For hundreds of thousands of years of human history, we had no history. We call that part ‘pre-history’ – thus cagily rendering the deep past as a semantic extension of, well, history. It is often suggested that the study of history is useful preparation for the future. Edmund Burke said: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” But Nietzsche, in his essay “On the Use and Abuse of History,” tells us that the weight of history saps the will; that is, in order to get on with life, we are better off forgetting history.
Philosophies of history are never in short supply, from Carlyle’s Great Man theory to Marx’s dialectical materialism, to Spengler’s rollercoaster rise and fall of civilizations, to Vico’s spirals, the endless cycles of the Mayan calendar, or the elegant gyres of W. B. Yeats.