The past is, indeed, a place in which to take refuge when it is necessary to pull back, to contemplate life, and to mull things over. The present is the phase for brisk deliberation, decision, and action; for being in that sleepwalking state in which we do, more or less surefootedly, the one thing needful just now. In visiting the past, whether in books or places, we get longer, more serene views.
Tonight I want to state, and even to overstate, what I believe to be a truth about the Program of St. John’s College. What makes the truth worth considering is that it goes against the plain appearances and against what people, quite understandably, say about us.
I want to state this truth especially for the freshmen, the newest members of the college, who might be surprised to hear it. And I want to overstate it, because a sharp finite pronouncement is probably the most productive prelude to the chief part of any Friday evening, which is the question period. It is then that I can modify, qualify, perhaps even retract what I am about to say. But before I state my truth, let me say something to the freshmen about all such opinions. Many of you have probably already guessed that this Program of learning is like an iceberg, which has a visible tip that swims along on a subaquatic mass nine times the size of the visible part. It is perfectly fine and profitable to attend entirely to the brilliant tip, to study the superlative books and acquire the liberal skills set out in the Program. But some of you will wish to dive from time to time into the murky depths, to inspect the contestable theory that supports the Program. The statement I am about to propose belongs to this netherworld.
I say that as students of the St. John’s Program, we have no interest in the Past. None. What I mean is that care for the past is not one of the features that makes this curriculum what it is meant to be. This school has no institutional interest in what has gone by and passed away. You might say that we let bygones be bygones. I assert this in the face of the obvious fact that almost all our books, scores, theorems, and experiments have authors that are, as human beings, long dead and gone.
When I say that we do not care about the past I am not particularly thinking of the fact that we do not study history as a field. After all, we do not study any of the other normal university disciplines either sociology, geology, psychology. We do read the two authors who are generally agreed to be the founders of history; however, it is not clear just how much interest these writers had in the past. Herodotus introduced the word history, historia, for his composition concerning the Persian War, but the Greek word means primarily an inquiry. It has the same origin as the verb for knowing: A histor is someone who knows, not necessarily things remote in time. Even when it is taken in the current sense, history has a relation to the past, which is anything but straightforward. After all, History with a capital H, that is, the public memory of events in the past, comes into being after history with a small h, the work of reconstructing the past, has been done. Some people go so far as to claim that historians, in telling their plausible and timely tales, do not reconstruct so much as construct the past, so that the past is an invention of the present. I might say that I cannot quite believe so extreme a claim because I know of some historians who are less truthful than others, and therefore of others who are more truthful in trying to determine the deeds done (these are called facts) and the times assigned to them (these are called dates). Facts and dates form, of course, the skeleton of history. I do believe that something definite in fact happened at a certain date, but I doubt that it is in principle or in practice possible to find out what that was, and I am pretty sure that it ought not to be our business here to learn what others thought happened nor to try to find out for ourselves. The reason is that the recovery of the past from its fragments is a practically infinite and intellectually tricky task, which requires a completed liberal education. In short, you learn to do it in graduate school.
Yet, as I said, the fact that we have no department of history, or that some of us have misgivings about the relation of history to the past that was (meaning the past that really was and is really gone), is not what makes me say that we have no interest in the past.
Nor could I possibly say that as private persons, many of us lack interest in the past. Many of us are ardent time-travelers. We like to go sight-seeing in temporally distant places. For example, in my free time I like to read about the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru. Part of that interest is, to be sure, intellectual and is closely connected to the fact that I function in a program that deals exclusively with the Euro-American West, so that any light that is thrown on this tradition immediately draws my attention. In the case of the Aztecs and the Incas, it is the evidently irresistible potency of the West, the power to conquer, to co-opt and to corrupt, that is sometimes luridly and sometimes tragically illuminated. I have in mind the awful fates of those two great kings: Montezuma of the Aztecs and Atahualpa the Inca. Both of them—canny, sophisticated potentates—gave themselves, like rabbits frozen in a trembling panic, into the treacherous hands of those two conquistadores Cortez and Pizarro, whose scruffy, diminutive bands had only a few horses, a few guns, limitless greed, and impregnable faith in the Cross, to oppose to the two huge magnificent royal armies. Naturally, I would like to know, if history can tell me, why the West always conquers and conquers so completely that all resistance assumes the means and terms of its enemy.
But learning lessons, if there are any, is not my best reason for reading books of history. Mostly I want to see new worlds. No city, except perhaps Athens, has a more beautiful past behind its ugly present than Mexico City. Bernal Diaz, the soldier-chronicler of the Conquest, who rode with Cortez, says this of ancient Mexico City, Tenochtitlan, set in a great lake covered with floating gardens:
When we saw so many cities and villages built in the waters of the lake and other large towns on dry land, and that straight, level causeway leading into Mexico City, we were amazed and we said that it was like the enchanted things related in the book of Amadis because of the huge towers, temples, and buildings rising from the water, and all of masonry. And some of the soldiers even asked whether the things we saw were not a dream…
The book of Amadis, Juniors will know, is the romance that inspired Don Quixote.
The hanging city of Machu Picchu, a fortified outpost of the Inca empire, rediscovered accidentally in 1911, also has a weird and wonderful beauty, which I simply have in my mental picture book of ancient marvels.
And that seems to me to be the main attraction of the past—that it adds worlds to my world, and bygone beauties to a present diminishing in beauty. It does so much as does fiction, only with the strangely moving modifier of real past existence. I read history dutifully for information, I consult historians somewhat skeptically for illumination, but I am in the past uncritically as in a romance, like Bernal Diaz when he saw Tenochtitlan. For the past is primarily a place (we will see that all talk of time is infected by spatial metaphor), a romantic place, as the present is prosaic and the future uncanny. Perhaps we can talk about this claim, that the past is the place of romance, in the question period.
This might be a proper spot to collect the reasons I can think of why anyone should, and why many of us do, care about the past, if not as students and tutors in the Program, then as human beings. For the two are not entirely coincident.
1. Well, then, I have just mentioned the romance of time travel. I am persuaded that all devoted archaeologists and historians begin as temporal romantics, though it is their professional obligation not to let on. When, some thirty-six years ago, I was a practicing archaeologist—which means someone who gives an account of very old things—I was not too young and naïve to gain pleasure from watching each of my revered elders in the excavation at Athens talking in carefully damped scholarly prose about the particular period for which I well knew each cherished a hopeless passion. It was like listening to a lover giving a disingenuously objective account of the one face about which that is really impossible.
2. A second reason why people do care about the past is, as I have already mentioned, that they hope to learn its lessons. Sometimes they mean to use the past to lay the past to rest, for it is said that those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat it. One book of essays we study, the Federalist Papers, is full of such a use of the past. The eighteenth paper, for example, written by James Madison, is a study of failed Greek confederations, intended by horrible counterexamples to point the way to a successful federal structure. In other words, the past can be used like our personal memory, as the depository of accumulated experience.
3. For some, the past is treasure trove and the way to it a treasure hunt. The origin of archaeology was largely in grave robbing and gold digging.
4. Eventually the passion for lost beauty and lost treasure turned into a sober science of carefully recorded digging below ground and meticulous mapping above ground. The passion of discovery and acquisition yielded to the more temperate but equally tenacious passion for detective-like induction, and for accuracy, cataloging, and tabulation.
As the past below the earth is carefully brought up and recorded, so the past above ground is carefully preserved and restored. Time reservations, such as Williamsburg, are established somewhat in the same spirit as that in which in Victorian times the woman of the house would maintain a “good” parlor—a place protected from the wear and tear of daily life.
Thus nostalgia is legitimized by academic discipline, and the past is preserved in a form more pristine than it had as a present.
5. A peculiarly contemporary way of dealing with the past is to put energy not into digging out the roots of the present, but into inventing them. Such inventions are plain lies, told by people, usually professors, who should and do know better, to people who have no way to be critical—told for dubiously therapeutic reasons. The people who participate in these self-deceptions tend to understand that the passage of time confers honor and that the past plays a role in establishing what is nowadays called “identity.”
6. On the opposite end, with respect to motive and honesty, is an academic way of occupying oneself with the past that is exemplary in its rigor. It is represented by the university discipline called “history of ideas.” Here, past and bygone notions evoke a meticulous reconstructive interest and are objectively reported as beliefs that used to be believed. I have always been puzzled by the strong attraction of so bloodless an activity.
7. A last, and to my mind best, way of having close relations to the past, which I have observed, is the way of revival, rebirth, recovery, and renascence. It is an act of pure imaginative vitality, of which the greatest historical example is the period called the Renaissance. Its mode, which can be reactivated anytime, and certainly right here and now, is to attempt to revivify a golden antiquity while succeeding in bringing to life a resonant modernity.
Each of these ways of being involved with the past has its dangerous and debilitating aspects. The romantic attachment to the past, which is called nostalgia, is a form of sentimentalism. The lessons of history teach everything and nothing. The earth’s treasures are no longer for the taking, and robbing graves is in most countries plainly illegal. The exact recording and reconstruction of the relics of lost worlds imposes an abstracted rigidity on the messy life that was. Self-invention with respect to the past is also self-delusion. The meticulous study of superseded opinions is even drearier than the trendy courting of current ones. There are two ways of mummifying the past: by not letting it die and by not letting it live.
On the other hand, to be disconnected from the past is also a pathology. A human being that lives merely in the present is less than Euclid’s point that has no parts—it is a dimensionless being that lacks even a location. For such a memoryless being has no path behind, no human lineage. It seems to me part of our human location in the world to feel sometimes some sorrow at all the worlds that are lost and gone, and some elation at all the civilizations to which we are heir. This function of pity and love for the sheer goneness and absence of previous worlds and people, a sense not so much of personal as of generic loss, seems to me a necessary part of one’s humanity.
Therefore, I do think we ought to be sometimes somewhat in love with what I shall call the past-perfect: the past that is finished, that has passed away.
I think the time has come to analyze more soberly what is implied in caring about that past-perfect, that finished past. In all such caring, this seems to me to be the essential element: The past is the temporally absent. As students are not usually marked absent from a class in which they have not been previously present, so absence in time implies an earlier presence. The future is not, to my mind, temporally absent, because it hasn’t yet been present. Therefore the essence of caring about the past-perfect is a relation, be it of love, hate, or fascinated indifference, to what was. “Was” is the past tense of “is.” “Was” is an “is” that is no more. (Let me interject here the thought that “no more” need not mean “nevermore,” for I am not at all sure that the adage about not turning the clock back is true. I think we can turn the clock back at a blink of the will. It is only a question of cost.)
“Temporal” as in “temporal absence” is the adjective formed from time. To think about the past it is thus necessary to think about time.
I have read an estimate of the number of publications concerning time: Since 1900, there have been 95,000 books, and since 1990 well over 90,000 articles. Of these writings, I’ve read perhaps forty-five, among them the eight or nine that seem to matter most. They do all, apparently, agree about this—that time has two major aspects: Now and Then. They also agree that Then in turn has two aspects: Before and After Now, or Past and Future. Beyond these three aspects or phases of time, Present, Past, and Future, everything is debatable. The Now presents a set of puzzles first set out by Plato in the dialogue Parmenides. The order of importance of the phases, the direction in which they advance, the substantiality of time itself, the relation of time to soul—these and many more issues are treated by Aristotle, Augustine, Plotinus, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. Most of these you will in fact read in the next four years. What I will say tonight will be almost culpably sketchy.
And first I have to observe once more, without stopping to dwell on the reason, that it is practically impossible to speak of time and its phases without using spatial metaphors. The past particularly is, in its very name, metaphorical, for “past” is related to “pace” or step, and to “passage” or a going by; past means, as I have said, bygone.
Let me now give you the features that I think of when I reflect on the meaning of the word “past.”
1. It is one of three times or phases of time “in” which an event can be. Notice the space-like location of events implied by the preposition “in.”
2. It is what was. Notice the apparently unavoidable contradiction of the tenses used in this description.
3. It is present for us in two ways, externally and internally. Notice that the past is present for us as memory (an insight I have borrowed from Augustine’s Confessions), and that memory has two storage spaces, so to speak. One is in our souls. It is described beautifully by Augustine as a “spacious and infinite inner sanctum.” (X, 8) A being without such an inner room is one for whom nothing has significant connotations or imaginative penumbras.
The other memory space is outside. It consists of all the testimonials, be they writings or objects, that have survived into our present as evidence of past life. As I have already said, it seems to me that a person who has no knowledge of these reminders of our human antecedents is an unanchored and untethered being.
4. My fourth and final feature of the past is the one I have just mentioned: The gravity of our attitude toward it, whether it is to be deliberate denial, laborious reconstruction, shameless invention, nostalgic luxuriating, or free appropriation. Notice the implication that our position with respect to the past is at some point a most deliberate Choice with wide consequences to our life.
I now feel entitled, and perhaps even obligated, to say outright how I think we should bear ourselves toward the past and how we should live with it.
There are past-related pathologies that seem to me particularly sick. One is the condition of those people, describable as galvanized zombies, who live in a frantic present without a moment’s collected contemplation. This mode is practically definitive of contemporary life. The other is the luxuriating nostalgia of Poe’s Raven, who croaks “Nevermore.” This mode is practically definitive of romanticism.
For my part, I think the past is, indeed, a place in which to take refuge when it is necessary to pull back, to contemplate life, and to mull things over. The present is the phase for brisk deliberation, decision, and action; for being in that sleepwalking state in which we do, more or less surefootedly, the one thing needful just now. In visiting the past, whether in books or places, we get longer, more serene views.
In the past too the open-ended passage of moments turns into completed tales, from anecdotes to myths.
In it, moreover, are to be found the models for our actions and the patterns for our demeanor, without which it is impossible to shape a distinctive self.
And finally the past is to be appreciated as a double source of dimensionality, a source of solidity and ghostliness at once. For, as I have already intimated, it is the past that adds a dimension to the here and now, which would otherwise be a mere momentary facade, a painted curtain stretched over nothingness, floating into a shapeless future. It is the past that gives this moving front of present appearances some sense of solidity, of having endured and being here to stay.
The ghostliness I have mentioned is really the same effect in a different mood. When I was in Japan, I saw in the enclosures of Buddhist temples trees with prayer strips affixed to the branches, fluttering in the wind. So also memories of the past attach themselves to places and flutter about them, giving them an attendant ghostly life. To be sure, not all locations are equally good ghost-catchers—for example, to my mind, this auditorium is not as good at it as our Great Hall over in McDowell.
Now I want to recall to you the claim that set me off, paradoxically, on this praise of the past. The claim is that whatever attachment we do and ought to have to the past privately, as students in the St. John’s Program we have none whatsoever. It is a claim I mean to argue even in the face of the fact that we study hardly any contemporary book or subject, and that almost everything we pay attention to is rather old—or as Francis Bacon says, very young, since the older a production is, the closer it is to the childhood of humanity.
To develop my opinion, I want to put before you, and to distinguish, three terms: They are History, Tradition, and Past. I don’t feel much obligation to define them here. When people say “Define your terms,” they usually mean to turn a conversation into a debate. But although I am putting forth my claim with a certain panache, I would like it to be the beginning of a conversation rather than an argument. So I shall offer a mere collection of the connotations that I personally intend, first putting some preliminary effort into distinguishing these terms.
I have already said something of the Past. The past, I say, is what is absent in time, bygone. It is a kind of folk wisdom that the past was, meaning that it is a bygone present, and that it is therefore in a way that neither the moving now nor the unhappened future is.
History, of which I have also spoken before, is the deliberate account given of selected past events or conditions by historians, whom we may call public memory-experts. History depends on the fact that human affairs assume distinct shapes, either as discrete notable events, like revolutions, or as continuous but noticeable conditions, like social movements. History with a capital H is reconstructed in histories with a lower-case h by means of written and tangible testimonials. The writing of history is therefore, as I said, a research activity, and its study from books requires the experience necessary for a critical review of the use to which the testimony is put. All writing of histories that I know of rests on the faith I have already mentioned: That human time on this earth organizes itself into discernible entities that have some relation of cause and effect. This fundamental axiom of all History is not stronger than a hypothesis because, since events are always demonstrably unique, no one is in a position to show for sure that a given outcome was lawfully caused by a given antecedent. You might call this historian’s faith a post hoc, ergo propter hoc disposition. This Latin tag means: “After the event and therefore because of it,” and we all tend to believe it. I’ll give you two personal examples: I ardently believe that I could be born in Europe only because Leonidas and his three-hundred Spartan held Thermopylae for a while against the Persians, and I ardently believe that I could flourish in America only because Abraham Lincoln was president when the Union was threatened. But who could prove that?
The deeds that make up History are alive insofar as we feel their effects reaching into the present and dead insofar as the sheer increasing weight of intervening human moments push them into the ineffective distance. Since the fall of Troy in 1183 B.C., 100,189,872,000 seconds have gone by—and anyone who has ever had a sharp pain or keen sorrow knows what a second is, each an eternal moment. Most of History is truly gone by, only dimly and diffusely related to our lives. The historical past is prologue but not present.
So we are left with the third term, Tradition. The word literally means a “handing down” of the past to the present. Often it means ritual that has been taken over and respected because it has long been established; thus, Shakespeare speaks of “respect, tradition, form and ceremonious duty” (Richard II, III, ii. 173). There is, however, another strong and significant usage. The word is often used of the literary and textual tradition, the set of books that have survived because people have respected and protected them and have handed them down, mostly in those book-reservations called libraries. This tradition includes only a small part of the writings of the past. We can hope that it is an advantageously sifted past, and that the best books are the ones that survived, but we cannot be sure. For example, of Sophocles’ 123 dramas only seven are extant, one eighteenth of the output of Athens’s central tragedian. From the vicissitudes of war, like the-allegedly-accidental burning of the huge library at Alexandria during Caesar’s siege of the city in 48 B.C., to the deliberate torching of books conducted by the Nazis in Berlin in 1933, from the mildew of forgotten trunks to the acid burn that is eating up old books in contemporary libraries, circumstance has played a large role in the selection of the written tradition, since it is handed down physically. That we are lucky both in the losses and in the survivals, that what survives is both the best and somehow coherent, is a faith, a reasonable faith we have in the discrimination and care of our predecessors. In sum, we believe that the past has preserved for us plenty of great books, and they seem to speak to each other.
How does this tradition of texts, be it texts of words, or mathematical symbols, or musical notes, differ from the other remains of the past?
Let me use as an example our own McDowell Hall, the pride of the Annapolis campus. Our Director of Admissions, John Christensen, probably the faculty member best known to the freshmen, has put together a handsome and informative volume about this “historical” building.
McDowell was begun in the 1740s and by 1799 it housed all the functions of St. John’s College, which had been chartered in 1784. In 1909 it was burned down to just above the first story. The then-principal, Dr. Fell, wrote that the students “ruined their suits of clothing to save the building and its contents.” This dreadful catastrophe inspired some dreadful student poetry about old McDowell, who, it was written in the yearbook, “has perished in the flame… and she’s nought now but a name.” Which was as wrong as the poem was bad, because she rose, like a phoenix from the ashes, to be continually used as our main building. In 1989 McDowell was again gutted, this time for a deliberate and beautiful renovation and modernization.
Here is the contrast between our building and our books, the contrast that is relevant to my point: We can modernize old buildings, install new operational systems, modify unsafe or inconvenient features; we cannot do that to our books. Modern paraphrases or bowdlerized versions will not give us new improved up-to-standard texts, but travesties. Secondly, we can live comfortably and purposefully in our building without understanding it, or with only a dim sense of aesthetic satisfaction, yet without knowing the underlying construction or even seeing the elegantly rational hierarchy of its elevation. But we can’t live with our books unconsciously. Everything depends on maximum awareness of detail, structure, purpose. A dim sense of a great text is almost a contradiction in terms.
Therefore, the books of the past differ from the buildings of the past in the manner of their renovation—the renewal of the books excludes comfortable remodeling and trouble-free use. We have to do it their way. They would seem to impose their past on us.
But actually the case is just the opposite. Because we have to engage the books of the tradition as they are and with all our available awareness, they are not in the past, but in the present. There are not, except in incidentals, bygone. What they say to us is what they have always said, and they say it now and always now.
There is the simple past, the once-and-for-all past, which is absent except in memory or in monuments. But there is also a past which may be named after the grammatical tense from which I took my title: past-present. It is a nice fact that there are certain verbs in English as well as in Greek that display this past-presence dramatically. The English “can” as in “I can” is actually a past form of a verb meaning to know, as in “cunning,” or German, kennen. Past knowing is present power; to have learned is to be now able. Similarly, the Greek verb for “I know,” oida, is a past form of the verb for seeing; to have seen is now to know. That is what the grammarians call the past-present. It brings a past form into the present tense.
The tradition, as I understand it, does the same. It presents a past that is not absent but present—if we let it be. I can think of a powerful image for what I mean. When Odysseus goes into the underworld, the diaphanous shades flutter about him and cannot attain to living presence until he lets then drink from the pit of sacrificial blood. (Book XI) The books are, with our encouragement, capable of taking life.
To understand the tradition of books consciously as I have delineated it, you have to be willing to entertain a very powerful—and very controversial—set of beliefs. There is, I hasten to add once again, also the possibility of just reading the books receptively. It is perfectly profitable, and even sound, for students to read thoughtfully without reflecting very often on the conditions for reading. But you might want to consider them sometimes, so here are the beliefs that I think support the idea of the tradition as a past-present.
First: I think that, in order to believe that there is a past that is present, you have to believe in the unity of literate humanity. You have to imagine the thinking and writing human species as living below the threshold of natural evolution and also as standing in some part outside the vicissitudes of history. For example, I believe that a certain young man called Glaucon, one of Plato’s older brothers, if he were present tonight, might be puzzled and disgusted to see a female in unbecoming dress address the public and utter decided opinions. But although he might not get over the indecency of it in one lifetime, I believe this time-immigrant would undergo the same naturalization as does a contemporary space-immigrant. He would pick up our customs and prejudices and begin to be involved with us. He might even enroll in the Graduate Institute. His intellect would be engaged even if his sensibilities continued to be outraged. My guess is, he would imperceptibly become acclimatized until he loved this place better than that time and could bear to return to Athens only in the manner of a loquaciously superior tourist, as happens to most of us immigrants when we try to go “home.”
So much the more readily would his quicker and deeper younger brother be naturalized, especially since he would already have understood, and as I think, respected, democratic life. For he had observed that the kind of free discussion concerning the choice of a way of life and of a political constitution that his Socrates carries on, happens naturally in democracies. (Republic VIII, 557) So conversely, since we can readily imagine him thinking with us, we can pick up his writings and think with him. For these writings are meant to be ahistorical in the sense that we can, in imagination, discount historical circumstance. Of course old books will refer to past prejudices and preoccupations, but we, by trying to understand what it means to be prejudiced and preoccupied, will soon learn to read around what is simply past in old books.
Second: A closely related belief maintains that we have not only been the same rational species throughout recorded time, but that we do, in fact, have the same preoccupations, the same questions as even our remotest ancestors, provided only the level of formulation is deep enough. We must feel a little queasy at the sanctimonious superiority with which people who think they preeminently inhabit the present condemn the opinions of people who lived in the past. But let me choose items on which positive contemporary opinion probably really is on safer moral ground, say, the position of women, the exposure of children, the owning of human chattel. We do, whatever our local conclusions may be, at the least share the questions (perennial questions, as they are rightly called) concerning human equality, the right to life of the very young, the inalienable freedom of individuals. These problems you will recognize as not dated at all.
But the argument that we are, at least in our questions, alike through time, could be turned against the tradition. If at a level properly established nothing changes, neither human nature nor human preoccupations, why bother with older, less accessible versions? If concerns are perennial, why not seize hold of them in the present form?
Third: Yet two additional beliefs address this reasonable point. One is the belief born of experience, which I for one hold with equal amazement and fervor, that there is a palpable distinction between good and great. Good books are written all the time and they lean in friendly fellowship on their great relatives. But those great ones are few and far between. There seem to be times, to be sure, when they are bunched together. It is probably that inexplicable fact, that miracle of history, that makes us think of centuries as if they were breeding grounds: the fifth century B.C. for Parmenides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Plato; the sixteenth century for Luther, Bacon, Shakespeare, Galileo. But however they seem to be bunched or strung out on the tablets of time, these writers are rare and—I will say this most controversial thing—absolutely great. As you know, this faculty, your tutors, claims for itself—some might say arrogates to itself—the judgment and the choice of books. We have many gross and subtle criteria, which we might wish to discuss in the question period. The first one for me was formulated by the teacher who introduced me to Homer and won me for Classics, back in Brooklyn College in 1950. I recall a student asking her in a bright and impertinent tone—we were a bright and impertinent lot—what made her know a great book, and she said in the throwaway voice of utter conviction: “It makes my hair stand on end.”
One answer, therefore, to the desirability of taking up books ostensibly written in the past is that the tradition is a very slowly filling treasury. We are too poor in the present to be able to afford the loss of this inheritance.
Fourth: But one more belief, complementary and even antithetical, is needed. When the past is regarded as presenting unique and irreplaceable treasures to the present, one dimension of human thinking and imagining is disregarded. We live, as I said before, at the front of a facade of time, a facade propped up and given solidity by the past behind it. It is not that we need to think of the past as determining our thinking. Thought is, by its nature, capable of thinking anything at any time. Yet it is a fact, perhaps a paradoxical fact, that we live with inherited opinions. It is a paradoxical fact because most opinions are held thoughtlessly; they are unthought thoughts. It is a very different thing to inherit a book and to inherit an opinion, not only because the books reach much farther back than the opinions, but because the books become ours only by an effort of appropriation, while the opinions are what we effortlessly just have. They are part of that ever-advancing, ever-changing facade called the present. There is no denying that the facade progresses, not necessarily in the optimist’s sense of getting better, but in the neutral sense of going on. For while the questions may stay recognizably similar, the answers change drastically, by creeping evolution or abrupt revolution. Yet it seems that the more radical a new departure in thought is intended to be, the more it is shaped by its origin, be it through the precise contradiction involved in a sharp rejection, through the careful reconstruction required by a conscious recovery, or through the conversational continuity encouraged by a receptive response.
It follows that the tradition, as I understand it, is for us not only a treasure house for any time but also a key to our specific present condition, to our understanding of private and public humanity, of nature and of divinity. One way or the other—as suppressed antithesis, as deliberate reacquisition, or as conversational partner—it props up our present, and on our knowledge of it depends our critical appreciation of our time.
I speak of time, but, really, time, datable time, has little to do with it. I can think of several ancient authors who are nearly two millennia away from us in time, but two seconds away from us in thought—two seconds being what it takes to conceive a tremendously new idea. The order in which these authors appear probably matters but not the date of their birth, just as in our thinking the sequence of conception, the genesis of understanding, is significant, but very rarely the exact time.
This notion of mine, that order matters but not dates, is, I must tell you, pagan; in fact, it seems to me to be the gist of Paganism. It is therefore highly debatable, and I hope we will talk about it in the question period.
In any case, the point I want this notion to reinforce is that absorbing the tradition is not the same as studying history or caring about the past. For we study these books not insofar as they tell us of bygone times but because they tell us of the present. They are not absent in time, as is, the past, but present (and perhaps even out of time altogether). They are the past insofar as it is present; they are effectively present; they are in the terms of the title of my lecture, the PAST-PRESENT.
But that is not quite the last word. The books of the tradition, our books, become present, as I have said, only when we let them. We revivify them and make them vital. Therefore they stand by us and speak as does that shade in Hades whom Odysseus calls “the prince of those with gift of speech.” It is the seer Tiresias, and he pleads:
Let me but taste of blood, I shall speak true.
(Odyssey XI, 96, Fitzgerald)
This essay was originally published here in August 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was originally presented as a lecture at St. John’s College in Annapolis in 1994 and appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 43, No. 2, 1996).
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The featured image is “Personification of Time in a flower garland” (1650) by Carstian Luyckx (1623–after 1657), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.