Tuesday, August 15, 2017
History and Remembering
The writer George Santayana had a gift for aphorisms. There's a slew of great ones he coined, and you can look them up online. "A child educated only at school is an uneducated child" is one I particularly like, and "Nonsense is so good only because common sense is so limited" is another.
But I don't think there's any aphorism more quoted from anyone than his famous one about history, that "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Besides Karl Marx's line that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce," I can't think of another quote related to history that people reference more. And with everything going on in the US now, the Santayana one comes up again and again. I can't recall how many times I've seen someone cite it on Facebook over the last six months. Enough with that line already! On the other hand, why not cite it? It's an eternally relevant quote, as overused as it is.
At the same time, I have to say that I also happen to like a sort of inverse quote derived from Santayana's. It too is pertinent to what's happening now, and it serves as a good reminder of how a whole bunch of people think, and have thought for a long time. It's a riff on the Santayana line from the filmmaker Errol Morris, and it says, "Those who cannot condemn the past repeat it in order to remember it."
Yup. That sums things up pretty well. You've got those who make a point of remembering so that the ugliest vilest things can be opposed whenever they're in danger of recurring, and those who want to remember these things so that they can bring them back. When those who don't condemn the past want to go back to what might be called a troglodytic state, others have no choice but to combat them. Still, maybe what's most sad here (and absurd) is the overwhelming influence of the past on everything, the sense that history is much more cyclical than linear, and the knowledge that the same battles get fought over and over and over.