Why Don’t We Learn From History by B.H Liddell Hart

The object of history is truth. History can show us the direction, but not detailed information about the road signs. However, history does a good job showing us what to avoid – by showing us the most common mistakes that mankind is apt to make and to repeat. Additionally, history allows us to learn from other people’s experiences, as Polybius said “…the knowledge gained from the study of true history is the best of all educations in life.”

Below is a selection of quotations from the book which I found helpful.

A shrewd committeeman often develops a technique based on his time calculation. He will defer his own intervention in the discussion until lunchtime is near, when the majority of the others are more inclined to accept any proposal that sounds good enough to enable them to keep their lunch engagement.

Many documents are written to deceive or conceal. Moreover, the struggles that go on behind the scenes, and largely determine the issue, are rarely recorded in documents.

Misstatement can be more easily spotted in sentences that are crystal clear than those that are cloudy.

The way of approach is simple, if not easy – requiring, above all, constant self-criticism and care for precise statement.

The path of truth is paved with critical doubt and lighted by the spirit of objective inquiry.

If you can doubt at points where other people feel no impulse to doubt, then you are making progress.

We learn that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it is disturbing to their comfortable assurance.

Ambitious officers when they came in sight of promotion to the generals’ list, would decide they would bottle up their thoughts and ideas, as a safety precaution, until they reached the top and could put these ideas into practice. Unfortunately the usual result, after years of such self-repression for the sake of their ambition, was that when the bottle was eventually uncorked the contents had evaporated.

I found that moral courage was quite rare in the top levels of the services as among politicians. It is also a surprise to me to find that those who had shown the highest degree of physical courage tended to be those who were most lacking in moral courage.

In my experience the troubles of the world largely come from excessive regard to other interests.

Loyalty is a noble quality, so long as it is not blind and does not exclude the higher loyalty to truth and decency.

Truth may not be absolute, but it s certain that we are likely to come nearest to it if we search for it in a purely scientific spirit and analyse the facts with complete detachment from all loyalties save that to truth itself.

The most dangerous error is failure to recognise our own tendency to error.

The pretence to infallibility is instinctive in a hierarchy. But to understand the cause is not to underrate the harm that the pretence has produced – in every sphere.

Hence it is better that ability should consent to its own sacrifice, and subordination to the regime of mediocrity, rather than assist in establishing a regime where, in light of past experience, brute stupidity will be enthroned and ability may preserve its footing only at the price of dishonesty.

The thinking man must be against authoritarianism in any form.

Success increasingly depends on individual initiative, which in turn springs from a sense of personal responsibility – these senses are atrophied by compulsion.

Realism should be combined with foresight – to see one or two moves ahead.

Any constructive effort and all human relations – personal, political, and commercial – depend on being able to depend on promises.

It is immoral to make promises that one cannot in practice fulfil – in the sense that the recipient expects.

Deepening study of past experience leads to the conclusion that nations might often have come near to their object by taking advantage in a lull in the struggle to discuss a settlement than by pursuing the war with the aim of “victory.”

If you find your opponent in a strong position costly to force, you should leave him a line of retreat – as the quickest way of loosening his resistance.

Avoid self-righteousness like the devil – nothing is so self-binding.

An intellectual ought to realise the extent to which the world is shaped by human emotions, emotions uncontrolled by reason.

Opposition to the truth is inevitable, especially if it takes the form of a new idea.

Avoid a frontal attack on a long-established position; instead, seek to turn it by flank movement, so that a more penetrable side is exposed to the thrust of truth.

Various fresh ideas gained acceptance, it can be seen that the process was eased when they could be presented not as something radically new but as the revival in modern terms of a time-honoured principle or practice that had been forgotten.

A model boy rarely goes far, and even when he does he is apt to falter when severely tested. A boy who conforms immaculately to school rules is not likely to grow into a man who will conquer by breaking the stereotyped professional rules of his time.

Manners are apt to be regarded as a surface polish. That is a superficial view. They arise from an inward control. A fresh realisation of their importance is needed in the world today, and their revival might prove the salvation of civilisation.

The West has tended to emphasise the virtue of the positive – “whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” The East has emphasised the virtue of the negative – “do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you.” Both the positive and the negative are essential.

Bad means deform the end.

If we take care of the means, the end will take care of itself.

The smallest permanent enlargement of men’s thought is a greater achievement, and ambition, than the construction of something material that crumbles.

Collective growth is possibly only through the freedom and enlargement of individual minds.

(What can one learn from history)

Not what to do but what to strive for. And what to avoid in striving. The importance and intrinsic value of behaving decently. The importance of seeing clearly – not least of seeing himself clearly. To face life with clear eyes – desirous to the truth – and to come through it with clean hands, behaving with consideration for others, while achieving such conditions as enable a man to get the best out of life, is enough for ambition – and a high ambition. Only as a man progresses toward it does he realise what effort it entails and how large is the distance to go. 

He has to learn how to detach his thinking from his behaviour with every desire and interest, from every sympathy and antipathy – like ridding oneself of superfluous tissue, the “tissue” of untruth which all human beings tend to accumulate for their own comfort and protection.


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