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  • T. W. Emory

The Rhymes of History

George Santayana (philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist) is credited with having said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This seems to ring true regarding an individual’s personal history, but also when it comes to the history of a clan, a tribe, or a nation. So, from the history I’ve read, I don’t believe that history repeats itself in the sense of an exact replication of past events, but rather, it repeats itself in that attitudes, reactions, responses, decisions, and such, are replayed time and again as variations on themes. As a clever quote (correctly or mistakenly) attributed to Mark Twain has it: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Thus, history “rhymes” or is replayed because while the “props” on “stage” may change, people don’t. As historian Will Durant observed: “History repeats itself in the large because human nature changes with geological leisureliness.” And, it would seem that a majority of us humans take even less stock of the lessons of national or world history than we do our own personal history.

The foregoing may account for why much of what has transpired over the ages also seems at times to resemble a seesaw, or a pendulum swing. For instance, note Will Durant’s summary of economic history: “We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable redistribution. In this view all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.” Or too, when referencing how the ascendancy of the French writer Chateaubriand marked the triumph of religion over philosophy, which he then contrasted with the earlier ascendancy of Voltaire that had marked the triumph of philosophy over religion, Will Durant went on to state: “So one mood, passionately sustained, wears out its welcome, begets its opposite, and is revived, across the generations, through the embattled immoderation of mankind.”

Hence, though perhaps an oversimplification, can’t it be argued that in a certain sense history is an ongoing series of mood swings writ large?

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