I Study The Past So I Can Repeat It

I like Joshua Gibbs. That’s for new readers here. He gives me things to consider, so I’m interrupting regularly scheduled programming to share his most recent essay.

It is relevant not only because it dovetails with my current series of posts on The Feminine Mystique, but because it is intimately connected to the ways we teach, learn, and impart values to those coming behind us. Education, which encompasses all three of those, is a major secondary theme here at Reading in Between the Life.

In I Study the Past So I Can Repeat It, Gibbs writes:

The idea that the past is a thing which men are “condemned to repeat” is just about as progressive and atheistic as it gets. For the typical Roman, Greek, or Hebrew, the past was a thing to restore, because long ago, men walked with the gods. During the 17th and 18th century, however, the growing desire for a godless government prompted political philosophers to draft new mythologies for explaining society, and thus Hobbes or Rousseau’s “state of nature” became the canvas upon which later thinkers would sketch their political ideas. Unlike the Greeks and Hebrews, Enlightened thinkers denied that men formerly communed with the gods, and claimed, instead, that the past was brutal, primitive, and that there were simply no gods with whom men could walk. Government was an invention of man, and prior to government, the life of man was wild, chaotic, and violent. Before the Enlightenment, there is very little which resembles “the cave man” in Western thought, though the cave man is an obvious necessity of the Enlightened view of history. If things were very terrible in the past, then the paltry accomplishments of the Enlightenment seem far more impressive. Out of such prejudices, the atheist philosopher George Santayana coined the proverb, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Ouch. I’ve uttered that silly phrase myself, although I hope my offering just due to the good and godly values we have discarded makes up for it.

He continues later in the piece:

In this day and age, the danger of “idolizing the past” is a good bit like the danger of “works righteousness,” which is to say it is not much of a danger at all. Given the profound sloth, laziness, boredom, and ennui of the average American, we are flattering ourselves to pretend “works righteousness” is a sin to which we are actually tempted. Further, the omnipresence of banal, sensual, ephemeral popular culture has placed the possibility of idolizing the past on a very long hiatus. If this nation began making a conscious effort to worship the past, I suspect it would take all of us— working around the clock— more than fifty years of robust and tireless idol-making before a single instance of genuinely blasphemous love for the past was truly possible. We loathe the past. Even conservative Christians loathe the past. Spend an hour in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and you will see that fewer than one in a thousand self-professed conservatives alive today has the respect for custom or tradition which served as the ante for conservative political philosophy at the end of the 19th century. The average modern “conservative” has more in common with Rachel Maddow than Edmund Burke.

You should really go read the whole thing.

Read, enjoy, think.

Happy Tuesday!

2 thoughts on “I Study The Past So I Can Repeat It

  1. hearthie says:

    I think the phrase, “those who don’t study the past are doomed to repeat it” is more about those who refuse to open a history book and are shocked – shocked – when history repeats itself. Bread and circuses at the moment being relevant.

    Perhaps one might consider the metaphor of the various empires from the book of Daniel, with each empire a less costly, less pure metal… ending with clay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elspeth says:

    Bread and circuses at the moment being relevant.

    Well yes, but also the point he is making is a good one. We -collective, cultural we I mean- tend to reference the past in one of two ways. For most people, the tendency is to view the past through the lens of “We don’t want to move backwards! Remember racism! Remember women’s oppression! Remember child labor!”

    I think that his points about the roll call of faith in Hebrews 11 does a good job of reminding us that we’re supposed to do all we can to retain what has proven to work for people throughout the generations. Thomas Sowell talked a lot about that as well.

    The minority that tend to revere the past are actually more in line with the spirit of this post, except they neglect to actually do a thorough and accurate study of the past so what they think it was really wasn’t it was anyway.

    Twin A and I talked about this yesterday and she made the astute observation that very few people have any idea what happened in the past. Being a history buff, she is given to occasional cultural references based on what used to be common historical knowledge only to find that most of her same generation peers haven’t the foggiest what she means unless it’s in the form of a recent meme. These are young people who finished school and took the honors classes right alongside her, but somehow think asylum is an international right, LOL.

    There’s your bread and circuses.

    Perhaps one might consider the metaphor of the various empires from the book of Daniel, with each empire a less costly, less pure metal… ending with clay.

    Absolutely. Classicists -as much as I love their intent and fervor- are invested in the notion that maybe, just maybe, we can hold on to enough of the true and beautiful to preserve Western Civilization. I don’t fault them for that, even though I am convinced that the downward cultural trajectory is part and parcel of what happens when man abandons the God who created him.

    Overall, I think he was arguing one side of an argument without going to the trouble of turning over every rock and boulder to hit all the possible notes.

    Liked by 1 person

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