11/15/2014 08:17 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2015

How (Not) to Repeat History

I wonder if we have it wrong. The philosopher George Santayana warned: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Maybe that sets it up exactly backward. Those who do remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

The original quote, favored by those striving to be portentous, came to mind when I was honored recently to help a San Francisco theatre company, The Cutting Ball, open its season on the theme of justice. They staged a reading of Aeschylus's Oresteia. The trilogy by the seniormost Greek tragedian recounts the magnificent derangement of the House of Atreus. They exemplified the cycles of retribution.

Their story would have been easy to recite for an educated Greek. The Trojan War was only one episode in a series of calamities, depicted in drama and declaimed in oratory. The horrific actions visited upon members of the family by their own gave meaning to "blood relations," compared to which modern horror movies pale.

King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to ensure winds filled the sails of his ships as he set off to war. He tricked the virgin by suggesting she would be married; instead she was murdered.

His wife, Queen Clytemnstra, then offed him upon his return. She had taken up with his cousin, Aegisthus.

Agamemnon and Clytemenstra's son, Orestes, measured up to his lineage. He subsequently settled the accounts by killing his mother and her hapless lover.

Although the Furies intended to do him in, they were persuaded to participate in a jury trial. That is why the Oresteia is still studied in law schools even today.

That may the end, but of course it isn't the beginning. Agamemnon's father, Atreus, had been cuckolded by his brother, Thyestes. His reaction was to kill his nephews, the sons of Thyestes. He served them in a stew to their father (if you have been following, his own brother -- the one who had had the affair with his wife).

Thyestes, obeying the oracle, decided that he would be revenged if he could rely on another son. Accordingly he slept with his daughter, Pelopia, who, upon giving birth to her son-brother Aegisthus, was so ashamed that she abandoned him. He was raised by Atreus. (He is the Aegisthus who would reappear later.)

The generations before that would be admirable to those who exalt the monstrous. The father of Atreus, Pelops, won his wife in a chariot race to the death that was fixed so his competitor, her father, would be the loser. The father of Pelops, Tantalus, appears to have initiated the misery by slaying his son in order to test whether the gods were omniscient, feeding the bits of his body to them. All except Demeter, who was distracted, refused to partake since they in fact were all knowing.

For all the censure of contemporary depictions of violence, the classics show us up. We are amateurs in our aesthetics of savagery.

Yet Santayana has been misinterpreted. He is counted as a cousin to American pragmatists, despite never having become a citizen. He may have been more sanguine about our progress. Described as a more or less a moral relativist with conservative tendencies, he is not much read anymore.

He bequeathed other aphorisms to posterity. He said, to the point here, "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

His most celebrated epigram, however, is often misquoted ever so slightly as a reprimand to those who "do not" remember. His actual phrasing referred to the inability to remember ("those who cannot"), not the decision to disremember ("those who do not").

Literary among philosophers in a style since renounced by the analytics and Continentals alike, Santayana emphasized the potential for development. He continued in Reason in Common Sense that our advancement eventually surpasses "a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation."

Others whose company is instructional have reminded us of the risks of being bound by our own histories.

In the short story by the intellectual among fabulists, Jorge Luis Borges, "Funes the Memorius," the title character suffers anamnesis. He remembers everything; he forgets nothing. This inability to purge has ruined his life. The idiot-savant does nothing beyond wander a memory palace filled with nonsensical detail.

"The past is prologue" is another customary phrasing of the exhortation. It is a line from Shakespeare's The Tempest. That later play, to a greater degree than the conclusion of the Oresteia, is about forgiveness. Prospero, exiled to an abandoned island by his usurping brother, does not impose punishment when he acquires power. He is an illusionist. Hence he is able to control events. His ability to discipline himself comes from his ability to influence the world around him.

The problem with remembering is that human memory is ineluctably accompanied by human feeling. Forgetting is not an attractive alternative. Communities no less than individuals need the past to relate to the present in a worthwhile manner. But it can lay claim to us only if we allow it.

The challenge is to recall without succumbing to the desire to retaliate: to become one who can remember what has happened if need be, but who chooses not to do so if need be. The past is there to be recovered at any time, to offer its lesson; it ought not also determine the future. Our free will breaks out of the clockwork universe.

Perhaps the stories we tell are an effort to bring to closure through narrative what cannot be reconciled in reality.