Historic recurrence

Mark Twain: "a favorite theory of mine—to wit, that no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often."[1]

Historic recurrence is the repetition of similar events in history.[2] The concept of historic recurrence has variously been applied to the overall history of the world (e.g., to the rises and falls of empires), to repetitive patterns in the history of a given polity, and to any two specific events which bear a striking similarity.[3]

Hypothetically, in the extreme, the concept of historic recurrence assumes the form of the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, which has been written about in various forms since antiquity and was described in the 19th century by Heinrich Heine[4] and Friedrich Nietzsche.[5]

Nevertheless, while it is often remarked that "History repeats itself," in cycles of less than cosmological duration this cannot be strictly true.[6]

In this interpretation of recurrence, as opposed perhaps to the Nietzschean interpretation, there is no metaphysics. Recurrences take place due to ascertainable circumstances and chains of causality.[7] An example of the mechanism is the ubiquitous phenomenon of multiple independent discovery in science and technology, which has been described by Robert K. Merton and Harriet Zuckerman.

G.W. Trompf, in his book The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, traces historically recurring patterns of political thought and behavior in the west since antiquity.[8] If history has lessons to impart, they are to be found par excellence in such recurring patterns.

Historic recurrences can sometimes induce a sense of "convergence," "resonance" or déjà vu.[9] Three such examples appear under "Striking similarity."


Prior to the theory of historic recurrence that was offered by Polybius, a Greek Hellenistic historian (ca 200 – ca 118 BCE), ancient western thinkers who had thought about recurrence had largely been concerned with cosmological rather than historic recurrence.[10]

Western philosophers and historians who have discussed various concepts of historic recurrence include Polybius, the Greek historian and rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus (ca. 60 BCE – after 7 BCE), Saint Luke, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975).[3]

An eastern concept that bears a kinship to western concepts of historic recurrence is the Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven, by which an unjust ruler will lose the support of Heaven and be overthrown.[11]


G.W. Trompf describes various historic paradigms of historic recurrence, including paradigms that view types of large-scale historic phenomena variously as "cyclical"; "fluctuant"; "reciprocal"; "re-enacted"; or "revived".[12]

He also notes "[t]he view proceeding from a belief in the uniformity of human nature [Trompf's emphasis]. It holds that because human nature does not change, the same sort of events can recur at any time."[13]

"Other minor cases of recurrence thinking," he writes, "include the isolation of any two specific events which bear a very striking similarity [his emphasis], and the preoccupation with parallelism [his emphasis], that is, with resemblances, both general and precise, between separate sets of historical phenomena."[14]


G.W. Trompf notes that most western concepts of historic recurrence imply that "the past teaches lessons for... future action" — that "the same... sorts of events which have happened before... will recur..."[15]

One such recurring theme was early offered by Poseidonius (a Greek polymath, native to Apamea, Syria; ca 135–51 BCE), who argued that dissipation of the old Roman virtues had followed the removal of the Carthaginian challenge to Rome's supremacy in the Mediterranean world.[16] The theme that civilizations flourish or fail according to their responses to the human and environmental challenges that they face, would be picked up two thousand years later by Toynbee.[17]

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, while praising Rome at the expense of her predecessors[18]Assyria, Media, Persia, and Macedonia — anticipated Rome's eventual decay. He thus implied the idea of recurring decay in the history of world empires — an idea that was to be developed by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) and by Pompeius Trogus, a 1st-century BCE Roman historian from a Celtic tribe in Gallia Narbonensis.[19]

By the late 5th century, Zosimus (also called "Zosimus the Historian"; fl. 490s–510s: a Byzantine historian who lived in Constantinople) could see the writing on the Roman wall, and asserted that empires fell due to internal disunity. He gave examples from the histories of Greece and Macedonia. In the case of each empire, growth had resulted from consolidation against an external enemy; Rome herself, in response to Hannibal's threat posed at Cannae, had risen to great-power status within a mere five decades. With Rome's world dominion, however, aristocracy had been supplanted by a monarchy, which in turn tended to decay into tyranny; after Augustus Caesar, good rulers had alternated with tyrannical ones. The Roman Empire, in its western and eastern sectors, had become a contending ground between contestants for power, while outside powers acquired an advantage. In Rome's decay, Zosimus saw history repeating itself in its general movements.[20]

The ancients developed an enduring metaphor for a polity's evolution: they drew an analogy between an individual human's life cycle, and developments undergone by a body politic. This metaphor was offered, in varying iterations, by Cicero (106–43 BCE), Seneca (ca. 1 BCE – 65 CE), Florus (ca 74 CE – ca 130 CE), and Ammianus Marcellinus (between 325 and 330 CE – after 391 CE).[21] This social-organism metaphor would recur centuries later in the works of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903).

Niccolò Machiavelli, about to analyze the vicissitudes of Florentine and Italian politics between 1434 and 1494, described recurrent oscillations between "order" and "disorder" within states:

when states have arrived at their greatest perfection, they soon begin to decline. In the same manner, having been reduced by disorder and sunk to their utmost state of depression, unable to descend lower, they, of necessity, reascend, and thus from good they gradually decline to evil and from evil mount up to good.

Machiavelli accounts for this oscillation by arguing that virtù (valor and political effectiveness) produces peace, peace brings idleness (ozio), idleness disorder, and disorder rovina (ruin). In turn, from rovina springs order, from order virtù, and from this, glory and good fortune.[22]

Machiavelli, as had the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, saw human nature as remarkably stable—steady enough for the formulation of rules of political behavior. Machiavelli wrote in his Discorsi:

Whoever considers the past and the present will readily observe that all cities and all peoples... ever have been animated by the same desires and the same passions; so that it is easy, by diligent study of the past, to foresee what is likely to happen in the future in any republic, and to apply those remedies that were used by the ancients, or not finding any that were employed by them, to devise new ones from the similarity of events.[23]

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana observed that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."[24] Which raises the question whether those who can remember are not doomed, anyway, to be swept along by the majority who cannot.

Karl Marx, having in mind the respective coups d'état of Napoleon I (1799) and his nephew Napoleon III (1851), wrote acerbically in 1852: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."[25]

Conversely, according to Canadian translator and writer Paul Wilson, the Polish public intellectual and former influential dissident Adam Michnik holds a "core... belief... that history is not just about the past because it is constantly recurring, and not as farce, as Marx had it, but as itself:

The world is full of inquisitors and heretics, liars and those lied to, terrorists and the terrorized. There is still someone dying at Thermopylae, someone drinking a glass of hemlock, someone crossing the Rubicon, someone drawing up a proscription list."[26]


One of the paradigms of recurrence thinking identified by G.W. Trompf involves "the isolation of any two specific events which bear a very striking similarity".[15]

British novelist Martin Amis observes that recurring patterns of imperial ascendance-and-decline simultaneously are mirrored in, and inform, the novel:

[In an empire] novels seem to follow the political power. In the 19th century, when England ruled the earth, the novels were huge and all-embracing and tried to express what the whole society was. [This British "hegemony" waned with World War II and ended in the postwar years.] The English novel at that point was about 225 pages long and about career setbacks or marriage setbacks. [The "great tradition" increasingly looked depleted.] Uncannily, that power passed to the United States after the war, and [Americans such as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and John Updike] started to write these huge novels.[27]
[Amis draws a picture of Americans weighing the costs of "diminishing expectations" in the new millenium. The British had gradually accepted the decline and dissolution of their empire.] [T]he ideology [of] level-ism actually sweetened the pill of decline. It was saying, "You haven't got an empire anymore, but you shouldn't have had an empire in the first place. We don't like empires." It sort of soothed our brow. There's no great fury about decline in England. [Americans, Amis thinks, will react differently.] They're not going to be docile and stoic like we were. [The likely American reaction:] A fair amount of illusion.[28]


See also


  1. Mark Twain, The Jumping Frog: In English, Then in French, and Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil, illustrated by F. Strothman, New York and London, Harper & Brothers, Publishers, MCMIII, p. 64.
  2. Mark Twain writes of "a favorite theory of mine—to wit, that no occurrence [Twain's emphasis] is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often." See note 1. A "repeat occurrence" is the definition of "recurrence."
  3. 1 2 G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, passim.
  4. Philosopher Walter Kaufmann quotes Heinrich Heine: "[T]ime is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them are also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again..." Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist., 1959, p. 276.
  5. The concept of "eternal recurrence" is central to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. It appears in The Gay Science and in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and also in a posthumous fragment. Walter Kaufmann suggests that Nietzsche may have encountered the concept in the writings of Heinrich Heine. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 1959, p. 276.
  6. Trompf writes: "The idea of exact recurrence... was rarely incorporated into... these views, for in the main they simply presume the recurrence of sorts of events, or... event-types, -complexes, and -patterns." G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 3.
  7. In 1814 Pierre-Simon Laplace published an early articulation of causal or scientific determinism: "We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect, nothing would be uncertain and the future, just like the past, would be present before its eyes." Pierre-Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay, New York, 1902, p. 4. A similar view had earlier been presented in 1763 by Roger Boscovich. Carlo Cercignani, chapter 2: "Physics before Boltzmann", in Ludwig Boltzmann: The Man Who Trusted Atoms, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 55, ISBN 0-19-850154-4.
  8. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought.
  9. This sense is somewhat suggested, in popular culture, by the film Groundhog Day.
  10. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, pp. 6-15.
  11. Elizabeth Perry, Challenging the Mandate of Heaven: Social Protest and State Power in China, Sharpe, 2002, ISBN 0-7656-0444-2.
  12. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, pp. 2-3 and passim.
  13. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 3 and passim.
  14. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 3 and passim.
  15. 1 2 G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 3.
  16. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 185.
  17. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, 12 volumes, Oxford University Press, 1934–61.
  18. His was thus a quasi-exceptionalist view. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 192.
  19. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, pp. 186–87.
  20. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, pp. 187–88.
  21. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, pp. 188–92.
  22. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 256.
  23. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 258.
  24. George Santayana, The Life of Reason, vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense, 1905.
  25. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), in Marx Engels Selected Works, volume I, p. 398.
  26. Paul Wilson, "Adam Michnik: A Hero of Our Time," The New York Review of Books, vol. LXII, no. 6 (April 2, 2015), p. 74.
  27. Sam Tanenhaus, "The Electroshock Novelist: The Alluring Bad Boy of Literary England Has Always Been Fascinated by Britain's Dustbin Empire. Now Martin Amis Takes On American Excess," Newsweek, July 2 & 9, 2012, p. 52.
  28. Sam Tanenhaus, "The Electroshock Novelist," Newsweek, July 2 & 9, 2012, p. 53.


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