The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Today in my history class I showed my students a similar quote, this one by the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun: “The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another.”
I asked my students to tell me what this quote means. Both the language and the philosophy were a bit advanced for them, yet one student hit upon the basic idea: people are always the same. We may change our world, and we can change our behavior, but we can’t change our nature.
True, in many ways the present is manifestly different from the past. Technology has advanced, science has expanded our knowledge, and political institutions have become more democratic and fair. Trade and industry have made us so wealthy that even modest citizens can afford pleasures considered a luxury a short time ago. We live longer, wealthier, and healthier lives than ever before; and we live in a society that, however imperfectly, is more tolerant of more different types of people—atheist, gay, black—than at any other time. In short, notwithstanding our endless limitations and our serious problems, progress is possible.
And yet every step forward is a victory over ourselves, a victory over our darker nature. Human history is an endless war of virtues against vices. Civilization is not the inevitable result of human intelligence, but a prize that countless generations have fought to achieve. Progress has been anything but linear. We have stagnated, and we have retrogressed. The same mistakes, follies, and brutalities have been repeated endlessly through time, over and over, each generation forgetting the lessons learned by the last one.
The philosopher George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But as the historian Will Durant reminds us: “History is an excellent teacher with few pupils.”
I used to think that progress was natural and inevitable. I grew up believing that racism, at least in its more brutal variety, had been largely eradicated. The emancipation of the slaves, the enfranchisement of women, and the acceptance of homosexuality seemed in retrospect like the unavoidable result of progress. It was only natural that we had become more tolerant, and the future would be even more accepting than the present.
And now? Now I see clearly that all these accomplishments, all these victories of toleration over racism, sexism, and homophobia, were hardly inevitable. Rather, they were the hard-won fruit of a bitter battle, a battle that is far from over, which in fact will never be over. The future may be different from the past, and that which shall be may be different from that which has been, but only if we fight for it. If we are complacent, if we take things for granted, then truly there will be no new thing under the sun.