History Never Repeats Itself Essay


  • Definition of history
  • Importance of collecting the facts of past
  • The evolutionary aspect of history
  • Repeating phenomena
  • The arguments of historical determinism
  • Historical materialism by Karl Marx
  • The doctrine of humanism
  • Various steps of this doctrine T.S Eliot’s point of view
  • Conclusion

The greatest historian of our age, Arnold J. Toynbee has defined history as “the study of human phenomena as we see them on the move through time and space, and from this, by analogy it has come to mean the study of phenomena on the move, whatever their nature; e.g., the phenomena studied in astronomy, geology”, and or the phenomena on the move” but their interpretation. E.H. Carr, in his book entitled “What is History’ remarks, “History is interpretation.” He adds, “It is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”

To establish that “dialogue between the present and the past,” it is necessary to collect the facts of the past, and to analyse and interpret them with the intellect of the present. The ‘intellect of the present presents the phenomena from two distinct aspects, which may be termed as ‘evolutionary’ and ‘revolutionary’. The evolutionary aspect is obviously that aspect of history, which concerns itself with the growth of the phenomena. In all fields of history, there have been certain evolutionary changes, which have been natural to the phenomena. Man himself has evolved from homosapiens. The growth of the civilization has been a gradual process. The knowledge of various fields of human interest and activity has reached the present state through a process spread over years and this process is continuing towards further development.[the_ad id=”17141″]

This evolutionary aspect of history has been described by the famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, in the following words: “The History of human race, viewed as a whole, may be regarded as the realization of a hidden plan of nature to bring about a political constitution internally and externally perfect, as the only state in which all the capacities implanted by her in mankind can be fully developed.” He thinks that if there is no such progress, the labours of successive civilizations are like those of Sisyphus who, again and again, “up the high hill heaved a huge round stone”, only to have it roll back as it was almost at the top. He believed that history, in that case, would be nothing more than an endless and circuitous folly; “and we might suppose that the earth is a place for the expiation of old and forgotten sins.”

While this evolutionary process is going on, there are certain spurts of phenomena repeating themselves. These may be called revolutionary in nature. Wars and battles have been such recurring phenomena. Various discoveries and inventions also belong to these aspects of history. There have been certain movements in the case of other phenomena, which have been reasserting themselves. Though these phenomena occur at different times, the circumstances leading to them are more or less identical.

History looked at from this point of view, partly repeats itself and partly never repeats itself. The repetition is manifested in the revolutionary aspect of history and the evolutionary aspect is the non-repetitive one. Therefore, in this matter, the truth lies in the proverbial center. It is as much true to say that “History repeats itself”, as to say, “History never repeats itself”. It all depends upon the aspect of history one has under consideration. These different aspects of history or the different ways of looking at it, have been responsible for two schools of thought one of historical determination and other of humanism.[the_ad id=”17142″]

According to the supporters of the historical determinism, external forces determine the course of history. In other words, forces beyond his control shape the destiny of man. This school goes to the extent of asserting that man is a helpless victim of these world forces. These forces are moving in a predetermined direction. Therefore, the civilization is moving towards an inexorable find. Some of the followers of this school have made dialectics as the basis for their theory. They assert that the historical forces begin with thesis and produce their antithesis, culminating in the synthesis. This goes on happening again and again. History keeps on repeating itself.

One of the most significant contributors to this belief was Karl Marx. He propounded his theory under the name of historical materialism.” He argued that the history of man should be interpreted in terms of the working of economic forces. He purported to show that the inexorable dialectic determines that the history of man repeats. itself. According to him, the inevitability of class struggle and the natural developments in the techniques of production serve as the basis of man’s history. Thus, the feudal system with its land owning aristocracy was thesis to the antithesis of the rising merchant class. The synthesis of this was the modern capitalist system. But the cycle is repeating itself because the modern owners of capital are the thesis, which is creating its antithesis in the shape of the working class. The synthesis of this phase will result in a classless society. The marxian system stops here because one of the basic tenets of this system, i.e., the inevitability of class struggle, ceases to operate. But it is interesting to note how this theory, that “History repeats itself, leads to the result, a stage of history, which, on the basis of this very theory never repeats itself.[the_ad id=”17150″]

The doctrine of humanism placed the individual above the sway of external forces: “Man is the measure of all things” is the keynote of humanism. This doctrine leads to the concept of free will. Socrates and Plato were two of the propounders of this concept. According to Socrates, man could influence his destiny through knowledge, because ignorance made him the plaything of fate. Plato went further and pointed out that man can, and does, defeat the purposes of the universe and its divine creator. Hegal went still further to assert that the whole universe was evolving towards self-awareness and freedom in man was evolving towards self-awareness, although this could be fully realized only in a society that makes for freedom. The entire movement was made out to be essentially evolutionary in character.

The various steps of this movement in the history of Europe had been the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and the Struggle for Democracy. Each of them was simply the assertion of humanism in different spheres. The Renaissance denotes the liberation of the intellect. The Reformation meant the release from ecclesiastical authority. The Industrial Revolution was the assertion of faith in progress. The Struggle for Democracy is the outcome of the belief that man himself can improve his own conditions, without supernatural help and, indeed, has a duty to do so. All these events were essentially in the nature of stages of the gradual release of man from various sorts of chains. This was, therefore, obviously an evolutionary process marked by the breaking of one chain after another. It is that aspect of history, which does not repeat itself.

There is another interesting aspect of the question of whether history repeats itself or not, which would amount to saying that there is nothing old about history. In other words, it is at variance with the normal connotation of history, as the study of the past. This comes out in the context of literature. T.S. Eliot, in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, has referred to this. According to him, anyone who expects to ‘continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year must acquire “historical sense”. He says, “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of his country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”. [the_ad id=”17144″]

This way looking at literature is essential because, according to T.S. Eliot, “No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists”. To evaluate any work of art one must, therefore, compare and contrast it with the dead. The matter does not end here. T.S. Eliot goes on to say that, “what happens when a new work of art is created something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.” So long as the new work does not appear on the stage, the existing ones form an ideal order among themselves. But once the supervention of the novelty takes place, the whole existing order must be, even if slightly, altered, “and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art are readjusted” (T. S. Eliot).

This view, in its final analysis leads to the conclusion that art never improves and that the material for art is never quite the same. This would amount to saying that the development, refinement perhaps, complication, certainly, is not, from the viewpoint of the artist, any improvement. In other
words, there is nothing like art. There are only artists. There is no development of art. There are only various movements perpetrated by different artists at different times in the past.

The study of some other “phenomena, on the move,” economics, political science, philosophy, psychology or other branches of humanities, and pure sciences like chemistry, physics, botany, zoology and others and their applications are all in the nature of developments or ‘evolutionary’ in character. Their history, again, does not repeat itself.

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