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How Historical Knowledge Affects Debate

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

Cicero Orator Ad M. Brutum XXXIV.120

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man, except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things of a superior age?”

How can we conduct a serious debate without understanding our history? Without this knowledge we cannot hope to make a superior case, critically assess an opponent’s case, execute probing and meaningful cross-examinations, or create persuasive and air-tight conclusions. Looking up “facts” on the Internet, books, or articles, whether these be trade or scholarly, will do you little good if you cannot synthesize historical sources into a coherent whole.

Topics across Parli, LD, and TP range the gambit of human experience in technology and society, values, and government policy. None of these are (1) new, or (2) exist in a vacuum. Take for example a potential resolution—tariffs. Depending on your own personal methodology, your approach will differ from others. But consider that we have more than 2.000 years of knowledge regarding tariffs, and can draw upon this by synthesizing the relevant facts into a “case.” Perhaps a contention is the effect of custom fees on trade, and how this impacts economies. The Romans created a set of customs laws, which they effectively levied at all outposts and ports throughout their empire, accompanied by complete reporting structures. Officials sent these reports back to Rome. How might you leverage this into your case? That’s up to you, but consider how the ancients perceived this, and economic impacts; did it help or hurt trade? Increase or decrease trade? Did it improve the standard of living for citizens? Did it help bring about new technologies (think metals, agricultural improvements, and weapons). Did it help economies grow? How did societies who traded with each other improve? The trail leads from Ancient Greece and Rome all the way through to today’s global economy.

Evidence abounds of extensive trade networks in the Ancient World, with continuity to the Medieval Period, and into pre-Modern Europe. The organization of roads, partnerships in shipping, imperial laws, investments in infrastructure, monetary systems, finances, accounting practices, etc., all incentivized and facilitated trade, and many were subject to customs duties. How did this help civilization advance, or perhaps suppress advancement? One can argue that trade and tariffs helped develop ever more sophisticated systems, which people leveraged in all facets of society. So, are tariffs good, or bad? This will be the crux of an AC and NC.

Although ancient, medieval, and pre-modern history will unlikely be a large part of your case, a solid understanding of how tariffs affected human history over the arc of time, will certainly make you a keen debater as you leverage the human condition into your speeches. How much history to include in your research is up to you, but certainly relevance exists whether it be ten or a thousand years. Your arguments of progress, or regress, may very well be reflected through the lens of human history. LD and TP debaters have the advantage of time to research and select what historical perspectives support their cases. For Parli competitors, who have limited preparation time, just familiarity of historicity is needed, particularly in economics, as this impacts so much of human progress throughout our history.

Cicero was correct; To be ignorant of the past is to be forever a child.

How to implement a methodological approach is for a future blog post …


Cottier, M., M. H. Crawford, C. V. Crowther, J. L. Ferrary, B. M. Levick, O. Salomies, and M. Wörrle, eds. The Customs Law of Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Malanima, Paolo. “When Did England Overtake Italy? Medieval and Early Modern Divergence in Prices and Wages.” European Review of Economic History 17 (2013): 45–70.

Middleton, Neil. “Early Medieval Port Customs, Tolls and Controls on Foreign Trade.” Early Medieval Europe 13, no. 4 (2005): 313–58.

Marcus Tullius Cicero