Patron Request: Does History Repeat Itself? A Discussion About This Concept

Added to Medium, June 14, 2018

One of the common thoughts that has been discussed numerous times over the years is “does history repeat itself”. We continue to ask ourselves this question as well as: What makes history repeat itself? Individuals in and outside of academia talked about the concept of history repeating itself especially when discussing current events that remind ourselves of the past. I was introduced to the concept itself while I was studying history in college. One of my history professors had stated, which I will never forget, that history does not repeat but rhymes. I think it is a good point because we are not repeating the exact same circumstances of the past but we are living through situations that definitely sound similar.

For instance, we do not go through every single day by going through the same movements and the same actions of Pearl Harbor in a time loop forever. We do, however, see similar patterns that are recognized from previous historic events as we face current events. When I was asked to write about this concept, I thought it would be a good topic to write about this week and to revisit the concept by doing research on what has been written about the topic. While I was doing my research, I found numerous information about the concept of history repeating itself.

The concept of history repeating itself is also known as historic recurrence. In addition to the concept of history rhyming, I also like the term “historic recurrence” because it acknowledges actions that have reappeared in different circumstances. G.W. Trompf’s The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, from Antiquity to the Reformation, they discussed that historical recurrence has variously been applied to the overall history of the world (such as the rises and falls of empires), to repetitive patterns in the history of a given society, and to any two specific events which bear a striking similarity. A post called “Short Paragraph on the concept of history repeats itself” provided a brief discussion about historic recurrence. It stated that,

History is thus nothing, but man’s long struggle for survival, identity and values. The struggle has often been born more than a slight resemblance in methods used and the manner adopted in such period. Such repetition of historical fact-events, ideas and acts-sometimes makes us think that there was nothing coincidental, but a planned sequence leading towards a pre-destined goal.

These statements pointed out an important idea: history is a human experience. Humans make various decisions every day whether they are living now or have lived a thousand years ago. Even though all humans that have existed and currently live on this planet lived with different technological advances and life expectancy, each human develop similar habits, thought processes, and actions which leaves the next human to look back at past human experiences and see similar patterns.

Historic recurrence is not a new concept, rather the discussions about historic recurrence began in ancient times. According to Trompf, ancient western thinkers focused on cosmological rather than historic recurrence and they introduced western philosophers and historians who have discussed various concepts of historic recurrence including Polybius, the Greek historian and rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Italian philosopher and historian Niccolò Machiavelli. A modern historian named Arnold J. Toynbee also discussed concepts of historic recurrence.

Scholars have come up with their own conclusions about historic recurrence within their works. Arnold J. Toynbee’s book Civilization on Trial has a chapter dedicated to historic recurrence called “Does History Repeat Itself?”, and provides an example of thoughts on historic recurrence. Toynbee stated in this chapter that

If human history repeats itself, it does so in accordance with the general rhythm of the universe; but the significance of this pattern of repetition lies in the scope that it gives for the work of creation to go forward. In this light, the repetitive element in history reveals itself as an instrument for freedom of creative action, not as an indication that God and man are the slaves of fate (38).

In other words, Toynbee believes history repeats itself based on humans having the capability of making their own decisions and have the choice to follow on their actions. Individuals also have the choice to make changes to move forward in society. Historic recurrence has been discussed in the past, and will continue to be discussed as long as humans continue to exhibit similar behaviors and make similar decisions.

What do you think of the concept of “history repeats itself”? Does it really repeat or rhyme? Do we have a choice in breaking these patterns? Why or why not?

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