The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is perhaps best known for his sometimes controversial statement “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While often quoted, it is also sometimes dismissed because history doesn’t quite “repeat” itself—the circumstances and details are rarely quite the same.
On the other hand, Santayana’s larger point, that the similarities between historical situations and current situations have value, is widely accepted and even used in education and elsewhere. In law similar historical cases are used as precedent. In business classes and medical school cases are used to teach, and some fields, like psychology, are built entirely on individual cases.
So what does this have to do with literature?
Hugh B. Brown suggests in the quotation below that literature is a collection of cases that we can apply in our lives — in this case in marriage. The fact that some of these cases are fictional doesn’t seem to bother him—no doubt, I assume, because the best novelists seek verisimilitude; that is, they want their stories to seem as much like real life as possible.
God-centered homes for children
By Hugh B. Brown
Laws and customs represent only the external or social aspects of marriage. These externals do not reach the inwardness and depth of the problem that the individual person confronts upon the advent of his marriage. From the great poems, novels, plays, and books of history and biography, we find the psychological and emotional aspects of marriage have been discussed in all ages. From these and thousands of case histories, we are impressed by the fact that marriage is at all times, in every culture and under the widest variety of circumstances, one of the supreme tests of human character.
General Conference, October 1966
I wish we could claim that reading these “thousands of case histories” would automatically make for better marriages or better decision making, but I think the reader must be a more active participant for that to have its best effect. Unstated, but perhaps hinted at, in both Santayana’s dictum and in Brown’s statement is this idea that the reader needs to actively process the examples given for them to improve his life.
Still, I like the idea that literature can be seen as a collection of useful case histories. And I often wish it were cataloged that way, so that it is easy to find the relevant examples from literature for a specific situation. Such an index, were compiling it possible, would be a fascinating source of study.