Cicero (106—43 BCE) declared, "To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain always a child."
A couple of millennia later history repeated itself when Harvard philosopher George Santayana (1863—1952 CE) gave Cicero’s warning this snappy tweaking: "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it."
Political jabber hasn’t been the same since. Santayana’s words have been appropriated by enough politicos and pundits to make a Google algorithm break into a sweat. These earnest counselors beseech us not to repeat history by, say, going to war or raising taxes, or legalising whiskey. They cite chapter and verse of historical precedence that give force to their warnings. "Don’t go there again!" they exhort us. "Haven’t you learned anything from past mistakes?"
But then strangely along come other earnest counselors who beseech us not to repeat history by failing to invade a particular country, or lowering taxes, or making alcohol consumption illegal. Santayana, we’ve got a problem. Two, actually.
The first is that the study of history is not as neat as, say, the study of rocks. History has way more variables than rocks do, so the enterprise of finding in it an exact replica of a current sociopolitical situation is virtually impossible. Consider the truism that history does not repeat itself. This makes the entire business of looking to past events for clues on how to make present choices dicey at best. Heraclitus clearly had this in mind when he said: "You don’t step into the same river twice." All kinds of stuff keeps changing from one moment and era to the next, whether we like it or not, and that’s just the water.
So it is that, like the devil quoting the Bible, politicians and pundits can quote passages of history to draw opposing analogies to the same situation. Is the history we do not want to repeat in Iraq the appeasement of Germany or the quagmire of the Vietnam war? Judging by the outcomes of following of the historical lessons, the men and women who consider themselves students of history seem to pick the wrong analogy at a rate that is arguably worse than chance. Add to this the fact that, historically speaking, historians are not always dependable, so the very foundation of historical lessons is shaky. Historians have been known to use dodgy evidence, assailable sources and even, heaven forbid, to give history a political spin.
But there is another, subtler problem with Santayana’s historical pronouncement. It is not fallacious in itself, but there is an implicit conclusion that makes it fallacious. We are led to draw the conclusion that those who do remember the past, are not condemned to repeat it. It just may be that those who study history and those who do not study history are both condemned to repeat it. In other words, everbody’s doing it, repeating history. So you could make just as good a case that the study of history condemns people to repeat it.