Ed Cell’s Discussion Paper
5. Heritage: The Living Past
Meaning, we have said, is intimately connected to narrative. Thus, to understand the present we must we see it as growing out of the past and moving into the future. This applies not only to individuals but to all sorts of groups--ethnic, gender, racial, national, religious--and to the entire human species. We need to locate the present in a structure of meaning without which our collective lives fall apart and by which we, collectively, can make rational decisions in selecting a path into the future. This quest to make narrative sense of our collective lives must bring together past and future, history and vision.
Our historians are major voices in this conversation between past, present and future. In their work, we find the past interpreted in ways that, at least indirectly, say something about the future. To create their interpretations, our historians must utilize some of the meanings by which we now live and this includes some sense of the tomorrow we fear, hope for, or count on. To this degree, they are dependent on the work of our seers and myth makers--our poets and prophets--who, in turn, in creating their visions of our collective destiny, must draw from the work of the historians for part of their material. Thus, one the one hand, our historians describe the events we must make sense of as part of our story--our collective identity--and their descriptions contribute to that sense-making. On the other hand, they make of the past a kind of laboratory in which our ways of understanding and our visions of the future are tested against the facts, as best they can determine them.
There is another way that historians contribute to the narrative structures that house our present meanings. To understand a period in the past they must articulate the sense of past, present and future by which the people of that time conducted their lives. This throws light on our present terms of understanding because meanings are not created out of nothing but gradually evolve through creative response to changing circumstance.
Our study of history can not only deepen our sense of the meanings by which we live but also enable us to make wiser, better informed decisons about moving into the future. Let's look at this practical side of understanding out present in historical context.
It has often been said that if we are ignorant of or mistaken about the dark-sides of the past we are doomed to repeat them or to be victimized by their recurrence, something that applies to our collective as well as individual lives. We would like to avoid further Viet Nams, Great Depressions, world wars, Holocausts, times of mean-spiritedness, important institutions becoming weak or oppressive.
Surely a similar point can be made about the successes of the past. What ideas and ideals have proved realistic? What ways of organizing, regulating, and understanding life have fostered social stability, justice, freedom, and a sense of purpose in life, and under what conditions and procedures have we humans been able to do this? The more we know about our history, the better we understand ourselves, respond rationally to the flux of events, and tap the cumulative wisdom of that heritage.
Another pragmatic point is that to understand other peoples we must know something of their history. Some of the greatest blunders in international relations have come from a lack of such understanding. There are, of course, limitations on how well we can enter into the history and culture of other peoples just as there are on our understanding of earlier periods of our own history. We must always use something of our own meanings to enter into that of others. That we can do this at all tells us something about what we share in common in our nature and experience.
The idea of learning from history, our own and that of others, and thus avoiding mistakes and repeating successes, poses a more fundamental question. To what extent, collectively, do we have the power to exert very much, if any, control over the future? As we study history, do we get a sense that human purpose, planning and ideas really have much effect? Are there cusp points, moments of kairos as New Testament terminology would put it, times of special opportunity in which great men and women gather mass support to turn history in one direction or another?
Alternatively, do we learn that the complexities of history are so far beyond our grasp, or the deepest forces so irrational or otherwise beyond our control, that at best we can only muddle through, as British writers sometimes put it? Was Freud correct that "dark, unloving powers determine human destiny", or Plato and Spengler that history is metaphorically comparable to living things that endlessly grow and die, or right-wing Marxists that socio-economic forces push us inevitably toward a classless society, or conservative Christians that God pre-destines us to a transcendent purpose? If we make a difference, is it only in hastening or delaying the foreordained or do we have something to say about the nature of our destiny?
The story of human history, as well as that of an individual's life, can be told in terms of the meanings we create, and the decisions we make accordingly, or in terms of forces that determine us. One of the questions we may bring to our studies is how much weight we should give to each of these ways of seeing. To what extent, that is, do we have a hand in charting our own collective destiny?
Summary: What systems of belief do you find historians using to interpret the past and how do differences in these beliefs result in conflicting interpretations? How does our sense of the past (or that of others) unite and/or divide us and affect our hopes and fears and plans concerning the future? What does history seem to you to indicate about the interplay between the collective decisions we make and the forces that determine us?