Repetition or Rhyme?

Over the past two centuries especially, but for longer than that, authors, historians, pundits and others have debated the question of whether history repeats itself and what, if anything, we can learn from the study of history, Personally, I like Santayana’s statement about those who fail to learn the lessons of history being doomed to repeat them.  But I also like Twain’s comment that history doesn’t repeat itself, but that it rhymes.

To say that there’s been some upheaval caused by conflicts centered on the Islamic faith over the last half-century or so would be an understatement.  Some, such as Bill Maher, who dislikes all religion, but Islam in particular, have tended to overlook the historical “rhyme” presented by the crisis facing Islam today – and it is indeed a crisis, because Christianity entered a similar phase and crisis some five centuries ago, when the ideas coming out of the Renaissance, a more scientific outlook, and doubts about the infallibility of Church and the Papacy came to a head with brutal conflicts all across Europe that lasted more than a century and resulted in the Reformation and the fragmentation of the Catholic Church.  Too many Christians today tend to gloss over the brutality and the death toll that occurred during that period.  Historical records indicate that the death toll amounted to as much as half the population of the German principalities and a third of those living in Czech or Bohemian territories.  This was also the time period when the Inquisition effectively terrorized Spain, and when Protestant-Catholic strife wracked England.  In the end, the result was effectively the establishment of government in western Europe on primarily a secular basis [with a few notable exceptions], not that such governments were not initially highly influenced by religion and religious institutions.

We’re seeing a huge socio-politico-religious upheaval involving Islam today, largely centered in the Middle East and Northern Africa today, and that strife is largely the result of the impact of Western secularity and technology on societies that have essentially been governed on an Islamic basis largely at odds with the fundamental secular basis of western nations. and most likely at least partly, if not largely, incompatible with high technology and science.  Such secular beliefs as individual worth outside the religious structure, the greater personal value and political independence of women, the supremacy of science and the scientific mindset over religion and doctrine pose a tremendous threat to the existing social and religious structure in those nations – just as the Renaissance and the rise of science did to the Catholic Church five centuries ago, and that established Islamic structure is opposing and will continue to oppose change, just as happened in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and, frankly, just as some fundamentalist Christian sects still oppose change.

Unhappily, the “lessons of history,” or their “rhymes,” as Twain put it, as well as what we are already observing suggest that the death toll will continue, and may well rise, because the fight over belief is central to human and social identity…and few give up old and familiar beliefs for newer “truths” without a struggle, especially if the new beliefs result in less power for those individuals (in this case, traditional Islamic males) who stand to lose the position that they have held through religion.

10 thoughts on “Repetition or Rhyme?”

  1. David says:

    Well that was timely. I just finished re-reading Haze. The two dovetail nicely. “They are not from our history and are therefore less applicable.”

  2. Wine Guy says:

    My philosophy instructor’s favorite phrase: ‘Nihil sub sole novum.’

    “There is nothing new under the sun.”

  3. Wine Guy says:

    Or perhaps it’s like some popular music: same melody all along, different words to the next verse but same overall theme, and same really annoying refrain.

  4. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

    To me, “history repeats itself” seems a bit… poor. I mean I like it as a quote, and as a basic idea, but it feels much too simple. The longer statement about how those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes (or something to that effect) makes just as much sense.

    And I suppose you can apply it to what you’ve said here, Mr Modesitt. I don’t necessarily think we’ll see the bloodshed and destruction of the Crusades in general, but we may very well see many years of fighting in some form. And no-one stands to benefit from it, at least not in any long term sense.

    I also don’t think our media helps, either, especially in countries like the UK where the Islamic population is increasing (I believe). The newspapers spread mistruths, lies, twisted words and put unnecessary emphasis on the religions and cultures of non-white criminals. Being a murderer isn’t enough, they have to specify that these murderers might be Muslim or immigrants or something like that, as if it has any bearing on the situation.

    Hate works on both sides. And I think we – as Western cultures – need to look at our own attitudes.

  5. While we in the west need to look at our own attitudes, as you point out, so do those of the Islamic faith need to address their own attitudes toward each other. What tends to get overlooked is the fact that the death tolls arising from intra-Islamic conflicts of one sort or another far outweigh those “inflicted” by the “west” on Islamic societies. The “west” tends, at times, to be a scapegoat for internal Islamic unrest.

    1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

      But by the same token, we in the West can be just as guilty of using Islamic beliefs as a scapegoat for things that happen in our countries. And often the violence and hatred comes not from Islamic groups, but from white groups. I’m put in mind of the Tea Party and the UK’s English Defence League, parties who use Islam to fuel hatred, and who will attack innocents (including those who *aren’t* Muslim) based on their own ignorance of the religion and culture.

      I don’t think, on any level, Islam is any worse nor any better than any branch of Christianity. Both propose violence as punishments, both subjugate women and homosexuals, both define what you can and cannot do, whether sensible or otherwise. It’s not wrong for someone to be a Muslim, just as it’s not wrong for someone to be, say, Catholic.

      As with many religions, it’s typically the heads of various religious groups and/or entities who are the problem. I don’t know if I said this on your blog or not, but in Scotland a top Catholic priest said gay marriage was wrong and so forth, whereas a poll showed over 50% of Scottish Catholics supported its movement into law. Those in charge don’t necessarily represent those beneath them – something I’m sure you’ll agree is true for politics too.

      But I do agree. I think the onus is on Islamic groups *as much as it is on us* to stop these wars and conflicts. That said, we are talking years of adjustment as our cultures wrestle with each other and work out the issues. Already in the UK we’re seeing a lot of Westernised Muslims (particularly of the younger generations), and I’m sure that will continue.

      1. James says:

        Kathryn, while you make many valid points in your post, you made a very weak argument toward removing blame from the Islamic religion. You went off on tangents blaming racist Westerners and tried to equate Islam to Catholicism. However, Modesitt’s point made in his post is still quite valid.

        If you look at the violence committed by various religions, Islam is at the top, whether we are talking about violence of Islam to western nations or different sects of Islam attacking each other. At this time in history, this is unique to Islam and has absolutely nothing to do with racist and xenophobic westerners.

  6. Brian K says:

    Once again, sir, you’ve got me thinking. I don’t understand what is meant by Twain’s ‘rhyme’ of history. Time permitting I’ll go in search of an explanation.

    As for ‘history repeating itself’, sometimes it is done on purpose. There seem to be a finite number of solutions to solve the problems, real or imagined, that plague human society. For example, some statesmen in the 20th applied the Stalinist model in there own countries. With little regard to consequences, it was used to rapidly modernize (industrialize) their nations and concentrate power into very few hands.

    What can we learn from history?

    More importantly, when is history? In the past? No. History is now. In the present. The historical information that we, historians and non-historians alike, interpret is first filtered through a lens. That lens has been created and continues to be created by our life experiences. The society in which we live, our eduction, religion or lack of, political affiliations, socioeconomic background, ambitions and needs etc. all contribute to how we see the past how history is can be used to prop up and justify one’s causes. I offer the example below to illustrate this point.

    “Historical records indicate that the death toll amounted to as much as half the population of the German principalities and a third of those living in Czech or Bohemian territories.”

    Are you referring to the 30 Years War where the majority (8 million) would have lost their lives? I’d like to direct your attention to the outstanding general history of the war by Peter H. Wilson, “Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War”, Penguin Books, London, 2009. The Introduction of the book (pgs. 3-11) has a brief, but informative, overview of how the historiography has changed through time according to the age in which it is written.

    For example, the Romanticist view of German victimization became so ingrained in the German consciousness that a in a public poll taken in the 1960s the 30 Years War trumped both WWI, WWII, the Holocaust and the Black Death as being the most traumatic event in German history (Wilson, pg. 6). Later in the 19th Century, the interpretation by the German empiracists the 30 Years War got caught up in the nation building debate in Germany after 1815 in Germany (the ‘Greater German unification’ including Austria and the ‘Lessor German unification’ excluding Austria). Finally, historians from each participating nation (14) tried to fit the 30 Years War within the framework of their own national narrative and they rarely agreed.

    The one assumption that went unquestioned was that the war was a religious conflict. For Wilson: “…The present argument is that is was not primarily a religious war” (pg. 9). Growing up in a secular age, is this surprising? I think Wilson makes a convincing argument, though. But this probably reveals my biases. I invite others to read it and decide for yourselves.

    Therefore, what do we learn from history? In addition to learning something selective about the past, the interpretation of the past reveals as much, if not more, about the historian and his/her time and era within which they lived. In other words, the context in which it is written reveals the purpose by which it is being used.

  7. By “rhyme” I suspect Twain meant present events tend to follow patterns of past events.

    As for whether the Thirty Years War was a “religious war,” that all depends on your perspective. It was a devastating war; lots of people died; some towns [and people]were burned. But when religion is a basis of power, it’s hard to separate the doctrinal conflict from the power struggle. Interestingly enough, that mirrors the Islamic conflicts of today, a rhyme, if you will.

  8. Brian K says:

    Since posting above, I have discovered that Twain’s ‘rhyme’ views history in terms of cycles. As you state above, sir, recognizable patterns recur between ages and centuries. Western philosophers and historians who have discussed the nature of historic recurrence are Polybius, Niccolò Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, Arnold J. Toynbee. More accessible is perhaps Barbara W. Tuchman “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978 (ISBN: 0-394-40026-7). For her the 14th and the 20th Centuries are mirror images of each other in terms of the prevalence of disease, religious schism and conflict, war, bad government, taxes, insurrection and brigandage. It is a darn good read, too.

    I also see how the religious conflicts and upheavals of today can be interpreted as a mirror image of the upheavals of the 16th and 17th Centuries. Within the context of these turbulent centuries is the 30 Years War. Religion was certainly a focus for an individual’s identity. Everyone, combatant and non-combatant alike, espoused a religious outlook. Faith certainly guided early modern public policy and private life as well. There is little doubt that some were fanatical religious militants who were all the more dangerous when combined with real power. This interpretation certainly fit the 19th and early 20th century historical writing that saw events from the Reformation onward as the liberation from a restrictive Catholic yoke that lead to a progressive modernization of Europe. The 30 Years War as a religious war was the first version that I was introduced to.

    Wilson’s research finds that the religious fanatics were in the minority, however. Unlike some historians before him, he does not interpret the events through their eyes alone. The ‘moderate’ religious element had to compete with other important distinctions such as political, social, linguistic, gender, etc. Furthermore, contemporary sources do not speak of Protestant and/or Catholic troops did this or that, but rather imperial, Bavarian, Swedish, or Bohemian etc. troops did this or that. The terms Protestant and Catholic were anachronistic labels used for convenience beginning in the 19th Century in order to simplify narratives.

    In fact, from The Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555) that addressed the tensions ignited by the Reformation to the escalation of the war into a general conflict in 1831-32 much of the empire was at peace untouched by the upheavals occurring outside the empire in the rest of Europe. It is these religious upheavals that provide plenty of examples to mirror our time, as you point out above.

    A most fascinating topic!

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