Last week I listened to Milt Rosenberg‘s interview with Gary Saul Morson about the value of what they called “Encapsulated Wisdom”: the “aphorisms, maxims and wise saws [that] are the stuff of conversation and argument.” What grabbed my attention was the discussion of two contrasting views of history: Henry Ford vs. George Santayana. Rosenberg suggested that if:
Santayana ( “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”) is true or false then Henry Ford (“history is bunk”) is correspondingly false or true.
As as history guy, I’m with Santayana. However, Morson’s take was unique, at least to my ears: he maintained that both had truth in them. He pointed out that Ford would look at history with the perspective of an engineer or a “hard” scientist. He would discount the so-called wisdom of the past given its uselessness during an age of scientific progress. A quick dive into Ford’s many other proclamations regarding history and science bear that out (though he wasn’t even too clear on the history of his own field).
One irony: Ford’s attitude that the world could be made new was shared by his bitterest enemies, the socialists and progressive reformers. Even today, the Industrial Workers of the World believe that: