Those with historical understanding of past scenarios are likely to be better at visualizing what’s to come. After all, at the heart of the historian’s enterprise is the imagination
Question: What was your early history education like?
Niall Ferguson: When I was a schoolboy in Glasgow, I suppose I was treated to the usual smorgasbord of historical subjects that most British school children study. A few weeks of the Romans, a few weeks of ancient Britains, some Scottish history, and then it became a little bit more serious. The Wars of the Roses, the Reign of James the VI and I, what was then called the English Civil War, or Revolution, but these days they call it something much fancier like the British Civil Wars (plural). And I studied the 19th and 20th centuries at school too. I’m not sure all of these different things were terribly well connected, but I did find myself drawn more and more to the subject the older I got. And the turning point, I think was the year—and I’m guessing my age was 15 or 16—when I was studying Hamlet in English Literature, and the 30 Years War in history. Now the study of the play, Hamlet, is something that everybody should undertake, and I still have fond memories of the essay I wrote on the theme of death in Hamlet.
But when I was studying the 30 Years War, I was encouraged by my history teacher, Bonnie Woods, to go to the Mitchell Library, which is a wonderful library in Glasgow. And I went in, in search of books on the 30 Years War and was absolutely stunned to find an entire shelf of books on the 30 Years War; the first of which was by Friedrich Schiller, the great German sturm und drang dramatist and historian. And it was the realization that there were so many different ways of thinking about the 30 Years War as opposed to the one play of Shakespeare called Hamlet that shifted my attention from English to History.
Question: What is the value of historical perspective?
Niall Ferguson: Historical study differs from a great many other things; say the whole realm of the social sciences for two reasons. Firstly, we’re not engaged in model building. We’re not trying to simply the world of human beings into some kind of mathematical model. Historians live and breathe the complexity of the past and we accept that there really is a sample size of one. There’s only one human history and we can’t rerun it in any laboratory, so we can’t be engaged in a scientific endeavor. The second thing that history does is that it encourages that minority of human beings who are alive, I think it’s only 7% of human beings who ever lived who are alive right now, to understand what the other 93% experienced in their time.
So, historians build a bridge backwards through the generations, and at the heart of our enterprise is the imagination. One has to imagine what it was to be in another time, in another predicament. And that active imagination is at the heart of the historical process. The great philosopher, R.G. Collingwood said, “We are engaged in reconstructing past thought on the basis of those remnants that other civilizations leave behind; the letters, the documents.” That’s really what history is.
So, this combination of understanding complexity and reimagining past life seems to me to be a tremendously valuable combination of skills. More reliable in my view than more formal forms of social science, as a way of understanding the futures (plural) because there is no such thing as the future singular. There’s just multiple futures, and we all collectively get to choose, or at least we try to choose, and it’s the combination of our decisions that produces the one future that happens.
I have become more and more convinced with every passing year, that as an historian, I’m in a stronger position to imagine plausible futures than somebody who is trained in another discipline. At least some of which has happened to the last—the dead 93% of humanity just gives me more scenarios to draw from. Trying to think about the futures requires a certain amount of thinking by analogy, and if all you’ve got to go on is your own lifetime experience plus some model, I think you’re likely to get it wrong, whereas with historical understanding of past scenarios, you’re probably going to be better at visualizing the futures than the competition. And that, I think, is an extremely powerful for the study of history, not just by people who want to be professional historians, but also by people who want to be good citizens, good decision-makers, good scenario-builders.
Question: What is dangerous about saying: “This time is different?”
Niall Ferguson: My colleague at Harvard, Ken Rogoff, and his co-author, Carmen Reinhart have identified the four most dangerous words in the English language as "this time is different." In their book of that title, which has the subtitle "Eight Centuries of Financial Folly," they show how often human beings have persuaded themselves that they live in a special time and that the rules of the past no longer apply and therefore the price of housing, the price of stocks, you name it, the price of tulips, can rise forever. This illusion in the financial world has all sorts of analogues in other spheres. There are those that will assure you that we live in a unique time with respect to communications, or with respect to military force.
Now my strong belief is that for all the technological change that has happened over the last 200 or so years, and particularly the technological changes of the very recent past, at this time, is not so different from previous times that we’ve nothing to learn from the past. Just to give one example, I’m having this conversation with an anonymous, to me unidentifiable audience through the miracle of a digital camera and the Internet. Now, that’s certainly very different from the way in which Martin Luther communicated his ideas about Christianity to the German public in the early 16th century. The way that happened was through sermons which, of course, could only be heard by hundreds of people at the time, but were then communicated via the printing press and transcriptions to a much, much larger audience. The reformation came about in the 16th century because of a network effect. There was a viral quality to it and the printing press was to the reformation what the Internet is to our time.
Understanding how networks operate is a tremendously helpful thing for historians to be able to do. But the thing you learn is that the important thing about a network is not the speed at which the information travels, whether it takes days or nanoseconds is not the important thing. The important thing is that the network should exist and that it should have network properties that it should have network properties that should be positive externalities, if it reaches enough people not matter whether it’s in days or nanoseconds that can change the world. So, for me, the most important thing to recognize is that although technology may speed the world up, and it may make networks much larger than they’ve been in the past, it doesn’t change the essential property of a network.
Question: How do notions of time affect your work?
Niall Ferguson: When I was a boy, and in fact to this day, my favorite television superhero was not Superman, or Batman, or Spiderman or any of these people with tremendous physical power, it was a gentleman named Dr. Who. A BBC character, who I think is unique, or perhaps shares the distinction with Sherlock Holmes alone with being an intellectual hero not distinguished by any physical prowess, but distinguished by his intellectual firepower.
Dr. Who is, and forever shall be, a time lord—that’s his designation. He has the ability to travel through time, and he was my hero because it seemed to me that that ability to travel through time was something far more appealing than the ability to stop a locomotive, or hold up a falling tower, or whatever it was that Superman was able to do. Stop a speeding bullet. So, Dr. Who appealed to me because time seemed to me to be the really interesting thing to have power over.
The study of history is all about time. For example, in the project that I am currently working on—which is a provisionally titled “History of the West and the Rest," the rise of the west to predominance after around 1500—time plays a key role. The Chinese had clocks, elaborate hydraulic water clocks; well before west Europeans had anything like that. But when west Europeans began to build mechanical clocks, which they initially needed to get the timing of church services right, a revolution began which was characterized by the rapid dissemination of smaller and smaller timepieces. The Chinese had these huge clocks, they were pretty accurate, but they never had watches. They never had clocks that you could just put in your living room. And so, I’m fascinated by the technological revolution of the clock and the watch because, of course, that transformed the precision with which westerners could live their lives.
David Landes wrote a wonderful book on this, the great Harvard economic historian. But it’s still a neglected classic. I wouldn’t say it was absolutely essential to the way history is studied. But for me, clocks are crucial. I spent some time a few weeks ago in a shop in central London which specializes in antique clocks, grandfather clocks, those big ones that you see in old country houses and this certain kind of old fashioned living room, and had a wonderful time discussing with a clock enthusiast the different styles of clock that came from the different regions of the British Isles in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries.
So, time is something that I have long been obsessed with. And I suppose I’ve come to realize that the power of time was one of the things that made the West ascend to dominate the rest for most of the last half-millennium.