Famous Sayings: #51 — ‘Those Who Fail to Learn…

March 3, 2017

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

those who fail to learn, learn from history, history, famous sayings, George Santayana, Winston Churchill

My apologies for being late with this post. I put so much work in the past two weeks that it totally slipped my mind (although I planned out the next 10 or so featured posts). This entry will be dated March 3, 2017 but I am really publishing it on March 6. I will have another entry ready for you on time this week (I’m already working on it).

Now, this is one of my favorite famous sayings. Many of us have heard some version of this quote and most would agree there is a lot of truth to it. But I will admit that I never gave much thought to who first said something like this.

Who First Said It?

That answer isn’t entirely clear but others have pinpointed the source of the general sentiment behind the saying.

In a post on the Big Think that’s over a year old, Nicholas Clairmont said George Santayana (1863-1952) is most likely the source for the saying. However, the “original form” of the saying is, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Numerous sources I consulted concurred that George Santayana wrote this and I finally found the text his quote is pulled from.

Project Gutenberg contains the entire work written by George Santayana. The version comes from the Dover [Publications, Inc. (New York)] edition, which was first published in 1980. The full name of the work is The Life of Reason; or the Phases of Human Progress.

The passage I’m quoting comes from “Chapter XII—Flux and Constancy in Human Nature” (Volume I ) …

Under the Heading ‘Continuity necessary to progress.’

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled; immortality in such a case must have been secured earlier, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.

Did Winston Churchill Say Some Version of Santayana’s Quote?

The writer of a post on Nature’s Finest Foods website claims that Winston Churchill paraphrased George Santayana’s quote in a 1948 speech to the House of Commons. (This was used as a segway to talk about the pecan market and how sellers should think about long-term consumption and market stability over short-term profits.)

But that would be contradicted by other sources I found. So, it seems like a common mistake made by many.

National Winston Churchill Museum

A question was posed by a librarian who wanted to know when Winston Churchill first said something similar to George Santayana’s quote. However, neither the librarian nor a colleague was able to determine the date or context in which the often referenced British prime minister said it.

The person who answered the question said that Santayana wrote his quote in The Life of Reason (1905) but he/she could not find a Churchill quote that was close to Santayana’s. However, the writer said, “Churchill worried … that the loss of the past would mean ‘the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.’” The quote was cited from a November 16, 1948 speech to the House of Commons.

The writer also included a larger block quote from a May 2, 1935 speech in the House of Commons (following the Stresa Conference):

When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

The writer cited page 490 of “My book*.” I needed to investigate which book was being referenced.

Richard M. Langworth

It looks like Richard Langworth may have written the above post from the National Churchill Museum blog, for the same question appears on this blog, albeit with some differences. The librarian (D.J. from New York) poses a question after a patron inquired about George Santayana’s quote.

Winston Churchill had 15 million published words, including articles, books, private papers, and speeches. Langworth said he searched all these words and found no reference to Santayana’s quote or version of it from Churchill.

Langworth’s post is much the same as I found on the Museum website, albeit the exact work Langworth mentions is named: Churchill by Himself. I followed the link to Amazon and it looks like Langworth is the “editor.” Winston Churchill is listed as the “author” since his words are used.

Are ‘Those Who Fail to Learn from History Doomed to Repeat It’?

I would immediately say yes, but Clairmont offers this view:

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.

He went on to say “this saying ought to guide our public and private policy,” since “history is ugly,” yet people who learn history are just as doomed to repeat it as those who don’t learn history. Examples Clairmont used include: Stalin, Cuba, the United States (in Afghanistan), and World War I & II. Many of the people involved were fully cognizant of history but still did much of the same things.

However, I must play a game of semantics here. Clairmont said “learn history” and I think there is a clear difference between learning history and learning from it.

Perhaps people who become dictators and believe in imperialism know about the fall of past dictators and empires and take the wrong lessons from history. But they cannot escape the fact that all empires and dictatorships eventually fall. Some might take longer than others and some might be dynastic, but they ultimately fail.

And on a personal level, Clairmont had it right when he said, “People who don’t learn from their mistakes don’t mature.” This is the main lesson here and it also ultimately goes back to groups and countries. When we fail to learn from our history, we will not mature, we will keep making the same mistakes, people will suffer needlessly, and we will advance at a much slower pace than is necessary.

Works Cited

Clairmont, Nicholas. “‘Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It.’ Really?” Big Think. Nd. Web. Retrieved 6 Mar 2017. Web. <http://bigthink.com/the-proverbial-skeptic/those-who-do-not-learn-history-doomed-to-repeat-it-really>.

Langworth, Richard. “‘Remember the past’: Santayana, but never Churchill.” Richard M. Langworth. 5 Oct 2012. Web. Retrieved 6 Mar 2017. <https://richardlangworth.com/santayana>.

“Life of Reason.” Project Gutenberg. Web. Retrieved 6 Mar 2017. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15000/15000-h/vol1.html>.

“Those who fail to learn from history …” National Churchill Museum Blog. 16 Nov 2012. Web. Retrieved 6 Mar 2017. <https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/blog/churchill-quote-history/>.

“Those Who Fail to Learn From History Are Doomed to Repeat It.” Nature’s Finest Foods, Ltd. 28 Aug 2014. Web. <http://www.nffonline.com/industry-news/2014/08/28/those-who-fail-learn-history-are-doomed-repeat-it>.


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