Historic recurrence

Historic recurrence is the repetition of similar events in history.[lower-alpha 1][lower-alpha 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.[4] 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[lower-alpha 3] and Friedrich Nietzsche.[lower-alpha 4]

Nevertheless, while it is often remarked that "History repeats itself", in cycles of less than cosmological duration this cannot be strictly true.[lower-alpha 5] 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.[lower-alpha 6] 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.[10] If history has lessons to impart, they are to be found par excellence in such recurring patterns.

Historic recurrences of the "striking-similarity" type can sometimes induce a sense of "convergence", "resonance" or déjà vu.[lower-alpha 7]


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 (see "Eternal return").[11] Western philosophers and historians who have discussed various concepts of historic recurrence include Polybius, the Greek historian and rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 60 BCE – after 7 BCE), Luke the Evangelist, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975).[4]

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.[12]

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".[13] 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."[14] "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 (c. 60 BCE  after 7 BCE), while praising Rome at the expense of her predecessors[lower-alpha 8]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 (c. 1 BCE – 65 CE), Florus (c. 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]

In 1377 the Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, in his Muqaddima (or Prolegomena), wrote that when nomadic tribes become united by asabiyyaArabic for "group feeling", "social solidarity", or "clannism"—their superior cohesion and military prowess puts urban dwellers at their mercy. Inspired often by religion, they conquer the towns and create new regimes. But within a few generations, writes Ibn Khaldun, the victorious tribesmen lose their asabiyya and become corrupted by luxury, extravagance, and leisure. The ruler, who can no longer rely on fierce warriors for his defense, will have to raise extortionate taxes to pay for other sorts of soldiers, and this in turn may lead to further problems that result in the eventual downfall of his dynasty or state.[24][lower-alpha 9]

Joshua S Goldstein suggests that empires, analogously to an individual's midlife crisis, experience a political midlife crisis: after a period of expansion in which all earlier goals are realized, overconfidence sets in, and regimes are then likely to attack or threaten their nearest rival; Goldstein cites four examples: the British Empire and the Crimean War; the German Second Reich and World War I; the USSR and the Cuban Missile Crisis; the United States and the Vietnam War.[26] Suggestions that the European Union is suffering a political midlife crisis have been put forward by Gideon Rachman (2010), Roland Benedikter (2014), and Natalie Nougayrède (2017).

David Hackett Fischer has identified four waves in European history, each of some 150-200 years' duration. Each wave begins with prosperity, leading to inflation, inequality, rebellion and war, and resolving in a long period of equilibrium. For example, 18th-century inflation led to the Napoleonic wars and later the Victorian equilibrium.[27]

Sir Arthur Keith's theory of a species-wide amity-enmity complex suggests that human conscience evolved as a duality: people are driven to protect members of their in-group, and to hate and fight enemies who belong to an out-group. Thus an endless, useless cycle of ad hoc "isms" arises.[28]


One of the recurrence patterns identified by G.W. Trompf involves "the isolation of any two specific events which bear a very striking similarity".[15] The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana observed that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."[29] 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."[30]

However, Poland's Adam Michnik believes 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", writes Michnik, "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."[31]

Poland's Catholic Primate, Stanisław Szczepanowski, is murdered by his former friend, King Bolesław the Bold (1079); and England's Catholic Primate, Thomas Becket, is murdered at the behest of his former friend, King Henry II (1170).

Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan's attempted conquest of Japan (1274, 1281) is frustrated by typhoons;[lower-alpha 10] and Spanish King Philip II's 1588 attempted conquest of England is frustrated by a hurricane.

Hernán Cortes's fateful 1519 entry into Mexico's Aztec Empire is reputedly facilitated by the natives' identification of him with their god Quetzalcoatl, who had been predicted to return that very year; and English Captain James Cook's fateful 1778 entry into Hawaii, during the annual Makahiki festival honoring the fertility and peace god Lono, is reputedly facilitated by the natives' identification of Cook with Lono,[32] who had left Hawaii, promising to return on a floating island, evoked by Cook's ship under full sail.[33]

On 27 April 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in the Philippine Islands, foolhardily, with only four dozen men, confronts 1,500 natives who have defied his attempt to Christianize them, and is killed.[34] On 14 February 1779, English explorer James Cook, on Hawaii Island, foolhardily, with only a few men, confronts the natives after some individuals have taken one of Cook's small boats, and Cook and four of his men are killed.[35]

Poland's Queen Jadwiga, dying in 1399, bequeaths her personal jewelry for the restoration of Kraków University (which will occur in 1400); and Leland Stanford's widow Jane Stanford attempts, after his 1893 death, to sell her personal jewelry to restore Stanford University's financial viability, ultimately bequeathing the jewelry to fund the purchase of books for Stanford University.[lower-alpha 11]

In 1812 French Emperor Napoleon—born a Corsican outsider—unprepared for an extended winter campaign, invades the Russian Empire, precipitating the fall of the French Empire; and in 1941 German Führer Adolf Hitler—born an Austrian outsider—unprepared for an extended winter campaign, invades the Russian Empire's Soviet successor state ruled by Joseph Stalin—born a Georgian outsider—precipitating the fall of the German Thousand-Year Reich.

Mohandas Gandhi works to liberate his compatriots by peaceful means and is shot dead; Martin Luther King, Jr., works to liberate his compatriots by peaceful means and is shot dead.

Over history, confrontations between peoples – typically, geographical neighbors – help consolidate the peoples into nations, at times into frank empires; until at last, exhausted by conflicts and drained of resources, the once militant polities settle into a relatively peaceful habitus.[36][lower-alpha 12]

Polities ignore Jan Bloch's 1898 warnings of the railroad-mobilized, industrialized, stalemated, attritional total war, World War I, that is on the way and will destroy an appreciable part of mankind;[38] and polities ignore geologists', oceanographers', atmospheric scientists', biologists', and climatologists' warnings of the climate-change tipping point that is on course to destroy all of mankind.[39][lower-alpha 13]

People ignore warnings about the dangers of nuclear power plants[41] until anticipated nuclear power-plant accidents occur; and people ignore warnings about the dangers of nuclear weapons[42][lower-alpha 14][44] until some city in the world is blown up by a nuclear weapon.

British novelist Martin Amis observes that recurring patterns of imperial ascendance-and-decline are mirrored in the novel: novels seem to follow the political power. In the 19th century, when Britain was ascendant on the planet, British novels were huge and tried to express what the whole society was. British hegemony waned with World War II and ended after the war. The British novel was then some 225 pages long and centered on narrower subjects such as career setbacks or marriage setbacks: the British novel's "great tradition" increasingly looked depleted. Ascendance had passed to the United States, and Americans such as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and John Updike began writing huge novels.[45]

See also


  1. 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." (A "repeat occurrence" is the definition of "recurrence".)[1] A similar thought of uncertain attribution has been ascribed to Twain: "History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes."[2]
  2. Herman Melville, in his poetry, "declare[d a] belief... that all history is mere iteration ('Age after age shall be/As age after age has been')..."[3]
  3. 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..."[5]
  4. 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.[6]
  5. G.W. 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."[7]
  6. 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."[8] A similar view had earlier been presented in 1763 by Roger Boscovich.[9]
  7. This sense is somewhat suggested, in popular culture, by the film Groundhog Day.
  8. His was thus a quasi-exceptionalist view.[18]
  9. Toynbee regarded Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddima as "undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place."[25]
  10. The original kamikaze ("divine wind").
  11. The Stanford University Museum of Art displays a painting of Jane Stanford's jewelry, commissioned prior to the jewelry's anticipated sale.
  12. Victor Bulmer-Thomas writes: "Imperial retreat is not the same as national decline, as many other countries can attest. Indeed, imperial retreat can strengthen the nation-state just as imperial expansion can weaken it."[37]
  13. On 8 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report stating that, if drastic changes in the global energy base and lifestyle are not made by about 2030—within a dozen years—civilization on planet Earth will become unsalvageable.[40]
  14. Nuclear weapons continue to be equally hazardous to their owners as to their potential targets. Under the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, nuclear-weapon states are supposed to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons from the world.[43]


  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, 1903, p. 64.
  2. "History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes". Quote Investigator. January 12, 2014.
  3. Helen Vendler, "'No Poetry You Have Read'" (review of Hershel Parker, ed., Herman Melville: Complete Poems, Library of America, 990 pp.), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXVI, no. 19 (5 December 2019), pp. 29, 32–34. (Quotation from p. 32.)
  4. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, passim.
  5. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 1959, p. 276.
  6. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 1959, p. 276.
  7. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 3.
  8. Pierre-Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay, New York, 1902, p. 4.
  9. Carlo Cercignani, chapter 2: "Physics before Boltzmann", in Ludwig Boltzmann: The Man Who Trusted Atoms, Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-19-850154-4, p. 55.
  10. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, passim.
  11. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, pp. 6-15.
  12. Elizabeth Perry, Challenging the Mandate of Heaven: Social Protest and State Power in China, Sharpe, 2002, ISBN 0-7656-0444-2, passim.
  13. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, pp. 2-3 and passim.
  14. G.W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, p. 3 and passim.
  15. 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, passim.
  18. 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. Malise Ruthven, "The Otherworldliness of Ibn Khaldun" (review of Robert Irwin, Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton University Press, 2018, ISBN 9780691174662, 243 pp.), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXVI, no. 2 (February 7, 2019), p. 23.
  25. Malise Ruthven, "The Otherworldliness of Ibn Khaldun" (review of Robert Irwin, Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton University Press, 2018, ISBN 9780691174662, 243 pp.), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXVI, no. 2 (February 7, 2019), p. 23.
  26. Joshua S Goldstein, Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age, 1988, passim.
  27. David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, Oxford University Press, 1996, passim.
  28. Arthur Keith, A New Theory of Human Evolution, Watts, 1948, passim.
  29. George Santayana, The Life of Reason, vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense, 1905.
  30. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), in Marx Engels Selected Works, volume I, p. 398.
  31. Paul Wilson, "Adam Michnik: A Hero of Our Time," The New York Review of Books, vol. LXII, no. 6 (April 2, 2015), p. 74.
  32. Jenny Uglow, "Island Hopping" (review of Captain James Cook: The Journals, selected and edited by Philip Edwards, London, Folio Society, three volumes and a chart of the voyages, 1,309 pp.; and William Frame with Laura Walker, James Cook: The Voyages, McGill-Queen University Press, 224 pp.), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXVI, no. 2 (February 7, 2019), p. 19 (total review: pp. 18-20).
  33. Ross Cordy, Exalted Sits the Chief: The Ancient History of Hawai'i Island, Mutual Publishing, 2000, p. 61.
  34. "The Death of Magellan, 1521". Eyewitnesstohistory.com. Retrieved 16 November 2010.
  35. Collingridge, Vanessa (2003). Captain Cook: The Life, Death and Legacy of History's Greatest Explorer. Ebury Press. ISBN 978-0-09-188898-5., p. 410.
  36. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York, Random House, 1987, ISBN 0-394-54674-1, passim.
  37. Jackson Lears, "Imperial Exceptionalism" (review of Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Empire in Retreat: The Past, Present, and Future of the United States, Yale University Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0-300-21000-2, 459 pp.; and David C. Hendrickson, Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition, Oxford University Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0190660383, 287 pp.), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXVI, no. 2 (February 7, 2019), pp. 8-10. (p. 10.)
  38. Jan Bloch, Future war and its economic consequences, 1898.
  39. Joshua Busby, "Warming World: Why Climate Change Matters More Than Anything Else", Foreign Affairs, vol. 97, no. 4 (July / August 2018), p. 54.
  40. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C, 8 October 2018.
  41. Sheldon Novick, The Careless Atom, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969, passim
  42. Thomas Powers, "The Nuclear Worrier" (review of Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, New York, Bloomsbury, 2017, ISBN 9781608196708, 420 pp.), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXV, no. 1 (18 January 2018), pp. 13–15.
  43. Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, Penguin Press, 2013, ISBN 1594202273. The book became the basis for a 2-hour 2017 PBS American Experience episode, likewise titled "Command and Control".
  44. Laura Grego and David Wright, "Broken Shield: Missiles designed to destroy incoming nuclear warheads fail frequently in tests and could increase global risk of mass destruction", Scientific American, vol. 320, no. no. 6 (June 2019), pp. 62–67.
  45. 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.


Further reading

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