The Need for the Past

A few days ago, Historiann posted a piece on the point of learning history, and, for whatever reason, it found a little nook in my brain.  I wasn’t really thinking about it, it was just…there.  And then this morning, while reading Luigi Giussani‘s The Religious Sense, I came across a few passages that struck me:

  • “We must recognize that — in order to react now –we need to use something given to us in the past: flesh, bones, intelligence, heart.  Therefore, although the force for building the future lies within the energy, the imaginativeness, the courage of the present, the richness of the present comes from the past” (83).
  • “Because even as the human person is one, so too is history, and the force of the present undertaking lies in all that has preceded it” (83).

Which brought to mind another quote from someone else that I carry with me:

Both Jordan/Weedon and Giussani advocate for knowledge of history, but for different reasons: Giussani values the traditions from the past, while Jordan/Weedon value its revolutionary potential.  Giussani loves continuity; Jordan/Weedon love change.  And that, of course, is history: the stories we tell about change and continuity in the past.  We need both, and I think these quotes get at something fundamentally important about the value of the past.  From Giussani, we get a sense of the reservoir of experiences, practices, traditions, and examples offered to us by the past.  “The richness of the present comes from the past” that has established, through experimentation and trial-and-error, certain forms of wisdom.  From Jordan/Weedon, we see the possibilities of the future suggested by the past — the “knowledge that things have changed and do change” is empowering; if change has come before, it can certainly come again.  I think part of my job as a historian is to weave together those strands of change and continuity and demonstrate their empowering value.

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