Historic Recurrence


first as tragedy

Historic recurrence is the repetition of similar events in history. The concept has been used to analyze the overall history of the world (e.g., the rise and fall of empires), repetitive patterns in the history of a given polity, and generally to any two specific events which bear a striking similarity. Professor of religious history Garry W. Trompf, in his book ‘The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought,’ traces historically recurring patterns of political thought and behavior in the west since antiquity. Historic recurrences can sometimes induce a sense of ‘convergence,’ ‘resonance,’ or déjà vu.

In the extreme, the concept assumes the form of the doctrine of Eternal Return (the belief that universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space), found in Indian philosophy and in ancient Egypt and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics (with the decline of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the concept fell into disuse in the Western world, with the exception of existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who connected the thought to many of his other concepts, including ‘amor fati,’ love of one’s fate).

Nevertheless, while it is often remarked that ‘History repeats itself,’ in cycles of less than cosmological duration this cannot be strictly true. In this rational scientific (Popperian) interpretation of recurrence, as opposed perhaps to the Nietzschean interpretation, there is no metaphysics. Recurrences take place due to ascertainable circumstances and chains of causality. An example of the mechanism is the ubiquitous phenomenon of multiple independent discovery (most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently and more or less simultaneously by multiple scientists and inventors), which has been described by sociologists Robert K. Merton and Harriet Zuckerman.

Prior to Ancient Greek historian Polybius’ theory of historic recurrence, ancient western thinkers who had thought about recurrence had largely been concerned with cosmological rather than historic events. The concept would come up again in the philosophies of Saint Luke, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975).

In Eastern scholarship, the concept of a ‘Dynastic Cycle’ (e.g. the Chinese ‘Mandate of Heaven,’ by which an unjust ruler will lose the support of Heaven and be overthrown) is also based on a theory of historic recurrence. In the example of China, the cycle begins with a new ruler unites China, founds a new dynasty, and gains the Mandate of Heaven. Prosperity grows and the population increases. Eventually, corruption becomes rampant in the imperial court, and the empire begins to enter decline and instability. A natural disaster wipes out farmland. Normally, it would have been a manageable problem, but together with the corruption and overpopulation, it causes famine. The famine causes the population to rebel and a civil war ensues, and thus the ruler loses the Mandate of Heaven. The population decreases because of the violence as China goes through a warring states period. One state emerges victorious, starts a new empire reuniting China, and gaining the Mandate of Heaven.

Professor Trompf describes various historic paradigms of historic recurrence as ‘cyclical,’ ‘fluctuant,’ ‘reciprocal,’ ‘re-enacted,’ or ‘revived.’ He also notes ‘[t]he view proceeding from a belief in the uniformity of human nature. It holds that because human nature does not change, the same sort of events can recur at any time.’ ‘Other minor cases of recurrence thinking,’ he writes, ‘include the isolation of any two specific events which bear a very striking similarity, and the preoccupation with parallelism, that is, with resemblances, both general and precise, between separate sets of historical phenomena.’

Trompf emphasizes that most western concepts of historic recurrence imply that ‘the past teaches lessons for… future action’— that ‘the same… sorts of events which have happened before… will recur…’ One such recurring theme was early offered by Stoic philosopher Poseidonius, who argued that dissipation of the old Roman virtues had followed the removal of the Carthaginian challenge to Rome’s supremacy in the Mediterranean world. The theme that civilizations flourish or fail according to their responses to the human and environmental challenges that they face, would be picked up two thousand years later by Toynbee.

By the late 5th century, Byzantine historian Zosimus could see the writing on the Roman wall, and asserted that empires fell due to internal disunity. He gave examples from the histories of Greece and Macedonia. In the case of each empire, growth had resulted from consolidation against an external enemy; Rome herself, in response to Hannibal’s threat posed at Cannae, had risen to great-power status within a mere five decades. With Rome’s world dominion, however, aristocracy had been supplanted by a monarchy, which in turn tended to decay into tyranny; after Augustus Caesar, good rulers had alternated with tyrannical ones. The Roman Empire, in its western and eastern sectors, had become a staging ground for contestants for power.

The ancients developed an enduring metaphor for a polity’s evolution: they drew an analogy between an individual human’s life cycle, and developments undergone by a body politic. This metaphor was offered, in varying iterations, by Cicero, Seneca, and Florus (who lived in the times of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian). This social-organism metaphor would recur centuries later in the works of French sociologist Émile Durkheim and English sociologist Herbert Spencer.

Niccolò Machiavelli, in analyzing the vicissitudes of Florentine and Italian politics between 1434 and 1494, described recurrent oscillations between ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ within states: ‘when states have arrived at their greatest perfection, they soon begin to decline. In the same manner, having been reduced by disorder and sunk to their utmost state of depression, unable to descend lower, they, of necessity, reascend, and thus from good they gradually decline to evil and from evil mount up to good.’ Machiavelli accounts for this oscillation by arguing that ‘virtù’ (‘valor’ and political effectiveness) produces peace, which brings idleness (‘ozio’), leading to disorder and finally ‘rovina’ (‘ruin’). In turn, from rovina springs order, from order virtù, and from this, glory and good fortune.

Machiavelli, as had the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, saw human nature as remarkably stable—steady enough for the formulation of rules of political behavior. He wrote in his ‘Discorsi’: ‘Whoever considers the past and the present will readily observe that all cities and all peoples… ever have been animated by the same desires and the same passions; so that it is easy, by diligent study of the past, to foresee what is likely to happen in the future in any republic, and to apply those remedies that were used by the ancients, or not finding any that were employed by them, to devise new ones from the similarity of events.’

Spanish American philosopher George Santayana observed that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Which raises the question whether those who can remember are not doomed, anyway, to be swept along by the majority who cannot. Karl Marx, having in mind the respective coups d’état of Napoleon I (1799) and his nephew Napoleon III (1851), wrote acerbically in 1852: ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’

However, New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering discusses ‘the appeal to the past’, the desire to use past experience to solve present problems. While seeing value in how problems have been handled in the past, he warns against what he calls a ‘false understanding of time, namely that everything remains basically the same.’ Quoting Ecclesiastes: ‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun,’ he writes ‘What the new understanding of time reveals to us is that the very reverse is the truth. What has been is always different from what will be, what has been done is not what will be done; and there is nothing which remains absolutely the same. Every situation we face and every choice we have to make is, in some respects, new, because of the changing context brought about by the passing of time.’

British novelist Martin Amis observes that recurring patterns of imperial ascendance-and-decline simultaneously are mirrored in, and inform, the novel: ‘[In an empire] novels seem to follow the political power. In the 19th century, when England ruled the earth, the novels were huge and all-embracing and tried to express what the whole society was. [This British ‘hegemony’ waned with World War II and ended in the postwar years.] The English novel at that point was about 225 pages long and about career setbacks or marriage setbacks. [The ‘great tradition’ increasingly looked depleted.] Uncannily, that power passed to the United States after the war, and [Americans such as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and John Updike] started to write these huge novels.

[Amis draws a picture of Americans weighing the costs of ‘diminishing expectations’ in the new millenium. The British had gradually accepted the decline and dissolution of their empire.] [T]he ideology [of] level-ism actually sweetened the pill of decline. It was saying, ‘You haven’t got an empire anymore, but you shouldn’t have had an empire in the first place. We don’t like empires.’ It sort of soothed our brow. There’s no great fury about decline in England. [Americans, Amis thinks, will react differently.] They’re not going to be docile and stoic like we were. [The likely American reaction:] A fair amount of illusion.


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