The Historical Sense

The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence…

“Tradition and the Individual Talent” by T.S. Eliot


This “Multangular Tower” stands outside the Yorkshire Museum in York, England. Nearby is a plaque stating the tower’s history. It was built in the 300’s as a corner tower of the Roman fortress Eboracum. It was still in use during the Middle Ages, and the stonework at the top was added then. When the Victorians got their hands on it, they decided to widen the arrow slits into crosses.

Sigh… Silly Victorians!

The Historical Sense

The pastness of the past

When looking at the past, we tend to one of two extremes: romanticize or criticize.

The past can be rosy-tinted when we look at it through the glasses of romanticism. We see only the good that has lived after it. The evil has long been forgotten (as evil ought to be). We tend to think: All old movies are great, and most new movies are dumb. People respected each other back then. Morality meant something. The heroes lived among them.

On the other extreme, we can look at the past from the position of the “exalted” present. We have grown so much, we forget what it is like to be short. They didn’t know much, we say. They ruined everything. (Silly Victorians!) They had no idea of the significance of what was around them. They could have stopped evil, but they were weak.

The presence of the past

A historical sense, then, is not just a sense of history as past. It is also an understanding that we, in the present, are only better insofar as we can better know that past, make it more our own. The present is the unfolding of the past. We can neither love the past exclusively nor dismiss it.

A study of the past is a meditation on who we are. When we learn history, we must try to enter into it, not as a fairy tale land where nothing bad ever happens, nor as the source of all of today’s problems. We must remember it as a time that was once “now” (and in some ways still is).

Exhortation and warning

We will realize that history is an exhortation and a warning. What good they did, we can also do. What evil came from them can also come from us.

The difference between good and evil was just as confusing to them in their present as it is in ours.

And we must always remember that, in no time at all, we will be in the past.

3 thoughts on “The Historical Sense

  1. Pingback: Library | A Grain of Salt

  2. Pingback: Library | A Grain of Salt

  3. Pingback: The Politics of Envy | A Grain of Salt

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