Are those who cannot remember the past condemned to repeat it?

May 24, 2023 08:44
Photo: U.S. National Archives/via REUTERS

Essayist George Santayana once quipped the above, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

At face value, this aphorism is rather apt and intuitive. After all, history sheds light on some of the darkest moments in our arduous pilgrims’ progress, in search for a paradise lost - from the Crusades to the Black Death (and the lethal superstitions undergirding Medieval Europe), from the atrocities of the two world wars to the callous destruction of human lives at the hands of genocidal dictators, the world has witnessed a few too many tragedies for us to not take such episodes seriously.

On the other hand, we may rightly find ourselves inspired, driven to share the impassioned zeal of innovating inventors, entrepreneurs, and trailblazers whose trajectories lend us a sounding board and foundation for robust and enduring contemplation. Much food for thought can be found in the success stories of figures such as Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Kang Youwei, haphazardly heterogeneous in kind and yet united by a fervent intellectual rigour and curiosity that few could match. Learning their histories and biographies may nevertheless grant us a glimpse into their minds’ inner workings, and thus pave the way to our replicating their successes - or so we’re told.

Now, upon further scrutiny, one may rightfully become more skeptical towards this very claim. After all, there is no shortage of learned and erudite individuals who have instigated and waged wars since the dawn of humanity. Some of the most privileged, pompously pampered Kings and Queens in European and Latin American dynasties, have signed off on unthinkable atrocities and wars - in name of civilising missions, ‘national interests’, or other excuses that are dubious and sonorous in equal parts. Knowing history does not guarantee that one does not repeat it - indeed, some could even argue that knowing too much history could lead to dangerous hubris, in turn precipitating rash and reckless actions that cause a natural downward spiral. Such is life.

Yet this objection misses the point. Remembering history is necessary, but by no means sufficient, in ensuring that we possess the right values, prudential virtues, and reasoning to make sense of the potential devastation wrought by our actions. Being historically well-versed allows us to draw connections across eras, observe the flaws and defects of our predecessors - such that we do not repeat them, or come to appreciate the powers of institutional and societal norms (e.g. the Levellers’ Agreement or Paris Commune, for those who are inspired and sworn socialists. Alternatively, the halcyon days of Japanese semiconductor manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s). Such knowledge is essential, but by no means adequate on its own, in motivating us to deploy such knowledge wisely.

So the aphorism isn’t wrong, but certainly incomplete.

Another means by which it is incomplete (in its current form), concerns the perils of selective remembering. We live in an era where leaders of nations - especially ultra-nationalistic, hyper-centralised ones - are prone to edifying and changing histories to suit their own political and personal ends. After, expansive and ambitious agenda calls for subservience and compliance, and it is only through such mechanisms of psychological enforcement and indoctrination could leaders of regimes come to enshrine their power.

The problem begins, when the histories taught are partial, skewed, unreflective of reality, or - at their most mendacious worst - true and yet misleading. For an instance of the latter, consider the version of history shoehorned and embraced by Russian media apparatus, propagating the myth that Ukraine had always been a part of their territories. Such myths are ‘founded’ upon the most certainly accurate claim that Ukraine had previously been a constituent part of the Tsardom of Russia. Yet few, if any, have pointed out that if historical claims are anything to go by, we should also grant that Poland and Lithuania (in virtue of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) are nominally ‘countries that owned Ukraine’. That’s not how the Westphalian (or post-Westphalian, if you’re a skeptic or a liberal towards nation-statehood) order fundamentally works.

We must guard ourselves against erroneous, deliberately concocted, and disingenuous attempts at commemorating the past. For it is through their construction of the past, that powerful actors in the media, politics, or private and public economy, come to shape our preferences and opinions towards the present - in turn shifting and molding our actions in the future to suit their own interests. When remembering the past, then, we must not be afraid to engage with the full spectrum of views and accounts, read voraciously, and interrogate everything and all that we see. Trust no one but our own fallible and imperfect thirsting for sound judgments. We may not know all there is to know, but at least we’d know that we - of all individuals out there - are the least likely to intentionally deceive ourselves.

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Assistant Professor, HKU