December 26

A devoted reader has asked me about the motto of this website: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” The phrase comes from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and refers there to the weight of guilt and experience we carry with us, inescapably, through life.

For historians, particularly those interested in the history of culture and ideas, it takes on a slightly different meaning because we know how closely we are linked to events, artefacts, symbols, styles, stories, practices, and technologies of the past. They are all around us in our everyday lives though they are seldom noticed.

When I taught the history of Western Civilization I always played the following clip from Life of Brian in which the revolutionary Reg, leader of the People’s Front for Judea, learns that his culture owes a lot to the Romans. And so do we. As we have debts to the Greeks. And the Anglo-Saxons. And the Normans. And the Chinese. Even that murderous scabby crew, the Vikings influence us today. 

A lesson for students of history.

Our architecture, language, literature, art, music, religions, dress, etc., etc., etc., are saturated in the past. We plunder the stories told by our predecessors for our entertainments: Norse sagas, Greek myths, Germanic epics, Regency novels, Egyptian religion fill our screens. Our technologies are built on thousands of inventions and insights of our ancestors – Indian mathematicians, Polish astronomers, Cistercian monks, Franciscan scientists, Muslim physicians. The foods we eat come to us from around the world, first cultivated in the Andes, Persian orchards, Indonesian islands, Mexican jungles, or the Ganges delta. 

In our political systems, why do we speak of republics? Why is the American upper house called a Senate? Why did Charlemagne (a Germanic king originally named Karl) and Napoleon dress like a Roman emperor? Why did Hitler and Mussolini adopt Roman symbols? Why did the Turkish sultan call himself the Kayser-i-Rum, the Roman Emperor? Why was the Canadian Parliament built to resemble a medieval cathedral? Why were our banks, libraries and public buildings built to resemble Greek temples?

Because the past matters. We breathe it in every day; we wear it, eat it, read it, watch it, work in it, and hang it on our walls. That’s why being a historian is so much fun.

One thought on “December 26”

  1. Many thanks — both for the explanation and the insight. All too often we forget we stand on the shoulders of giants.

    I had not seen Life of Brian since its release, and the clip charmed me. It would make interesting viewing in a contemporary Colonial Studies course…

    Happy 26th; I’ll play Good King Wenceslas several times in the course of the day.

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