The Consolation of History

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“Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it,” the common adage goes, often brought up as a kind of vague and amusing consolation to history students who, as they inevitably must, begin to doubt the practicality of their chosen field of study. But reality is far more complex than the mere repetition of the past. Cyclical though it may be, history does not repeat itself ad nauseam; it twists and winds itself though time, a strange tapestry of experiences woven together by the threads of billions of lives. And still, though historians may spot certain reincarnations of the past, manifestations of events which harken back to some shadowed and almost forgotten time, history is a compass, not an oracle. It may guide, but it cannot predict. 

Life is not an echo chamber of the past, though perhaps cynicism would have us wish this were the case, if only to explain the otherwise inexplicable phenomena which mark our lives. Where else ought we turn when faced with suffering and tragedy? When we find ourselves upon the precipice of fate, staring into a void which we can neither escape nor illuminate, an unstoppable darkness which creeps so suddenly and so unexpectedly into our lives? 

Recent events have foisted upon us an ever greater need to reconcile tragedy with meaning. Some may seek to do so though the arts, others through activism, and still others through social connection (among a million other approaches). I myself turned to history for consolation, by habit of study. I did not find any. This surprised me, and my surprise itself in turn disgusted me. What had I expected? That the dusty tomes of the past would offer me healing balms of mythological richness? That the unchecked slaughter and plagues of the centuries would soothe present wounds? That history, like Venus at dawn, would be a shining north star guiding us from our personal darkness? 

Instead, I recognized in myself a certain growing indignation as our pandemic and our conflicts were made proportionate in relation to other far more grievous tragedies which history has witnessed. In the great tide of human pain, who were we to demand sympathy? Who were we to claim we suffered? In this way, our griefs were not softened by history, but I was hardened towards them. I had stood before the judges of time in all my 21st century luxury and found myself condemned. 

No, history, so blackened by war and injustice and suffering, could offer no real comfort for the present time. That there have been other pandemics, far worse and more devastating than our own, did not assuage but rather grieved the heart which I longed to console. That intolerance and injustice have been perpetuated by the strong over the weak throughout history offered me no solace in our troubled times. Rather, my sense of collective loss was compounded, multiplying to the power of two, five, ten millennia, to forge in my mind a meta-narrative of human suffering which suddenly stretched before me in a continuous line. How could I have expected to rationalize present suffering through the lens of past suffering, as though the latter would offer relief to the former? As though suffering could be softened by the knowledge of greater suffering?

I found little consolation in history—though I did find camaraderie. To know that others have suffered as you suffer may bring no relief, but it does create space for empathy. As we page through the annals of history, we find ourselves declaring, “You also have experienced great loss and torment? You too can understand what grief feels like? I am not glad that you too are in pain, but I am relieved that I am not alone in mine.” A bridge of solidarity may be established across space and across time, that of sympathy and mutual understanding. And though the world may still feel immeasurably large and pain infinitely lonely, there is suddenly camaraderie in this solitude: “We may all be marching through hell, but the darkness is less terrifying knowing you have passed through it before me. We shall march through hell together then.”

This, perhaps, is itself the true consolation of history. It is not that suffering is lessened or made explicable, nor that those who study history are not doomed to repeat it. Time is utterly disinterested in the pastimes of historians and shall repeat itself (or not) indiscriminately. Rather, it is this: that although those who study history may be doomed to witness it repeat itself, they are not doomed to walk through it alone. They are consoled by the companionship of others, often far braver than themselves, who also have suffered, and who also have conjured the strength to carry ever onward through suffering. And by those who have suffered injustice, but who had the moral courage to stand up nobly against against it. 

Mark Twain famously said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Though the poem may be tragic, there is nonetheless something consolatory in rhyme itself—the realization that tragedy is not a solitary experience. History sobers us, grieves us, and strengthens us, not by removing pain, but by sharing in it. And I cannot but wonder if it also whispers, “One day, you also will be among my pages. When future generations look upon your suffering, will they find courage and nobility in your response?”