The Churchill School of Adulthood — Lesson #4: Cultivate a Nostalgic Love for History
Thursday, March 24, 2016 - Filed in: General Interest
The following is a reprint of an article by Brett & Kate McKay that appears in the Art of Manliness web site.
“Churchill, for all his extrovert air, looks within, and his strongest sense is the sense of the past.” –Isaiah Berlin
Churchill’s romanticism colored all areas of his life, including his view of history. Romantics often have a nostalgic longing for the past, and believe it was superior to the present. Churchill embodied this perspective. Born in 1874, he had come of age in the latter half of the Victorian era, and the values and vision of that period would remain forever etched in his spirit and psyche. He prized the Victorian sense of virtue and honor, and celebrated the mighty position the British Empire held during that time.
In introducing a memoir about his youth that was published in 1930, he mused:
“When I survey this work as a whole I find I have drawn a picture of a vanished age. The character of society, the foundations of politics, the methods of war, the outlook of youth, the scale of values, are all changed, and changed to an extent I should not have believed possible in so short a space without any violent domestic revolution. I cannot pretend to feel that they are in all respects changed for the better.”
Though the world moved on, Churchill did not. He felt like a man born for another time. Believing that the 20th century had bred an inferior culture, he held steadfast to the virtues, traditions, and language of the 19th.
Yet Winston’s affinity for the past was hardly limited to a nostalgia for the Victorian period; as William Manchester explains, his deep interest in history extended back into the mists of time and was truly integral to his identity:
“Churchill’s love of history was abiding and his knowledge profound. Memorizing dates and place-names has always been the bane of schoolchildren. Yet for a few, Churchill assuredly among them, history is more than a time line, more than the sequencing and parsing of collective memory. In those such as Churchill, history, by way of imagination and discipline, becomes part of personal memory, no less so than childhood recollections of the first swim in the ocean or the first day of school. Churchill did not simply observe the historical continuum; he made himself part of it. Classical venues, and Churchill’s ‘memory’ of them—from the Pillars of Hercules and on around the Mediterranean to Syracuse, Rome, Sparta, Alexandria, and Carthage—informed his identity in much the same way his memories of his family’s ancestral home, Blenheim Palace, did, or his father’s London house, where as a boy he charged his toy soldiers across Persian carpets. He may have been born a Victorian, but he had turned himself into a Classical man. He did not live in the past; the past lived on in him.”
To call Churchill an amateur historian does a disservice to the breadth and depth of his knowledge of the past. His love for history began when he was a boy; though he struggled mightily with many subjects in school, it was one of the few that fascinated him and in which he excelled. As an adult, he wrote many historical articles and books, including the four-volume, 1,700-page History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Beginning with Caesar’s invasion of Britain and running through to WWI, the epic narrative took Churchill 20 years to complete. Winston also had a special interest in the American Civil War; he would rattle off details about the conflict to anyone who would listen, and would reenact battles for his dinner guests, using glasses, plates, and forks as stand-ins for the respective armies.
Churchill believed that history was not simply a matter of intellectual interest or a source of cocktail party fodder, but rather offered invaluable insights on how to proceed in the present and plan for the future. His knowledge of history informed all his decisions – from the personal to the political — and was paramount in guiding his strategy for vanquishing the Nazis. Harry Hopkins, unofficial American diplomat to England, observed that the prime minster “was involved not only in the battles of the current war, but of the whole past from Cannae to Gallipoli. Alexander the Great, Boudicca, Hadrian, King Harold, Prince Hal, Pitt, and of course his luminous ancestor Marlborough had all played their parts in earlier scenes of the same play and upon the same stage that Churchill and his enemies now played their parts.”
Though Churchill had a firm grasp of the hard facts and details of historical events and used them for practical guidance, he also looked to the past as a source of edification and inspiration. Like the classical historians of ancient Greece and Rome, Churchill felt that the stirring tales of past heroes provided moral and philosophical instruction. If some details of the record were de-emphasized and others highlighted in creating the stuff of legend, that was all right. As Joseph Campbell put it, “Myth is much more important and true than history.” Churchill saw the past as he did the present – as a battle between the good guys and the bad guys, and the eminent figures of former centuries, as well as his own notable ancestors, loomed large in his imagination as models for manhood. Churchill knew the history, knew the facts, but was still able to be inspired by their mythological memory.
Looking Back, Reaching Forward
Although the currents of history were embedded in the marrow of Churchill’s bones, it would be a mistake to see him as a man entirely stuck in the past; in this, as in all things, he was far more complex than that. Clement Attlee, one of his political opponents, compared him to a layer cake:
“One layer was certainly seventeenth century. The eighteenth century in him is obvious. There was the nineteenth century, and a large slice, of course, of the twentieth century; and another, curious, layer which may possibly have been the twenty-first.”
Despite Churchill’s immersion in history, or perhaps because of it, he was actually quite forward-thinking and very interested in science and technological innovations. During WWI, he championed the use of the tank (which stubborn generals derided as “Winston’s Folly”), accurately assessed the potential of airplanes (and learned to fly himself), and began a program to shift the fuel of more of Her Majesty’s fleet from coal to oil.
During WWII, he became the first prime minister to appoint a scientific advisor, who was kept ever at his elbow. He also ensured that research projects received generous funds, and he charged scientists to experiment constantly and to continually act on their ideas — he wanted anything and everything tried. Friends with H. G. Wells, Churchill was greatly inspired by science fiction (yet another genre of literature he enjoyed) to explore incredibly out-of-the box ideas, such as a rocket-powered wheel, aerial mines, and even an aircraft carrier made from ice. Churchill, Manchester notes, frequently “put forth ideas like a masting oak spews acorns, some to root but most destined to decay.” While the majority of Churchill’s ideas were ultimately unviable, the incredible thing is that a man in his mid-sixties could generate so many at all; he was hardly a stagnant old fogey with his head buried in the sands of history.
Takeaways from Lesson #4
Now you may be thinking, “Churchill’s nostalgic love of history may be an interesting part of his personality, but what’s it got to do with adulthood for the rest of us?”
Quite a lot, actually.
Becoming an interesting, fulfilled grownup is all about understanding and embracing the enormous number of possibilities for what your life can look like. And it is truly a tragedy when that menu of possibilities is limited only to what one sees presented in the current media and amongst one’s group of friends.
Children are extremely present-minded, and so is our modern culture. But as an adult you need to be able to see the whole playing field, to gaze as far back and forward as you can. As a child, you’re lost in a maze in which you can only view the walls immediately before you; as an adult you must be able to take a more bird’s eye view of things.
Growing up in the present age, one might be forgiven for believing that nothing existed prior to what is happening now – that our problems and emotions are singular. But of course billions have come before us, and their issues and feelings were remarkably similar to ours.
To immerse oneself in history is to discover that rather than being some disconnected being floating in the meaningless ether, you are part of a long line of progenitors, and your personal story is a continuation of a narrative thousands of years in the making. It roots you — inspires you to add something worthwhile to the tale, not only on the macro, but on the micro level as well. Churchill was not only interested in the grand sweep of history, but his family’s history too; he wrote a million-word biography of his ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, an eminent statesman and military commander in his own right. Winston was proud of his lineage, and strove to continue it on with honor. Even if your own family tree doesn’t include famous figures, acknowledging the men and women who came before you — who may have lived out their lives in a quiet but dignified manner and made your own life possible — will inspire you to leave your own mark and to realize you’re capable of bearing the burdens and trials adulthood invariably brings. You are treading a path that was once even more difficult to traverse; your ancestors made it through, and so shall you.
Learning about the lives of both your forebearers and the great men of history also offers surprisingly practical guidance on how to deal with your problems and challenges. It allows you to create a “cabinet of invisible counselors” whose advice you can continually draw upon. Churchill, Manchester writes, “spoke of Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry VIII, and James I as though they were his contemporaries” and his study of Marlborough provided him ample insights that informed his leadership during WWII. I can personally attest that when I’m grappling with a problem, the way another man from history dealt with a similar issue will regularly come to my mind. Every adult truly needs a team of historical luminaries they can regularly consult with.
Finally, studying history greatly enlarges the palette of possibilities you can draw from when creating your own life. Only being aware of what you’re surrounded with in the present is like living as a zoo animal, believing that your little artificial habitat is all there is to the world. But there are so many more ways to live. When you finish a great biography of a great man, your conception of what humanity is capable of broadens and your spirit feels perceivably expanded. You’ve caught a glimpse of alternative ways to earn a living, to structure your daily routine, to approach your relationships, to overcome setbacks, to have adventures, and to view the landscape of your life.
If you find that these glimpses come rimmed with nostalgia, all the better. While being nostalgic for the past often gets criticized as a narrow, ignorant perspective, it can in fact be a springboard for building something truly great in the present. It is perfectly possible to be fully aware of the faults and flaws of a previous period, and the men who sometimes stumbled through it, and yet still be thoroughly inspired by the myth of that heroic “golden age.”
Churchill was energized by the Victorian period. For me, it’s the 1940s and 50s. Ever since I was a teenager, I have felt a deep affinity for my grandfather, and his Greatest Generation peers. I know they weren’t perfect by any means, but they embodied a set of virtues that I have sought to emulate. The legend of who they were, and what they did, forms a current that has guided my life.
This isn’t to say that I strive to live exactly like a man of the 50s. In many ways my life is thoroughly modern. I make a living online. Kate and I evenly share household and childrearing duties. Though my style leans towards the classic, I wear regular clothes. But at the same time, I champion and try to live wholesome, old fashioned values. I celebrate marriage, family, honor, chastity, rootedness, community, frugality, faithfulness, hard work, and good clean fun.
The world has moved on from some of those values, but I haven’t, and they add greatly to the meaning and texture of my personal adulthood. The culture at large need not appreciate that which I do in order for me to live them, especially within the walls of my own home. The hurly burly of the ever-shifting modern world may rage outside, but there are moments during our family dinners and weekly meetings that feel exactly like a Norman Rockwell painting.
At its best, nostalgia doesn’t result in an effort to entirely recapture a past age, but instead inspires an attempt to take the best aspects of that past, and wed them to the best parts of the present in order to create a magnificent synergy of tradition and modernity. I’m a blogger and a Freemason; I love technology and the music of the Rat Pack. You can draw from the past and the present to create a textured, interesting, meaningful adulthood. And you should.
Find the people and periods of history that inspire you. And then live as a 21st century grownup, with a few more layers than the average bloke.