How Understanding History is Essential to Creating the Best Possible Future

Vittorio Emanuelemonument

Neal Stephenson is an author of speculative fiction who weaves minutely detailed historical and technical information into his complex stories, usually combining it with a wicked sense of humor.

His ground-breaking novels include Snow Crash, which weaves virtual reality with Sumerian myth, Cryptonomicon, which leaps forward and back between World War II and the World Wide Web, and Anathem, which transports readers into an alternate universe where scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians live in seclusion behind ancient monastery walls until they are called back into the world to deal with a crisis of astronomical proportions.

Stephenson's passion for history is also evident in his Baroque Cycle novels, Vol. 1 Quicksilver, which focus on key people and events in the development of science across many cultures in the 17th and 18th centuries. While science fiction is not on everyone's reading list, history should be.

Some of the books on Stephenson's recommended reading list are more accessible than others to non-mathematicians:

  • The Odyssey by Homer in (Penguin Classics) the English translation of Robert Fagles —the story of Odysseus is literature's grandest evocation of everyman's journey through life. From the reviews, it looks like Fagles did justice to the Greek edition we read and loved in high school.
  • The Iliad by Homer in (Penguin Classics) the English translation of Robert Fagles —dating back to the ninth century B.C. this book conveys the horror and heroism of men and gods wrestling with towering emotions and battling amidst devastation and destruction, as it moves inexorably to the wrenching, tragic conclusion of the Trojan War. As is the case with any book written in another language, the role of the translator cannot be overstated. While we read the poem in the original Greek, many have found this edition excellent.
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 1-6 by Edward Gibbon —it contains the history of Rome's demise from its height (around the 1st century) to/through the dark/middle ages (to around 1500A.D.), with a sweeping and astonishing view of a period of history that still has no equal. If you ever travel to Rome and walk from the Altar of the Fatherland to the Coliseum, the wall to your right will show you the maps of the Empire whose expansion and demise Gibbon describes in these books.
  • Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes —a classic of political philosophy divided into four major sections: 1./ of man, in which he discusses human nature and why civilized people prefer peace to war; 2./ of Common-wealth, in which Hobbes first talks about the several forms of government and the pros and cons of each; 3./ of the Christian Common-wealth, the longest section, in which Hobbes accepts the Bible as the word of God and quotes from it numerous time to bolster his position in support of a powerful government; 4./ of the Kingdome of Darknesse, the shortest section, in which Hobbes veers away from the topic of government and instead focuses on religious practices and beliefs of the day that he deems improper and inconsistent with the Bible.

“Boredom is a mask frustration wears,” says Stephenson. When we make the deliberate choice of thinking and reflecting on things, we get ideas and time. Understanding history and where we came from, can go a long way at helping us create the best possible future.


[image Vittorio Emanuele Monument, Rome]