“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana, The Life of Reason
Variations of this quote have been tossed around since it was first penned in 1905- all of them reminding us that the historically ignorant are doomed to its repetition. It’s like a sadder version of that excellent movie Groundhog Day, starring the talented Bill Murray, or like that poor man Sisyphus- forever condemned to push a boulder uphill and never delivering it to any destination. Things apparently happen over and over again until we learn our lessons. We all know that reality is cyclical in so many ways, like seasons and the rising and setting of the sun and the fact that there is always laundry waiting to be washed. Must events of the past echo into the future of the uninformed?
Some contend that history is written by the winners. That an American or British textbook on World War II looks incredibly different from a German or Japanese textbook on the same event. If the history of the winning side is the only one studied, how would we fully understand Hitler’s rise to power to avoid something like that in present day United States politics? How would we ever comprehend that the bombs dropped from the Enola Gay and Bockscar might have ended a war but were truly emissaries of human monstrosity beyond our understanding?
If Islamic extremism and terrorism are one of today’s problems, can Christians admit that the Crusades were a giant mistake?
History is that mirror which we think exaggerates all of our flaws, but in reality, is dutifully reflecting what’s before it. That is to say, regardless of who wrote it, history makes us all look bad. Each and every single one of us. Because we are bad. And just like we eschew admission that we need to buy pants one or three sizes bigger, we hate to acknowledge that we’re morally disadvantaged, broken and needy. At least, that’s one conclusion we can arrive at after studying humanity’s exploits throughout our short existence.
So, do we study history and learn from our mistakes? Isn’t that what Santayana was pushing for? Somebody who’s seen what happens if we do this or that should probably be paying attention so they can call out and tell us that, hey, we’re looking a lot like Rome did in its last days, don’t you think? The question is then, if one calls out to make paths straight, telling us that we’ve been down this crooked way before, will we listen? Some will and others won’t. It’s the world we live in and how it’s always been. But will those who have seen the past and understand the present be able to prevent those who haven’t and don’t from dragging everyone back around the pass one more time?