History Worth Repeating

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

There is a quotation I've often heard used to encourage the study of history: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Until this morning, I'd never bothered to learn the origin of this saying, but the following exchange from the second half of Bevan Sabo's Free Market Mojo interview with Yaron Brook made me curious about the saying for reasons that will soon become obvious.

FMM: Recently, we've seen -- particularly at town hall meetings -- an outpouring of anger and concern over rapid government growth. Do you believe this rhetoric is capable of bringing about a change in the course of our nation?

Brook: In the short run, yes. In the short run, these outpourings could slow today's anti-freedom trend. But even if you were to kick Obama, Barney Frank, and every other leftist out of office, that would do nothing in the long run to change things. Recall that the size and scope of government grew under Bush, even when Republicans controlled the House and the Senate.

That said, we are working to channel these outpourings into more education and more intellectual activism for a positive ideal, not just anger at the current government. Just as the original Boston Tea party started as in effect an emotional response to British tyranny, it became an intellectual movement committed to the ideal of individual rights. That, in essence, is what has to happen today. People need to grasp what a truly free society would look like, and they need to understand at a deep level why such a society is good. [minor format edits, bold added]
When I read the part in bold, the quote about being doomed to repeat the past seemed quite ridiculous to me. Clearly, not everything man has done in the past has been a mistake.

The full original quote is more along the lines of what I thought "should have" been said, although I must note my strong disagreement with other sentiments of George Santayana's, a thinker unfamiliar to me.
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.
Santayana -- and many others who toss out the shorthand version of this sentiment -- are right that progress depends on retentiveness, and Santayana is right that direction is needed. But how do we get this direction? How do we know which elements of the past to avoid and which to repeat (or, more precisely, to emulate)? And how do we know how to replicate and build upon the achievements of the past? These are questions best answered by principles, as Brook indicates. Another discipline, philosophy, is necessary to discover these, as Ayn Rand so ably demonstrated in her work.

The shortness of popular quotations often serves a purpose similar (but not identical) to that of concepts: unit-economy. (I would argue that this would be the proper purpose of a quotation.) Where words stand for concepts, quotations can stand for more complex integrations, but for a quotation to do so, speaker and audience need far more shared mental context than for all but the most abstract concepts to understand each other.

However, in today's intellectual milieu, where the approach of pragmatism -- the wholesale rejection of principles -- is dominant, I wonder whether the Santayana quote normally fulfills its proper purpose. Look who got elected on the premise of "change" and yet how similar he is to his predecessors! And think about what Brook says must happen before we can put the brakes on the current trend towards statism and make America fully free again.

Consider Brook's observation to the effect that there is a "tendency" even among those who want freedom to scoff at the need for people to think deeply about America's cultural crisis. And consider further the fact that freedom is both vital to human survival and quite an abstract concept. To keep what freedom we have, and to gain more of it, we have to communicate with others about freedom, but we will be completely ineffective unless we all are talking about the same thing. To wit: There are people who will speak of "freedom" from want -- while ignoring the fact that such "freedom" comes at the expense of the actual freedom of those whose wealth is stolen to pay for it.

History is important, but to learn from history, we need proper philosophical principles, as we see from this interview.

-- CAV

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