Those Who Cannot Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It

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The following excerpt is taken from George Santayana’s The Life of Reason. You have undoubtedly heard the title of this article before. Well, I am sure that you have heard some version of it. I often hear ‘past’ interchanged with ‘history’ or ‘condemned’ swapped out for ‘doomed.’ You would think that a quote this simple wouldn’t be so easily distorted. Ha ha, maybe that is fate’s way of saying that remembering the past is harder than we give civilization credit for.

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. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled; immortality in such a case must have been secured earlier, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self−repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.

The reason I posted this today was to fulfill my curiosity. I have heard this quote used countless times and in all my years as a history lover, I never took the time to pull the source and read the quote in-context.

Well, now we both have!

godwins-law
Godwin’s Law, Nazi, and Hitler

I find it humorous how often people use this quote. For those that debate history, it is like the online forum’s version of Godwin’s Law. (Godwin’s Law: given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably makes a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.)

People use it so much that the original value of this idea has diminished; it is now a cliché. When I hear about “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” I have thoughts of significant events. I hate to break Godwin’s Law, but can you imagine if the world allowed an event like the Holocaust to occur again? When Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the day of the attack as “a date which will live in infamy.” I bet those alive during the attack of Pearl Harbor thought that an aerial assault of that magnitude would never take place on United States’ soil again. Never would the President of the United States of America, the Commander-in-Chief, the Leader of the Free World allow such a travesty to occur. Unfortunately it did.

On September 11, 2001, four planes were hi-jacked and used as weapons against Americans. This aerial attack left almost 3,000 dead, and over 6,000 injured.

Now maybe I am overreaching. I know that President George W. Bush didn’t have a crystal ball. I merely wanted to lay out a significant example of related events that occurred during a short-span of time. Referring to events like this is what I believe the quote was intended for. Right after the 2012 Presidential Election, several states spoke of seceding. I would hope that all politicians, advisers, and President Barack Obama had flashbacks to the American Civil War. That is a mistake that America should not be condemned to repeat.

Where is this all coming from?

Yesterday, I ran across an article entitled, 20 Historical Facts that Republicans Distort or Just Get Plain Wrong. [1] I just skimmed the article. I was hoping to learn something of value, but this was less of an informative piece and more of a political piece. The article ended with:

Republicans and Americans in general need to get a firm grasp of history. The Republicans understand that the lack of education is the key to controlling the electorate. All they need to do is distort and re-write history in their favor to win the votes of the ignorant. We must learn our past history so that we do not go down the backwards road that Republicans are leading us down.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
~George Santayana

And–Whoomp, there it is! So here we have it; I am now creating Oster’s Law.

Oster’s Law: when in discussion of any matter of history, at some point, the quote–probably botched and incorrect–from George Santayana’s The Life of Reason, will trickle out of the mouth of an individual. This individual will fit into the previously described “frivolous and easily distracted” category.

If you want to read the entire text, and not just the part about “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the entire text is available via terms of the Project Gutenberg License.

[1] http://www.addictinginfo.org/2012/09/02/20-historical-facts-that-republicans-distort-or-just-get-plain-wrong/ (Web page no longer available.)

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-To know the truth of history is to realize its ultimate myth and its inevitable ambiguity.- I love all history; however, my favorite areas are World War II, Civil Rights Movement, and U.S. Constitutional history.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I do not accept that history can ever repeat itself. Every event is unique and arises out of unique circumstances. There may be some superficial similarities, but that is not “repetition.” The Russian Revolution was not a “repeat” of the French Revolution.

    When someone claims to “see” a “repetition” of history that is often an attempt to manipulate others into acting based on fear rather than analysis of the specifics of the current situation.

    The worst example of this is to claim that by not opposing some country we are “repeating” the mistakes of the Chamberlain government in “appeasing” Hitler. And that standing up to Hitler early would have avoided the Second World War. That opinion is only that; an opinion that cannot be proved.

  2. solomon, who was inspired by jehovah’s holy spirit basically says the same thing, there is nothing new under the sun. man lives and dies pretty much the same and have basically teh same experiences, needs and desires. man still believes the same things,such as man will achive peace and prosperity for all,, that death will always be, mankinds history of warfare of many kinds continues, struggles of everyday life, sadness, happiness, crisis managements, fear of the unknown, exploitation by the powerful over the less powerful, power struggles of every kind, so yes history is just repeating the same mistakes. the scenario is the same just the names have been changed. as for hitler he is just another symptom of this nothing new, it is based on this powerstruggle I spoke of, wars havealmost always been offensive rather then defensive, not discounting true defense, by the way. get them before they get you type thinking. which is false. of course there there is more to the story then this however.

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