TO FINE-TUNE TOYN

How many times have you heard it? Unsuspected wisdom coming out of the corners of unlikely mouths; a statement redolent of the halls of Olympus; a pronouncement—a non sequitur; a cap, a clincher, a crown to the muttering of innumerable opinions: "Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it." Yessir.

Parrots, as we all know, will repeat anything, indiscriminately, as long as it is repeated to them often enough. So with this pronouncement—so commandingly profound, so pungently put. It has oozed into the murky pool of pop wisdom, bubbling up more and more, clearly entitled to be quoted by any and all.

Yet where, oh where did it come from? Who said it or wrote it? And, though this may seem to be beside the point, is it true? For that matter who shall we go to to vouch for its truth? Ah, these questions do provide a turn of the screw, a turn for the better.

This is how it goes: if you (i.e. "we ") hear a proclamation often enough it takes on the glow of truth. And if it is really-really repeated (with fanfare and a deep voice) it generally doesn't occur to us to question its validity, and even though it be a lie—outright and downright—repetition has a way of turning it into a self-evident truism.

Now the fellow who pronounced this pronouncement was an indisputably reputable man, a scholar, an historian, an historian's historian, an Olympian, and an Englishman to boot. Toynbee was his name, Arnold J. Toynbee, and he meant to sound out his truism with resonance.

So along comes a friend of mine, just the other day, (a man obsessed with history, and a few other things) re-sounding old Toynbee's statement and after a forlorn pause and a slow wag of the head caps it with this: "Ah, but we never learn." A truth piled upon a truism.

All of this prompted me to ask a simple question: Why don't we ever learn? Since no one was around the answer came to me from myself. We don't learn because we have a knack for looking for answers and solutions in the precisely wrong place. Thus when we look into the past to fathom the depths of the present time we are looking in the place that can never provide a living answer. Here's why: the past, like the present, is unique. Though it may appear to be so like the present we are ready to call it the same we are only looking at surface similarities. The forces that converge to produce a given time come out of that particular time, and of these forces some can be traced and some are invisible. Times change, and everything changes. No two times are the same, not even close. Faces and snowflakes never repeat themselves and neither do the eras of human history. Looking into the past to find a way out of present difficulties insures that we will not learn a damn thing.

Where then shall we look to find a way out of present difficulties?

Well, here's a "pronouncement"—not to be repeated—until you have come to see for yourself that it is so: "Those who cannot learn from the present are condemned to repeat the past."

The present is the place to look. The problem and its solution are both in the present. Of course, one must be in the present to see it.

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