The Past Is Alive

William and Ariel Durant (1930)Will and Ariel Durant (1930)

“It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment. The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time.

You, too, are your past; often your face is your autobiography; you are what you are because of what you have been; because of your heredity stretching back into forgotten generations; because of every element of environment that has affected you, every man or woman that has met you, every book that you have read, every experience that you have had; all these are accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul. So with a city, a country, and a race; it is its past, and cannot be understood without it.” (As quoted in “The Gentle Philosopher” (2006) by John Little at the Will Durant Foundation)

Durant is correct. The present is the result of the past, and the future will be the result of what preceded it. This thought brings with it unimaginable responsibility, assuming we reject moral nihilism. The choices we make will play a small part in determining whether a better or worse future will come to be or if there will be a future at all. A sobering thought.

In addition to the moral realm, there are great metaphysical questions regarding time. I’ll address those briefly in a future post.

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5 thoughts on “The Past Is Alive

  1. I could not agree more. “I face my autobiography”. Often this is dismissed as narcissism, or a feeling of ‘self-importance’. I do not know if that is the case, nor it is relevant to me that shallow people don’t get these things: the best part of my life has been in the distant past, and it is a comfort to me to know that I have been lucky to be in that picture. And of course, it does not stop at the personal level: nothing and no one in history is unimportant.

    Even the old, used book I hold in my hand, written and made in 1945 (a music theory book), awes me: I hold a piece of history in my hands, at the time when the piece of earth I stand on, was being bombed and lives were being shattered. There’s the signature of the previous owner, probably no longer alive. Didn’t he long for the past, too? How many have felt the same? Probably most of us. “It’s all in the past” has no meaning for me. It is not an insight, but just a superficial and lazy dismissal of the past; the argument is, I suppose, that just because ‘it is not there anymore’ then it is not concrete, and therefore it is not worth spending time on. And the best insights, I gained by analyzing the past. The future is not there, and the present is pretty much incomprehensible.

    Whatever happens today, can only examined and deliberated upon, when it is transfigured in the past. This, assuming that one tries to understand anything, which is certainly not done by thinking: “Bah, it’s in the past. Who cares?”. The past can be the greatest teacher, but of course it’s up to the student how much can be learned from it.

    Thank you for your article.

  2. PS. and let’s not forget that a part of the past also includes all the things that we have said or done, than now make us cringe.

    “To ‘forgive and forget’ often means that one has learned nothing from his experiences”. -Schopenhauer

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