In past writings, we have discouraged, indeed, excoriated, the use of aphorism, as an aid in the resolution of issues, or the making of difficult choices. We have cautioned against their arrogant, pre-packaged, formulaic wisdom and false assumption of eternal rectitude. They are typically useless, irrelevant to the specific issues, and at times, misleading. We have consistently maintained that problems and difficult choices are best dealt with by the application of reasoned experience, relevant to the nuance and context of the respective situation, and never by the facile acquisition of useless, ephemeral assurance, from purported, folk wisdom.
Seeking the best personal solution to presenting problems is, undoubtedly, hard work. A consultation with a friend or neighbor is understandable, but such request for assistance can result in erroneous, or inapplicable advice. The unsatisfactory result may be caused by the subjective and inexact manner in which the problem is communicated to the friend or neighbor, the neighbor’s own subjective perception of the issue, or his own analogous experience in a different context.
In the interest of fairness and objectivity, we undertook an examination of the aphoristic statements available to us, in a search for a possible valid exception. We did discover, to our great surprise, one sage, aphoristic statement, which had reasonable value; but unfortunately, even that (somewhat useful) aphorism, had a fatal flaw, as will be observed at a later part of this note. That aphoristic statement, in any event, did provide us with an entree to an important theme for this note.
The identified, partial exception to the rule, is a statement, attributed to the 19th Century author, George Santayana. The famous declaration, which we maintain is flawed, is also, coincidentally, a segue to our topic du jour, the eternal and unavoidable rondo of human history; but first, George Santayana’s aphorism. The statement was, “Those who fail to learn history, are doomed to repeat it.” This frequently used statement, we note, is aphoristic, in that it lends advice, universally, and without qualification. This statement, incessantly recited, it seems, by everyone, in felt applicable situations, is somewhat useful, but as indicated, is materially flawed.
The study of history is, unquestionably, a valuable undertaking, and, among other benefits, often leads to useful conclusions, notably concerning the flawed persona and impulsive actions of mankind, over time, and the related consequences. This awareness and knowledge is, unlike other aphoristic statements, useful; but only up to a point. We feel that the necessarily implicit assumption of the statement by George Santayana, is that such foreknowledge can be utilized to prevent mistakes (or, their repetition). We do not agree with the great man. We would hazard the view that man, eternally, repeats the classic mistakes, because, empirically, man’s persona, over the ages never basically alters. This, practical, view of history we would, humbly suggest, is the flaw in the otherwise, useful exception to the use of the aphoristic advice. In essence, we feel that Santayana was optimistically, reductionist.
It may well be that the basic causes of World War 1, were known, yet within a few decades, we endured World War 2. The historical cause of the ongoing bloody war, between the Sunni and the Shia Muslims, is ancient, but known. The war is understood to be a bizarre continuation of the 7th Century dispute, as to whether the Prophet Mohammed is to be succeeded by blood relatives (in this case, his son, Ali) or by popular vote. The cause for this atrocious and eternal conflict, can probably be found in the psyche of the combatants, and arguably not the ancient, 7th Century political issue. The historically studied cause, is known and has been studied for more than 14 Centuries; yet there is, and has continued to be, all out tragic and excessively bloody and cruel warfare. The cause of the Thirty Years War, in central Europe was always known, the conflict between the religious practices of the Catholic and Protestant Christians. The causes of the French and Russian Revolutions was always known; the privation of the respective populations. It seems to us that the prime causes of war are, and have always been, xenophobia, inequality, and, most especially religion. We always knew them and yet always have suffered; possibly because the species of homo sapiens, is not as charitable, nor as principled, as the brilliant, George Santayana. Studying the imperfect nature of man, we believe, may be more enlightening, than knowledge of his temporal mistakes in history.
We once read an original and thought-provoking piece by a Yale literature professor, espousing the theory that all literary plots are essentially, versions of the same three stories; Jack in the Beanstalk (ex.:” Raiders of the Lost Ark”), Cinderella (ex.: “A Star is Born”), Romeo and Juliet (ex.:” My Fair Lady”). [examples, furnished by us]. Man has eternally been observed to undergo the same, or, analogous, life experiences, and continues to do so, despite changes in context, environment and, to the point, knowledgeable experience. This is why the declaration of Mr. Santayana is wise and idealistic, but empirically disproven by man’s empirically unalterable character.
We have always maintained, that mature perception, and understanding of one’s self and his fellow man, are best advanced by the reading of good literature. In addition to the great pleasure of enjoying the books, themselves, and the spiritual company of the outstanding authors, we, in the process, simultaneously, advance our knowledge of ourselves and our fellow man. The plots and characters are so well conceived and portrayed, that we delight in empathically, and intellectually, sharing with the fictional characters, their creatively portrayed, and personally relatable experiences. The reader identifies with the classically redundant and eternal issues that beset man, and thereby derives an objective and tolerant acceptance of analogous problems experienced in his life, as well as the life of others. Life is repetitive and therefore predictable, like the musical theme in a classical rondo, and not essentially changeable. It and the finite variety of personality types, it seems, will endure, through the years.
So, Mr. Santayana, if experience and knowledge, of the replicative nature of life is not enough, what shall man do? We would, if possible, respond, as follows: (1) be certain that you have accurately identified the accurate nature of the presenting problem, and to quote a useful British admonition, (2) “muddle through.”