We live in an a-historical society.
It's not just that we don't know much history; it's that we think it is largely irrelevant, so we don't pay attention to it.
This is due to the myth of progress, which can be traced back in literature to the 19th century, with writers such as Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin and H. G. Wells. But the myth also has roots in the popular effects of the scientific age, in the practical effects of scientific application upon society, which inclines us to think that the next new thing is inevitably an improvement upon the last old thing. For the most part, this is a subconscious attitude, and it is expressed in a multitude of ways: our tendency to value youth and disparage age; our attentiveness to trends and fashions; our brand consciousness; our desire for the new and improved; our preference for the synthetic over the natural; and, most of all, our tendency to read only what has been written in the past few days or months.
The danger of relying too much on present conditions is that we develop a narrow perspective on our own lives and the challenges facing us. We forget that we are not only living in history; we are also, to a great extent, products of history. And when we forget this, we begin to think that only our own preferences are valuable.
There are a couple of ways that we can step out of this preoccupation with the present. One is by participating in traditional activities, whether they are civic celebrations such as Oktoberfest, or the ritual of worship, or the activity of
politics, sport, music or dance. G.K. Chesterton referred to
tradition as "the democracy of the dead." It is a way of keeping the past alive to us in our daily activities, of allowing those who have gone before us to have a voice in the way we manage the world.
Another way is to read old books. It is a wise habit to read one book at least 100 years old for every contemporary book one reads. For every courtroom drama by John Grisham one could read a tragedy by Shakespeare, for every Barbara Kingsolver mystery a novel by Jane Austen, for every screed by Marcus Borg a treatise by Athanasius.
Stepping out of our preoccupation with the present will help us see our contemporary world in a broader context. We will come to see that some ideas that seemed to be new are actually quite old, that some parts of life that seem accidental are actually fundamental to human nature, that some features of our society that seem to demand a quick fix are actually cyclical and will resolve themselves if we are patient enough to ride out the difficulties.
In short, we will be
better able to distinguish the significant from the urgent,
and act upon what we know
to be just and good instead of what seems at the time to be necessary.
The Ethical Life is a biweekly series of reflections on the ways that ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.