• Chelsea Slack

Santayana’s Catch 22

Practically everyone has heard Santayana’s adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[1] History teachers, wise old men, and all those who understand the value of learning from the past frequently spout off this little gem of wisdom. On the other hand, it seems that no matter how much we know and have learned from times gone by, humans frequently fail to learn from their mistakes. Victor Vitanza addresses this issue during Octalog I, stating, “I think there's something very perverse in us as human beings and, given the knowledge of the past and the knowledge of the mistakes of the past, we often repeat them nonetheless.”[2] At some point, learning from the past becomes a catch 22, since dismounting the hamster wheel of mistakes requires mankind to do something that is not wholly feasible.

How are we to avoid past mistakes when our knowledge and understanding of the past may not be accurate or remotely comprehensive? What do we even know of the past? Why are some stories ubiquitous, while others remain unsung? Who controls what is remembered, what is written down, what is passed along to future generations? How much of what we know is truly representative of the past’s events? What is more important – the sweeping story of mankind or the personal, idiosyncratic stories of those who came before us? These are all questions to ponder when thinking about what history really is, why we know what we know, and how to logically apply that knowledge to current situations.

In the great scheme of time, each person has a relatively small window to make an impact on others and the world. Lifetimes happen as fast as the blink of an eye, and understandably, people hope their story is to be remembered. This desire not to be forgotten is as old as time itself. In the Iliad, Achilles faces this very predicament, saying, “If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies.”[3] Although Achilles was initially tempted to choose life over glory, the lure of glory was too great; in Achilles’ choice, he cements his place in history and literature.

It is the exception rather than the rule for one person’s story to live on within the larger fold of history, and the example of Achilles is indeed quite exceptional. Oftentimes, the history of whole groups or entire eras wind up totally forgotten, or if remembered, still largely overlooked. Families pass along their stories, usually in the oral tradition, for generations. At funerals, a common phrase is, “Although she may be gone, she will live on forever in our memory.” But is that really what happens?

Nan Johnson, also an Octalog I participant, brings up the two sides of historiography – the archaeological and the rhetorical – asserting that both are important in the research and writing of history.[4] Reasonably, individual stories are so innumerable that it is easy for them to slip into obscurity and eventually out of historical consciousness altogether. While countless personal narratives do exist in both the historical record and oral tradition, it is safe to say that an untold number have been lost. This leads to a gap in the historical knowledge of the human condition. Furthermore, as it is usually the stories, rather than evidence, that hit home for all human beings, this gap widens to an outright chasm.

With regard to the evidentiary side of historiography, it would seem more difficult for empirical and data-driven historical knowledge to simply slip away as it does in the realm of historical narratives. Hence, the more major issue instead becomes interpretation and misinterpretation, or at least, subjective interpretation. The waters become even further muddied when not only the writers and teachers of history modify meanings of events through subjective interpretation, but also when the students of history, i.e. mankind, pick and choose what they want to believe based on their own ideological principles.

Remembering history, learning from it, and synthesizing that knowledge with the reality of everyday, modern life is of course conceivable. However, the statement “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is misleadingly simple. Being well versed in history, no matter how accurate our knowledge, does not mean we will easily be able to make difficult decisions on controversial topics. In many ways, it does seem impossible to become enlightened enough to completely avoid mistakes of the past. It may be that we are just supposed to take what we know and do the best we can with it. We cannot ever completely learn all there is to know from the past, but we mustn’t stop trying to learn, and we mustn’t forget what it is we do know. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”[5]


[1] Contemporary Hispanic Biography (2003), s.v “Santayana, George: 1863-1952: Philosopher” by James Manheim, accessed September 8, 2016.

[2] Octalog, “The Politics of Historiography,” Rhetoric Review 7, no. 1 (1988): 20, JSTOR, accessed September 11, 2016.

[3] Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard Knox, The Iliad (New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA), 1992), 35.

[4] Octalog, 10-11.

[5] Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 117–20, chap. The Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech.



© 2018 by Chelsea Slack