The phrase, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, can be found on page 284 of “Reason in Common Sense”, the first in a volume of books written by the Spanish-American philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist known as George Santayana in 1905.
It’s often misquoted and one such example is “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. The meaning of the original quote and any misquote is probably the same, even if the misquotes are not literally correct. Where am I going with this? Well, it seems my fellow citizens can’t remember the past, even when that past is less than a century ago.
Repeating what happened in the past is the result of either learning or not learning from it, depending on the context. In most cases, we’re talking about mistakes that are repeated because the people involved don’t from learn from their mistakes.
When it comes to context, minor words can have a big difference in meaning. If you don’t “learn from history” doesn’t mean you can actually “remember the past”. Learning from history, especially written history, is easier than remembering any past that hasn’t been saved as either written or oral history. Learning from history seems to be pointed at nations and remembering the past seems to be for people.
One of the things that irks me the most is those that believe we are responsible for the mistakes of our ancestors. This is where “reparations” comes into play. There are groups demanding reparations for being wronged by our ancestors and it’s ridiculous. Everyone’s ancestors have made a mistake at one time or another and have wronged one group of people or another. After all, we’re humans and humans make mistakes. It’s part of our nature.
Regardless of what we think, most people learn from either their own mistakes or the mistakes of their ancestors. If you pay attention to biographies and autobiographies, you’ll find indicators of lessons learned by the authors and the subjects. The phrase, “lessons learned”, actually means learning from mistakes.
If you read technical papers, like I have in the past, you’ll also find references to “lessons learned”. The headings or subheadings may actually read “lessons learned”. I know they do it a lot in the military because I’ve seen the papers with my own eyes.
One of the things I’ve done for the last several years is to learn whatever I can from history, but I’m not a history buff. I don’t want to memorize or remember historical records; I just want to glean the meat from historical records and accounts.
Recent events need to be called out for what they are: Misguided attempts of certain people blaming everyone else for the things that have happened to them. The sad part is there are people taking blame for those things, things they couldn’t possibly control when those things occurred.
There are post civil war statues being removed because they offend people. Yes, we had a civil war in the United States, officially from 1861 to 1865. Yes, it had something to do with black slavery. The people involved, however, were just as much American citizens as everyone else. Leaving the statues in place would help us remember why they’re there in the first place.
The same thing goes with the current desire to rename military bases named after confederate leaders. If you rename them, you remove their historical origins. Now, a corporation wants to rename popular food products like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben because they offend people. Where does it end?
If we allow people, regardless of what group we’re talking about, to remove and rewrite history to make them feel better, we’ll definitely repeat it. The same people who are removing names and pictures from our cultural history will eventually demand more representation. Representation they already enjoy and would continue to enjoy if they just left things alone.
Image Attribution: Artist: Samuel Johnson Woolf (1880-1948). Time magazine. / Public domain
Edited and updated. Originally published in September 2014.