Just a day before the inaugural of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (PBBM), I moderated a discussion organized by the embassies of France and the Czech Republic at the Alliance Francaise de Manille, with no less than Ambassadors Michéle Boccoz of France and Jana Sediva-Treybalova of the Czech Republic at the helm of the preparations to mark the turnover of the presidency of the Council of the European Union from the French to the Czechs.
Entitled “The Unbearable Lightness of European History: Czech-French Author Milan Kundera on the Trauma of Foreign Invasion,” the roundtable discussion featured Czech socialist-era expert Adéla Gjuričová, French foreign policy specialist Nicolas Tenzer, and multi-awarded Filipino fictionist, essayist, and literary editor Sarge Lacuesta.
It was premised on Kundera’s exploration of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s take on “Eternal Return,” the theory dating back to the pre-Socratic Greeks that “every event in the universe, in all its details and in its whole cosmic context, will recur an infinite number of times in exactly the same way that it has already occurred an infinite number of times in the past.”
There’s no argument better to illustrate the idea of “eternal return” than the morning of Feb. 24, 2022 when Vladimir Putin launched a special military operation to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine, sending a series of missile attacks across Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv, followed by a large ground invasion from multiple directions.
The incident has happened before, particularly on Aug. 21, 1968, when Soviet tanks, accompanied by half a million Warsaw Pact troops, rolled through the streets of Prague to crush what history calls the Prague Spring, a brief period of political reforms, including a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech, and travel, in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.
And yet, although we broached a wide range of topics, from the role of language in the face of foreign aggressions to the meaning of good and evil in politics, we didn’t quite mention a repeat of history unfolding right before us—the inauguration of PBBM as the 17th President of the Philippines scheduled the very next day, June 30, 2022, to reprise a similar event 56 years before, the inauguration of his father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., as the 10th on Dec. 30, 1965, although the former was held at the National Museum of the Philippines while the latter was held about 500 meters away, at the Quirino Grandstand.
I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. —Friedrich Nietzsche
We’re no strangers to history repeating itself—On Dec. 20, 1987, the ferry MV Doña Paz, departing Tacloban for Manila with over 4,000 passengers (it was built only for 1,400), sank in the Tablas Strait after colliding with an oil tanker. Considered the worst peacetime maritime disaster, it was, according to the National Geographic, Asia’s Titanic, referring to the sinking of the “unsinkable” ship on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City on April 15, 1912. The repeat, as it turned out, was three times worse, as the death toll of the Titanic was only between 1,503 and 1,517 based on differing US and UK estimates compared to the estimated total of 4,386 who perished in the Doña Paz disaster.
But history repeating itself is not always a bad thing. In some cases, it’s a matter of the past setting an example.
Manuel L. Quezon’s “open door policy” that saved 1,300 Jews from persecution and death in the hands of Nazi Germany between 1937 and 1941, for example, must have inspired our willingness to provide the same refuge to the Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the late 1970s.
Now, amid the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, the Philippines has kept its doors open. “In keeping with its long tradition of providing humanitarian assistance, the Philippines stands ready to welcome Ukrainians seeking refuge from the war in their country,” said the Department of Foreign Affairs, led by then secretary Teddy Boy Locsin, in April.
If history must repeat itself under PBBM, we can maybe pray for a reprise of his father’s greatest achievements in, say, infrastructure development, which improved the road network from 55,778 kilometers in 1965 to 77,950 in 1970 to 161,000 kilometers in 1985.
In a discussion paper published in 2002, “Notes on Infrastructure: Then, Now, and Tomorrow,” referring to a summary of roadbuilding efforts during the terms of Philippine presidents from 1977 to 2002—Ferdinand Marcos Sr., Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, and Joseph Estrada—made by Dr. Gilbert Llanto, then deputy director general of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), its author Gerardo P. Sicat wrote, “The tables are an eye-opener… especially for the many who have had amnesia about the past before the time of Mrs. Aquino’s presidency. Most infrastructure investments in the past have been made during the time of Marcos. This extends from roadbuilding and bridge building to airport construction, irrigation expansion, and rural electrification.”
Like his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, PBBM must also pay special attention to education, which is maybe why he appointed no less than Vice President Sara Duterte to the post. His father allotted the biggest portion of the budget to education, which resulted in the literacy rate rising from 72 percent in 1965 to 93 percent in 1985. Such a dramatic climb bears repeating, so does the so-called “edifice complex,” a brutalist expression of ego, grandiosity, and naked or “Imeldific” ambition associated with his mother Imelda Marcos, which in the end resulted in buildings that continue to serve us to this day—the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Philippine Heart Center, the Lung Center of the Philippines, San Juanico Bridge, the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, and the Philippine International Convention Center.
In The Gay Science, one of his most personal works, Nietzsche wrote, “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence…’”
At a glance, if true, it might bring you great despair, but if you read further, you’ll see that what Nietzsche presents here isn’t the truth, but the opportunity to see how we would respond if it were true, and an invitation to want this life despite all its pain and emptiness and tragedies and sorrow in an eternal loop.
This is the true test of amor fati (love of one’s fate), Nietzsche’s formula for greatness in a human being, which he explains as “…that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
I was going to mouth the words of Winston Churchill and say, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but I think it’s too preachy.