Reading history has a ring of familiarity. Much of Will and Ariel Durant’s Rousseau and Revolution which chronicles 18th century Europe sounds eerily like the evening news: England bogs down in an effort to squelch a nationalist uprising in her American colonies. British enemies, France and Spain, abet the colonies, not because they expect or want the colonists to win, but because a prolonged war drains British resources while her rivals build up their own military and naval strength.
France’s internal problems include huge debt exacerbated by lavish spending by the royals, monetary aid to the American Revolution, and the refusal of the nobles and clergy to be taxed. France’s finance minister borrows heavily and prepares a favorable fiscal report for the public which excludes military spending and the national debt.
Catherine the Great attempts to emancipate Russian serfs and extend education to the masses, but is blocked by nobles and clergy who object to changes in a social order which benefits themselves. Even an absolute monarch must consider the effecst of opposition from an armed, wealthy nobility.
The modest reforms Catherine achieved failed to propel Russia into the modern world and left it ripe for Communist reformers a century later. France survived the Revolution of 1789 but endured a period of bloody anarchy, the dictatorship and wars of Napoleon, and other revolutions before finally becoming a stable republic many decades after the first revolution.
The madness of King George III caused serious problems for England—including the loss of their American colonies—but the country outlived the king and Britain built an empire upon which the sun never set for a century and a half.
Objective history provides the comfort of learning that modern people are no more given to vices than our ancestors of 200 to 300 years ago. What history can’t tell us is how to deal with scientific knowledge which has outpaced human social development and given us weapons of mass destruction without the moral and ethical restraints to avoid using them. Religion doesn’t have a great track record for that, either.