Surely an essay titled “Learning from history” should begin with a nod to the famous (though usually mangled) aphorism of Harvard philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I have heard these words often, from politicians, journalists, ministers, and students (I have been tempted to paraphrase Santayana as, “Those who teach the past are condemned to hear this line repeated”). Yet there are at least two things wrong with this line as it is typically used.
First, such clichÃ©s always have counter-clichÃ©s, and since bumper-sticker wisdom is too brief to include argument or evidence, the result can be nothing other than a draw. Why prefer the quotable quote of Santayana over the more awkward yet (at least) as equally plausible statement of Hegel, “What experience and history teach is this—that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it”? Or, Henry Ford‘s more terse “History is more or less bunk”? Even Santayana himself wrote in another place, “History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten,” which could perhaps be paraphrased as “Those who write about the past are condemned to distort it.” Second, Santayana’s cautionary words are usually interpreted in a rather wooden, didactic manner, as if it were a simple matter to find a historical event than parallels our present experience, and draw conclusions from the consequences of past actions. The past is treated as a smorgasbord of “if x, then y” examples, available to justify any number of illegitimate and politically-motivated historical comparisons that turn any American military action into the Vietnam War, every petty dictator into Hitler, or any act of diplomacy into Chamberlainian appeasement.
But a historically minded person (more on that below) might be inclined to wonder what George Santayana actually meant by these words when he wrote them. A broader look at the context is a good place to start. The sentence under discussion is actually pulled out of the middle of a paragraph, which reads:
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 which instinct has learned nothing from experience.
(Almost a century later, we might wince a bit at Santayana’s use of the terms “savages” and barbarians,” particularly since those Santayana would have regarded as primitives had a more living connection with their past than the average 21st-century Westerner).
The context, then, is about growth, development into maturity. It may be endearing when playing with young children to see their delight in repetition, hearing them giggle, “Do it again!” no matter how many times the trick is performed. Seeing such behaviour in one’s boss (or employee), however, could be rather discouraging. One of the classic gags in the television show The Simpsons is Homer‘s inability to learn from his past; that exposed wire might have given him an electrical shock the first three times, but this time . . . D’oh! It did it again! Adults need to reflectively retain experiences rather than remain in a cycle of amusing yet meaningless recurrence. Memory is essential for maturity.
However often it is debased into a list of names, dates, and various unrelated factoids, at its heart history is all about memory, the recollection of the past and its meaning. History is not just a subject in the sense of a certain type of content, but is a way of thinking, a mode of reflection on ultimate issues. A person with a sense of historical consciousness senses the past weighing on us and inspiring us, limiting and liberating us. We can inculcate historical consciousness by reminding ourselves to remember, to place ourselves in a broader context, a story that we shape even while it shapes us. While the “big questions” of life—who am I? where did I come from? why are things the way they are?—are often thought of as philosophical, or perhaps psychological questions, I suggest that they are fundamentally (though not exclusively) historical in nature. I take these three questions, as historical questions, as a way into reflecting on what use there is in learning from history.
Every semester students enroll in my history survey classes, not, I am well aware, out of any deeply felt affection for the subject but because their advisor informed them the class was required, and there’s no way out. Should I forget, students, helpful people that they are, are quite willing to remind me of their predicament. I sympathize, having also been subjected to years of rambling lectures and history tests that were more or less like vocabulary quizzes (memorize a list of seemingly unrelated terms—names, events, dates—and reproduce them on the exam) before encountering what makes history so fascinating. To help students think of history in the new way, on the first day of class I often ask students to introduce themselves, telling us all they can about themselves, but with one caveat: students may make no reference to their past. After all, the past is dull and it’s the present that matters, right?
I drop the caveat once students, in frustration, complain that they cannot describe who they are without reference to who they have been. Our lives, our relationships, our identities are built out of our memories of shared experiences, difficult choices, and transformative moments. What is true of individual memory can be broadened, for we do not exist (which is to say, we did not develop) as isolated individuals, but as members of families, communities, schools, churches, nations, and cultures, all of which are constituted by their interconnected histories. That we have been shaped by our past is simply the way it is, whether we are aware of it or not; the extent to which we are aware of what this reality means, for better and for worse, is up to us, dependent on our willingness to engage in the often difficult work of historical analysis and reflection. This does not mean that those of college age today should be interested only in the history of their own country since the 1980s or so. We learn about ourselves not only by deepening our understanding of what is familiar, but also by coming to terms with what is unfamiliar, discovering that an ancient Greek, Chinese, or German poet had insights that bring our own lives into greater clarity, while at the same time holding assumptions about the world that we can only regard as bizarre.
From what has been said about the past shaping identity, it follows that the question, “Where did I come from?” is not easily disentangled from the question, “Who am I?” Human choices create cultures that are larger than the sum-total of their parts. Although they are shaped by human actions, they in turn exert a shaping power over individuals living within them. Caution is required here, however, since from a Christian perspective, the individual is more than the product of social and cultural forces. The power—and potential danger—of history in shaping our sense of identity can be seen in a recent controversy in California over the portrayal of the history of India in sixth-grade social science textbooks. Two organizations, the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation (both American, but with ties to radical Hindu nationalist organizations in India), filed a complaint with the California State Board of Education that attention to the inequities of Indian society throughout history (specifically, the oppression of Dalits (“untouchables”), lower castes, women, and tribal groups) would have an adverse effect on the self-esteem and cultural pride of Indian-Americans. They suggested a series of edits in the textbook, designed to smooth over the more troubling aspects of Indian history. Disturbingly, the State Board of Education conceded to most of the demands. I do not wish to focus on the merits of the complaint here (which are few; it is also worth noting that the self-esteem of the Dalits is hardly served by denying the persecution they have faced throughout history), but rather on how tightly linked history and identity are, and the vulnerability of history when confronted by anxiety over identity. An honest attempt to learn from history demands that we accept the shaping power of the past on us for better and for worse, and telling honest stories about ourselves and others is a way of loving our neighbor (the ninth commandment, a prohibition against giving false testimony about others, has application here as well). Confronting our history means confronting our sinfulness.
Not my history, but Christ’s
This brings us to the third question, why things are the way they are. Human history stops short, here. It is not that we must look beyond history for an answer, for it is in historical events that God reveals himself to us. New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen, author of the landmark book Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans, 1923), wrote that “the centre and core of all the Bible is history.” If Christianity is made independent of history, Machen warns, then “there is no such thing as a gospel.” The gospel is not a universal, timeless philosophical truth or ethical ideal, but “an account of something new,” a radical, supernatural change in the course of history. The cross now stands at the center of history, for it is in Christ—his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension—that history finds its purpose and meaning.
Rather, we need a perspective on history that transcends the limitations of our fallen humanity. One of the great Christian interpreters of the modern world, missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, in A Walk Through the Bible (Westminster/John Knox, 2000), recounts the words of a Hindu friend, who insisted the Bible “is not a book of religion . . . I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole creation and the history of the human race.”
Christians cannot find true identity or purpose in a purely naturalistic understanding of history. It is only through a God who saves his people in history through the sacrifice of Christ. The touchstone for history is not my history, but Christ’s history. I need to make sense of the world less through the lens of my experience and more through Christ’s. History is the terrain we travel, and we should know it well, but Christ is our compass.