"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."
The quote is most likely due to George Santayana, and in its original form it read, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
The phrasing itself certainly is catchy. It's a big one, not only because it is so common, but also because if it is true and if history is ugly (hint: it is), then this saying ought to guide our public and private policy.
It’s hard to disagree with. Over our history, wars ended with confiscatory terms of surrender inevitably breed more wars. Revolutions that give an individual absolute power inevitably end up as brutal dictatorships. Even individuals are subject to this advice. Couples who do not learn from their fights break up. People who don’t learn from their mistakes don’t mature.
So it is the ruling of The Proverbial Skeptic that this saying is true, but…
But, it doesn’t really have any power. Why? History shows that both those who do not learn history and those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it. If it's also true that those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it, then the saying doesn't really add anything at all.
So is that the case?
After repeated wars between Germany and France, France still demanded that confiscatory terms of surrender be imposed on Germany after The First World War. Then The Second World War happened.
After failing to invest in education and infrastructure in Afghanistan after arming the Mojahadin against the invading Soviet Union in the 80’s, America neglected to make the same investments after later Middle Eastern military campaigns. Then rose The Taliban and Al Qaeda.
After Stalin’s brutal regime of secret police and leader worship, Cuban revolutionaries allowed their charismatic revolutionary leader to seize absolute power. A Castro still holds a seat of dictatorial power in Cuba.
It may be that all of the good things and all of the bad things about people and the way that we organize ourselves are simply going to breed patterns as we continue to make history as a species. It may be that we are simply given to a certain irrationality which leads us down paths, some disastrous, again and again.