What is the Value of History?—Part I: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past . . .”

In my last post I shared the opinion that most Americans fall into one of three broad categories with regard to their attitudes about history.  The group that I suspect is the largest dismisses the importance of the past and views history as fundamentally irrelevant.  The second group, also large, trivializes the importance of the past and reduces it to a storehouse of quirky facts and amusing anecdotes.  Happily, I have met many Christians over the years—in churches, at Christian school functions, at home-schooling gatherings—who fall into a third category.  If the first and largest sees no value in history, and the second thinks its sole purpose is to entertain us, this third, smaller group believes that history can instruct us in some way, that it is a potential source of valuable insight.  The latter are kindred spirits, and so I mean no disrespect when I say that most of the individuals I have met in this third category have no very clear idea as to how history might enrich their lives.  That it should do so they have no doubt, but this is more an article of faith than a reasoned conviction.

I’d like to share my own thoughts on the benefits of studying history, but I’m going to let the suspense build for a few posts and instead discuss some of the most common misconceptions about history’s value.  For years, I have regularly started each new course that I teach by asking the students on the first day what they might hope to glean from a serious study of the past, and for years in each class at least one brave soul will raise her hand and paraphrase what has to be the single best known quote about the value of history, Georges Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  How this single sentence from a resolutely atheistic Spanish-born philosopher evolved into an unassailable popular truth in America is a mystery.  Compounding the mystery is the fact that we almost always take the sentence out of context and impute a meaning to it miles from what the author intended.  Popularly interpreted, the quote becomes a claim about the value of history: the past is a repository of lessons about what does and doesn’t work in a given situation, and the society that is ignorant of these lessons will unfortunately (and unnecessarily) repeat the mistakes of the past.

In reality, Santayana wasn’t thinking about history at all.  Rather than making an observation about the value of history, he was proffering a philosophical principle about the nature of knowledge.  Writing in his 1905 treatise The Life of Reason, Santayana, almost in passing, shared the unexceptionable observation that the acquisition of knowledge is incremental.  If at the end of every day we were to forget everything that we had ever known, the limits of our knowledge would never move beyond what we could acquire, from scratch, in the span of twenty-four hours.  We would be perpetually like newborn babies, which was precisely Santayana’s point.  “When experience is not retained,” he wrote, “infancy is perpetual.”  His very next sentence—“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—was simply a fanciful way of voicing a mundane observation: intellectual growth is impossible without memory.  This is undeniably true, but it is a truism that doesn’t take us very far in our thinking about history.

Given how ubiquitous it is, it may surprise you to learn that almost no professional historian would agree with Santayana’s statement as it is popularly (mis)understood.  In The Landscape of History, for example, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis dismisses the claim as “fatuous.”  In her book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, British historian Margaret Macmillan describes Santayana’s pronouncement as “one of those overused dicta politicians and others offer up when they want to sound profound.”  At bottom, almost all academic historians take for granted that human behavior is far too complex to be reduced to such a formulaic or mechanistic basis as “condemned to repeat it” seems to imply.  As Christians we can readily concur with them.  Our popular misreading of Santayana makes his dictum an echo of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who hoped that his History of the Peloponnesian Wars would be read by “those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past.”  Although as Christians we believe that there is a fundamental element of continuity in the human condition—namely, the perpetual need of fallen humanity for God’s grace and forgiveness—one of the consequences of the spread of Christianity was to challenge this ancient view of human history as cyclical.  Because we recognize Creation, Fall, and Redemption as central to the human story, we view history not as cyclical but linear.  History is a “story with a divine plot,” as C. S. Lewis put it—an unfolding, meaningful movement toward a divinely appointed culmination.

4 responses to “What is the Value of History?—Part I: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past . . .”

  1. You certainly have my attention now! I’ve heard the quote and never even thought to question the origins or context of it, sadly. I’ve definitely done my fair share of trying to compare the direction of my country today with the moral or political degradation of past civilizations that have long since collapsed, been destroyed or conquered. I await your next few posts eagerly!

  2. I have always been skeptical of Santayana’s quote, specifically for the reason you give – human behavior is too complex for history to repeat itself in any detailed way. Thanks for discussing the actual meaning of the quote. It is trivial, but at least now it makes sense.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. About a year ago, I started to buy historical audio books and listen to them on the way to work, and I am so glad I did. I think knowing and understanding history is the same as walking with God- after a year, you look back and (hopefully) see blessings, difficulties, growth, in essense, Depth to life. And it is very exciting to make historical connections to modern situations, and then to discern modern philosophical “spins” on history.

    Also, I did not know that about the Santayana quote. Very interesting.

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