History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes

I encountered this saying long ago and regarded it as a put-down by some humorist, perhaps Mark Twain, of preoccupation with the past. Maybe I missed some hidden wisdom after all.

History, of course, does not and cannot repeat itself.  We can’t step in the same river twice. But tomorrow is terra incognito. All we can really know about human affairs is from yesterday, however imperfectly remembered and understood. Human nature is a given, so it is possible that our present situation may resemble the past closely enough to say that it rhymes even if it does not repeat itself exactly.

This deep thought occurred to me lately when I casually picked up Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History, which I had not touched in years. He begins his discussion of prerevolutionary France with an observation by Lord Chesterfield while he was visiting across The Channel: “In short, all the symptoms which I have ever met with in History, previous to great Changes and Revolutions in government, now exist and daily increase in France.”

Carlyle follows with a catalogue of symptoms that suggest some compelling parallels to the condition of the United States today. 

First of all is bankruptcy. The federal debt is now what? Around $30 trillion? The interest alone is a killer. The French monarchy found itself in a similar, though less extreme, situation. Expenditures on luxury for the elite and on pointless wars had emptied the treasury. Most wealth was exempt from taxation, and the working population was already squeezed dry. There was no solution, as there is no solution for the U.S. government debt. It cannot be paid. It will have to be repudiated.

In this case, France had an advantage over the U.S. Much of our debt is owned by international financiers and by foreign countries. One can well imagine a powerful, growing China coercing payment from weak and incompetent American leaders. This would devastate the American population, but that would not matter as long as the elite continued to enjoy their protected luxury.

And even more important in the comparison is spiritual bankruptcy. Faith was severely compromised among the French elite, even the higher clergy, including the chattering classes who dominated public discussion. The elite preferred theories of liberation and future utopia over tradition and Christianity.   

Could the likeness to the  21st century U.S. be more apparent? The French—before, during, and after the Revolution—were not notable for their chastity, but at least sodomy and abortion were not officially promoted. In America, the chattering classes of the pervasive media are much larger and dedicated to enforcing a single view of the present that discards facts for theory: “diversity is our strength,” “white privilege,” “we owe it to ourselves.” We are ruled by what Carlyle called a “quackocracy.”

The millions of the prerevolutionary working classes were increasingly alienated from the regime. In France the elite were either indifferent to them or exploitive. Carlyle describes this as a conflict of “The Throne and the Treadmill.” Unlike in the U.S. today, rulers did not actually hate the canaille and want to eliminate them, but the deteriorating condition of their plain folk was similar to that of our own.

The useless courtiers crowding Versailles are perhaps suggestive of our bureaucrats. Johnson’s Great Society was supposed to help the poor and encourage excellence. Its real effect (and probably real purpose) was to create a new class of managers. There are hundreds of thousands of these people in federal, state, and local governments, colleges and schools, and NGOs, often at six-figure salaries, doing jobs that should not even exist or that are destructive. These people are the subsidized core of Woke America. Need I even mention Fauci, who is only the tip of a very big iceberg?

Carlyle stresses how little those with influence were willing to face facts—realities like hunger, inflation, debt, crime, corrupt courts, violent streets, overactive but ineffective police. Remind you of anything?

France had another advantage over the U.S. It had a real culture, folk and high. Being French was a reality that reemerged, after several bad decades, stronger than ever. There has never really been much substance to “being American.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a possibility of a recognizable “American” nation emerging, but that chance is now long gone.

America never had a folk culture, except in the now-vanishing South. Our current state nearly guarantees that we cannot again produce any high culture. We will never have another great writer or artist or statesman. American culture and intellectual life are in a terminal state of debased triviality. Our country is no longer a country, only an apparatus without a soul. In the capital of the once-noble Commonwealth of Virginia, the memorials to real heroes were maliciously destroyed, and Monument Avenue is now devoted to a tennis player who died of AIDS.

The French also did not have to face a catastrophic invasion of aliens. In our country, the president is importing foreigners and dispersing them among us in numbers that exceed the voting population of several states, with only a few impotent squeaks from the “opposition” party. Recently, an unelected law clerk named Amit Jain reportedly became a significant actor in national politics. In my state, someone named Efia Nwangaza is now considered a major spokeswoman on public policy.

Prerevolutionary France was full of ambitious politicians—shallow, meritless people. As with our leadership today, all talent and energy were expended in getting office for people who had no talent for actually carrying out the office.

And, perhaps most telling, while the phonies were posing and strutting, the best men were without any hope for a peaceful solution to the sad condition of their society. The worst thing of all is the depressed hopelessness of good and farseeing people.   

A lifetime studying history convinces me that nobody can predict the future. There are too many variables. But you can see patterns of social and governmental deterioration in the rulers—which can sometimes lead to changes and revolutions.

Revolution may draw impulse from grievances of the people, but in France and Russia, it became the vehicle of murderous ideologues. We already see the signs here. In America, the Revolution will be in the control of alien ideologies, and there will be little hope for the recovery of a genuine regime. As Carlyle puts it, “The Jacobins are buried; but their work is not; it continues, making ‘the tour of the world’ as it can.”

And as the old hymn puts it, “For still our ancient foe / Doth seek to work us woe; / His craft and power are great, / And armed with cruel hate …”

Image by WikiImages, via Pixabay

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