Some Things Take No Experience

Erasmus says in The Education of a Christian Prince:

The world will have paid too high a price to make princes wise, if they insist on learning by experience how dreadful war is, so that as old men they can say: ‘I never thought war could be so pernicious.’ But, immortal God! what incalculable suffering has it cost the whole world to teach you that truism!

Indeed, will we insist on learning things by personal experience? To do that is precisely to refuse to learn by experience, whether through Solomon’s proverbs or through books of man or through the instruction of parents. But a few of us young people think ourselves very clever to say, “Have you undergone such and such an experience?” No, and perhaps we choose to heed the instruction of millennia over the owls’ coughballs of a few years’ experience if a choice must be made.

In the case of war, however, I’m sure you can reason out its evils even without the annals of experience before your eyes, and so no man need take a warlike man’s word that war is of highest advantage. So, too, with the other things in life: myopia cuts across centuries of time as well as individuals of the same time.

Let no one tell another to say nothing of war unless he has suffered, fought or waged war. There is such a thing as a safe distance from which not to be in war and still know it is a source of many evils. Likewise the books of the ancients are not nothing in the relentless face of new times, for nothing under the sun is new, at least across the vaporous lifetimes of men. Traditional “wisdom” of fifty years is not to be weighed against the burden of knowledge from a thousand.

Certainly, life is not so simple as to be captured in a hundred-odd adages; but nor is it so simple as to have exactly the same conditions every time. This is where it must be logicked: are conditions the same, or are they not? Are they certainly enough known to be so similar that we can expect the same results? Surely you’ve heard of theory. Isn’t this, then, its use?

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2 responses to “Some Things Take No Experience

  1. Great post. I’m not sure of how much I agree with it, though… definitely, learning from history would be wonderful theoretically, but rambling about what we should do is useless if it’s human nature to live the same cycles of birth and destruction over and over again. But then, this also depends on whether you believe humans can really change. I don’t really have an argument formulated yet, so this comment is rather incoherent; do you know what I mean, anyway? XP

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  2. So will people view history cyclically or linearly? If linearly, there must be some change at the same time that nothing is new under the sun: there will be continuity and discontinuity.

    There are three views, then. First, the ultimately pessimistic view that we shall be stuck in the same loops. Second, the ultimately optimistic view that humans can conquer time as they progress inexorably. Third, the view that resurrection in history is a new creation that started on the first Easter Sunday and that this creation is both here already and not yet come.

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