Philosopher George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This has been misquoted and paraphrased many times, especially in the form: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Ere I enter into my primary rant this week. If “con” is the opposite of “pro,” what does that make the opposite of “progress”?
I confess that history was a subject in which I had great levels of failure while in high school. It consisted then of endless series of dates, each affiliated with some king or emperor, and some distant land I could not imagine.
I mentally summed it all in the two word phrase: “bo” and “ring.” It was not until many years later that I learned that “history” might be broken into “his” and “story.” It is, ultimately, all about people.
English historian Edward Gibbon penned “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” It was published in six volumes over the years from 1776 to 1789. Interesting historical time, that. Seems that quite a few miles away from England some new history was even then being created.
Wikipedia tells us this about the Gibbon history: “The work covers the history of the Roman Empire, Europe, and the Catholic Church from 98 to 1590 and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire in the East and West.
Because of its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources, unusual at the time, its methodology became a model for later historians. This led to Gibbon being called the first “modern historian of ancient Rome.”
Don’t hear much about Ancient Rome these days, do we – unless, of course, we study World Literature here at Winthrop. And then we are learning about the poets and novelists more than the historians of the time. Thumbnail: Rome was a city where the government had power and met in regular sessions.
The folks who did the meeting were called Senators, among other things. Senators were elected, and to stay elected they had to keep the people who elected them happy. First Century A.D. Roman poet Juvenal had a wry way of describing this: panem et circenses — “Bread and circuses.” Give the people free food and free entertainment, and they’ll keep voting you back into office. Of course that was 2,000 years ago, wasn’t it? What Santayana said couldn’t possibly apply to this time, could it?
Let’s see now, FDR’s New Deal in the aftermath of the Great Depression sort of paralleled the “bread” component, and movies readily available and at affordable cost sort of evoked the atmosphere of “circuses.” We need not worry, though, the Great Depression is long behind us, so that is “old history” anyway, isn’t it?
Except, let me see, did we recently have some reaction in Washington D.C., following the onset of the Great Recession? Um, quoting myself from above: “Rome was a city where the government had power and met in regular sessions.” Is there an image here?
Movies have been supplanted by the Internet, 24-hour TV broadcasts, and “social media.” With the Romans, if they were watching Christians being eaten by lions, they weren’t thinking about what their governing body’s members were doing.
If we are following Downton Abbey, do we have time to follow the blather and drivel being spouted in the hallowed halls of Congress? My beloved country, I fear for you. My days may not be too many more in this life, but I have a serious question in my mind.
Was George Santayana’s philosophical wisdom not just a whimsical observation over a century ago only applicable at the time he said it, or should we, perhaps, choose to open our eyes and ask ourselves whether we are allowing ourselves to be blinded and deafened by the bread and circuses of today?