Monday, March 28, 2016

Destined to repeat it

One of Edmund Burke's most paraphrased quotes,  has a long history and I'm sure you've heard some variant of it:  
"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."  

Variations on this quote have been attributed to any number of people, but most notably George Santayana who wrote In his 1905 book The Life of Reason
 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

It's been attributed to Churchill who apparently never said it - he was significantly more verbose:

"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."

The meaning is the same regardless.  I also happen to think it is hopelessly optimistic, and wrong.  We've studied history; we have it written down, at least as much as can be ascertained from the victors who always write the history with themselves as the hero. 

There are two problems. First, I think it is not an inability to remember or know history. It is the failure to recognize it in a different context.  Second,  if we do recognize it, there is a flaw in human nature that makes us believe that somehow it will be different this time around.   And - it usually is different. It's almost always worse.

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