“Look at the past — empire succeeding empire– and from that, extrapolate the future: the same thing. No escape from the rhythm of events.
Which is why observing life for forty years is as good as a thousand. Would you really see anything new?”
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.49
I read the Book of Ecclesiastes in my early twenties. It was a depressing book. But it provided interesting insights about the cycle of life and how meaningless a lot of things are in the world. (I don’t agree that everything is meaningless.)
The author of Ecclesiastes (1:9-11) wrote:
“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.”
The passage from Marcus Aurelius and from the Ecclesiastes are certainly of the same vein. Both are saying that history and life, itself, is a cycle. That the things that happened in the past can be a guide to what happens now and in the future.
This is not to say that the world is static, that there is no innovation and advancements in knowledge. I see it as a statement on human nature. Of the breadth and width of human behavior, we see events transpire that echo what happened in the past.
The office I work for and the broader institution it belongs to is in a state of flux and transition. There is a risk of division and painful separations. Think civil war without the military. (Sorry if I don’t speak more plainly.)
But this has happened in the past. There had been separations. And there had been unification. So again perhaps, Marcus Aurelius poses a good question: “Would you really see anything new?”
So maybe we need to look at the past and see what happened then. Look at where we are now, and then extrapolate the future.
Whether we want what we see or not, that is a different topic altogether.