BACK TO THE FUTURE? WHY GEORGES SANTAYANA WAS NO EMMETT BROWN

Well, “Back to the Future Day” has come and gone, and the Chicago Cubs are not going to win the world series, again.  (Wait til next year!)  All the hoopla over the day’s arrival, however, got me to thinking about the role of serious historical study in anticipating the future, and this led me to reflect on Santayana’s famous and almost universally misunderstood observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  The essay excerpted below was one of the first that I posted to this blog when I began it some three years ago. 

. . . Most Americans fall into one of three broad categories with regard to their attitudes about history.  The largest group dismisses the importance of the past and views history as 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. . . .

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.

Georges Santayana, 1863-1952

Georges Santayana (1863-1952)

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.

One response to “BACK TO THE FUTURE? WHY GEORGES SANTAYANA WAS NO EMMETT BROWN

  1. Maybe this is what Henry Ford meant when he reportedly said “History is Bunk.” Unfortunately when we try to apply this idea of remembering the past as a guide to the future, we often grasp the wrong “lessons” and wind up with highly disappointing results. We westerners don’t like things to be mysterious. We want everything out in the open and provable and all our problems solvable. We search for the meaning of things because we believe we can comprehend it and use it to our advantage. But God’s purposes often escape our understanding. One source I read stated that for God to reveal his thoughts to us would be like Albert Einstein explaining relativity theory to an amoeba! History does not proceed in some orderly lock-step fashion but with an amazing complexity that baffles even the wisest of us.

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