WE'RE ALL HISTORY
Fatima Staff Report
October 16, 2017
Of all the pursuits of the intellect, the study of history may yield the smallest return for the time invested, for in the end it offers only knowledge of what particular men did at this or that juncture in the affairs of the world, and what apparently resulted from their actions. A mass of facts — dates, names, places, etc. — are accumulated and, in some way, must be grouped and interpreted to impart order and sense — that is, to make the study seem profitable in some way. The end product is that some opinion or other is put forward as having the warrant of history supporting it, thereby obviating the need to think about it further.
One often hears, usually in some form of misquotation, the statement of the late writer George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It sounds well, and people feel that in pronouncing it sententiously, they have introduced an element of gravity and truth into whatever discussion is taking place. But if one carefully examines the meaning of the statement, it will be seen to contain suppositions that do not bear up well in the light of reason and, one might even say, of history.
The principle supposition is that forgetfulness of the past is the cause of present misfortune. But is it? Let’s step off the grand stage of history for a moment and look at a few homely but apposite examples.
A man drinks too much, makes a fool of himself and wakes with a hangover. This is not the first time he has done this. Did he repeat the action because he failed to remember what happened on previous occasions? Is his drunkenness due to a lapse of memory? If so, Alcoholics Anonymous could accomplish its purpose through memory training. But it doesn’t. It locates the tendency to drink too much in the deeper recesses of character, in a lack of moral clarity and self-honesty.
Let’s consider a second common example. A woman is given to outbursts of anger, to intemperate speech that leaves wounded feelings and festering resentments in its wake. Are these waves of verbal violence churned in the sea of forgetfulness? If she remembers that the expression of anger begets anger, will this poor woman be able to control her outbursts? If so, anger management would also be a course in mnemonics. But the proven way to curb indulgence in hurtful speech is to develop empathy; to realize that angry words inflict pain on the one to whom they are directed, and that such injuries are rarely justified. The Golden Rule, that we should do unto others, etc., is the true therapy for the anger addict, not an accurate recall of past incidents.
One could go on citing examples, but the point is established: human misbehavior is not the result of failed memory. This is not to say that memory cannot help us to avoid repeating mistakes, but it should not be assigned the central role as the manager of morals.
The deeper supposition in Santayana’s epigram is that reason is the arbiter of action. If only we all became attentive students of history, we would be capable of ordering our world in a way to avoid the pitfalls of the past. It’s a pleasant thought, very optimistic, but history itself demonstrates how foolish it is. The supposition is, at its heart, a resurrection of Pelagianism.
Now, Pelagius was a fourth-century churchman with a bright outlook: he thought that people are good by nature and that Original Sin was a dark idea that ought to be abandoned. Saint Augustine disagreed. Pelagius believed that grace, though helpful, was not strictly necessary; that people could figure out how best to behave by their own lights. Curiously enough, Pope Francis appears to have an affinity for this view, yet he calls his opponents — “the rigorists” in morals — Pelagians. It’s unclear what the Pope means by this designation, but to hazard a guess, it would seem that he wrongly understands Pelagians to be legal sticklers: those who prefer defined moral laws to the unpredictable promptings of grace. The Pope’s “God of surprises” is obviously not a deity that prescribes so much as He, well, surprises.
But the notion that we can direct present action by an accurate recollection of the past and a clear idea of what constitutes a brighter future is the dominant idea of our age. It has given rise to social engineering. It locates all the miseries that have befallen us in external structures that can supposedly be restructured if only we learn the lessons of history. This naïve and baseless notion has given rise to countless government programs that are bankrupting the world. It has given rise to false promises and false hopes and the dangerous cynicism that comes in the wake of repeated disappointment. When the guiding idea of social organization is seen to be fraudulent, nihilism arises: the will to destroy, to smash everything in a wave of disgust and anger can be seen in the young.
Yet, the politicians of the world cannot resist the rhetoric of optimism. They are forever telling us that we have “turned the corner,” that peace and prosperity are within our grasp. And every new leader promises to correct the mistakes of the past and deliver a “better tomorrow.” When we hear this promise, we would do well to remember the words of Shakespeare, placed into the mouth of an ambitious leader in a moment of honest introspection:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
to the last syllable of recorded time;
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more.”
But such dour words will never publicly escape the lips of a leader, or a would-be leader. They used to be spoken, in one way or another, by the Popes, for the Catholic Faith, whose edifice presents the hope of Heaven, is also built upon the despair of an earthly utopia. There is mental and moral health in a rightly ordered pessimism about the impossibility of worldly happiness.
The reason we repeat the mistakes of history is that those mistakes are rooted not in forgetfulness, but in our fallen nature. It is passion, a will to pleasure, here and now, that overcomes reason, not a lack of historical perspective. And the mistakes of the past will continue to be repeated on a scale proportionate to the lack of properly formed moral conscience in the world.
One of the dangers of the present pontificate is that Pope Francis is an optimist, in worldly terms. His focus seems to be largely on how best to re-arrange affairs in this world so as to promote the greater happiness of the people, which is presumed to be dependent on their material conditions. Such an approach naturally focuses on unhappy people, and it attributes their unhappiness to external factors which presumably need to be corrected by various political and economic remedies. So the Pope is forever wagging his finger at politicians and business leaders whose policies displease him. The idea underlying all these papal remonstrances is that our chief moral duty is to make the world a better place materially.
If Santayana’s maxim were true and we were capable of shaping our future by remembering our past mistakes, there is little to explain why we have not done so. But Santayana’s maxim is not true, and what is to be learned from a careful study of history can be learned by sitting on a bar stool and listening to the patrons recite their woes. Every person has his triumphs and tragedies, his foolish mistakes and wise judgments. And every life is not so different from every other life. Priests know this from the hours they spend sitting in the confessional listening to the private histories of their penitents.
All history is really salvation history. Every man’s story tells of how a soul was won or lost. Our Lady of Fatima came to tell us this. External circumstances are only important to the extent that they favor or oppose the working of grace. We can be certain that the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary will aid the salvation of souls. Whatever economic or political implications it may involve are secondary and should not figure in any determination about whether it is wise for the Pope and the bishops to obey Our Lady in the current climate.
The most important thing to remember about history is that it will have an end. We have no permanent hold here. There is no evolution magically guiding the world to ever new and improved states. And when we are near the end of our personal history, our final thoughts will not be about politics, the news of the day; we will no longer worry about future prospects and whether the nation is moving in the right direction. We will be concerned only about the direction of our soul and, with the help of grace, it will ascend from this vale of tears to the place where all sad history comes to an end.