giving breath back to the dead

Justin E. H. Smith:

History in general is easily manipulable, and can always be applied for the pursuit of present goals, whatever these may be. It has long seemed to me that one of the more noble uses of history is to help us convince ourselves of the contingency of our present categories and practices. And it is for this reason, principally, that I am not satisfied with seeing history-of-philosophy curricula and conferences “diversified” as if seventeenth-century Europe were itself subject to our current DEI directives.

One particularly undesirable consequence of such use of history for the present is that it invites and encourages your political opponents likewise to marshall it for their own present ends. And in this way history becomes just another forked node of presentist Discourse — the foreign and unassimilable lives of all of those who actually lived in 1619 or 1776 are covered over. But history, when done most rigorously and imaginatively, gives breath back to the dead, and honors them in their humanity, not least by acknowledging and respecting the things they cared about, rather than imposing our own fleeting cares on them. Eventually, moreover, a thorough and comprehensive survey of the many expressions of otherness of which human cultures are capable in turn enables us, to speak with Seamus Heaney in his elegant translation of Beowulf, to “assay the hoard”: that is, to take stock of the full range of the human, and to begin to discern the commonalities behind the differences. 

Anyone who happens to know what my most recent book was about will not be surprised at how vigorously I nod my head at this. 

June 20, 2021

In Uncategorized

# #