I Study The Past So I Can Repeat It

Jan 8, 2019

Why study the past? Be careful about asking your students this question too early in the morning, for the answer might make you morose all day. Even at a classical school, someone will probably reply, “Because those who don’t study the past are condemned to repeat it,” and at least half the class will nod sagely. Even a few members of the faculty—at a classical school, nonetheless— are likely to give an appreciative murmur.

The idea that the past is a thing which men are “condemned to repeat” is just about as progressive and atheistic as it gets. For the typical Roman, Greek, or Hebrew, the past was a thing to restore, because long ago, men walked with the gods. During the 17th and 18th century, however, the growing desire for a godless government prompted political philosophers to draft new mythologies for explaining society, and thus Hobbes or Rousseau’s “state of nature” became the canvas upon which later thinkers would sketch their political ideas. Unlike the Greeks and Hebrews, Enlightened thinkers denied that men formerly communed with the gods, and claimed, instead, that the past was brutal, primitive, and that there were simply no gods with whom men could walk. Government was an invention of man, and prior to government, the life of man was wild, chaotic, and violent. Before the Enlightenment, there is very little which resembles “the cave man” in Western thought, though the cave man is an obvious necessity of the Enlightened view of history. If things were very terrible in the past, then the paltry accomplishments of the Enlightenment seem far more impressive.  Out of such prejudices, the atheist philosopher George Santayana coined the proverb, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As a classicist, however, I do not study the past that I might run from it. I study the past in order to repeat it. Those who study the past that they might not repeat it are condemned to live meaningless lives, for they have tacitly admitted to their children that their own lives are not worthy of emulation; parents are, after all, people from the past. Santayana’s claim is obviously self-defeating, to boot, for the maxim itself is now from the past— 1905 to be exact. If it is true that we should not repeat the past, then we should not repeat Santayana’s claim, and if his claim is false, neither should we repeat it.

So much discussion of the past is bound to raise a certain objection which has unfortunately accrued significant purchasing power in classical circles. “The past is all well and good, but we must be careful not to idolize the past.” Rather, we must carefully and meticulously examine everything from the past, keeping what is good and dismissing what is bad. While this sounds reasonable enough, I would like to know where the standard for evaluating the past came from. Does the standard for evaluating the past not also come from the past, or did we invent our standards yesterday? And what standard should we use to evaluate our standard for the past?

Some will say that the Bible is our standard for evaluating the past, however, the Bible is not an abstract criterion, but a book from which different church traditions derive their separate aesthetic, theological, and moral criteria for life and worship. Christ rather plainly tells His followers they should “call no man on earth ‘father’,” (Mt. 23:9) and yet every sane Christian refers to the fellow who sired him as “father.” By what standard should we judge a man’s interpretation of Matthew 23:9, then? Two Christians in the midst of a theological argument are forever responding to one another’s prooftexts with, “I don’t think that verse means what it seems to say,” which simply means that every ecclesial tradition proffers a distinct way of reading the Bible. The New Testament is quite full of straightforward-sounding claims which are anything but, like Christ’s instruction to “pluck out your eye” if it causes you to sin, “cut off your hand” if it causes you to sin, and “give to whoever asks anything of you” and not expect anything in return. All the Christians I have met who blithely claimed they “simply did whatever the Bible commands” had two eyes, two hands, and little understanding of hermeneutics. It is not possible to read the Bible without reading it in a certain way and our ways of reading Scripture are derived from longstanding traditions. In the same manner, it is not possible to evaluate the past without evaluating it in a very particular way. The idea that we should judge traditions according to certain standards assumes that our standards sprang fully-formed from the mind of Zeus yesterday. In fact, standards develop no less slowly than the past itself.  

In this day and age, the danger of “idolizing the past” is a good bit like the danger of “works righteousness,” which is to say it is not much of a danger at all. Given the profound sloth, laziness, boredom, and ennui of the average American, we are flattering ourselves to pretend “works righteousness” is a sin to which we are actually tempted. Further, the omnipresence of banal, sensual, ephemeral popular culture has placed the possibility of idolizing the past on a very long hiatus. If this nation began making a conscious effort to worship the past, I suspect it would take all of us— working around the clock— more than fifty years of robust and tireless idol-making before a single instance of genuinely blasphemous love for the past was truly possible. We loathe the past. Even conservative Christians loathe the past. Spend an hour in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and you will see that fewer than one in a thousand self-professed conservatives alive today have the respect for custom or tradition which served as the ante for conservative political philosophy at the end of the 19th century. The average modern “conservative” has more in common with Rachel Maddow than Edmund Burke.

Our distaste for the past is well-disguised by claims about the need to scrutinize the past, although I find it remarkable just how little respect for the past must be shown before warnings against idolizing the past are issued. The slightest fond nostalgia, the smallest deference for older manners, a trivial preference for older films, and someone will begin reciting a very tired list of our grandparents’ sins. I am no mathematician, but I would wager the love and devotion which must be shown for tradition so as to prompt cautions against “idolizing the past” is roughly one-millionth the love and devotion which must be shown to a college football team. A great many American Christians think missing church for sports-related reasons is justifiable. However, opposing cremation merely because St. Augustine opposed it is suspect. If we were as concerned about not idolizing our fathers as we are about not idolizing our great-grandfathers, no living dad would receive so much as a birthday card from his children, but a slap in the face and a zeitgeisty lecture about race and gender. One really must wonder why the author of Hebrews, in the famous eleventh chapter, does not take Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, and David to task for their sins, but simply uses them all as positive examples of faith, worthy of imitation.

The expression “idolize the past” is so common that it regularly passes without explanation and, ironically enough, without scrutiny. The Pharisees are often accused of being “traditionalists,” though the word is a neologism popularized after the Enlightenment. By modern standards, every human prior to the 16th century was a “traditionalist.” Christ was not vexed by the Pharisees' aptness to keep an ancient law, but in their unwillingness to keep the weightier aspects of an ancient law. The problem with the Pharisees was no more traditionalism than it was progressivism, neither of which existed in the first century.    

While there is little temptation today to idolize the past, there is a great temptation to idolize Not Idolizing The Past. Not Idolizing The Past is a great god to whom we daily sacrifice good taste and common sense. This god does not ask his devotees to worship tradition or custom, but their own ability to judge tradition and custom; his disciples do not put their faith in the past, but they do put their faith in Not Putting Their Faith In The Past. They do not worship anything transcendent, sublime, or ineffable, but something small, governable, and quite plastic, for a man might change his mind often, but he cannot change the past. A man cannot make venerable traditions materialize from thin air, but he can snap his fingers and create new loyalties, new interpretations, and new creeds. Not Idolizing The Past is a god who gives us what we most want— control, or the illusion of it. Few men believe at 40 what they believe at the age of 20, nonetheless, Not Idolizing The Past can be served at both points in a man’s life if he simply refuses to acknowledge that anyone can claim his loyalty, especially no one dead.

Not Idolizing The Past is a protean god who assumes many forms. When a man is young, Not Idolizing The Past allows him to dismiss the profundity of the Church Fathers with a flick of the wrist, and when that same young man reaches maturity, Not Idolizing The Past allows him to pick and choose what of the Church Fathers he would like to use to condemn the raucous young bucks. Not Idolizing The Past is a gracious god who gives his worshippers a line-item veto. He allows a man to borrow from patristic methods of biblical interpretation, if it suits him, but also to condemn the Fathers as necromancers, if need be. Or, his votaries are free to use the Church Fathers as socialists if they like, or as advocates of male hegemony. Not Idolizing The Past formerly worked with the left only, but he has become an equal opportunity god in the last fifty years.  

I will gladly grant that “the past” is not one thing, and neither is “the past” in perfect agreement with itself. Burke comes from the past, but so does Rousseau, and the former could not stand the latter. “The past” is not a solid object, not a smooth black monolith lately appearing on the veldt. Nonetheless, as I have noted before, “the past” has a very particular meaning when referenced in classical circles. “The past” is not any old thing which happened to exist a long time ago, but a byword for longstanding traditions which have survived the gauntlet of time, traditions which have been vetted over the centuries by many kinds of people.

To assume traditional things are better than new things, and to live as such, is not merely a philosophical conviction. It is a way of life. The uncritical veneration of traditional things makes it possible to get dressed and go to work in the morning. If a man truly lived as a chronological egalitarian, he would spend his life questioning everything: why men sleep on beds, why men wear pants, why doors are shaped like rectangles, why we use forks, why we sit on couches, why green means “go” and red means “stop.” If a man really believes the past should only be accepted after scrutiny, he should begin with the past as it most directly touches him— namely, all his daily habits, all the habits of Western people which make it possible to get to work. If the way things have been is of no greater value than the way things could be, then no cultural institution should be accepted without criticism. A man would need to hear both sides of every issue, from infant baptism to buttoning a shirt or blowing his nose. When I write of “cultural institutions,” I am not merely speaking of massive cultural institutions, like Church and State. The way we dress is a cultural institution, but so is the sheer fact that we dress at all. Traditions are not curios we encounter on strange occasions. We live and move and have our being in tradition.

While it would not be unfair to say that classicists study the past, our study of the past is an accident of studying virtue. The classicist doubts himself, assumes tradition is right, and finds moral, ethical, and theological discoveries pointless. Much of what counted as old-fashioned and stodgy in the 1970s so far as sexual ethics were concerned has become fashionable and progressive once again in recent months. Perhaps we will double back around and, sometime soon, lawful sexual contact will once again depend on court documents. Perhaps some theologian will write a groundbreaking work on the book of Revelation and spark a wildly popular new eschatology which marries the hopefulness of postmillennialism with a mid-century modern aesthetic. Perhaps a new kind of franchised church will restore the liturgical predictability enjoyed in the West after the Gregorian reforms, albeit with stylish Emergent worship bands and locally-sourced, small batch eucharists. Who can say what daft new twists on old-favorites will distract and charm us in 2019?

Who knows? Who cares?

Not the past.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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