Santayana (in The Life of Reason, 1905): “Those Who Cannot Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat It.”

Santayana (in The Life of Reason, 1905):

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

The Life of Reason, subtitled “the Phases of Human Progress”, is a book published in five volumes from 1905 to 1906, by Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana (1863–1952). It consists of Reason in Common Sense, Reason in Society, Reason in Religion, Reason in Art, and Reason in Science.

The Life of Reason is sometimes considered to be one of the most poetic and well-written works of philosophy in Western history. That’s because we live in an anti-God society and much of Santayana’s writings reflected his atheistic views. Santayana wishes, according to Will Durant, to “devise a means whereby men may be persuaded to virtue without the stimulus of supernatural hopes and fears.”  One truth he speaks that we can likely all agree with is the oft-quoted aphorism of Santayana’s, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” which may be found on p. 284 of Reason in Common Sense.

This quote has been incorrectly attributed to both Winston Churchill and Edmund Burke, among others:

Winston Churchill (who never said it)

On 16 November 2012, a librarian from NY wrote to the Churchill National Museum to inquire about this subject:

Question: I am a librarian from New York and I have a patron who inquired about the quote, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. We know the quote was originally attributed to George Santayana, however, our patron would like to know when Mr. Churchill first used it. Unfortunately, my colleague and I have not been able to locate the the time or context of quote as it relates to Mr. Churchill.

Answer: What Santayana wrote (in The Life of Reason, 1905) was: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

A search including key phrases (“remember the past”…”condemned to repeat it”) did not bring any results. So we are inclined to believe he never repeated Santayana in so many words.  Churchill worried not so much that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it, but that the loss of the past would mean “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.” (House of Commons, 16 November 1948)

But perhaps his best remark on the subject was this:

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

– House of Commons, 2 May 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria. (My book* page 490).

Edmund Burke

From WikiAnswers – Edmund Burke (1729-1797) statement, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Who_said_Those_who_ignore_history_are_bound_to_repeat_it Does anyone know the source, not able to find it. thanks Petersam 02:21, 29 August 2009 (UTC)

I just reviewed all the texts available here on Project Gutenberg, and none of the occurrences of the word “repeat” (or related words such as repeated, repeatedly, etc.) match something like this quote. It’s possible this is a misquote based on the Santayana quote here, or that there is a similar Burke quote which does not use the word “repeat” in it, or that the Burke text that contains the quote is not on Gutenberg. My guess is a Santayana mixup, but confirmation would be great. — Tarheelcoxn 22:13, 11 November 2011 (UTC)
Can anyone provide a citation? There are hundreds of references to the Burke quote on the web, but no indication of where it comes from. The Wikipedia article on George Santayana indicates that his quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Life of Reason, Vol. 1) is based on Burke’s earlier quote. It would be nice to have the correct attribution, but not without a proper citation. — wbforbes 20:02, 19 January 2013 (UTC)

According to Barlett’s Familiar Quotations, Burke said “People will not look forward to prosperity who never look backward to their ancestors.” From Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790. This may be the closest Burke came to the attributed misquote.

Paraphrases and variants:

  • Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
  • Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.
  • Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it.
  • Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.
  • Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

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