Why Do We Keep Repeating History When We Know We’re Repeating History?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/22

I’m listening to and reading Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World by Philip Maryazak. It’s a quick overview of 40 civilizations of early history beginning with the Akkadians and ending with the Hephthalites. To be honest, I had only heard of less than half of these civilizations, mostly because of references in the Bible or from Greek and Roman history.

I’ve never studied ancient history much but I’ve recently gotten hooked on it, especially after reading The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and The Writing of the Gods by Edward Dolnick. The first two were a slog to get through but I still admired them. The Writing of the Gods was sheer fun and would probably appeal to many readers. Forgotten People of the Ancient World is a breezy summary, which I’m thoroughly enjoying, but it doesn’t go too deep. Perfect for me right now, but I’ll want to know more later. Actually, the entries on Wikipedia cover more for each civilization than Matyszak’s chapters, but his book integrates a digestible narrative with inspiring photos and maps making it easier to read.

When you read/listen to one summary of a civilization after another, it’s pretty damn obvious that humankind is on repeat mode. Humanity is Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, but we never learn how to break the cycle. You’d think with all this history we’d figure it out the secret.

Some cycles are obvious, like the rise of powerful leaders. Why do we call Alexander III of Macedon the Great? Sure, he conquered a lot of territories but he also killed, destroyed, and plundered. We hate Putin today for what he’s doing in Ukraine, but how was Alexander III of Macedon any different? We really should call Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, Putin, and every other empire builder the monsters of history.

That’s the number one cycle we keep doing over and over, which is to allow egomaniacs to become rulers. We’ve tried to avoid that by creating democracy, but as you can see from recent times that doesn’t always succeed at controlling men who want more. And even then democracies sometimes go around and destroy other countries too, just like would-be emperors. Humans have this thing about destroying their enemies and expanding their territory. Like Rodney King, I must ask, “Can’t we all just get along?”

A less obvious cycle we repeat is the reverberation between big government and small government. All the successful civilizations grew, needing central control to keep things organized. The central government of the Akkadians had to build vast irrigation systems which required taxes and governmental infrastructure. There are always people who resent that. They rebel and undermine the central government and civilization erodes and eventually collapses. Why can’t we find a balance between secure political structures and personal freedoms?

We fail to be good stewards of the Earth and overtax Mother Nature with our endless growth and consumption. Nor do we save for the future to withstand random destructive acts of nature. Humanity is no Boy Scout, it’s never prepared.

Another hit on the Top Repeat list is ignoring reality. We feed our hatreds and greed with crazy ideas and justifications. We’re always our own worst enemy.

I feel like we’re living in end-of-civilization times. Reading about history is somewhat soothing but for a strange reason. It promotes stoical thinking.

Here’s a neat video on YouTube about how chaos theory predictions patterns of disorder in ordered systems. We live with entropy, and civilization is anti-entropic. It helps to understand both chaos and complexity theory. It won’t help the world to know this, but at least it explains some things.


12 thoughts on “Why Do We Keep Repeating History When We Know We’re Repeating History?”

  1. It’s difficult to think long-term, and most people simply don’t. Likewise, it’s difficult to govern long-term, especially when you’re worried about getting re-elected all the time.

  2. You’ve either missed or ignored some of the details about Alexander the Great, there, if you think all he did was conquer and kill. He also recognized the religions of the people he conquered, and had his officers and the colonists he planted take local wives. He tried to leave things better than he found them. Failed, as well, but at least he tried. If he’d lived longer, or left a designated heir, instead of a free-for-all, we might all be speaking Macedonian Greek. But against stupidity, even the Gods fight in vain, and the way you determine the intelligence of a crowd is to take the highest IQ in the crowd, and divide it by the number of members of the crowd. Individuals can be pretty smart. Groups seem to be somewhat less so, and every generation has to relearn the lessons the previous generation learned, or things go to hell on them. Apparently virtue is not inheritable, either. The Romans started out tough and smart. And you know how well that worked out for them. Likewise the Persians, and US. We might be able to kick things back into order if we work at it hard enough, and kill off enough of our own homegrown barbarians, and we might not.

    BTW, it’s really easy to miss or ignore a few details in history. It’s seldom written by the folks who made it. Most revolutions end when the folks who started the revolution are slaughtered by the other folks who take it over as a means to power and wealth. Also, humans mature rather slowly. Old men use teenagers to fight, while they run things. Middle aged men finally acquire some wisdom, and try to do things better, before they become old men. And Alexander died at age 33, just beginning to perhaps acquire some wisdom, and not lasting long enough to do what he wanted to do. Just another ten or twenty years, and he might have managed to actually conquer the whole world. I’ve been studying world history for about 55 years or so. And I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as I’d like to be. I see things that might have been, or not, events that could have happened, and didn’t, a few things that may have happened, but maybe not as we believe they did, and some of the holes in our records. And I suspect that if I live to be a thousand years old, and study all that time, it will still be true.


    1. William, the pluses you attribute to Alexander are savvy things to do when occupying a foreign land. The Romans knew those tricks too. I read the Wikipedia entry for Alexander and he’s famous for spending a decade conquering a lot of other lands and people. Afterward, the Wikipedia entry lauds him for spreading Greek culture, but that’s just cultural imperialism.

      Sure, he conquered a lot of kings and kingdoms, and other empires, but if you lived in those places you might not call him great. Napoleon thought he was uniting Europe but ask the Russians what they thought of him. Putin claims to be uniting the Russian people, and we know what the Ukrainians think of him.

      Let’s say Alexander lived and conquered the whole world, that’s only great if we’re rating conquerers. What if Hitler had succeeded in conquering the world, or Stalin, or Japan – and even made every place super efficient? That’s cool if you’re the conqueror, but not so great if you’re the conquered.

      World conquerers are just egomaniacs. They think if everyone did things my way the world would be great. But to impose all that order requires being oppressive and the average person doesn’t like living under oppression.

  3. You and I may know we’re repeating history, but since History isn’t taught in many schools and Colleges anymore, repetition of errors is not surprising.

  4. Well,…I guess history repeats itself because we assume that we can choose otherwise. I would submit that our imagination holds a perception that we can act and behave in a manner of our own making. Unfortunately in the physical world in which we exist, the endless stream of causality determines the course of events including those of which we are a part.

    If it is in our nature to act and behave in the only way we can, founded on our genetic inheritance, then it follows that what unfolds should come as no surprise?

    For myself, who holds a worldview of hard determinism, the idea that causality could unfold in a manner different from our perception only belies the false interpretation that our imagination has of the real world. Our brains have evolved to survive, and in doing so we have created a virtual reality through our senses as we interact with the environment and each other. All to increase the probability of survival. One of the strategies to that end includes the notion of so called free will, or the ‘ability’ to act and behave in a manner of our own choosing. No doubt a practical sense to have as a social animal with a unique level of consciousness we label as self-awareness. After all, if we couldn’t hold each other to account, (assign blame and responsibility) there would be no order at all. More over we probably would not have survived to this point. We must be doing something right 🙂

    Unfortunately what we ‘think’ does not necessarily comport with how the physical world operates (causality)

    Some of us may wonder why Putin, Hitler et al (as per William Myer’s comment, I too would not include Alexander of Macedon in this lot) can possibly commit themselves to the destruction of others. Maybe its because that is who they are, just the same as anyone of us are; who we are.

    ‘Can’t we all just get along’… is a refrain that describes our greatest capacity as humans,…hope.

    That despite of all the bad that has transpired in history, we hold out the possibility that events will unfold in the future ‘differently’

    At some point in our evolution as a species we may accept that causality in the physical universe is the sole arbiter of those events. In the meantime we survive. Dare I say, …hopefully we’ll be around as a species to experience it

    1. brgcorbett: “If it is in our nature to act and behave in the only way we can, founded on our genetic inheritance, then it follows that what unfolds should come as no surprise?” That explains things well. And this is true also: “Unfortunately what we ‘think’ does not necessarily comport with how the physical world operates (causality)” And the rest of what you say is a good summary too.

      I guess I just lament that everyone can’t see this and react differently from how we’ve always acted.

      See my comment to William about Alexander of Macedon. Just because you’re better at conquering other people doesn’t mean conquering other people is a great thing to do.

      In my reading of Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World it’s obvious that some men when they get the chance will invade the neighbors and try to expand their territory. There are some men who always want more. Just look at the famous billionaires today. Being richer than any person in history isn’t enough. It’s funny how many of them want to start their own space programs and media empires. I bet if you gave them the power, they’d try conquering too.

      1. Hi James,…I’m thinking that everything, including the actions and behaviors of tyrants and conquerors is relative to a degree. He felt compelled to carryon with the work of his father. The point being, he was A&B in the only way he could.

        Again, it is probably within our nature to do what we do. Alpha’s in all sentient species strive to dominate the group usually at the expense of less competitive individuals. I don’t foresee any change in our evolutionary inheritance in the near future. In the meantime we survive and procreate just enough to survive, which I guess is the imperative in the first place.

        1. That’s true, Alexander was doing what his genetics and the environment raised him to do – but we shouldn’t praise him for it. As we’ve become conscious beings we might be able to choose to step outside the roles given to us by nature. Humans have always believed they were above the animals but they’ve never proved it. We’ve always believed we’ve had free will but rarely shown it. Alexander, Napoleon, Putin, or any other conqueror don’t work alone. It requires the cooperation of countless followers. We’re all complicit with our leaders. If we want to change these group behaviors we all have to change. I don’t know if that’s possible.

          There is a certain amount of fatalism in what we’re talking about. I’m only asking: Can we change? Is it even possible? I’m saying it starts by looking at the past and reevaluating how we’ve interpreted it.

          1. We are capable of learning which I would think enables us to act and behave differently overtime. That said,…it doesn’t change the premise of determinism,…that is all events will unfold in the only way they can. There is no ability of any animal to choose otherwise. We do have a seemingly unique level of consciousness we label as self-awareness. However that fact does not change the physical universe in which we exist. It just gives us the sense as observers, that we can initiate independent action by just thinking about same.

            As I suggested in my first response,…so called bad actors like Hitler, Stalin, Putin are condemned by the majority of observers whether we lived during their time or read about it after the fact in history books. We can always hope for a better lot in future. Whether that is what happens or not remains to be seen. I wouldn’t hold your breath though. There would have to be a very significant change in our nature to facilitate a civilization that meets those expectations.

            “…I’m saying it starts by looking at the past and reevaluating how we’ve interpreted it…” I agree, we need to reevaluate in the light of our deterministic universe.

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