American Phoenix. Rising.


New York City, May 2013



In 1905, George Santayana published the first volume of his The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress. In this volume he says "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This is one of the most often quoted (and adapted) sayings that I've ever heard. And one of my favorites because it is not in the least subject to the influences of time or culture; it is as applicable today as it was 116 years ago. As I read this quote, again and again, two words strike me as being particularly important. The first is "cannot". How often do we allow ourselves to block out something of significance? This is a passive word, allowing for some flexibility in terms of will and intent; allowing for a pass on responsibility. For readers of the Bible, think Luke 23:34. But, the other word is "condemned". This is a very powerful word. In this context, I think Santayana refers to a declaration with regard to something reprehensible, something wrong, and perhaps even evil. This is an active word that relies on the weight of evidence; a word used without reservation. Santayana uses these two words deliberately because he goes on to say that "in the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted [cannot reason with care]; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence [but once presented with the necessary conditions, chooses to ignore them]." He finishes the thought with "This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience."


When I took this photo, New York City and the country were still in the process of rebuilding. Not just those buildings destroyed on 9/11, but lives and families, hearts and minds. This was not the first manifestation of chaos in my life, but it was certainly one of the few to leave an indelible mark on my soul. The physical construction may be complete now, but the internal, mental, emotional, spiritual assemblage continues. We were infants then, and we rose from the ashes once again. And once again, everything we need to know is right in front of us. What will we do?


Want another perspective? See Rene Magritte's drawing entitled "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."--George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905. From the Series Great Ideas of Western Man painted in 1962, and on exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (and at https://americanart.si.edu/artist/rene-magritte-3071). Why do you think Magritte used the full quote to represent his work?

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