Quotable Quotes from History’s Wise Guys

Mark Twain

These are difficult times. But the enduring words of history’s heroes are a trustworthy guide for a nation seeking solutions to financial crisis and its aftermath.

Perhaps Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) said it best: “History doesn’t repeat itself. At best, it sometimes rhymes.” A word to the wise as pundits declare Barack Obama as Roosevelt reincarnated or today’s financial mess a carbon copy of the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Fight Fear with a War of Words

History can be a buffer to rising panic, especially upon recalling FDR’s famous line following the bombing of Pearl Harbor: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself… nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Parallels are also made between this troubled time and the Civil War era, when Abraham Lincoln stepped onto the fracturing national stage and brought unifying — yet unsettling — change with a steady hand.

It is good to recall Honest Abe’s wit and wisdom during times such as this: “In grave emergencies, moderation is generally safer than radicalism.”

In each of these leaders is a capacity to respond to disaster by targeting its underlying cause, then inspiring hope with calm vision and a call to justice through decisive action.

WWII British Prime Minister Winston Churchill exemplified this quality despite all odds, declaring to the Allies, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts,” and “Never, never, never give up. Never give in…. except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

Poor Richard Offers a Way to Wealth

It follows reason then, during the current economic crisis, to seek advice from “no pain, no gain” Benjamin Franklin. His varied passions and accomplishments included disseminating financial wisdom, as found in Poor Richard’s Almanack and its predecessor,The Way to Wealth. To those complaining about heavy taxation, Franklin called for a fresh perspective: “We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly. God helps them that help themselves.”

Franklin was the quintessential self-made man, full of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps admonitions. He championed what he called industry, which refers to the rewards reaped by those who put in the time and effort. “Plough deep, while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and keep,” was one of his pithy remarks, reminiscent of “the early bird gets the worm.”

Franklin also championed frugalilty, a virtue buried hastily by modern America and its credit-dependent rush toward conspicuous consumption. Now, in the aftermath of the credit crunch, rising unemployment and housing foreclosures, Franklin’s maxims come back to haunt. “Always taking out of the pot, and never putting in, one soon comes to the bottom.”

To those willing to listen, Franklin provides wisdom for the ages: “If you want to know the value of money, try to borrow some. Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt.”

Better Angels of our Nature

Above all, esteemed leaders from history call for reason, hope and truth to prevail, even as panic, extremism and antagonism threaten to over-rule. The temptation to over-react must be tempered by measured steps that ensure stability and allow solutions to be worked out over time. As Thomas Jefferson put it so eloquently, “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.”

Because everyone knows the alternative, as spoken by 19th century philosopher George Santayana: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Or at least to make mistakes that rhyme with it.

Politics aside, Barack Obama seems destined to be listed among the sages of history in coming generations. Taking a cue from The Greats, he says, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”