Do You Ever Wonder Why History Repeats Itself?

The picture never changes, only the frame around it

Erik Brown
Nov 6 · 7 min read
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

I’ve always loved history. Stories from the past have always intrigued me. It doesn’t matter where they come from: ancient Greece, WWI era, or the times the Vikings sailed. I devour them all and can’t get enough.

Could it be that the stories are just entertaining — tales of times past that are hard to comprehend? Maybe.

As I study them more and more, the realization that comes to me is that these people of the past aren’t that different than us today. Despite their worlds being so strange, they have much of the same motivations we do.

If you try and analyze why they took certain actions, it makes sense — even to people of the present. You also see countless examples of them having the same problems we do.

The old clothing, the stone buildings, the lack of electricity — all these things make the people of those ages seem unknowable. They may have never experienced a text message, but they felt the things you feel every day.

Their outer world may have looked much different than our own, but their inner world matches ours more than you can imagine.


The Roman Emperor Of Self-Help

Bust Of Marcus Aurelius — Musée Saint-Raymond Collection / Pierre-Selim Via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a phenomenal piece of work. It not only gives insights into a type of philosophy, but also gives you deep insights into the thoughts of a famous Roman emperor. The book itself is based on the personal journal kept by Marcus.

Modern psychologists tell us the positives of journaling, but an emperor who lived before 200 A.D. knew this as well. In his writings, you’ll find deep musings on the philosophy of stoicism, but also a human being dealing with the trivial struggles that effect the reader to this day.

Marcus dealt with fake friends, the worries of what others thought of him, and trouble getting out of bed in the morning. He might have been the great grandfather of the self-help industry.

“The despicable phoniness of people who say, ‘Listen, I’m going to level with you here’. What does that mean? It shouldn’t even need to be said. It should be obvious — written in block letters on your forehead…A straightforward, honest person should be like someone who stinks: when you’re in the same room with him, you know it…Fake friendship is the worst. Avoid it at all costs”

Even someone in ancient times dealt with people who pretended to be your friend. Modern self-help gurus talk about being authentic constantly. This concept of phoniness existed long before social media.

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own. If a god appeared to us…and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions instead of our own.”

How often have you gotten the advice not to worry about what others think of you? You’ll find it enshrined in quotes by famous people of our day and in every self-help book under the sun. This problem didn’t appear recently. Marcus knew it well, even way back in ancient Rome.

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work as a human being’. What do I have to complain of, if I’m getting to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

Ever have problems staying motivated? YouTube is filled with videos to keep you moving when you lose that inner push. Getting up early to get more work done seems to be another craze in self-help now a days.

Marcus wrote many things in his journal to motivate himself to keep going when he didn’t want to work anymore. You can also see he had days where he didn’t want to get out of bed. You’re not unique when you hit the snooze bar. Your ancestors did the same thing.


Passing On Virtues To Our Children

Rudyard Kipling from the biography Rudyard Kipling by John Palmer — Via Wikipedia Creative Commons

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

— Excerpt from If by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling lived in a much different time than our own. He traveled the extent of the British Empire and wrote poems about its glory. The social world has much changed. The idea of empire is not thought of as glorious anymore by most social circles.

However, one of Kipling’s most famous works wasn’t about empire. It was about advice from a parent to a child. The advice he gives in this famous poem written in 1895 is still pretty good today.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

Kipling in 1895 displays benefits and virtues he’d want a child of his to have. As you read this today, I’m sure you might be a little proud if a child of yours could display some of the traits listed in this poem.

In fact, you may have been trying to instill many of these same virtues into young ones around you without ever realizing this poem ever existed. The idea of making the next generation better than the current one knows no age.

The ideas Kipling skillfully wields into a poem still live today. Also, the idea of sculpting our young ones into well-formed adults can be understood by all despite the time period.

The other interesting thing is that Kipling just doesn’t list vague virtues in the poem like bravery or uprightness. He mentions personal struggles this potential child will face.

You’ll be very familiar with the struggles listed in 1895, they’re still with us today:

  • Self-doubt plagues even the best of us especially today.
  • We have a special word for people who hate us today — ‘haters’. How many celebrities have you heard explaining how they deal with ‘haters’?
  • Our society still struggles greatly with delayed gratification. I want what I want now, screw waiting.
  • Don’t even get me started on lies and liars — this struggle never goes away.

History Lives Today

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

“…If, on the other hand, there is a limited number of elements from which events are interwoven, the same things must happen many times, being brought to pass by the same agencies.”

Plutarch, “Parallel Lives”, 2nd century A.D.

History is a much maligned subject. It can’t be quantified like mathematics — some events from times past can’t be known with certainty. It’s not free- wheeling and creative like literature either.

I remember hearing my friends groan whenever we walked into a history class. They’d often wonder out loud why they needed to know any of this stuff that happened so long ago.

The people who say this get trapped into looking at the technology, clothing, and lifestyle of the day. They forget to look into the actual people who lived. People will generally reference a repeating nature in history.

Why would this be? Why would you see similar events repeat themselves?

It might be because the inner nature of human beings changes very little over the span of time.

Marcus Aurelius may not have had an iPhone or endless emails to read, but he dealt with people who could be self-centered and annoying. He had problems staying motivated and had days when he couldn’t get out of bed on time.

Rudyard Kipling never attempted to stuff himself into a pair of skinny jeans, but worried about the generation after his. He worried about being corrupted by wealth and losing his common touch.

He struggled in dealing with liars and self-doubt. Hatred and fighting against instant gratification also worked its way into his famous poem.

History isn’t historical in many ways, it’s ever present. Human nature exists in the past and current times. By studying these past events we can often see how we’ll react in the future.

Plutarch in his comment above from so long ago even appears to recognize this.

If you really want to time travel into the future, you don’t need a machine. Just look at what happened in the past; the human beings creating the present and future aren’t much different.

The picture never changes, only the frame around it.

Thank you for reading my ramblings, if you enjoyed it, please share.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Erik Brown

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