Put blatantly, yes. History does repeat itself. The above image showing the distracted boyfriend meme as a repetition of a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s show is a testament to that. More keen and inquisitive questions would be “Does history always repeat itself? How and why does history repeat itself?
Let us first establish what we call a repetition. In the general sense, history is considered to be repeated when, well, a certain amount of similarity exists between two events. The ‘certain amount’ is… again, subjective to how much one can identify the patterns and note the common points. So, I shall set down an upper limit and a lower limit of the range of similarities.
Definitely, there cannot be a rigidly bound definition of repetition, the degree of similarity might be striking, as in the above image or very little but existing, like in the following meme:
These two images/memes shall form the upper and lower limits of our broad range of what we may call the repetition of history/story.
Repetition is, as we know, different from recreation. Recreation is a deliberate process, repetition happens by chance.
And the chances of repetition are astonishingly high (as we’re going to infer from the examples which follow). Every human being goes through a unique sequence of events that shape their life, it is foolish to say that one person is the same as another. Yet we have a number of stories with similar progressions, we have classes of people, groups of psychological traits and numerous movies with similar plots.
On a broader historical sense, we still have genocides, economic recessions, and wars. Cultural revolutions are being caused by public outrage and governments are still being toppled.
This really seems to be routine, as if it has been ingrained into our biology. It is human nature to have conflict, it is our rage that causes it. Our greed, that leads to loss and financial crises. We derive happiness from love or funny scene and, our dissent with the government grows into a revolution.
History repeats itself, or at least it is perceived to be so because human beings are bound by morals and emotions (sometimes, the lack of it).
An interesting parallel can be created by taking a look at the question, “Will we ever run out of new music?” In his YouTube video, Michael from VSauce cites sources which say that the total number of possible songs that we could create and perceive distinctly, considering an octave and melodies on it would be around 79 Billion. And, the estimated number of song labels created across all languages up to date are not more than 200 Million.
Yet, sites like www.soundsjustlike.com provide us with remarkably similar soundtracks across different timelines. Why does this happen? The answer is simple. We have only a handful of emotions and chords to write a song about. And our brains place constraints on the compression of notes in the octaves – too much compression and they are white noise, too less and it’s a dull tone.
We are accustomed to these sounds because they evoke a positive response in us, thus narrowing down the composer’s area of experimentation. This gives rise to similar music.
We have set sweet spots for our liking, be it the zone of compression of tones that is interesting or the pattern of stories and emotions we know and are familiar with. Our ability to recognize patterns and enjoy them is the reason why these patterns repeat themselves. Creators get influenced by art that stood out to them and while their creation might be a new version of what their reference is, it still is similar to what they’ve learnt from.
Again, these patterns might not always repeat themselves because every time a change in them is created by the people who perceive it and recreate it. But they still happen over and over because of the finite possibilities of likeable patterns and the susceptibility to a familiarity that our brains have developed.
In the end, history is all about learning from the past so that you can anticipate the future. We get exposed to ideas that have been passed down by generations to become common knowledge. And these ideas are bulletproof. They stand the test of time and pop up from time to time.
A beautiful irony of the famous poem Ozymandias is that the king Ozymandias was buried in the sands of time but the poem is not. It is still being studied by children, giving them the message that everything is ephemeral, while it keeps repeating itself throughout history. This ensures that it will be read, reread and read again.