Do We Learn From History?

Written by

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

This line will most likely sound familiar to every reader. It has been paraphrased countless times and is visible most notably in my mind as the quotation on the wall of one of the ghetto buildings in Auschwitz. Few know that the phrase was written by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana; even fewer people know the context of the quotation and what Santayana actually means by his reflection.

It seems ironic to quote Santayana, albeit unknowingly, when invoking his famous quotation since his point is not so simplistic, and often the way in which the quotation is used is opposite to what Santayana wanted to convey. Standing alone, we might assume that Santayana is stating that it is important to “remember the past”—that is, the total of our historical crimes, problems, struggles, wars, etc.—to learn from it and prevent the repetition of our mistakes. Now, Santayana is (by today’s standards, certainly not his own) a conservative-leaning thinker who adopted a realistic view of human nature that was aware of its violent tendencies. He believed that only through proper training of the mind and what he calls the “psyche,” human nature could become reasonable. He dedicated five volumes to outline this endeavor, which he called The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress. The five volumes are subdivided into elements from which we can derive reason: Reason in Common Sense, Reason in Society, Reason in Religion, Reason in Art, and Reason in Science.

The sheer volume of Santayana’s writings on the topic of reason demonstrate that understanding ourselves and our world is a life-long endeavor. Nothing is as insincere to this spirit of learning as to believe that we have a hold on history and all its winding passages—that we know better than our predecessors. Our self-alleged privileged point in time (which we can only judge from our own vantage point) does not allow us to believe that we are wiser, kinder, and more virtuous than those who came before us. Santayana would emphatically reject the notion that mere chronological recency grants us any more knowledge than someone who lived 200 years ago, more so if we demonstrate by our social actions that we are truly no longer interested in dedicating ourselves to a life of reason. He did not write his book in 1905-1906 because he believed reason was a realm conquered by mankind, after all; so must we assume that our century has not quite accomplished this task.

In other words, Santayana did not write “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” to be inspirational or to suggest a sense of historical superiority on behalf of us, enlightened modern men. His phrase intends to do quite the contrary. It is not the case that if only we are so wise as to remember the past, history will never repeat itself and mankind will grow and improve in unlimited potential—not at all. It is a personal pleasure to rectify this misunderstanding of Santayana’s quotation, which is particularly timely given our society’s growing, and violent affinity for historical resentment and the preferred method of iconoclastic rituals to not only forget the past, but erase it.

Santayana wrote:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation.[1]

The first sentence is important. Santayana emphasizes retentiveness over change, arguing that progress can only be judged by individuals who retain awareness, knowledge, and memory of their past. When we seek absolutely change, he warns, we know longer know what to improve and by what standard. The consequences of neglecting our experience, which includes that collective experience handed down to us by our ancestors, is that we remain in an intellectual, moral, and spiritual ignorance that Santayana calls the perpetual infancy of savages. Now, we might understand Santayana’s quotation in a new light: It is not just about remembering the past, but retaining it, lest we fall into that perpetual infancy that is “the condition of children and barbarians.”

True progress, according to Santayana, is based on a state of mind where men are “docile” to events, meaning that they do not go into a frenzy every time something negative happens; where they are able to control their violent emotions. They also have to be plastic to new habits and suggestions, meaning that men need to be receptive to change but also possess the ability to apply these habits and suggestions as it accords with their original instincts. What are these original instincts? They are the intrinsic reservations towards rashness that are the mark of “manhood and true progress.” Santayana advocates for a form of temperance that allows us to judge events more objectively, in which we are neither too fervent about absolute change, nor too reserved to consider the need for it.

A question that lingers, however, is whether Santayana was being overly optimistic about man’s ability to value “retention.” There is ample reason to believe that human nature swings back and forth between desire for retention and desire for destruction. Human history, we could even argue, is a messy story of our collective efforts across civilizations to both retain and destroy that which we create. One could even go as far as to argue that we are more inclined towards destruction. Rudyard Kipling expressed in his poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” for example, that our human nature is such that we fail to learn from our mistakes:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire; [2]

Winston Churchill relayed a similar sentiment in a speech before the House of Commons in 1935 regarding the Stresa Front, in which Britain, Italy, and France agreed to maintain Austria’s independence—without success. It is considered an important, albeit failed, agreement that could have prevented World War II, but Churchill’s remarks are in agreement with Kipling about our inability to “retain” lessons from our past experiences, as Santayana advocates. The illustrious statesman remarked:

When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.[3]

Churchill might have had a very different view of history than Santayana, for Churchill is rather cynical about our ability to learn from history. It is of our doing that history continues to repeat itself, perhaps giving reason to Santayana’s point that we are “condemned” to repeat the past. Human history certainly goes in favor of Churchill’s prognosis, for there is little evidence—even by our modern standards—that we have truly learned anything about our dangerous proclivity towards savageness and infancy. Both Santayana and Churchill, however, leave us with an example to follow; the first through philosophy and the second through politics and statesmanship. We would be wise to learn from them and their views of history. It may be the case that history is set on a course of endless repetition, but if it means that some of us will be encouraged to discover and rediscover these two thinkers, then there is a silver lining to our inadequacy.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] George Santayana, The Life of Reason, vol. 1, chapter 12, p. 284 (1905). Emphasis mine.

[2] Rudyard Kipling, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” Kipling Society.

[3] Shyan Goh, “The irony about quoting and learning from the past: there is really nothing new under the sun,” The BMJ, November 19, 2016.

The featured image is “Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen” (1773) by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Article Categories:
Stories · UK · World

Comments are closed.