In the beginning of the twentieth century, the great American intellectual George Santayana famously justified the study of history with his stern admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Ever since my father introduced me to this maxim (when I was just in elementary school), its popular repetition and pithy logic seemed to validate it. It even followed me into adulthood when, as if to rise to Santayana’s challenge, I chose the career of the historian.
It therefore came as something of a surprise to me, when I realized how much I disbelieve it.
To my view, we are destined to repeat history regardless how thoroughly we study it. Quite the opposite of a condemnation, however, this repetition continually asserts the opportunity for self-knowledge. I believe that the intoxicating promise of history resides, not in the expectation of progress but rather in the certainty that we forever tread the same ground, generation after generation.
History serves as our “distant mirror,” as Barbara Tuchman argued in her bestseller of the same title. Through the trappings of difference—different eras, languages, countries and religions—profounder and more pervasive similarities come into sharper relief. Love, greed, generosity, fear—these and other elemental components of our humanity define us now as much as they did 3000 years ago, all the more notably so for the passage of time.
The persistent freshness of rediscovering ourselves in different guises of time and place is the gift of history and our reason for unendingly pursuing it. Who can suppress the wonder and sense of human solidarity when we find that long-dead people, unlike us in every outward way, nonetheless speak directly to us, across the chasm of centuries?
The Jews of Cairo, Egypt, left a storehouse of Arabic and Hebrew documents, miraculously preserved for a millennium. Among them number hundreds of personal letters—intimate expressions that transport us into the souls of people who lived in a world now extinct.
In one letter, a traveling merchant writes to his wife, describing how he misses her to the point of losing his appetite, especially on Friday night, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. He writes, “When I light the [Sabbath] candle and think about you, then only God knows what happens to me.”
In another letter, a mother perfects the art of Jewish guilt, when she rebukes her son: “You say you have received no letter from me?! I wrote you nine. And not one was answered.”
These voices, so familiar in their emotion, deny us the facile distinctions that we tend to apply to people on the basis of differences in culture and era.
History undertakes to excavate these and other voices, be they in letters, art or architecture, because through the differences that legitimately (and so richly) adorn the human experience, we need to hear them.
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