An Historian Looks at History: 1970
W. W. ROSTOW#
T HE INHERENT AMBIGUITY OF HISTORY-AND ITS USEFULNESS OR LACK
of usefulness to man-is the subject of endless aphorisms of which
these two are typical. First, from Coleridge: "If men could learn from
history, what lessons it might teach usl But passion and party blind
our eyes, and the light which experience gives is a lantern on the stern,
which shines only on the waves behind us!" Then Lewis Namier's:
"A neurotic, according to Freud, is a man dominated by unconscious
memories, fixated on the past, and incapable of overcoming it: the
regular condition of human communities.'
Both points of view contain important elements of truth. Man is
caught up in circumstances which interweave abiding aspects of the
human condition-about which the past ought to teach us something-
and, equally, with endless change and variety where the past can
No one can read again the story of Periclean Athens, its triumph
and tragedy; Plato's Republic; the Old and New Testaments; of
the decline and fall of the Roman Empire; or of the sequence of
Chinese dynasties, without finding recognizable human beings, strug-
gling with recognizable problems. The private and public dilemmas
and choices-the rules for good and effective private and public conduct
which emerge-are still, surely, relevant.
In writing recently about white, young affluent radicals in America,
I headed the section, "New Version of an Old Story."' And I quoted
passages from Plato as he described the reaction of the young to the
previous generation of money-grubbing oligarchs:
"Oligarchy was established by men with a certain aim in life: the
good they sought was wealth, and it was the insatiable appetite for
money-making to the neglect of everything else that proved its undoing.
Is democracy likewise ruined by greed for what it conceives to be the
*Mr. Rostow is a professor of economics and history at the University of Texas, Austin.
'Lewis B. Namier, Avenues of History (London, 1952), 5.
2Walt W. Rostow, Politics and the Stages of Growth (Cambridge, forthcoming),
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 74, July 1970 - April, 1971. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101200/. Accessed March 6, 2015.