History doesn’t Repeat but it sure does Rhyme


We’re just a bunch of humans. All throughout time we deal with the same wants and needs, the same insecurities and battles with self-pity. We all have to start from scratch and learn. Learning is hard and most of us can’t or won’t do it. So we make the same mistakes over and over. We are much the same today as in the time of Cicero because the passions of man don’t change.

Speaking of Cicero, he once famously said in 55 BC,”The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.”

Hmm… that sounds familiar. Was Cicero really speaking about Rome? Or did he have some crazy looking into the future machine and he was speaking about the empire of the U.S.A.? Or was he looking even farther into the future and speaking of the next great bureaucracy that will tangle up us forgetful humans?
Rinse, repeat. The cycle continues.

I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent book “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern.” It tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a scribe of the Papal Court in Rome (turns out there were 2 other competing papal courts at the time) and his discovery in the early 1400’s of an ancient poem that had been lost in the passing of centuries, Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura” (translated: On The Nature Of Things).

At the beginning of The Renaissance a work like On The Nature Of Things was highly disruptive. In it Lucretius suggests the universe functions without the need of instructions from the gods, and the world is made up of tiny particles we can’t see that collide at random and form larger particles. He figured out atoms before us modern humans figured out microscopes. Even during his day Lucretius’ thoughts went against the majority of thinking.

Lucretius was a man that leaned toward the Epicurean idea that the point of life was to seek out pleasure. This simple and harmless way of thinking was directly opposed to the Christian beliefs that all men are sinners and we must suffer for these sins. Christianity, especially the Papal court of Rome in the early 1400’s, insisted that mankind should suffer. The idea that life was meant for seeking pleasure was heresy and the Church stamped out every Epicurean thought they could find.

The Papal Court in Rome dictated how everyone should think and feel. It proclaimed it’s authority over every person on the planet. They claimed they got their authority from God, although it was best that you didn’t point out to the Court that the word “Pope” is not mentioned in the bible. You had to do what the rulers of the religion said or you were persecuted.

The Papal Court was of course, like all areas where power concentrates, a cesspool of corruption and broken morals. They extorted money from their followers. They forced their opinions on everyone. You were to live as the Court instructed you.

As Stephen Greenblatt tells it, the Papal Court sounds just like Washington D.C. now, or the British aristocracy in the 1700’s, or ancient Rome in the latter stages of its’ decline. These cycles keep happening in human history. A group (religious, or political, or both) gains power, then proclaims that the masses must do as they say (but not as they do). Then the corruption becomes so rampant the whole thing collapses on itself.

Rinse and repeat.

The players change, the location changes, the ideology changes, but the basic psychology of the process is the same. As I stumble through learning the histories of ancient cultures it’s amazing how similar they are. You basically read the same story over and over. We are doomed to repeat the same mistakes we’ve always made because the passions of man don’t change.

There have been great, learned, and reasonable people throughout history, like Lucretius, but they are in the vast minority. When the next great ideology comes along it usually does what it can to erase all traces of learned and reasonable thought. The cycle continues.

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