms of adjusting disciplines to emerging technology -- telegraphs, railroads, troop movements, reporting structures, resources, munitions, setting hierarchies of objectives, etc -- Moltke is one of the greatest at this, and he's probably the best general ever to dictate and write the sheer volume of writings for the military academy and instructions for his officers).

To get to "threshold 2" insight, fall in love with a particular region's history, and follow it forwards and backwards multiple generations, and examine individual lives of important figures from multiple perspectives. Read about Julius Caesar from multiple perspectives, read about Pompey, read about Crassus, etc. Go east a bit and read about Mithradates the Great ("The Poison King" is a good book on him). Read about Cleopatra and Anthony. Go back in time and read about Hannibal, Fabius, and Scipio. ("Scipio Africanus" by BH Liddel-Hart is really, really good; an amazing short work). Start connecting the dots. Read Cicero and Caesar's works.

"Threshold 3" guidance is harder to give. But you start looking for trends. Carthage is a naval power that is rich (from trade) that relies on a largely mercenary army. You'll come across that, note it down, note the disastrous "Mercenary War" of Carthage, and move on.

Then, maybe you're studying the American Revolution, and you realize that the British Empire (also a rich naval trading empire) relied on mercenary soldiers, and maybe you note that Washington ambushed foreign mercenaries -- Hessians -- at Trenton after he crossed the Delaware. That's interesting, isn't it? You note it down and keep moving on.

Over time, you start learning about the defensive ability of maritime powers with great navies, but also their relative vulnerabilities.

Maybe, over time, you start noticing that certain personality types and backgrounds that rise to the height of power often overreach in their lifetimes: note Napoleon's overreach in Spain and then invading Russia while the Spanish situation was still a problem; note Hideyoshi Toyotomi declaring war on the Ming and Joseon Dynasties with his still-not-consolidated unified Japan; note Adolf Hitler. Similar patterns; minimal consolidation. You file in that in your memory as you notice it.

Eventually you start connecting dots.

What else? If you really like a historical era, sooner or later you'll want to head over to Wikipedia and start Wiki-walking heavily to familiarize yourself with the names, places, maps, timetables, and everything of the era. "Sengoku" and its many offshoots was one of the big catalysts for me. Eventually you'll want to start reading less personal histories like Weatherford's History of Money that traces technologies, cultures, or trends... I'm wary of these types of histories, since they're far more likely to be seemingly-convincing-but-wrong, but sooner or later you'll have to get into them. Like, if you read about how the huge force was destroyed by Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae you'll draw your own conclusions but regardless of what conclusions you draw, you'll be dealing largely in facts. If you read "The Blundering Battle Syndrome" (I just made that up) you'll get a hand-picked list that supports the author's point but probably lacks counterexamples; I want to deal in facts and start identifying trends on my own primarily.

Whew. Long comment. Hope there's some useful jumping-off points for you there. Let me know if you take up any of the suggestions, and how it goes for you.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-21T04:05:24.756Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I notice a lack of primary sources on those examples.

comment by Nornagest · 2014-10-20T22:21:31.659Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I've heard that Hideyoshi didn't seriously intend to conquer the Ming and Joseon, and that those campaigns were intended more as a way of nominally fulfilling land claims he'd made to supporters during his previous conquests: "oh, right, I did promise a fiefdom to you. Well, it's over there, you just need to conquer it." If they succeeded, he'd expanded his holdings and fulfilled his obligations; if they failed, they'd be dead or in disgrace.

Not sure I actually believe it, but it's a clever solution and fits with my model of Hideyoshi's personality.

(While we're on the late Sengoku period, Tokugawa Ieyasu stands out as an outstandingly ambitious general that really understood the consolidation thing. The [scary, totalitarian, but stable] dynasty he put in place lasted for 300 years and only cracked once American and British gunships proved that progress outside had caught up with them.)

comment by Capla · 2014-10-20T20:31:38.026Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Wow. Thank you. I'll put some of these on my docket and see where they take me.

I think the point about finding engaging texts being more important than finding the "best" texts is generalizable beyond history.

comment by AShepard · 2014-10-18T17:02:24.803Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Seconded. Or more generally, a framework for how to put together a good reading list, would be extremely helpful.

comment by James_Miller · 2014-10-17T15:50:50.748Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Something seems off about Roman history. Rome should have been in a Malthusian trap which should have made it easy for the army to find recruits among Roman citizens yet for much of the Empire's history this doesn't seem to have been the case as the Empire relied on Germans to fill the lower ranks. Why? What was the check on Roman population growth if it wasn't starvation? Was it disease?

comment by bramflakes · 2014-10-17T17:53:35.400Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Home politics in Rome were incredibly fragile. The ruling elites were never really safe from the next angry uprising, which led to all kinds of economic and political appeasement - this is where we get the phrase "bread and circuses" because that's what the Emperor literally had to hand out for free. Whoever proposed heavy conscription would not long keep his job (or head). Italia was essentially a black hole that sucked in resources from the outer provinces - troops from Germania, bread from Aegyptius, taxes from everywhere else.

As for the Malthusian trap, for Italia at least the answer is simple: they emigrated. Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies goes into great detail on Rome's perverse economic/demographic situation.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-10-18T07:41:41.279Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm listening to his 90 minute video about his ideas-- he says that the Romans hit an era where their taxes were so high that people couldn't afford to have enough children to replace themselves. Since things weren't working, the taxes were raised higher.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-18T01:54:50.762Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My understanding is that the affluence the Empire afforded them lead to Rome (and much of Italy) experiencing a demographic transition similar to the one modern developed nations are experiencing.

comment by James_Miller · 2014-10-18T02:22:04.976Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But we did it with effective birth control and safe abortions. What did Rome use? Was it infanticide?

comment by SisterY · 2014-10-22T09:27:19.510Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

From Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms:

"The intervening factor that kept [Roman] Egyptian birth rates lower than we would expect was again social custom. In northwestern Europe younger widows commonly remarried, but not in Roman Egypt. Furthermore, divorce was possible in Egypt. But while divorced husbands commonly remarried younger women, divorced women typically did not remarry. Thus while in Egypt almost all the women got married, the proportion still married fell steadily from age 20. Consequently women surviving to age 50 typically gave birth to only 6 children rather than 8."

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-18T02:49:48.292Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

What did Rome use?

Well, condoms go back to ancient Egypt.

But we did it with effective birth control and safe abortions.

That's not quite accurate. The crucial change was that people stopped wanting to have as many children. Also in both cases late marriage played a big role.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-18T06:45:36.731Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, condoms go back to ancient Egypt.

This is far from saying they were comfortable, effective or easy enough to manufacture to be widely in use.

That's not quite accurate. The crucial change was that people stopped wanting to have as many children.

Effective birth control and safe abortions are an easy and threshold lowering means to that end.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-10-21T06:29:24.930Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The demographic transition is first observed in the 18th century, without what people usually think of as "effective birth control and safe abortions."

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-21T09:31:11.884Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What do you think caused it?

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-22T02:26:02.996Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

As it happens I recently came across a blog post/essay on this very topic.

comment by Izeinwinter · 2014-10-21T19:49:07.795Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Methods used to limit fertility historically 1: Non-penetrative intercourse. Oral isn't new, and is very reliable. 2: very late marriages. 3: Prostitution and /unsafe/ abortions. (this is a really depressing bit of history...)

comment by hairyfigment · 2014-10-18T03:13:47.188Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I've seen the assertion that Rome had an effective birth control drug which they drove to extinction. Not sure how much I believe this.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-18T08:04:21.228Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"It was said that it could be used to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches and pains, warts, and all kinds of maladies." :)

comment by Capla · 2014-10-18T16:49:39.170Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've never heard of woo contraceptives. Getting pregnant isn't susceptible to the placebo effect, and its pretty obvious when it doesn't work.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-18T17:08:58.085Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Getting pregnant may be more difficult than you think. Even if there's no placebo, there's still confirmation and disconfirmation bias and argument from authority i.e. doctors. Perhaps it wasn't marketed as a perfectly reliable contraceptive and therefore noticing that it doesn't work would have been more difficult. Medical authorities could explain the failures away with the phases of the moon or the will of the gods or something similarly silly.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-10-17T16:54:45.776Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Rome should have been in a Malthusian trap which should have made it easy for the army to find recruits among Roman citizens yet for much of the Empire's history this doesn't seem to have been the case as the Empire relied on Germans to fill the lower ranks.

Does this imply that Roman citizens could not serve in the army, or that they would not? In the US today, you can get more Southerners than Northerners to sign up for the army at any given pay rate, and it would not surprise me if similar cultural, ethnic, and economic effects led to Germans being overrepresented in the Roman army.

comment by Nornagest · 2014-10-17T19:14:56.035Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's not quite accurate to say that the Roman Empire relied on Germans to fill the lower ranks of its army, at least before 212. Typically the Romans would form battalion- or regiment-sized units wholesale from a particular territory, from troopers to high officer ranks (sometimes under a Roman commander). Roman citizens (originally only from Rome proper, but from all of Italia after the Marian reforms) formed the famous legions; the provinces formed auxiliary forces of various kinds, and the latter became more important in comparison to the former as the empire grew. They also tended to grow closer to each other in terms of organization; the first auxiliary forces used their native weapons and tactics, but that distinction eroded over time.

Also, the legions were a major public employment project in the late Republican period and the early empire, with 125,000 legionaries under Tiberius at a time when Rome was a city of a million. Manpower shortages grew severe enough by Diocletian's time that he had to institute conscription, but that may have been a consequence of more need for troops rather than declining enlistment.

comment by James_Miller · 2014-10-17T17:14:49.856Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If lots of people are starving but the army is well fed you would expect plenty of people to want to join the army.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-10-17T18:46:14.604Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If lots of people are starving but the army is well fed you would expect plenty of people to want to join the army.

Right, but why would the army want to pay them? I would not be surprised if the army had some sort of physical standards that the destitute were unlikely to meet.

comment by James_Miller · 2014-10-17T19:25:15.764Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I would not be surprised if the army had some sort of physical standards that the destitute were unlikely to meet.

If this were true it would mostly explain my confusion, although I would still expect that fear of future starvation would push many parents to get their healthy sons to enlist.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T19:32:42.214Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would still expect that fear of future starvation would push many parents to get their healthy sons to enlist.

Future is uncertain. You have to balance your sons' chances of dying from starvation against their chances of being ordered to march into the Teutoburg Forest...

comment by James_Miller · 2014-10-17T15:46:33.851Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Have you noticed a Flynn Effect in historical patterns?

comment by lionhearted · 2014-10-19T01:24:31.654Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Literacy and numeracy are huge, and universal literacy and numeracy anywhere at all is relatively extremely new. Those both make people think much better.

Better communications, transportation, medicine, and agricultural production also mean better mental development for all involved. So, across the board, I'd say yes, people are getting "smarter" for most definitions of smarter.

comment by Capla · 2014-10-18T16:52:43.550Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know what this means. Can you elaborate?

edit: Oh, wait. Were you asking OP?

comment by James_Miller · 2014-10-18T16:53:46.007Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes

comment by owencb · 2014-10-17T11:16:11.349Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like you're gesturing in a similar direction to Big History. I wonder if you'd like to highlight what you see as the distinctions?

comment by atucker · 2014-10-17T20:02:35.299Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My impression is that the OP says that history is valuable and deep without needing to go back as far as the big bang -- that there's a lot of insight in connecting the threads of different regional histories in order to gain an understanding of how human society works, without needing to go back even further.

comment by AnthonyC · 2014-10-17T11:49:10.884Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's really awesome. I'd never heard the term big history. I've always tried to convey a similar idea with terms like "stepping back from your own point of view" or "cosmic perspective."

To the original post: do you think there is a fourth tier, maybe with predictive value, where someone (a human being, not a Bayesian superintelligence) can draw on these observations to identify these leverage points and make informed decisions during them?

comment by DanArmak · 2014-10-17T13:53:39.311Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

a fourth tier, maybe with predictive value, where someone (a human being, not a Bayesian superintelligence) can draw on these observations to identify these leverage points and make informed decisions during them?

I.e. psychohistory.

comment by AnthonyC · 2014-10-18T12:58:53.132Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Good point. Hadn't noticed that connection. I don't think I had anything quite that sophisticated in mind, but that's the underlying idea.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-10-20T12:38:31.238Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That was the piece I was going to write, about how we project modern institutions and understandings backwards, and how that means we can't understand what actually happened.

A treatise I've been mentally assembling over the past year is the invisibility of (contemporary, Western) institutions, how their effects are implicitly seen as a natural state of humanity, and how this means we can't understand what's actually happening. I'd be interested in reading the piece you're talking about here.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-10-20T10:35:31.567Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am thinking about how to make history more interesting for people, to bring it to near mode.

Perhaps writing a series of fiction books about immortal individuals who start at the beginning of history and observe first-hand everything that happens around them. And make them move so that they are present at all important events in given country. However, they shouldn't influence the events, because that would be against the goal of describing the real historical causes. Could comment on the events, or even give advice to important people, though.

Or make it a group of people, so that there is one of them at each important event. Actually, if it is a group of people, they don't even have to be immortal. But there should be some common identity, so the reader has a reason to follow there people. Perhaps they are a family? Or maybe the common identity is not even necessary; just good writing.

Shortly, I imagine a long series of novels that are easy to read, and if you read all of them, they give you a decent understanding of history.

comment by rule_and_line · 2014-10-23T21:44:21.280Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for sharing your experience!

In case you or any other LWers would find these interesting, here are some resources I've enjoyed:

I personally worry about moving from "reading history for insight" to "reading history for insight porn". What actions do you take to push back against that tendency?

Finally, FWIW, this sentence jumped off the page when I read it:

I don't read much fiction any more, because most fiction can't compete with the sheer weight, drama, and insightfulness of history.

There was a time in my life when I would have emphatically agreed. These days I have to disagree, though. I've taken to reading history for the experience of viewing the same events from multiple conflicting perspectives. I feel like it widens my set of available reference classes for common issues. Since shifting to view history as a "reference class generator" I've picked up literature as a "way of being in the world generator".

Note: Here's what I'm not saying. I'm not saying you or anybody else should have the same experience I do. I am saying to watch out for mind-projection at "most fiction can't compete with ... history". It's more accurate to say that your experience of most fiction can't compete with your experience of history ... which isn't really the same thing at all. Especially since you can probably change both experiences, either with some effort or just by waiting a while.