General Amnesia: On History and Intellectual Myopia
A few weeks ago I have overheard a conversation between two co-workers. They sat at some distance from me and I didn’t catch the whole thing, nor was I inclined in any way to join in. The summary and essence of what was being discussed is this: is there any reason to study history (especially in school, from what I gathered, but also in general)?
The argument one of them was making is that there is no reason to study history, because what good does it do to study a history full of atrocities? Furthermore, what’s done is done, we’ve moved on so let’s just forget the whole thing and focus on the future. In the end, the same person proposed that a new subject should be introduced in school, namely “The future of mankind” (as opposed to the history of mankind). The other person struggled to find counterarguments – sensing that something was wrong – but couldn’t bring anything decisive – from what I could hear, at least.
I use this somewhat trivial event as a starting point for something very ubiquitous in our present environment, especially among the younger generations (the younger the merrier for that matter) – that is a complete ignorance of- and lack of interest in history.
Of course, some will point out that this is globalist sponsored propaganda and that there is an active drive initiated from above to eliminate history as much as possible from schools or, at least, to subvert it into a mere extension of said globalist propaganda – that is seeing the past through the lenses of various globalist ideologies – such as political correctness and so on; 1984 and Brave New World would immediately be pointed to.
This is not untrue and we have recently witnessed such attempts in the Romanian public education system (which is already dead for some time, but has been left unburied for some reason to rot in broad daylight, for the whole world to see), but this cannot be the whole story. Indeed, Romania is not yet as advanced as the West in the implementing of PC ideology across a broad spectrum of society. Plus, that colleague which I spoke about does not seem like some kind of participant in NGOs or particularly interested in contemporary politics and ideologies. Rather, as it seemed to me, all this talk was something natural for him, an idea he honestly thinks makes perfect sense and – in his eyes, at least – a personal idea and not one copied from some external source.
In other words, even though from the advent of modernity the elimination of the past has been one of the main objectives of radical revolutionaries, it seems that such a mentality has now penetrated to the level of the average public and has become one of those ideas that are part of the contemporary Zeitgeist, and which many people now are beginning to take for granted – a state which could not have been brought about by propaganda alone.
Indeed, even if this propaganda is something real and documented (from the times of the French revolution onward), we should really ask ourselves as Rene Guenon did somewhere in his Reign of Quantity: could even the most effective mass propaganda have any success at the level of the general public if it weren’t for the fact that there is some fertile ground for the spreading of such ideas, both in the individual and the collective psyche in the world today?
Before exploring the ideas above, we’ll take a brief look at what brought us to this point.
The causes for this state of affairs are multiple, but all of them can be traced back to some common, usually unconscious, assumptions about the world and life; we will just enumerate a few of them, without going into a deep analysis of each.
First and foremost is the lie – the false god, even – of progress (or evolution, if you will). This is, one could say, the golden calf of modernity – the idol which no one must dare to question. This rotten ideology is at the heart of the modern project and everything linked to it. Having been disseminated to the general public through all sorts of means for a few centuries now- even providing it with a pseudo-scientific garment in what is known as “the theory of evolution”, where scientific facts are intertwined with pseudo-metaphysics- it is inevitable that people have come to consider it natural to regard whatever is new as better or “the best” which has ever existed until now and which, in turn, will come to be made obsolete by what is going to come in the future which will take its place as the new “best” and so on indefinitely.
What this does is it condemns those infected by such a mentality to a state of inescapable provincialism – and modernity is, indeed, an extreme provincialism – an irony, considering the superabundance of information from all eras of history which is literally at our fingertips. To cut a long story short, let’s use a simple image: put an ancient Greek philosopher, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, A Taoist and a modern progressivist at the same table and let them have a conversation about life, the world, man’s place in it etc. With the exception of the last, all will be able to find some common ground, despite important – sometimes radical – differences as regards the ultimate truths. The progressivist completely infused with this modernistic outlook is the only one who will not be able to participate, nor to understand anything of the conversation taking place. Even if he has knowledge of all those religions enumerated above, this knowledge will only be exterior and he will only approach them through his own distorted lenses. This incapability of participating in the conversation is, in his eyes, a sign of superiority and not a tragedy of extreme proportions, as it is in reality. As Richard Weaver remarks in his Ideas Have Consequences: it is perfectly plausible that, in the past, people who have lived several centuries apart would have managed to understand each-other, even if with difficulty, but in our day and age there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between the father and the son.
A second cause is, of course, the hedonistic world-view which is itself part and parcel of the atomised, nihilistic existence of contemporary man. In an environment where the conversation is reduced to the question of “rights” and what I am entitled to, there is no catalyst to go anywhere beyond the most banal and mundane. Hence, education will naturally be mutilated in order not to interfere with the above mentioned hedonism. As Polish philosopher and former minister of education, Ryszard Legutko (I don’t know the man, but much of what he says here is true), remarked in an interview for a Romanian newspaper, it is typical in a liberal democracy that everyone – kids and parents alike – will want to seek the most simplistic education possible. I translate:
“The problem is that in all liberal democracies there is a strong aversion against a quality education. Parents, kids and teachers share the common desire to have a simple, not exigent, education – and practical. Parents want good marks for their kids, not a good education. Latin, Greek, mathematics and all these important subjects are considered to the causes of unnecessary headaches. From this point of view, we can say that liberal democracy is inherently in favour of imbecility. People console themselves with the idea that the system has invented specialization, which led to a remarkable advance in science. It is true that we have wonderful specialists who discover and invent wonderful things, but we are, at the same time, weaker and weaker intellectually and it does not bother us that we are becoming stupid. Let’s imagine what would happen if classical languages and more advanced mathematics would be introduced in the general curriculum. Parents and children will start street protests.”
Legutko on Postmodern democracy as a form of Communism
So, while it is true that in a globalist and corporate world, the elites indeed seek that the generations become increasingly stupid and narrow minded, it is equally true that the people themselves desire this. They themselves are indifferent to anything outside their narrow circle of individual desires and interests and don’t mind being completely clueless about anything which is beyond the confines of the ego.
Very close to this second reason is the general relativism which, as stated elsewhere is now regarded as a “common sense” idea, while any claim that there is a Truth with a capital “T” and that it is possible to partake in it is either a sign of fundamentalism, extreme arrogance or even madness. As such, why beat your head with problems which have no solution anyway?
The radical advance of technology also serves to obfuscate the fact that the fundamental problems of each individual person as well as of humanity as a whole remain firmly in place as they always did; the contemporary lifestyle may bring about unique manifestations and problems, but they are never anything other than outgrowths which have the same causes as have always existed. The roots are just ignored and people falsely believe that, through outer material advances, they have been surpassed and eliminated, but this is a deadly delusion.
“Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.”
History, resentment and healing
Let us now get back to the starting point. Of all said by my colleague, what seems to me truly worth exploring is the statement that history is worthless, because it is full of atrocities and there is no use studying that.
The first counter-argument, of course, would be that history is not only about atrocities, it is also about good and noble things and persons. History is painted both in white and in black – or rather these two combined in forming various shades – some brighter and some darker. If one chooses to focus only on what is dark, that’s his problem, but to generalize and say that the whole of history is only about this is pure post-modern cynicism.
The second thing to bring to the table is this: no matter how much you may despise the past and history, they are within you and part of you. Only in the fantasies of late adolescence does one sincerely believe that what’s done is done and is in the past and he has “evolved” and left it all behind, being a completely original individual, with no connection to his place of birth or his family or his nation’s history.
The third thing to consider is that the most elaborate and systematic atrocities have been committed precisely by those whose sole objective was to create what they considered as “the new man”. In the French and Bolshevik Revolutions (we can easily add National-Socialism to this list, though their angle was somewhat different than the first two – not outright destruction, but hijacking and subversion) the main drive behind the revolutionary insanity was the erasing of the past, its reduction to rubble in order to construct a so-called new humanity from this very rubble.
So whoever thinks like this is in very bad company if past atrocities are what bothers him about history.
The fourth argument is the most decisive and important.
Let’s just take a radical example: ex-Yugoslavia. Wouldn’t it be so much better – one could ask – if the people who are part of these countries just stopped caring about the past and just move on in complete indifference of what went on some decades ago – and much earlier than that as well? Surely, the argument would go, if people would just stop caring about all these complicated things and just gathered around smoking pot at music festivals and retain nothing of their own culture and traditions – except perhaps local foods and bad imitations of traditional clothing – would make a much better future than remembering and fuelling up resentment which would lead to a re-opening of wounds and another bloody war and so on.
A rootless, atomised and indifferent hedonist will not think of murdering anybody and no matter how superficial this lifestyle is – even dehumanizing one could say – surely it is better than mass-graves and destruction, right?
In order to understand what’s wrong with this line of reasoning, we should look at it from multiple angles.
First of all we will say that, as always, the subject of life is the person, not some abstract “system”; as such, absolutely no apparent social benefit can compensate for a meaningless life, lived in an enslavement to futility. In this sense, there is a saying that he who tries to heal completely heals to the death. No life – no problem; and, indeed, in a technocratic system combined with absolute individualistic hedonism in the private sphere, there is absolutely no true life.
Secondly, the causes for any bloodshed in history are not to be found anywhere else except in the soul of each person. Large scale violence is a magnifying of smaller scale violence which, itself, stems from the inward disposition of those engaging in it.
In order to understand the collective level, we need only take a look at the individual one. For example, when two people had a feud one against the other, with all the consequences such things have on the soul, namely: resentment, a darkened mind, hatred, continuously replaying in one’s mind the fight that took place and rehearsing an imagined scenario for a revenge etc. If, let’s say, they are forced from the outside to work together for some mutual material benefit and if they go along and ignore the problem and pretend that nothing has happened, what is the usual outcome? Many times things go well for a while, but after a time the demons of the past will begin to come again to the surface. Every pretext will be sought to provoke the other or to complain about one-another. Soon enough, what to the outside observer seems to be only an extremely trivial, everyday event, triggers an all-out war; because that small trigger was just the spark that re-lit the barrel of powder from the past.
Many times resentment and hatred are passed to subsequent family members, who may not even know about the quarrels of their fathers. A fine, invisible thread, spread by cosmic necessity binds multiple generations and demands that balance be reset. There are, after all, many stories around the world about hidden curses visited upon later generations for sins of their ancestors, for reasons completely unknown by those inheriting them.
The point of all this is: ignoring the problem will not lead to peace; it will find a way to re-surface, eventually. The problem itself is in your blood, is part of you. The alternative is not between ignoring the problem completely and moving on as if nothing has happened, on the one hand and fuelling the resentment and hatred in order to spark another war, on the other. Both of these lead to the same result eventually. The only possibility to brake the circle is through the transcendent power of repentance and forgiveness. The seeing and bringing to light of one’s own faults and the forgiving of those of the other. This is extremely difficult at the individual level and even more difficult at the collective one. Yet, there is no other path and it is indeed a mystery.
This leads us to another point which we will formulate as part of the conclusion.
A few (incomplete) conclusions:
It is often said that one who forgets the lessons of history is doomed to repeat them. This, to my mind, is seldom understood in its fullness.
It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to understand it in a social and political manner, which would mean to understand social and political situations which have lead to some ugly event in the past, in order to take some measures to diminish the chances of them occurring again (as long as one does not fall into the totalitarian delirium – which is the delusion that 100% control can be exercised and complete predictability can be achieved).
However, outside of political entities and sociological outlooks, we are lead once again to the person: a study of history – and especially of that history that constitutes the very roots of what and who one is will contribute to a deeper understanding of the self and the subtle influences acting upon it. To learn about and to understand one’s heritage, to understand the influences and the space in which the developments which have lead to the present situation means have taken place, all of this means, in the final analysis, to understand one’s self (or at least to understand one’s horizontal dimension). To ignore the past means to ignore the deeper roots of one’s self, which in turn means to live one’s life at the most superficial level, which ultimately will lead to mechanically and unawarely become a stereotype of the negative influences of one’s environment. The positive potentialities never develop in such a mechanical fashion, because the good always requires conscious effort.
One may be wondering – if all of this is true, then it means that except for the elites, no one had access in past ages to any of it. This is false. The access was much more organic, much more direct and it manifested in the Liturgical life around which the whole social life was organized and in the various folk traditions and local customs which were transmitted from generation to generation and bore all the influences of the various dynamics which left their mark on one’s personal identity.
For us, today, the path is much more difficult. There is a compensation in the large spreading and availability of written sources from all ages, yet this also comes with a danger: that is the temptation to re-construct the past in an artificial manner. This is especially the case further West, where there has been a loss not only of local, folkish traditions, but even of a religious one as well; in such a case, the individual, left to his own devices in the midst of a spiritual and social desert, may feel that this artificial reconstruction is the only route to take.
For those of us who live in Eastern Europe, where there are churches which still have influence in the life of society and the individual (no matter how diluted it may have become) the possibility for healing and for getting back to reality is made easier – the Orthodox Church always preserved local traditions of the land as well (and this is probably true of Catholic lands also), so the night is not completely dark, there are still traces of twilight left.
In ending this article, I would also like to propose a more obvious and less pretentious reason for studying history or a particular aspect of it: namely, the history of mentalities. In this regard, actually going to the sources, reading works written by those who actually lived in those times is a gold mine for understanding the spirit of past ages. But not only the distant past; those who are blessed to have some older relatives still alive – who have lived through the difficulties of the past century and who have witnessed and participated in a very different way of life and have even been through the hardships of war – would do well to lend an ear and hear their stories while they still can.
The benefits of this is, first of all, the elimination of anachronisms – the tendency to project one’s own experience into the past and thus make completely absurd judgements about it and end up with a completely distorted view of the world.
Also, simply learning that many things were quite different a while ago from how they are now is a benefit in itself. Different may either mean better or worse, since each historical epoch has its faults and its virtues. But simply knowing that many things you consider “a fact” or simply “natural” were not always so and that other epochs had a radically different outlook on life as well and that completely different things mattered to them and were considered important, all this, I believe, can at the very least loosen the strangle hold of the extreme provincialism and myopia exercised upon us all by the spirit of this age and open the door towards an eventual breakout from this encirclement. Breakout where? Obviously, out in the real world, the real life, beyond the illusory worlds of defining and re-defining reality.
This article has certainly not exhausted the topic and there are many more things to consider. One question, it seems to me, is very important to understand and consider: what is the relation between Tradition and the past? Is there truly anything in our lives which does not depend on tradition – no matter how specialized the application of this term might be? I propose that outside of Tradition there is absolutely no existence- literally, whether we accept this or not.
But this is a topic to be explored in a future article.
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