Should We Look Forward To The Future, Or Back To The Past?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

In this Janus-faced time of the year, it is good to reflect on the concepts of passing and change.  I’m going to step down from pure scholarship to discuss a perennial, possibly insolvable question.  To what extent should auld acquaintance be forgot? How much of our identity faces forward, and how much faces backward? To what extent should we be bound to our ancestors’ ways and how far should we innovate?

We are, if nothing else, the product of our ancestry. Across the ontological spectrum, from our genetics to our ousia, we are considerably comprised of that which came before us. While we can certainly look at the biological perspective, which we now understand contributes greatly to cultural development, we also must understand the spiritual perspective which understands us not as singular creatures, but beings existing in continuity with ancestors and descendants. Declaring that man is a kind of animal that is born, lives for 80-ish years, and then dies is like saying that a tree is a plant with a trunk and leaves.

It ignores the greater cycle of life which forms the teleological content of the tree. It ignores the context in which the tree exists, namely the forest. As much as some men would like to declare themselves as fungible as the commodities they worship, a man shorn of his content is less than human, not more.

On the other hand, man is a rational creature; reason is the differentia specifica which St. Thomas argues expresses the unique nature of mankind in contrast to the rest of creation. We were made to not just to repeat but to innovate. Tradition is not a dogma but a process, by which the accumulation of the ages molds content into meaning. An unchanged tradition is a dead tradition, as we quickly lose the inner content of any symbol when it fails to reflect an experienced truth in our lives. What we are left with is pure superficial ritual of the symbol. Rule of Law is such a symbol, having been divested of its inner content, namely the inferiority of human law to the Law of God, and what remains behind is the outer form and procedure of law which lacks purpose or at worst becomes perverse.

There are innumerable traditions which follow this same pattern. We have forgotten why we practice them, so we mindlessly repeat the external signifiers while forgetting the function they were meant to perform. Gift-giving at Christmas has been transformed from an act of love and community to a commercialist celebration of greed or an annoying obligation we dismiss by throwing gift-cards at relatives we’d rather avoid. I had a vivid picture this year, between an older child and a younger at a family Christmas gathering. The elder sat in a corner scowling because we were visiting with family before opening gifts. The younger child, walking around the room with a cup of egg nog, looked up, brightly smiling, with cream across her upper lip, and told everyone that her drink, “tastes like Christmas.” If our Christmas tradition becomes that of the elder child, it is a tradition no longer worth keeping.

Reality is not made up of binaries, but neither is it the spectrum of all-grays that the moral relativist wishes to portray. Absolutist thinking and relativism share in their inability to express the fullness of creation. The modern thinker sees reality as a spectrum because of his faith in the solvability of all problems. Everything is a policy question, so we merely need to find the correct calibration of tradition versus innovation to maximize our utility function curve. Reductionist mindsets lead to reductionist solutions.

Instead, I argue that we must see the problem as tensional; by this I mean that there is both conflict and harmony between these two poles which cannot be dialectically reduced to a synthesis. Like a guitar, beauty comes from the stress produced by the antipodes across the string. Like a guitar, if you “solve” the problem of tension, you destroy the instrument, which in this case is Man himself. To bring the metaphor down, we can only produce a vibrant life by living in the conflict between tradition and innovation and embracing the struggle. Sometimes we play high on the neck, sometimes we play low. To be fully human, we must have a face that looks forward and one that looks back, straddling being in the way that Janus straddles the old and new years.

So in the New Year, we come to a great question which the poet Burns expresses. We are not mere passive beneficiaries of our heritage but participants in a process dating back to creation itself.  What I teach my children fundamentally alters that process in ways I cannot foresee. To what extent should I perpetuate the secular sainthoods of Jackson, Stuart, Forrest, and Lee which I was taught as a child? Should I light a bonfire and burn a Guy on November 5th? Does perpetuating a distinct Southern identity in contrast with other white North Americans benefit my family in the long run? Are these relevant to modernity anymore? Should I innovate new traditions? Or should I go further back, seeking more ancient or more “authentic” understandings of who we are?

My personality is conservative, not in the political sense, but in terms of sentiment. I distrust the untried and favor the established. I absolutely hate remixed versions of classical Christmas hymns. Nevertheless, despite my predisposition, I have to recognize that perpetuating past traditions has consequences just as unforeseeable as innovating new ones because I cannot predict or control the future, either the world to which my children and grandchildren will be born or the actions of my descendants. We do not know if what works today will fail to work tomorrow and turn into another failed ritual, calcified, and futile.

So, yeah, great theory, Art, but you haven’t answered any practical questions. You’re welcome.  I’m a philosophy professor and I don’t do practical. To be a little less glib, it is folly to trust in systems and rational theories to make judgment calls of this magnitude. For one, no human system of thought is capable of encompassing the broadness of being that exists. Creating rules and applying them to reality, hoping that reality conforms to abstract concepts dreamed up by some thinker is an ideologue’s game, not worthy of those who seek understanding.

It is a false dream to think we can invent a system of thought which is self-perpetuating and self-justifying without human judgment intervening in the breach. The dream of the modern philosopher is to end the tension, to end the quest by achieving the Grail, much as Hegel dreamed. If we are truly to be reactionary, we cannot fall into this trap of thought, to embrace this modern desire to cease the struggle born from an exhausted culture which has lost its vitality. Each year, we reflect back on the last and look forward to the future, and we must take the time to pause, reflect, and struggle within ourselves to find a way to accommodate ourselves to this insolvable tension.

Just as New Years Eve always becomes a New Years Day, and just as every generation begets the next generation, we are left with a question which bears no final answer. It requires our constant vigilance and attention, as the question is lived in our own lives and in the way we raise our children in this changing world. When I pull up the YouTube video of Auld Lang Syne, perhaps it is not the same as it was back then, but I cannot rely on some abstract notion of the “right” way to bring in the new year, to replace the difficult task of exercising my human judgment. We must struggle with it, abiding with our flawed, human judgment, until the Day of Glory comes.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

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  1. I see society differently. I dont see society as guitar, where people sometimes play low and sometimes high, and then there is tension and/or harmony between these. I see normal functional society as a one way street from here to some extreme. There are many possible extremes where we can go, but the road to there is always boring, stupid and destructive. Once you know the initial conditions, you can predict in general way (not necessarily the details) what kind of road travel is ahead of us, and where the travel will end, if it is let to continue unobstructed or unobstructed enough, and long enough. Sometimes the initial condition of society is extreme, so then it is just a question when it will exhaust itself, grinding itself to dust or exploding to pieces. Still it is too the same boring, stupid and destructive story.

    The reasons for this are many, and there are too many of them to enumerate in this comment, but if we simplify the problem; if people compete in some framework, to some general direction long enough, they become increasingly extreme. Only thing that brings tension and harmony to this system, only thing that brings something interesting, good, intelligent, enduring and reasonable to this system, is the knowledge, moderation, intelligence and skill that are needed to navigate these turbulent seas, how avoid the superstorms, hurricanes, shipwrecks, shallow straits, lack of rejuvenating harbors, empty fishless and treasureless sea areas, etc., or to say it in other way, how to navigate along the good, enduring, fruitful and developing routes.

  2. “Should We Look Forward To The Future, Or Back To The Past?”

    This is the Gordian knot which we each face and must answer in our own ways.

  3. Agonism… all is agonism… we must venerate the old vertical tensions, the peaks and heights of our ancestors, and construct novel ones as well.

  4. Excellent post. I’m reminded of poet Allen Tate’s quote: “My attempt is to see the present from the past, yet remain immersed in the present and committed to it. I think it is suicide to do anything else.”

    I think it is safe to say that past peoples were objectively superior to modern Westerners, thus it behooves us to mimic their modes of thinking and action to the fullest practicable extent. But that’s exactly as far as the mimicry ought to go. Get the foundation right, and allow the particulars to sort themselves out. The opposite of chasing the philosophical Grail (which, granted, is easier when you know that you’re too dumb to find it anyway).

    As for the raising of children, 1 Timothy still holds true: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” Accomplish that tall task, and everything else is so much window dressing.

  5. Great article. I am a traditionalist as well, but I think we need to think of the future. Human civilization is cyclical. Civilizations rise and fall. By thinking in a rational and scientific way about the way negative and positive feedback loops effect society we may be able to prevent collapse and build a better future. Positive (self reinforcing) feedback is the problem. Examples include Malthusian population growth and collapse, economies of scale that eventually produce companies so large that they become inefficient, and democracy. Democracy is perhaps the most destructive positive feedback loop of them all. When engineers design a system and discover that is unstable they apply damping, or perhaps add more negative feedback to a control loop. Human society has a tendency to rise and fall cyclically. Since Malthus we have begun to understand why. Let’s fix the future by analyzing the past.

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