Acquiring a Sense of History

We don’t go out of our way to teach history. Such “history” as is taught today is really social studies: forcing the peoples of other times and places into a convenient matrix that reinforces current social norms. We’re neither interested in truly exploring other times, nor do we encourage the notion that maybe, in difference, there is something to be learned, nor the idea that perhaps to take this step forward, society also took a different step backward.

Know Where You Come From …

Western society today is anything but monolithic when it comes to religious belief — the Protestant revolution, scientism in the nineteenth century and a feeling of guilt surrounding autochthonous and immigrant communities saw to that — but the reality is that if you look back to 1000 CE you find, in the West, a compact, unified, Latin Catholic society. These are our ancestors: projects such as the combined National Geographic/IBM genographic project are demonstrating the concentration of genetic paths in Western society, not just in Europe but in the settler communities of the Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. We — mostly — remain within our compact society to this day.

I bring up religion because of an experience I had in 1991. On the Côte d’Azur for the first time, my family and I made our way to a little Provençal hill village — Mougins — for a late lunch. After a fine meal on the square, we wandered across to the Church on the other side and pulled open the door. A millennium of must, dust, soot (from the candles) and the stink of people over the centuries rolled over us. (This is why I had come!)

The building was in the oldest style of Western architecture, when the West was first starting to set its own style. (This style — Romanesque — spread almost as wildfire across Europe in the space of a few decades.) This church betrayed both the recent occupation of the area by the forces of the Caliphate and the older Levantine Latin Orthodoxy that preceded the long transformation of the Western Church: it remained a “world cave” of the Levant, common to Orthodox, Monophysite and Nestorian Christians, Jews and the residual Samaritans, Muslims, Zoroastrians and Parsees, and the like, where the building is all interior (the outside merely creates the cave but is not really worthy of decoration, and windows are small, merely to allow a little light in, but not to illuminate the space). Yet the West can be seen: the ceiling was not rounded, to close the space in, but peaked and drew upward to the infinite; the interior designs drew the eye up; even in the stonework images of men, angels and the Lord appear, the graven images forbidden in the Levant and replaced by iconostases and geometric designs. This was a poor church, and had been from its creation — but it spoke to the birth of a new people. In only a century more, the foundations of generations-long projects to build soaring cathedrals would be laid.

Look how much is embedded in this simple description: comparative art and architecture, the sense of self of a people, theological history, style, substance and passion, comparisons to others who were not of this society, even though from one generation to the next, in this part of the world, Latin (as it evolved into Provençal, Savoyard and the language of the oc, then was taken over by the langue d’oil of French and the Italian dialect spoken there only 150 years ago was pushed out through centralized education) has never been lost: one generation has always understood the previous and the next. Yet the presumptions of Classical Rome in its Latin, of Levantine Orthodoxy in the Latin of, say, a St. Augustine or a St. Benedict, and of Western Mediaeval Latin are as different as night and day: each is part of a self-contained society.

For those of the Renaissance to throw away the learning of the High Mediaeval — that of our society — in favour of the works of Classical Rome simply because Cicero and his kin never said ego habeo factum and instead used feci was a ridiculous loss and rejection of self, especially since that assertion of the self and the worth of the person is part of what makes the West the West. But from then to now our society remains riven by currents of denying what it is, what makes it unique, valuable and (from time to time) great, and therefore why doing what is needful to preserve it rather than changing just anything and everything on a whim is wrong, and so the rear guard of those who would conserve the West — true Tories, one and all — against the leftward drift of liberalism continues.

… and Where You Are Going

So much political and economic writing — goodness knows, I’ve contributed my own share of it! — leaves the historical in the dust. Liberalism or leftism (at the time of the French Revolution the two would have been synonymous) is resolutely anti-historical: all that matters is the current situation, and there are no restraints other than the practical (not enough tolerance for debt “right now”, or too many other things pressing on us “right now”) placed on change.

Yet what that says is that we — and other peoples from other civilisations — are all fungible and malleable; that someone’s traditions are folklore and easily discarded. It is certainly true that individuals who emigrate and settle in the lands of a civilisation not their own by heritage can and do acculturate, often, after two or three generations, to the point where they have accepted their new home and its traditions not only as their own, but, in a peculiar sense, as their heritage. (It is what the French do with their process of educating future citizens, either in school or to prepare to take the citizenship test: one reaches a point where one can say, without irony, “Our ancestors, the Gauls”.)

Acculturation and blending in — the Diefenbakerian “unhyphenated Canadian” motif in our own national life — is one thing at an individual level. But, as George Grant, the Canadian Tory philosopher, noted, our love of the good, the true and the beautiful is rooted in love of self, of immediate family, of friends, of community, of nation … and thus of society. To reject the West and its traditions, then, is to demonstrate a lack of love for who you are. Philosophers have noted that you can have “love for the amorphous” (a “love of all humanity”, for instance), but only at the price of denying love for yourself as you are, love for friends and family, love for your community, etc.

To reach the amorphous, one must deny history. This is best done by removing it from serious study: burying it in scholastic detail where it is taught (universities), turning it into social studies (or removing it from the curriculum altogether) in the schools, treating questions of whether to preserve past buildings and existing inefficiencies in the urban fabric as an economic decision, etc. Thus we have our society as it exists today, with no concern for its past — or its future (witness that we have known since the 1970s [US President Carter was reviled for pointing it out!] that the days we are now coming into were inevitable, yet we continued to build as though tomorrow would not come).

Only through learning history fully will we find our way out and prosper again.

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One response to “Acquiring a Sense of History

  1. Pingback: Senior Living Communities » Blog Archive » Acquiring a Sense of History

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