Why the Idea of Historical Recurrence Is Perilous

Historical recurrence implies that occurrences repeat inevitably.

The concept itself is something that gets discussed continuously by researchers. When people claim history is something repeatable, they tend to see patterns in time. In recent times, there are events that make it seem likely that history is in fact cyclical.

Take for example the Great Depression in 1929–1933. One of the most brutal economic depressions in history. The disastrous collapse of the stock market, the crash of Wall Street, caused many people to lose their jobs and so they struggled to provide for themselves causing starvation and an increase in suicide cases. Many historical recurrence fanatics, claim that it shares some resemblance with the Great Recession. The Great Recession in 2007–2009, began as a result of the derivatives that was used unregulated. Home prices had begun going down, many homeowners quit their mortgages that caused their value to decline. Many were obligated to pay down their debt and that caused the Great Recession. Now why are both events interesting to compare to understand the absurdity of historical recurrence? Both are events fresh in our memory and defined the economy we have today. What makes the Great Depression and the Great Recession seem homogeneous? Both caused economies around the world to slow down, reducing economic activity. But that is where it ends. Although I’m not in favour of comparing them based on severity, it is clear that the Great Depression caused a greater downfall in activity. And so there are many examples of events in recent history that are similar to today. Like we are reliving the same century over and over again. But barely any proof gets provided. After analysing discussions about reoccurring events. It just seems likely that it is based on cherry-picking. Many do in fact give some evidence. But the evidence is limited. They give you a few events in history, but all the other seem irrelevant to prove their statement. We never truly relive a similar event.

So what is my point of view? Events are always different. This is due to world changing drastically. No where in history would anyone ever imagined the ecological crisis, it’s filled with natural disasters and a world that is shifting because of human activity itself. There are no parallels with anything, because this is a new concept as a result of years and years of industrialisation. Technological, everything keeps changing as well. And although again, it is imaginable people would see similarities. Let’s say for example the invention of printing press founded by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450. Seeing how it progressed and the consequences, you can draw parallels with what we have today, the internet. A time of increase in information and disinformation. It brought not only an opportunity for scientists to spread their ideas, but also an opportunity for organisations or individuals to spread pseudo-science. But again, that’s where the similarity ends. The spread of internet is more sufficient. While printing press was limited to the rich, internet is for all. No matter where you come from, what your social status is, how wealthy you are, you have access to the internet.

So what are the dangers of this mindset? To understand this, it is important to see the first time historical recurrence as idea was put on paper. It was first discussed by Friedrich Nietzsche. He gave us the concept of “eternal recurrence” in his work Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. Everything is supposedly cyclical and events repeat themselves in a series of cycles. The concept itself though, is more a hypothesis. Nietzsche never intended this to get perceived as an actual way of viewing history, the present and the future. But the people who misinterpret his concept would limit themselves to a simplified reading of history and that can be quite problematic for humanity. Inevitable social theories would arise that every civilisation contains a social life cycle. One of those dangerous authors promoting such social theories was Oswald Spengler. In his work Der Untergang des Abendlandes, he would believe that, because history is a cycle, it must be certain that our western world will go down because of foreign connections and that we should make every effort to defend it. It will therefore come as no surprise that his work is thus frequently cited by various extreme right-wing activists and even political parties.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

George Santayana

So is the saying by George Santayana in any way irrelevant? I mean the world changes drastically everyday so history can never be repeated? It is actually as what Mark Twain (presumably) put it.

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”

Mark Twain

There are parallels that you can draw with the near and distant past. There is always a will for technological, cultural, social and political change. There are always affairs that take place to realise those changes. And we always reach a crisis where we realise that those changes are not ideal as first thought. History has taken various guidelines, so it is impossible that we will relive a similar event. Sorry to disappoint people with ambitions in historical research, thinking you’ll be able to predict the future. We are not fortune tellers but neither should we fall into presentism. It is impossible to solve contemporary affairs without taking the past as inspiration. So his saying is very relevant for humanity. Our ancestors have made mistakes, but we can use that as a form of inspiration.

Although the world changes, we can always use history as a model to see how we could improve the world, solve discussions and form a better society.


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