History, it’s often said, is the greatest teacher. Learning from the past is an essential part of growth — both on an individual level and for society at large. Reflecting on our choices and experiences can help us avoid repeating mistakes over and over, while studying history’s successes and failures can offer valuable insight that gives us confidence for future decisions.
But learning from the past doesn't necessarily mean dwelling on it. It’s all too easy to feel trapped by our past, living in regret or fixating on better times and wishing for them back. Acknowledging the past is crucial to understanding who we are, but it’s important to exist in the present and to keep moving forward.
Ideally, it’s best to find a balance of honoring our history while using it to make informed choices for the future. With that goal in mind, here are 10 thoughtful quotes about learning from the past.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.George Santayana, philosopher
Life is divided into three terms: that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.William Wordsworth
I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.Maya Angelou
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Learn from it — tomorrow is a new day.Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.Frederick Douglass
I don't know whether you can look at your past and find, woven like the hidden symbols on a treasure map, the path that will point to your final destination.Jodi Picoult
There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they're necessary to reach the places we've chosen to go.Richard Bach, author
Right actions for the future are the best apologies for wrong ones in the past.Tryon Edwards, theologian
History is a strange teacher. It never repeats itself exactly, but you ignore its general lessons at your peril.Madeleine Albright
When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.Alexis de Tocqueville, historian
Photo credit: Kwangmoozaa/ Shutterstock