History, the past, and the inner life.

Author:Harrigan, Anthony

A character in Michael Crichton's scientific mystery novel Timeline employs the term "temporal provincials" to describe people who believe only the present time matters. In the view of these people, he says, the past has no meaning, studying history is as pointless as learning Morse Code or how to drive a horse-drawn wagon. They don't understand that everything we know and do today is derived from events and discoveries of the near and distant past.

The distinguished historian Wilfred McClay has brilliantly exposed the error in such thinking. Writing in A Student's Guide to U.S. History, Dr. McClay said: "We do history even when it is not particularly useful, simply because human beings are by their nature, remembering creatures.... History is merely the intensifying and systematizing of these basic human attributes." Historical consciousness is to civilized society what memory is to individual identity. In Reason Is Common Sense George Santayana wrote words that have been repeated hundreds of times: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Unfortunately, our world today is full of people with a know-nothing attitude toward the past. Hence our governments and our leaders fail to comprehend that we face the danger of reliving past mistakes.

Michael Crichton's novel contains additional important comments on the importance of the past. A character observes that many of the understandings and routines of daily life were decided "hundreds of years ago, five hundred years, a thousand years," adding that a person "is sitting on top of a mountain that is the past ... the invisible rule of the past, which decides nearly everything, in life, goes unquestioned.... For just as the present is ruled by the past, so is the future."

In the contemporary world it is not well understood that a technologically advanced society also can be a barbarous society. The modern world is replete with examples of this. Germany in the 1930s had the most sophisticated educational and industrial system on the continent, but at the same time it adopted a savage political system and committed atrocities on a scale that no European contemplated. And Iraq was not a backward country; its population included many highly intelligent people who had been exposed to modern education. Again, this country's technically trained people made poison gas and worked on other methods of mass destruction. The gas was used on opponents of the regime. Even in non-totalitarian societies one discovers barbarous behavior in the midst of advanced technology.

One has only to look at the "entertainment" industry media in the United States. The technology of the electronic media is unparalleled in the world, but much of the comment is hostile to the values of our inherited...

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